Last year I had the great privilege of interviewing author and professor Patty Kirk about her great Advent/Christmas book. Here we revisit our conversation — I’m sure it will encourage you as much as it blessed me!
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(From December 2012)
One extra-special part of Advent for me is the reading: The time I return to well-worn favorite books that come out just this time of year, such as Madeleine L’Engle’s books, poems, and Christmas stories or Walter Wangerin Jr.’s Preparing For Jesus. I’m especially excited this year because I have a NEW Advent book to dwell in: The Gospel of Christmas by Patty Kirk (InterVarsity Press). Patty, a professor and author, was gracious enough to share her thoughts about Advent with me and with you, my readers.
Patty, welcome! Please tell my readers a bit about yourself.
I grew up believing in God but lost track of him in my teens -— along with most other comforting certainties — and spent the next decades roaming the world seeking I didn’t know what. I made an unhappy atheist, envious of those I encountered who somehow managed not only to believe in but to depend on the promises of an invisible, inaudible, intangible being. Eventually, I regained a sense of God’s existence and attention, but the one thing that connects my believing years — as a child and later in adulthood — with those intervening years of atheism was the excitement and, paradoxically, the longing that filled me during the Christmas season. Ever since my return to faith, I have written out of this longing every Advent, and this book is what I wrote.
Our culture is so Christmas-consumerism-crazy right now, that it can be difficult to create space in our lives — and in our hearts — for Advent. Are there spiritual practices, traditions, or habits that help you foster the Advent spirit in your life during this often hectic season?
So, for me, Advent means that period of longing and excitement that overcomes us at Christmas. The longing for something more, yes -— for meaning or certainty or quiet or, as you say, “space” in our lives and hearts for God.
But Advent is also that very hectic jolliness: the gathering of families, children’s eagerness for presents, the shopping and card-writing and tree-decking and worrying we won’t get it all done, what I like to call the jingle-belling of the Christmas season. During Advent, I consciously re-visit my old sad longing for the Bible’s promises to be true and simultaneously latch onto the hectic celebration of those promises’ fulfillment.
I don’t have the typical “reason for the season” sort of sentiments that dismiss or condemn as heathen or in some other way discount the celebratory excitement of anything that does not explicitly reference Jesus. I love that the coming of God to our world has become, over the centuries, across the nations, a big party. That it’s such a big thing that even nonbelievers celebrate it!
So, I embrace the typical stuff of the Christmas season. My family starts listening to Christmas music sometime in November — everything from “O Come All Ye Faithful” to “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” We decorate a tree and put lots of presents under it for one another. Every year, my husband reads aloud to the family from a collection of Christmas stories, our two favorites of which have to do with a kid longing for a horse. Before my daughters went off to college, we made a gingerbread house every year and, on the first Sunday after Christmas, brought it to church for the kids to destroy and gobble up during the fellowship hour.
All the usual stuff, in other words. It’s just, I like to go about these activities very intentionally as the practice of joy in celebration of the best news we could ever have, the first -— and, to me, most important -— gospel proclaimed in the gospels, the angel’s good news of great joy for all the people: that “today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” That God loved us so much he wasn’t willing to let us go away from him, as we are prone to do, but sent his son, a version of himself, to become one of us and win us back to him.
What difference can Advent reflection — pausing to really consider the waiting for and the coming of Jesus — make in a person’s spiritual life? What might we lose when we skip over Advent waiting and rush right to Christmas?
I am, as I say, all for the rushing. The headlong dash into the excitement of the season. The pell-mell and jollity of it. There’s waiting and expectation built right into that, as any child can tell you. The important thing is to celebrate consciously, to think about what you’re actually celebrating -— and, if you can do it without being a party-pooper during the Advent season, to talk about it when you get up and at bedtime and when you’re walking around the stores, just as we’re commanded to do in Deuteronomy 6:6. We Christians need to up the excitement, I think, not put the brakes on.
That said, I can’t always get to that jollity. Sometimes, the messed-up-ness of our world as it is catches up with me and I experience a different kind of longing—not for presents and parties and stuff but for solutions to problems, for healing, for peace. These, too, are Advent opportunities to experience the great gospel of Christmas: the good news that God has put a plan in action. That his ultimate goal is peace on Earth, goodwill among us. That he’s going to make good on all these promises.
If we don’t think about these two aspects of the coming, we miss the good news altogether. So, I’d recommend not pausing a bit in your celebrating but being very intentional about it in your head. And, if you can’t quite get to the celebrating, use this season as a time to reflect on God’s response to the sin and separation from him that cause so much pain in our world. Grab onto God’s promises of peace and goodwill among us. Of eternal health and happiness. Of Jesus, who, though God himself, was willing, for our sake, to become one of us and suffer the pain of this world exactly as we do and then some: his very pregnant mother so poor and unappreciated as to have no hygienic place to bear him, to move through a human birth canal and come out covered in muck, to cry out with the helplessness of every human baby, to be down to sleep in a manure-covered feed trough. These are also aspects of the good news of Christmas that it helps me to think about.
Your book, The Gospel of Christmas, leads readers into a meaningful type of reflection — a tasting, savoring, and reflecting on various aspects of the Incarnation story and the people who populated the events of that first coming of Jesus. What led you write this book?
Christmas has always been, as I have said, an important time for me spiritually, even during my decades as an atheist. And my return to faith as an adult happened to coincide, more or less, with the beginning of my writing career as well as with the early childhood of my two daughters, for whom Christmas is a highpoint of the year. Also, many years ago, back when I was still in college, I was the victim of a violent crime at Christmastime — I talk about the details in my book, if you’re interested —and as a result I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which means that the crime and its attendant anxieties revisit me on the anniversary of the crime. For these reasons and probably more, I got in the habit of writing during Advent. Writing is kind of a way of praying for me — although what I write doesn’t look a whole lot like your typical prayer. Rather, I tell and retell stories, my own and the Bible’s, and I try to understand the spiritual underpinnings of these stories and look for connections between them. This book collects some of what I have written over the years.
Specifically, I write about birth, feed troughs (my husband and I used to raise cattle, so I know a bit about them), stargazing and those Persian astronomers who came looking for Jesus. I write about Christmas songs and movies and about my daughter’s wish for it for snow at Christmastime and about the central prayer of Advent, Come!, which was my groan-prayer as an atheist and is, I suspect, the prayer of many other doubters and deniers. I write about one Christmas celebration during my non-believing years that I spent among non-believing Australian expatriates living in China and what that experience has taught me, in retrospect, about the gospel of Christmas. In a nutshell, I undertake to consider Christmas as a gospel (for me, the central gospel of our faith). As good news, in other words, the best news there could be: that God is coming to us, personally, in the flesh -— that God has come.
What’s one aspect of the Nativity story (or the Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messiah) that’s lingering in your heart and mind this Advent season? Why?
That Christians talk about having Jesus in them -— a concept that I’ve always had trouble understanding —- and that Mary, quite literally, had Jesus inside of her. I can’t say why that fascinates me, exactly. Probably, it’s that business of not being able to understand exactly what it means, or is supposed to mean among believers, to have Jesus in you. In any case, I think I’ll probably be writing about that this Advent.
What do you most hope readers will gain from their journey through The Gospel of Christmas?
Permission, as believers, to celebrate whole-heartedly along with the rest of our Christmas-besotted culture during Advent and also permission to grieve and suffer meaningfully and to long meaningfully for Christmas’s promise and amazingly good news: a solution, a cure, an end to our suffering, the coming of a savior.
Have a merry Christmas! Get after it!