Liturgy and Literature {for the Advent season}

Books really do fit into seasons.  I used to think they fit only in the changing weather, the slow transitions from summer to fall to winter to spring and back again.  But books also fit in the liturgical year.  Certain books will read better in Advent than in Lent, some books make Epiphany more revelatory, and some books redeem Ordinary Time from our own cold dismissal of ordinariness.  Steinbeck’s East of Eden should be read in Lent, for example.  Epiphany was made for poetry—gobs of it.  And Welty’s Delta Wedding has Ordinary Time written all over it.

Advent is harder.  There are plenty of books about anticipation, but so many of them are courtship stories where the book ends in marriage.  Anticipating marriage is a beautiful thing, but it’s difficult to thoughtfully parallel that storyline with the anticipation of a savior.  Also, I like Austen better for Ordinary Time.

I’m probably being too picky.  Oh, but choosing the right book for the right season is so important.  One Christmas, B. J. and I read aloud Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to each other on the long drive from Waco to Atlanta.  That book choice was wrong, wrong, wrong for the season.  The images, the conflicts, and the tone of a book can seep into all the crevices of your life when you read it.  A post-apocalyptic, cannibal-fearing world of desolation just does not fit in Advent.  Bad idea.

So I’m trying to be more intentional this year.  I want to choose an Advent book that I can savor, one that will help me feel all the feelings so this Advent season will be full of the right things.  I think I’d like something I’ve read before, something I can re-encounter just as I re-encounter Advent and Christmas each year.  After all, one of the reasons we love this season is because it’s so familiar; we crave traditions we can replicate year-to-year with hopes that those traditions will grow richer with meaning as we get older.  An old-loved book can do the same thing.


This may expose all my own sentimentalism and girlishness (no shame), but I think I’ve decided on Little Women for this year.  Honestly, what I love the most about this book is imagining how ridiculous Louisa May Alcott must have felt writing it.  She was the daughter of one of the most influential Transcendentalist thinkers of her time, Bronson Alcott, and was on friendly terms with none other than Emerson and Thoreau.  She had a deep understanding of women’s rights long before American women would ever get the vote, her writings had appeared in several respectable publications by her thirties, and her publisher asked her, of all things, to write “a girls’ book“?  A girls’ book, really?  In her journal, she writes, “Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters, but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.”

I like how unexpected this book is.  I like how it lets itself be sentimental.  And I like how its success surprised Alcott most of all.

Maybe this is why it feels so right for Advent this year—it’s unexpected.  I’d like to learn how to be surprised by the unexpectedness of Advent and Christmas Day all over again.  And I’m not afraid to be sentimental or nostalgic.  The book even begins with Christmas time in the March house, with some of the most recognizable opening lines in American literature.  (I feel myself getting nostalgic already.)

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

“We’ve got got Father and Mother and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.

I love them all, y’all.  I love how we start with their materialism, their selfishness, their sense of injustice, and little Beth in the corner making us feel bad for wanting more things.   (Oh, Beth!) I love that we learn nearly everything we need to know about these four little women in the opening lines of the novel.  And I love how much they enjoy each other’s company, despite their small disagreements.  Even though they are vastly different people, their combined differences make things genuinely balanced.  Some literary critics even think of the four sisters as the four elements—fire, water, earth, and wind all in the same sisterhood.

Their initial balance, their inevitable imbalance, and their eventual return to stability make up the heart of this novel.  It works for Advent, too, when the imbalance (a peasant king? a carnival king?) makes for an unexpected surprise of cosmic peace.

{Image credit for this pretty still life of Alcott’s novel…}