[Editor's Note: Ryan Whitaker has been reading the work of G. K. Chesterton, one of the twentieth century's greatest thinkers and a canonical Rabbit Room writer, for most of his life. Now he has collected 30 passages from Chesterton's copious oeuvre and paired them with his own reflections and discussion questions in an "Advent devotional" called Winter Fire. We asked Ryan if we could share his introduction to Winter Fire and the first two of his Advent devotions. He gave us his blessing and we hope they are a blessing to you.]
G. K. Chesterton, one of the most prolific writers of the twentieth century, wrote more in his lifetime than most people get around to reading in theirs. He wrote so broadly, in so many contexts and genres, that it seems as if, at some point or other, he touched on virtually every subject one could possibly think to write about. He was a novelist, a journalist, a historian, a playwright, a lay theologian, a Christian apologist. He published nearly a hundred books, thousands of essays, a handful of plays, and several hundred poems. A staple of the literary scene in London in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he was a larger-than-life figure in more ways than one: his intelligence was formidable. His wit, inimitable. His girth, remarkable.
I first encountered Chesterton’s writing as a teenager, when his novel The Man Who Was Thursday was assigned as required reading for an English class. I don’t recall it having much of an impact on me at the time, if I did indeed read it in its entirety. A few years later, by what I now consider to be a stroke of divine providence, I stumbled upon a volume of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories collecting dust on my shelf and decided, for whatever reason, to give them a go (I have a habit of buying books on impulse, with the sincere intention of one day getting around to reading them. Results vary, but my library continues to grow). I was struck not just by the lucidity of the prose, or its witty inventiveness, but by something latent beneath the surface of those cleverly constructed stories featuring Chesterton’s bumbling-but-brilliant detective priest: they were beautifully written and utterly delightful, but they were also wise and good—not merely entertaining, but somehow formative. It would be disingenuous to say that I found Father Brown that day; it was more like he found me.
In short order, I went on to consume Orthodoxy, The Everlasting Man, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, The Flying Inn, The Ball and the Cross, The Ballad of the White Horse, a fresh read of The Man Who Was Thursday, as well as several others. I’ve now been journeying with Chesterton for fifteen years or so, and I’m still making my way through his astonishing body of work. Because of his extraordinary prolificacy, he is a gift that keeps on giving. Nearly a hundred years after his passing, his words continue to resonate with brilliance, wisdom, and wit. His pseudo-theological works like Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man (which, in C. S. Lewis’s words, “baptized his intellect”) have influenced Christians around the world.
In Winter Fire, excerpts of Chesterton’s writing are presented in a devotional format as daily readings, alongside my commentary, Scripture passages, and reflection questions. The devotional readings make up roughly the first half of Winter Fire, while the second half is a compendium of poems, essays, short stories, recipes, and more. In addition to the quotes that are the basis of the devotions, there are many more scattered throughout the book and embedded within my commentary.
Chesterton has something important to say about Christmas. With his virtuosic flair, he eloquently (and often humorously) points us back to the true meaning of Christmas. He revels in the festive traditions of Christmas. He challenges the modern opposition to Christmas. At a time when Christmas is becoming increasingly commercialized and detached from its Christian origins, Chesterton’s words seem more relevant than ever before.
Now on to the devotions.
Day One: An Invitation to Walk Backwards Through History
It was in the season of Christmas that I came out of my little garden in that “field of the beeches” between the Chilterns and the Thames, and began to walk backwards through history to the place from which Christmas came. —The New Jerusalem (1920)
So begins The New Jerusalem, G. K. Chesterton’s travelogue chronicling his journey to the Holy Land. But before the destination, there is the journey. For Chesterton, it begins in a backyard in Beaconsfield, England, as the large, mustached man unlatches the garden gate and sets off on his adventure. Perhaps yours begins in a kitchen, with a strong cup of black coffee, or in a comfortable corner of the living room, the windows limned with frost. For me, it begins in a home office I affectionately call “the library,” as the fields around my house are blanketed with early morning fog. Regardless of our various points of departure, this book is an invitation to link arms and set off together, as we “walk backwards through history to the place from which Christmas came.”
Is our celebration of Christmas not an attempt to do this very thing? Is the memorializing of an event not an effort, at some level, to relive it? Our traditions and ceremonies, rituals and feast days, are the inner workings of a psychological and emotional time machine. To sing “while shepherds watched their flocks at night” is to hum an incantation that might, if we allow it, transport us to a grassy hillside in Judea two thousand years ago, when celestial choirs filled the sky and proclaimed good news for all mankind. A box swathed in paper and ribbon is a talisman with the power to spirit us away to a humble home in first-century Palestine, at the moment when visitors from the East arrive, arms laden with gifts, eyes wide with wonder. In celebrating Christmas, we long, in some sense, to be one with it—to enter the story ourselves.
It would behoove us to remember that, as the journey precedes the destination, the season of Advent precedes Christmas. Advent, as observed by Christians for millennia, is a time of expectant waiting, an observance of a time when Israel’s prophets were as silent as their God and their people yearned for a promised (and much delayed) deliverer. As the famous hymn pleads, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel . . .” Advent is a desire in the Now for the Not Yet. In the coming days, we will further explore the traditional observance of Advent and Christmas and how we might recover those customs in our modern, distracted age.
Think of this book as a travelogue into the heart of Christmas, with the tall, heavyset man as our trusted guide. Let us keep our ears (and hearts) open, for I believe he has much to say to us along the way (he’s loquacious, six feet four inches tall, and nearly three hundred pounds, so he’s somewhat difficult to ignore). In speaking of travel, Chesterton once wrote,
I cannot see any Battersea here; I cannot see any London or any England. I cannot see that door. I cannot see that chair: because a cloud of sleep and custom has come across my eyes. The only way to get back to them is to go somewhere else; and that is the real object of travel and the real pleasure of holidays. Do you suppose that I go to France in order to see France? Do you suppose that I go to Germany in order to see Germany? I shall enjoy them both; but it is not them that I am seeking. I am seeking Battersea. The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.
The purpose of our journey is not so much to dwell in “the place from which Christmas came,” but to allow that place to dwell in us, to return to our own country with christened eyes, to look upon our everyday surroundings with a baptized imagination.
As we exit the garden and turn the corner, the large man’s cane clinking along the cobblestones, he mutters under his breath, “Christmas belongs to an order of ideas which never really perished, and which is now less likely to perish than ever.” Just then, he is momentarily stunned into silence by the image of a sparrowcock perched upon the branch of a tall, barren tree, silhouetted against the darkening sky. “It had from the first a sort of glamour of a lost cause,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “It was like an everlasting sunset. It is only the things that never die that get the reputation of dying.”
With that, he turns and continues down the street. We hasten to follow, as the first flurries of snow begin to fall . . .
Scripture Reading and Reflection
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” —Jeremiah 33:14-16
How might you prepare space in your heart for Christ during this season?
How can you make time for silence and contemplation in the midst of an increasingly busy time of year?
Meditate on some long journeys in your life, when the promise of deliverance seemed far away. Reflect on the mercies of God that were with you in the midst of your “expectant waiting.”
Day Two: A Warning to Those in Danger of Celebrating Prematurely
All the old wholesome customs in connection with Christmas were to the effect that one should not touch or see or know or speak of something before the actual coming of Christmas Day. Thus, for instance, children were never given their presents until the actual coming of the appointed hour. The presents were kept tied up in brown-paper parcels, out of which an arm of a doll or the leg of a donkey sometimes accidentally stuck. I wish this principle were adopted in respect of modern Christmas ceremonies and publications. The editors of the magazines bring out their Christmas numbers so long before the time that the reader is more likely to be lamenting for the turkey of last year than to have seriously settled down to a solid anticipation of the turkey which is to come. Christmas numbers of magazines ought to be tied up in brown paper and kept for Christmas Day. On consideration, I should favor the editors being tied up in brown paper. Whether the leg or arm of an editor should ever be allowed to protrude I leave to individual choice. —The Illustrated London News (1906)
The celebration of Christmas, as traditionally observed by the church, does not, in fact, conclude on December 25. Christmas Day is but the beginning of twelve days of festive celebration (as expressed in the well-known carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”). That certain ceremonies and publications in Chesterton’s day were rushing to celebrate Christmas prematurely betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the Advent and Christmas traditions. As he says elsewhere,
Modern men have a vague feeling that when they have come to the feast, they have come to the finish. By modern commercial customs, the preparations for it have been so very long and the practice of it seems so very short.
If this sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because we tend to observe Christmas in the following fashion: Immediately after Thanksgiving in America, radio stations begin playing Christmas music. TV networks begin airing Christmas movies. Families begin stringing up decorations. The so-called Christmas season (a somewhat vague designation) is officially initiated. Festivities continue through December 25 (the day when families gather and gifts are exchanged), after which decorations are unceremoniously stripped away, trees are dragged to the curb to be hauled off with the trash, news anchors recap the holiday in past-tense language, talking about how Christmas was, how it went, what happened. In the days following Christmas Day, a general malaise hangs in the air, like dissipating smoke from a fireworks display. Christmas came and went, in grand but short-lived fashion.
Whatever it was, whatever it was for, it is now definitively and categorically over. “This is, of course, in sharp contrast to the older traditional customs, in the days when it was a sacred festival for a simpler people,” Chesterton reminds us. “Then the preparation took the form of the more austere season of Advent and the fast of Christmas Eve. But when men passed on to the feast of Christmas, it went on for a long time after the feast of Christmas Day.”
The “austere” season of Advent, as we have established, is a time of expectant waiting. Christmas, fittingly, is its own season—a prolonged feast sustained for nearly two weeks. Chesterton reminds us that in the “old wholesome customs” Christmas would not be spoken of throughout the season of Advent. Gifts were kept wrapped until Christmas Day, when they would be opened at last—not all at once in a dizzying blur—but one at a time, over the course of twelve days (I would venture to say most people today lack the patience for such a thing). If this all sounds rather foreign to us, it’s only further proof that the modern Westernized approach to Christmas has been ingrained in us from an early age. Thankfully, we serve a God who invites us to become like children, so there’s always time to unlearn a few things.
The challenge I present to you is this: resist the urge to celebrate Christmas prematurely. Give Advent its proper due, armed with reverent patience and an expectant heart. When Christmas comes, celebrate with prolonged joy “in a crescendo of festivity until Twelfth Night” (I’ll leave the means of gift distribution up to you). Rebel against our modern culture by joining the ranks of the church, which outlasts all cultures. Or shall Chesterton tie you up in brown paper as well?
Scripture Reading and Reflection
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. —2 Thessalonians 2:15
Consider how you might allow the traditions of the church to influence your celebration of Christmas this year.
Consider how you might “unlearn” some modern holiday traditions in favor of a more traditional observance of Advent and Christmas.
What would it take for you to sustain a “crescendo of festivity until Twelfth Night”?
Ryan Whitaker Smith is an author and filmmaker from Nashville, Tennessee. His film projects include the romantic drama Surprised by Oxford, based on the award-winning memoir by Carolyn Weber, the Lionsgate documentary The Jesus Music, and a forthcoming adaptation of G. K. Chesterton's comic adventure The Ball and the Cross. He is coauthor, with Dan Wilt, of Sheltering Mercy and Endless Grace, two collections of prayers inspired by the Psalms.
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