Sister Wendy's Advent for Time-Challenged Catholics

Sister Wendy's Nativity by Sister Wendy Beckett (San Francisco, HarperCollins, $24.95)

Even for the most faithful Catholics, today's Advent can be head-spinningly hectic. Ornaments and fruitcakes and tinsel and presents are all very well—but where are the prayerful reflection and heartfelt anticipation we're supposed to be experiencing?

Fortunately, Loyola Press is offering an antidote for the modern-day Advent. Sister Wendy's Nativity is just the kind of spiritual reading that is both possible and desirable during the whirlwind of mid-December. Possible, because its appealing, coffee-table format and relative brevity make the work less daunting to undertake … and desirable, as we can't let ourselves be fooled by this format. There is fuel for deep reflection in these elegantly simple pages.

Most of us know Sister Wendy from her public television specials on the history of religious art. The soft-spoken nun in traditional garb leads her viewers through a series of works on a given topic—works which typical lay people, more used to Bauhaus sensibilities at their churches, are really not in a position to appreciate unassisted. In fact, the symbolism and intricacy of traditional art seems, to many of us, both overwhelming and obscure.

What Sister Wendy does so well on television, she does even better in print. She introduces us to the paintings as she would to old friends, interpreting their expressions with empathy, while nodding indulgently at their idiosyncrasies. The advantage of reading Sister Wendy, as opposed to watching her, is that you can take your time poring over the text and cross-referencing the picture, rather than trying to pick out a few mentioned points, before the work in question disappears from the screen.

When you first pick up Sister Wendy's collection of “images from late antiquity to the late fifteenth century,” some of which “have so far been studied only by scholars in the Vatican and other great Italian libraries,” you may wonder why she chose to entitle the collection Nativity.

Of the book's four sections, only the second deals directly with “The Holy Birth.” Four paintings are of the Nativity itself; two, of the shepherds to whom it is initially announced; and two of the visit of the Magi. Section One, “Preparing the Way,” features Old and New Testament scenes from before the birth of Christ. Section Three examines “Jesus Among Us,” while the last part of the book focuses on his “Death and Resurrection.” So why use the word Nativity in the title at all?

Because Christmas isn't just about the manger and the shepherds, any more than it's about shopping and fruitcake. It is a focal point of salvation history, an event so singular that, as Sister Wendy points out, history is bisected by it, into B.C. and A.D. To understand what went before and what came after, we have to understand the Incarnation.

Yet to understand the Incarnation, we must consider its position in the whole sweep of the human encounter with the Triune God. This is what Sister Wendy recognizes by including the rest of Christ's story with the Christmas story. The book is called Nativity because the other events are, quite properly, viewed with the Incarnation as a lens. As Sister Wendy writes, “The birth of Christ is universally understood as the crucial date in human history. Yet, on the face of it, what exactly happened? In a small town on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, a young mother had given birth to a son, a child of such mystical significance that we still struggle to come to terms with who he was.”

As we struggle to come to terms with this Advent, Sister Wendy helps us to share the viewpoint of earlier Christians—both the profundity of their grasp of the mystery, and the very real limits of human understanding.

You might think: “What do I want with a picture book? Picture books are for kids. Besides, I know the general facts about Christmas and Christianity already.”

Picture books are for kids, because pictures speak so readily to the heart and the imagination. We are called to become like little children that we might enter the Kingdom of God, and Sister Wendy's pictures can help us recapture a childlike appreciation of the holy. “These manuscripts were created solely to help people to pray,” she remarks, “to teach them the truth of their religion, to coax them into thinking more deeply about it and to delight them with their beauty.”

As for knowing all about Christmas already, Sister Wendy has contributions to make on this score as well. She enhances the well-known scenario with allusions to sophisticated theology and tidbits of apocryphal tradition. For example, she says at one point; “No theologian doubts that the world was created ‘for’Christ: He was its fulfillment and gave it its meaning. What remains a matter of reverent speculation, though, was whether the way Christ's life unfolded—his birth and his terrible death, and then the Resurrection—was intended from the beginning, or came about only because of Adam and Eve, our first parents.”

How many Catholics know that, in this sense at least, the Christmas story is still a matter of theological controversy? Yet Sister Wendy introduces us gently and intelligibly to the debate between the “primacy of Christ” position (which holds that Jesus would have become incarnate whether or not Original Sin was ever committed, because this was God the Father's plan from all eternity) and the consequentialist position (which holds that Jesus, so to speak, “had” to become incarnate after Original Sin, to get us all out of this mess in the only way possible).

On the opposite end of the intellectual spectrum, Sister Wendy also alludes to pious little tales of doubtful truth which have cropped up throughout Christian history, like the one about the Holy Family's escape from King Herod and his murderous designs on the Divine Child. Sister Wendy describes how “[i]n the far background, the artist even manages to illustrate one of the Flight into Egypt legends. The Holy Family is said to have passed a farmer sowing corn, and when Herod's men asked him if he had seen any escapees, he answered truthfully that nobody had gone by since he sowed his crop. But miraculously, the crop had sprung up and was ready for reaping, which completely threw the villains off the scent, while preventing the farmer from telling a lie.” How would we have understood the painting, without being familiar with this little legend behind it?

Most of the time, however, Sister Wendy is neither leading us forth into complicated theology nor regaling us with enchanting pieces of religious trivia. She is explaining significant works of art in her signature style, which at the same time draws us deeper into Christianity itself—and isn't this what the Advent season is really for?

Helen Valois writes from Steubenville, Ohio.