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Taking a Lectionary-based approach to the classic advent devotional, study with depth of the stirring hope of Christmas and Advent.
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Companions On The Bethlehem Road by Rachel Boulding was published by Bible Reading Fellowship in September 2012 and is our 5610th best seller. The ISBN for Companions On The Bethlehem Road is 9780857460653.
You may think, as I did "what – not another Advent reading book!" Yes it is – but with a different slant. Based on the lectionary readings for Advent and sub-divided into weekly themes and daily portions, this book is a gem. The author brings her literary expertise to enlighten the passages by using short quotes from a variety of poets, ranging from Tennyson, to Herbert and W H Auden.
The Advent readings themselves are like precious gemstones. So often we try to attack them head on. As a diamond throws out different lights and sparkles when lit up from oblique angles, so this book sheds new light through its oblique approach.
Non-poetry readers – do not be put off. The poetry is well chosen and does not dominate each day's reading. Indeed – it may well encourage you to go to the poem's source and so gain further insight.
Finally there is the added bonus of a reflection at the end of the reading, as a spur to think afresh and maybe to act.
Week 1: Surveying the territory
1st Dec - Praying for strength to face the questions
2nd Dec - The mystery of the end of the world
3rd Dec - Turning swords into plowshares
4th Dec - Living up to the hope
5th Dec - Looking death in the face
6th Dec - Be surprised by joy
7th Dec - Incarnation: the impossible but actual union
Week 2: The untwisted path
8th Dec - Not with the hope of gaining
9th Dec - Is good the final goal of ill?
10th Dec - The vision that sustains
11th Dec - Strength and loving kindness together
12th Dec - Revival after the storm
13th Dec Unshowy but deep faith
14th Dec - The mysteries of the dark night
Week 3 Tracking God’s Wisdom
15th Dec - ‘Bound by gold chains about the feet of God’
16th Dec - ‘Ye, whose hopes rely on God… repent’
17th Dec - Tracing God’s Wisdom through our lives
18th Dec - Questions at the heart of the story
19th Dec - Claiming the tradition as our own
20th Dec - The mind-blowing paradoxes of God
21st Dec - In praise of Mary
Week 4: ‘That holy thing’
22nd Dec - Spring on the shortest day
23rd Dec - ‘Let me go there’
24th Dec - An answer to our deepest needs
25th Dec - ‘Each of us his lamb will bring’
26th Dec - The sweep of the season from joy to sadness
27th Dec - The priority of loving one another
28th Dec - ‘When wretches have their will’
Week 5: Back to the new life
29th Dec - Losing our will in the will of God
30th Dec - Clothe yourselves with love
31st Dec - Ring out the darkness
1st Jan - Keeping that great covenant
2nd Jan - ‘Everything became a You’
3rd Jan - Seeking God’s true wisdom
4th Jan - ‘Do the work that’s nearest’
Questions for reflection and discussion
Index of poets
Index of poems
"'Companions on the Road to Bethlehem’ is an Advent journey into the Christmas story. In the company of poets, transformed by their encounter with the creator God made man, this is a pilgrimage into a new and deeper relationship. Choice words from the Psalmist, TS Eliot, George Herbert, Tennyson, Auden and Shakespeare map out a journey that moves you toward the joy, peace and wonder of the Advent season."
“This book asks to be read by every professing Christian, young and old, for its sincere and accessible teaching, its wisdom, and for its uplifting message; it should certainly not be left to languish in the six-week slot from Advent to Epiphany. I, for one, will be reading it again very soon.” – Helen Long, from St Ignatius Parish Church , Carryduff, N Ireland.
"The book would be a refreshing Advent gift, deep enough for mature believers and entertaining for a new recruit.” – Carole Woodiwis, from Heart of Sussex.
“I've only seen material for the first section but it looks like a study which will be time well spent.” – Christian Marketplace.
“… this would be a very good book to give to an enquirer into Christianity, or somebody who wanted to get a grasp on the basic shape of the history of salvation as Christians understand it. The BRF seems to be very good at this sort of thing” – The Church Times.
“Although it is book of daily readings, I couldn't put it down and finished it in three days.” – Dr Terence Hamblin, Amazon Reviewer.
“What a great book to get ready for Christmas and 2012! The outlines for each day give an inspirational aspect for any reader. An encouraging start to each day and well worth the price - enjoy.” – Colin Bennett, Amazon Reviewer.
“Excellent and highly recommended.” – Mary Bartholomew, from The Good Book Stall.
Extract from: T.S.Elliot’s ‘The Dry Salvages’
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight...
... These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled...
Familiarity can breed blindness to the depth of what is going on, and the Christmas story is an obvious example. What would happen if a new perspective on the great themes of Advent and Christmas could be found in a fresh approach that could take a hold of our emotions and make us gasp in wonder? Could the language of poetry be the key?
Poems offer a new way in to familiar truths. Pithy, carefully-chosen words, set in an intricate pattern, open up unexpected ways of seeing old events. In my new book, Companions on the Bethlehem Road, (BRF Advent book 2012), I've chosen parts of poems from some great writers to bring new light to the Lectionary readings for this Advent season. No previous knowledge of poetry is assumed, and for readers who already enjoy poems, I hope there will be some new writers to enjoy and even some helpful surprises.
I chose the poems for the way they matched the biblical themes - not for who the poet was, but on whether he or she wrote about that particular aspect of faith. So there is T.S. Eliot reflecting on regrets, George Herbert probing our deepest motivations, John Donne examining the paradoxes of the incarnation, anonymous medieval writers celebrating the tender human drama of Jesus' birth and Tennyson on death and bereavement (a traditional Advent subject). For that curious time after Christmas and into the New Year, there are some amazing lines from W.H. Auden and Evelyn Underhill about taking the experience of the festive season on into everyday life.
As the book title suggests, there is a range of approaches to the readings, as varied as a group of people who might gather on a journey or pilgrimage. It's fascinating to glimpse a completely different perspective on the coming of the Saviour from writers of earlier centuries, which shed light on our current obsessions. I also include reflections, prayers and ideas for further action.
All the poems offer fresh, often startling, perspectives on the familiar story of faith. I hope you will enjoy this fresh approach to Advent reading and discover a renewed sense of wonder at the events of that first Christmas.
The various journeys of the Christmas story, and the individual stories of the people who kept each other company on the long roads to earthly, heavenly and spiritual destinations, has inspired more devotion and poetry than any other event in human history except, perhaps, the journey to Calvary and to the cross. In ‘Companions on the Road to Bethlehem’, Rachel Boulding draws on the poetry, readings prayers and reflections of the Advent journey to lead you on your own pilgrimage to Bethlehem and into a deeper relationship with the creator God who took on flesh.
There is a huge commitment in taking up a daily devotion. To some extent that’s part of its purpose – there’s no reason why the benefits of following a course of biblical study should come easily. But sometimes, if we’re honest with ourselves it would be nice if they did. The solution to being willing inspirit but weak in flesh is to embark on a devotional that fits into the kind of time space you can commit and stick to. And that doesn’t just mean finding a devotional that takes up the right number of minutes in your day and doesn’t need the kind of place, time or environment you can never seem to find. It’s about finding a devotional that only runs for the number of sessions, offers the kind of engagement, and fits the mood of the season that best suits who and where you are.
First find your mood. It’s never good to try and overrule the mood of the season. That’s just a waste of your energy. Much better is to use the dynamics of the season – its weather, its mood, its purpose - to help drive your thoughts and prayers toward devotion. In the Christian year, there are certain seasons when your thoughts are already focused on the story that is central to your faith, and the teachings that underpin your beliefs. Principal among these times are the weeks that lead you into Easter – known as Lent - and those that draw you toward Christmas, known as Advent. Each of these preparative times is of the same fixed length, long enough to allow depth and discovery, but short enough to maintain concentration and focus.
Advent is especially suitable for starting and completing a devotional. The first Sunday of Advent is the traditional start of the Church’s year. It’s a time of looking forward – not just to the birth of God in human form, but also to his return as King and Saviour. Most of all, Advent is the beginning of a journey. The notion of travel is central to the Christmas story; journeying from one place to another and accepting the challenges and changes those journeys bring. The most obvious journey is the much re-enacted traditional journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The trek of the Eastern Magi, to pay homage and bring gifts, is also celebrated and featured in school and Sunday school Nativity plays.
Less attention is given to the journey of the shepherds on what amounts to a short pilgrimage to discover the baby wrapped in strips of cloth – or swaddling clothes, if you prefer. The Magi, or wise men, undertake a second journey; finding their way home without repeating their earlier visit to Herod’s palace. Mary, Joseph and the infant also follow a circuitous route home. Returning to Nazareth via Egypt, their trip not only guaranteed the safety of their newborn son but also fulfilled a prophecy and drew important parallels with the story of the entire Jewish nation. But the real journey, the real road travelled by all of these people is a road to transformation, to realisation and into a new relationship with the creator God who took on flesh.
Moved by the biblical accounts, and by their own transforming encounter with truth of the story, poets down the ages have expressed their experiences in words that have themselves moved and transformed countless numbers of believers – and even those who would disbelieve. For those who find their hearts and minds moved by the God-inspired creativity of poetry, Rachel Boulding’s ‘Companions On The Bethlehem Road’ offers an Advent devotional experience encouraging commitment you'll be delighted to share.
Opening with a lesser known poem by seventeenth century Welsh poet, Henry Vaughan, Rachel invites travellers on the Advent road to where “above noise, and danger, sweet peace sits crown’d with smiles, and one born in a manger.” With TS Eliot, George Herbert, Tennyson, Auden and Shakespeare as companions on your own road to Bethlehem Rachel adds her own insight to their words creating a journey that moves in space and time toward the joy, peace and wonder of the Advent season. – Les Ellison
For many, the word ‘poetry’ conjures up the feeling of a stuffy English classroom. So why is Rachel Boulding so adamant that we should all read poetry every day this advent in our devotional time?
Writers and authors, speakers and preachers, teachers and thinkers all seek to answer the big questions. The Christian marketplace is over-loaded with books that attempt to resolve your problems, argue their opinions and resolve the world’s problems. But poets do something entirely different, as Rachel explains:
“Poets are content to explore and deepen the mystery of God, rather than being obsessed with resolving it ... They are not studying this paradox as a problem to be explained so much as a mystery to be revelled in.”
Humans want answers, but God isn’t an exam question. The poet approaches God free from the fascination of knowledge, so they are left to imaginatively ponder the mysteries of life and faith. A poem teases the reader to join them in pondering, inviting you to a place of self-discovery and wonder.
Dotted throughout the daily readings are poems from throughout the ages, by the famous Shakespeare and T.S. Elliot and to the not so famous Auden. Split into bite-sized chunks, each poem is easy to manage and accompanied by Rachel’s comments and explanations, linking them back to scripture and advent themes.
Thankfully, this book is far from a GCSE Poetry Textbook! It’s a refreshing combination of scripture, poetry, reflections and fascinating musings (with absolutely no required background knowledge of 18th century prose). Suitable for both mature Christians and new believers, the BRF 2012 Advent book will focus your heart and mind on Jesus, the holy mystery that continues to captivate humanity.
|Author / Artist||Rachel Boulding|
|Publisher||Bible Reading Fellowship (September 2012)|
|Number of Pages||192|
|Page last updated||12th July 2018|