Going deeper with Advent, by way of Christmas carols

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The Rev. James Howell’s latest book signings have turned into book singings.

The prolific United Methodist author-pastor is out with “Why This Jubilee?” — an Advent devotional book that’s grounded in Christmas carol texts.

Howell, a pianist since age 5, has taken to sitting down at the keyboard and leading in song those who come to his book signings.

At one, he noted that the last stanza of “Away in a Manger” (“Be near me, Lord Jesus …”) is really a prayer. Then he and the group sang the stanza.

“You could tell people were not just singing a song anymore,” Howell said. “They were actually prayerful. The tone was really gentle.”

Howell, longtime pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., was asked by The Upper Room to do an Advent book. He agreed, and said he’d like to focus on Christmas carols.

He credits his keen interest in them to a conversation he had years ago with Kevin Siers, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Charlotte Observer. Siers mentioned that his favorite line to ponder from Christmas carols was “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” from “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

Howell felt a little chastened.

“I realized I had cheerfully sung Christmas carols all my life, but I hadn’t done much pondering,” he writes in the new book’s introduction.

“Why This Jubilee?” draws on Howell’s careful consideration of Christmas carol texts since his conversation with Siers. Its goal is to illuminate the Christmas story and deepen the Advent experience for readers, by de-familiarizing the season’s songs.

“It’s probably what all preaching and teaching ought to be about in the church,” Howell said. “We’ve got this old familiar stuff. How do we waken to it?”

The book consists of short daily readings, organized into four sections, one for each week of Advent.

The first is titled “The Place,” and considers Bethlehem and the physical surroundings of Jesus’ birth. The second is “The Men,” and deals with the shepherds, the magi, Joseph and other males in the Christmas story.

The third section is on Mary, and the concluding section deals with the Christ child.

Howell delves into theology, history, literature, etymology and popular culture — with references ranging from John and Charles Wesley to Charles Dickens to Monty Python — but keeps circling back to individual Christmas carols.

He describes “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as a “treasury of silence” whose images and sentiments sum up the kind of receptivity to God that Advent should be about. A line like “Let every heart prepare him room” — from “Joy to the World” — Howell sees as a crucial challenge to Christians distracted by gift-buying and the general busyness of the season.

As for the line “Shepherds, why this jubilee?” from “Angels We Have Heard on High,” Howell writes: “To those impoverished men whose homes were rocky, grassy fields out in the cold, who were exposed to the elements, Christ came before he came to anybody else.”

The many Mary references in Christmas carols prompted Howell to give space in the book to sharing his reasons for believing in the Virgin Birth. They boil down to having noticed that his greatest heroes in the Christian faith, past and present, all have believed in it.

“I want a piece of the relationship they enjoy with God,” Howell writes. “So if the virginity of Mary mattered to St. Francis, Mother Teresa, my grandfather, and others of their ilk, then believing this can’t be the ruin of me.”

Even secular carol texts have Advent meaning for Howell. For example, “Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow,” from “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” strikes him as quite telling of the human condition.

And “All of the other reindeer, used to laugh and call him names,” from “Rudoph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” connects with Howell personally.

“I’m the kid who got laughed at,” he said.

For years, Howell has found time in his busy schedule to write books on a range of Christian topics. This one has sold well, he said, adding that it’s been a kick to have it being read and discussed during Advent.

He’s also enjoyed the times when book signings became something more, including a recent gathering with a women’s group from his church.

“They wanted to talk about the book,” Howell said, “but mostly we just sang.”

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]

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