Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany  -     By: Sarah Arthur
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Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany

Paraclete Press / 2014 / Paperback

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Product Description

This collection of daily and weekly readings goes through the liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. New voices such as Amit Majmudar and Scott Cairns are paired with well-loved classics by Dickens, Andersen, and Eliot. With their assistance, you will experience the Christmas liturgical season in its raw strangeness, stripped of sentiment, turning your heart, eyes, and mind toward Emmanuel.

Product Information

Format: Paperback
Number of Pages: 192
Vendor: Paraclete Press
Publication Date: 2014
Dimensions: 8.00 X 5.38 (inches)
ISBN: 1612614191
ISBN-13: 9781612614199

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Publisher's Description

In keeping with At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time (“a thing of beauty” and “a literary treasure trove and devotional feast,” two reviewers called it) this collection contains daily and weekly inspirational readings to help the reader prayerfully experience God through the liturgical seasons of winter. Well-loved classics by Andersen, Dickens, and Eliot join contemporary works by Frederick Buechner and Gary Schmidt. Poems by Donne, Herbert, and Rossetti are paired with newer voices: Scott Cairns, Benjamín Alire Sáenz, Susanna Childress, and Amit Majmudar. Readers are invited to experience Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany in its raw strangeness, stripped of sentiment, and to turn toward Emmanuel.

Author Bio

Sarah Arthur is a fun-loving speaker and author of nine books, including The One Year Coffee With God and At the Still Point. A graduate of Wheaton College and Duke Divinity, she lives in Michigan with her pastor-husband Tom and their two small sons. wwwsaraharthur.com  

Editorial Reviews

When I’m asked to describe why I became an Anglican, I think back to my freshman year of college, when I first started my journey towards Canterbury. As a student at Wheaton College, I had a lot of options on a Sunday morning. The town of Wheaton, just outside of Chicago, has more churches per capita than almost anywhere else in the country, and most of them court new students with promises of free rides from campus and home-cooked meals after their services. I had grown up in a charismatic house church, gone to an Assemblies of God elementary school, and attended Baptist churches in my middle school and high school years, so it came as a surprise that I ended up in an Anglican church, but there I discovered gifts of church tradition that I had never encountered before. One such gift was the liturgy’s attentiveness to language. Phrases from the Book of Common Prayer hung in the air before me, simultaneously shimmering with beauty and convicting me with their gravity. As a newly minted English major, I found myself savoring the words of the collects and the general confession, turning them over in my spirit like a delicacy on the tongue. I had never experienced a church service that acknowledged the power of beautiful language to transfix and transform us. The cycle of the church calendar was also a new gift to me. Rather than trudging through a long series of monotonous Sundays, each one as generic as its predecessor, I found myself walking through the central story of my faith at a much slower pace, as each Sunday built on the previous week and traced the next chapter of that story. The church seasons invited me not just to recall the events of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection on a cognitive level, but to enter into them as a participant. Now, almost 15 years later, the language of the liturgy and the shape of the church year continue to mold me as a Christian and as a priest, but I must admit that the newness has worn off. Over time, language that was once so fresh becomes rote, and the seasons that sparked so much reflection become routine. In order to enter these seasons with intention, I have found it necessary to seek out spiritual guides to help me stay centered on Christ. As Advent draws near this year, I am looking forward to reading a new devotional that brings together my love for language and for the church seasons. In her new book Light upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, Sarah Arthur helps us approach this overly familiar time of year in a new way, gathering together different voices that help us "experience Christmas in all its raw strangeness, stripped (when possible) of sentiment, tuned to a different pitch" (10). Rather than offering her own devotional reflections, Arthur offers a selection of prose and poetry from a wide range of authors for each week of Advent, Christmas, and the season after Epiphany. For anyone who loves literature, it is a delight to turn each page and discover either beloved religious poems like those of John Donne, Christina Rossetti, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, or less expected choices like an excerpt from John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. Arthur weaves these disparate pieces together in a way that beautifully illuminates the significance of these three church seasons. As the back cover says, her work is "a literary and spiritual feast" for anyone who loves literature and wants to experience afresh the reality of Christ’s incarnation. As Advent approaches, I am grateful for another opportunity to relive the events that are so central to our faith, and I’m thankful for literary companions whose words bring fresh perspective on the love shown to us in Christ. May we prepare to welcome him into our hearts and lives once again.-Covenant, when you come together to eat, wait for one another, October 2014



You’re invited to a feast this Christmas. Sarah Arthur, editor of the collection At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Ordinary Time, has published another volume with Paraclete Press, Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. If you’ve prepared for past Christmas seasons with the help of God With Us, Image’s own book of meditations from some of our favorite spiritual writers, you’ll find Light Upon Light to be another rich tapestry of poetry, fiction, and scripture. A mix of the venerable and the fresh, pieces from Eliot, Chesterton, and Rosetti are paired with contemporary writers like Amit Majmudar (read Arthur's recent interview with Majmudar on Good Letters here), Susanna Childress, and Tania Runyan (all Image contributors). Arthur's curation is sensitive and inviting to epiphany: for the narrative of Christ's birth, she pairs Li-Young Lee’s "The Eternal Son," a poem aching with the necessary abandonment of growing up ("and if she’s weeping / it's because she’s misplaced / both our childhoods"), bookended by an excerpt from Gary D. Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars, in which a seventh-grade protagonist witnesses the tarnishing of a childhood hero. Not every piece is Christmas-themed; pieces from the canon (Dickens' The Christmas Carol, Andersen's fairy tale "The Snow Queen," classic poems by Donne and Tennyson) are laid side by side with Jeanne Murray Walker's "Staying Power" (epigraph: "In appreciation of Maxim Gorky at the International Convention of Atheists, 1929") and an excerpt from Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground. You'll find food for nostalgia as well as delightful new voices, including Arthur's own. In short: both spiritual succor and pure pleasure. —Image Update 

"For years I have been seeking a book which weaves scripture, prayer and the finest poetry and fiction into the devotional experience of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Finally I have found it: an elegant and accessible gem with some classic texts and a rich selection from contemporary literature. This is not only a useful book, it is edifying and exciting reading—the perfect way for the literature lover to focus, meditate and celebrate this time of year."— Jill Peláez Baumgaertner, poet; Professor of English and Dean of Humanities and Theological Studies, Wheaton College



Apparently, either my husband and I are non-traditionalists when it comes to Advent or really bad at following through. For the first twenty years of our married life, we had both high hopes and good intentions on December 1st. We’d buy an Advent calendar or put a wreath with candles on the table. Maybe even splurge on a book with a catchy title that promised to guide us through a meaningful holiday season. For the most part, our good intentions start to wane around December 14. By that point, the boys had already opened all of the Advent calendar windows, there would be melted wax all over the dining room table, and the book, having failed to transform our month, was buried under the avalanche of catalogs. Because we are not the kind of people who are easily discouraged, four years ago Christopher made an epic leap and created his own version of Advent. Each day, he wrote Scriptures on note cards and included clues that led the boys to a small—and on one day not so small—gift. It was a huge success. So much so that we’ve not done anything since then. Before you condemn or dismiss us, I think this is fairly normative for folks who make their living (i.e. pastors) by helping other folks celebrate key events. Since our sons are now aged fifteen to twenty-one, the only holiday expectations I feel from them are as follows: put up a tree, give them a few well chosen gifts, and provide all of the materials for them to create original gingerbread houses.
I, however, have been hoping for something more. This year, Sarah Arthur’s beautiful compilation Light upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayers for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany has been my more. Each chapter includes an opening prayer. For example John Donne’s work: Hear us, O hear us Lord; to Thee
A sinner is more music when he prays, Than spheres or angels’ praises be In Panegyric alleluias, Hear us, for till Thou hear us, Lord We know not what to say. Also included are suggested Scripture readings, poems, sonnets and/or excerpts from longer texts, many of which might seem unlikely but are nevertheless stunning. This one caused my pulse to race.
"When gods die, they die hard. It’s not like they fade away, or grow old or fall asleep. They die in fire and pain, and when they come out of you, they leave your guts burned. It hurts more than anything you can talk about. And maybe worst of all is, you’re not sure if there will ever be another god to fill their place. Or if you’d ever want another god to fill their place. (by Gary Schmidt from The Wednesday Wars)
I find myself eagerly anticipating going to bed simply so I can indulge in that night’s offering. I’ve even slowed my blistering reading pace so that I can savor the beauty and the depth of these gifts. If I haven’t yet convinced you of Light upon Light’s merits, I will leave you with Sarah Arthur’s words from the introduction: "Winter in the Northern Hemisphere is particularly suited for … prayer and reflection. We find ourselves more and more indoors, … our bodies slowing to the rhythm of the sleeping woodlands. Silence is not hard to find. And yet crashing into the midwinter quiet comes the most frantic event of the cultural year. Perhaps it is our fear of stillness, of quiet that drives us to anything but the ’silent night’ of Christmas: we do not want to know what we might discover in reflection. More likely it is a consumer economy that thrives on a relentless pace: slow and contemplative people are not shopping people; silence does not sell. So the one time of year that we are given to pause and seek the One who seeks us becomes the one time of year that drives us nearly to self-extinction. And it is this season, of any, when we are least likely to pick up a book and read."
Please, pick up this book and read. (It has almost sold out so don’t delay.) —Dorothy Greco

"Maybe it’s not right to think of feasting during the somewhat penitential season of Advent, but that is what this book is: a sumptuous feast." –Lauren F. Winner



Yes, Owen Meany, I do. I do keep them there, because in books I get lost and find myself, or find something I didn’t know I needed; something I needed later. Words carry me forward, tell me I’m not alone; teach me. Words do that for me, even before my John Irving-reading days. That one, it’s from "A Prayer for Owen Meany."
Lectio divina — it’s one of the methods that drew me to Charlotte Mason. Lectio divina is a fancy way of saying meditative reading; receptive reading; reading that leaves you wide open to the Holy Spirit. Learning to slow and receive all of what we’re hearing is a lifelong art I’ve only really started mastering. Another be-still lesson, always.
Lectio divina’s also the spine of Sarah Arthur’s new book, "Light Upon Light." She’s curated this really powerful collection of poems, prayers, and literature for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany that I’ve had the joy of unpacking early, and now reviewing here. Read it, slowly. This one will sink into you. Like the previous "At the Still Point," each chapter’s theme threads its way through prayers, scripture selections, poetry, and selections from good books.
Contemporaries keep the selections unexpected, each time; classics remind me this story is much larger than my today, my Advent, my Christmas. This isn’t a book of prepackaged emotions — lectio divina isn’t that; you can’t predict how the Spirit will use it, even the stories heard before. But from St. Francis to Dickens to Luci Shaw and John Irving, its scope is so generous, its helping so generous — Sarah’s given us readers a new vista, which is just about the best earthly gift for that time of the year. Even selections from books I’ve read before speak with a new voice, beyond what was probably the author’s original intent. That’s part of it. Our culture dives into Christmas as if it held all the hope and sparkle of the entire year, but "Light Upon Light"’s selections are richer, and they don’t abandon us on Christmas Day, like radio stations that switch back to pop music at midnight. She doesn’t leave us at the cultural crescendo, and I’m going to be grateful for that come January.
"Light Upon Light" mixes the now, our current, broken world and our Christmases; and the Then, that Holy Then; and words for my soul and words for the world outside it — so far from my today that it feels not mine. I think Christmas should be that way — it’s very much an experience in my heart, IN MY HEART, Owen says. But it can’t be contained there; it’s a story that’s been writing itself since the beginning. I think Sarah Arthur’s selections come as close as we can to nailing the scope of the story. Sarah, a friend of mine, she knows story and the appetite God’s given us for stories. She knows when story becomes so holy that we just put the words up there and let the Spirit take it from there. The spaces for that to happen are all throughout "Light Upon Light."
There’s a savior-baby, a holy hope, a very-appropriate peace and joy here. But there’s the parts of the story that don’t look so cheerful on the Christmas card: the Holy Innocents, the refugee baby. That depth and tension and the invitation to slow down during that season that isn’t a Be Still season for most people … Take it, that invitation. Seeking the Abundance

"In our individual darknesses we long for more light. Sarah Arthur understands this, and, as if pulling together scores of candles with burning wicks, she illuminates our whole year with the gift of flaming words. A treasure of enlightenment." —Luci Shaw, author of Breath for the Bones and Adventure of Ascent




We spend much money, effort, and time in our culture candy-coating the Christmas season with superficially "pretty" things. Colored tree lights, shiny wrapping paper, glitter-covered snowflakes—I think we hope these trappings will distract us from more unpleasant realities that, sadly, don’t take time off during "the holiday season."
The season does, however, contain real beauty for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Sarah Arthur is someone who does, as her rich and refreshing compilation of literary texts, Light upon Light, shows. With these carefully cultivated passages from poetry and fiction, arranged to illuminate the biblical texts and themes commonly encountered during the liturgical seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, Sarah invites readers "to sit… to breathe in the words of others… [to] seek points of light that cannot be extinguished."
If you’ve been listening to and reading The Sci-Fi Christian a while, Sarah’s not a stranger to you; she generously provided signed copies of some of her earlier books as prizes for our Tolkien-Lewis Writing Contest last year. Well-versed in both Middle-Earth and Narnia (as well as the works of Jane Austen), Sarah knows we need stories, including tales of other times and other worlds, to feed our "God-hungry imaginations" (the title of her wonderful book on storytelling in youth ministry). She is a strong advocate of engaging fiction and poetry prayerfully who emphasizes that God’s Spirit can speak to and shape us through not only the words of Scripture but also the words of good literature. Like her earlier literary prayer companion, At the Still PointLight upon Light presents poems and narrative excerpts in a suggested, simple order for prayer and reflection.
Fans of fantastic literature will recognize a few classic names from the genre: Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, Hans Christian Andersen (a passage from "The Snow Queen" that should send anyone suffering from Frozen fatigue back to that movie’s original, superior source material). Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol makes an appearance, too, confirming its well-deserved status as a classic.
But it’s the real world, where joys and sorrows jostle against each other for attention and where beauty breaks in only fitfully and unexpectedly, that concerns all the writers represented in these pages, even when they’re engaging it in a fictional mode. A heartbreaking passage from Oscar Hijuelos’ novel Mr. Ives’ Christmas, for example, captures how quickly and cruelly death can intrude upon our well-ordered lives. In contrast, Mary F.C. Pratt’s poem "Stunned Back to Belief While the Mezzo Sang ’He Shall Feed His Flock’" exemplifies how the most ordinary of moments can, with equal suddenness and force, convey unlooked-for, undeserved holiness.
Unsurprisingly, the biblical Christmas narratives and their characters are common subjects, but they are often treated in surprising and powerful ways. G.K. Chesterton takes us to "The House of Christmas," "the place where God was homeless/And all men are at home;" while Susanna Childress imagines the Nativity taking place in "Bethlehem, Indiana"—the peacock farm’s caretaker "awakened with a sudden urge/for green bean casserole only to find a heavenly host inside/his refrigerator…" Joan Rae Mills expresses the mystery of the Incarnation in "Mary": "she holds the One/who has so long held her." Paul Mariani explores Joseph’s mindset: "How difficult it must have been, standing in, as ever father/must sometimes feel." In a funny and moving excerpt from John Irving’s novel A Prayer for Owen Meany, an awkward children’s Christmas pageant rehearsal turns, before readers’ eyes, into a fleeting moment of goofy glory.
An accomplished poet herself (she has, fortunately for us, included a few of her own pieces), Sarah Arthur has brought together so many texts that sparkle with piercing turns of phrase, from such a diverse range of writers past and present, it is tempting to quote example after example. Instead, as we enter another Advent next week, I encourage you to discover the wealth of insight and inspiration within Light upon Light for yourself. The words lovingly offered here may help you catch unexpected glimpses of the beauty of the Word made flesh. —Michael, The Sci-fi Christian 

"A beautifully navigated journey through a treasury of literary wisdom - a book to cherish." —Jeremy Begbie, professor of theology and director of Duke University Initiatives in Theology and the Arts



The problem with reviewing a book like Light Upon Light is that Sarah Arthur has done such a fine job explaining her purpose in the introduction that anything I say feels superfluous.  As a guide to prayer during the season of Advent, she has compiled a rich assortment of poetry and prose from long ago and far away as well as from down the road and practically yesterday.

"Finding the works for this collection, discovering some of these authors and poets, has been like lighting one candle after another.  Flame upon flame, light upon light, until the hallowed sanctuary of our quiet devotion becomes something of a shrine."
And that’s exactly how it feels to read it and savor it, day by day, through the dark of December.

The readings are arranged into eighteen sections for four weeks of Advent, one for Christmas Eve, one for Christmas Day, two for the following Sundays, one for Epiphany and nine for the following weeks of Epiphany. Flexibility is the name of the game, so this is not another holiday straight-jacket, but, instead, a warm, comforting sweater.  Each reading has a suggested prayer, a psalm and suggested Scriptures, an assortment of readings to add flame upon flame, and then a suggested closing prayer.  The index of contributors is a valuable resource for further reading of favorite authors, or for answering the burning question, "Who wrote these gorgeous words?"

Partake of Light Upon Light like a delectable Christmas treat.  Let the words waft over you like the aroma of Christmas tea and hot cider.  Slow down your Christmas and find the Holy that has been right there all along.—Michele Morin, Living Our Days




Each year I look for ways to make the Advent season more meaningful. It can be surprisingly hard to find something fresh and new. But a new release compiled by Sarah Arthur, Light upon Light, is my pièce de résistance for this year.
As Arthur says in her introduction: "Finding the works for this collection, discovering some of these authors and poets, has been like lighting one candle after another. Flame upon flame, light upon light, until the hallowed sanctuary of our quiet devotion becomes something of a shrine."
Her book lives up to that description. She quotes many classic authors I am familiar with and love, such as John Donne, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Francis of Assisi, C. S. Lewis, and George MacDonald, to name a few, along with more recent writings from Frederick Buechner, Eugene Peterson, and Walter Wangerin, Jr. But she also introduces me to contemporary authors and poets I haven’t read, such as Li-Young Lee, Tania Runyan, Scott Cairns, and Sarah Arthur (her own compositions). These newer writers do a fine job of mining the depths of the Advent season alongside the classic writers with whom I am so well acquainted. For example, my heart skips a beat when I read this quote from George MacDonald: "They all were looking for a king to slay their foes and lift them high; Thou cam’st, a little baby thing that made a woman cry."
And I love how this poem "Mary at the Nativity," by Tania Runyan, begins: "The angel said there would be no end to his kingdom. So for three hundred days I carried rivers and cedars and mountains. Stars spilled in my belly when he turned."
Arthur begins with the first Sunday of Advent and takes us through the last Sunday of Epiphany, including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the mix—18 sections in all. To make it easier on all of us, the book is organized by weeks instead of days.
She encourages the lectio divina practice to get the most out of this collection: Read the passage, meditate on it, let the text speak to you, and rest in God’s presence. What more could one ask for during an outrageously busy holiday season?
The format Arthur uses is simple but effective. Each reading begins with a prayer taken from classic authors. She then offers four Scriptures to read that relate to the timeline. Following this are excerpts and meditations by various authors, both classic and contemporary. Finally, there is a closing prayer. What makes this prayer guide so worthwhile are the excellent readings Arthur provides. Each one fits perfectly with the Scripture passages she highlights, and each one helps us focus on what is truly important this Advent season and beyond.
So how can you use this if you are a church leader? It would be an excellent guide to recommend to your congregation or to go through together as a team. You will also find it invaluable to use as a devotional during numerous events during Advent. But most of all, it will quiet your heart and bring balm to your soul in the midst of a ridiculously busy time of the year. —JoHannah Reardon, Christianity Today

For those who delight in honoring the beginning of the liturgical year and are connoisseurs of aesthetic excellence, Light upon Light will enchant and satisfy. Sarah Arthur has compiled some of the most seasonally-fitting literary excerpts from poets, novelists, and essayists. Each section – four for Advent, four for Christmas, and 10 for Epiphany – includes opening and closing prayers, scripture lessons, and a variety of readings for one’s own choosing.

In a world that encourages us to rush through the Advent and Christmas seasons, Arthur urges us to slow down through the medium of poetry and symbolically-thick essays. Leaving an entire week to read through the essays and poems and Scripture passages, Arthur reminds us through the very set-up of the book that we must sit with the words and meditate on their meaning so that they can settle into our souls. Arthur writes "So the one time of year that we are given to pause and seek the One who seeks us becomes the one time of year that drives us nearly to self-extinction. And it is this season, of any, when we are least likely to pick up a book and read." But don’t make that mistake: the book must be picked up and read, sifted through and listened to.

And after the holidays when the bustling of the season has come to an end and we are left with the greyness of January days (especially if you reside in the Midwest), the literary selections and scripture passages will give us a glimmer of the light that we long for.  The sections that help illuminate our lives will lead one through Epiphany.

The light that you will find in the book will be delivered by poets such as Scott Cairns, Li-Young Lee, Enuma Okoro, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  And if poetry is an intimidating medium, there are plenty of essayists to keep you coming back to the book week after week, including Dostoevsky, Brian Doyle, Gary Schmidt (of Calvin College), and Frederick Buechner. The compilation of authors and poets and scripture leave one feeling that there are hidden gem after hidden gem in the words offered to us in Light upon Light.  The interplay of texts inspires a variety of readings and meanings; one is left with a euphony of theological and aesthetic beauty. In the introduction, Arthur writes "Other themes emerge, there to be discovered. They may touch you on this reading; they may not…Allow them, if you will, to give the gift of themselves."

And it is absolutely true: the readings are gifts and they will give to you in abundance if you simply sit, read, and let the volume of the words touch you in the silence. —Kellan Day, editor of faith alive books




From my earliest childhood years, I have known the celebration of Advent. Sitting at my great grandmother’s antique dining table—then owned by my mother, now owned by me—I would watch as my father’s devotional words sailed through the air and amongst the candles of our Advent wreath, causing flames to squirm with the ticklings of prophecy and hope, warm wax quivering, then spilling over continuously, until over time the candle became its own strange piece of modern art sculpture. I don’t remember much from the devotions my father read each night. What I do remember were the sugar cookies we made during the pink candle week; the shapes representing some of the names of Christ: a dawning sun for The Rising Son, a resting lamb for The Lamb of God, a shepherd’s hook for The Good Shepherd, a scepter and a crown for The King of Kings. Then there was the 9x11 inch casserole pan that my mother transformed into Bethlehem: filling the bottom with sand for us to place a wooden figurine in it each night, culminating with Baby Jesus being placed in the stable between his parents on Christmas Day. But as for the devotional words, they only sounded like a Sunday morning service: serious, solid, Lutheran and…bland; a stoic marching towards the birth of Christ. These are the memories—the combination of warm light, wooden figurines and faithful marching—I hold every year on the eve of Advent. There is, on one hand, a beautiful yearning for and a comfort in revisiting the story through the tradition of a daily devotion. In the other hand, however, is a desire to journey and not to march. To discover the Savior afresh, not reread the theology of His birth. I want to approach the barn with the shepherds—in awe of this Babe that somehow is for me. And then I want to leave the scene changed, bathed in the Light. Light to pierce even my darkest nights of the coming year. In Sarah Arthur’s most recent compilation, Light Upon Light, I have found myself—quite unexpectedly—on this very journey, this Advent, Christmas, Epiphany journey. I am sitting across from Mary at the Annunciation. I am with Joseph in the barn looking upon the Child who is—but isn’t—his. I am one of the shepherds, shell-shocked and raw with personal implication, and all this from reading poetry and excerpts of well-written stories. As Arthur explains in her introduction, we often can point to that time when one moment we are living in the mundane—opening mail or pouring cereal—and the next moment we are transported by some words on a page—a poem or story—into the Light. And by those words, we are changed. It is the great mystery and gift of beautiful literature. (9) With this understanding Arthur has carefully selected and compiled a rich array of writings that, knitted together, create opportunity after opportunity for that time to present itself. Arthur does not force the reckoning, however. Her invitation into this literary way of approaching and praying through the season is quiet and unassuming. She reminds us of the natural quietness of wintertime— the opportunity for silence and meditation all around us. "And yet, crashing into the midwinter quiet comes the most frantic event of the cultural year…so the one time of year that we are given to pause and seek the One who seeks us becomes the one time of year that drives us nearly to self-extinction." (10) All this in celebration of a night that was—for the most part—silent, when the only words spoken were those of the Word. And it is through beautiful words passed from generation to generation that the darkness continues to be pierced by the light. But as our culture deepens itself into commercialization and the cheapening of our words into sentimentalities fit only for stanzas of holiday carols and greeting cards, we risk losing the eternal power of this piercing light. Unlike the hyper-brightness with which our culture tends to treat the Christmas season, Arthur invites us first into the darkness. We enter into Advent, a time of preparation and making way for the Light. But Advent itself begins in darkness, solitude, the cellar of our souls; only one candle being lit at a time: "On any other calendar there’s nothing particularly notable about [the first Sunday of Advent]. It doesn’t mark the solstice or some special phase of the moon. Rather, the Christian New Year begins on an obscure Sunday in early winter when we rise in the dark, bathe in the dark, dress and eat in the gloom of a gray dawn. It comes at a time when the Northern Hemisphere braces itself for a descent into the unlit, low-ceilinged root cellar of the year. We light a candle, peer into the hushed and cobwebbed darkness, step over the dusty detritus of old harvests. It will only get darker from here." (12) So Light upon Light begins its journey dimly lit. Each week acts much like the advent wreath, one candle at a time bringing greater illumination. Week One is titled aptly: Begin with a Change. Through six poetry selections and an excerpt from Frederick Buechner’s novel Godric, we prayerfully meditate on the promise that brings hope, the Word becoming flesh—how can it be? There is the hope of light, but our beginning is mostly darkened; only a small glimmer from our candle. Because Light Upon Light is a unique sort of guide to prayer in that it evokes poetry and story, Arthur offers lectio divina (divine reading), the ancient meditative practice for praying and meditating upon Scripture, as a method for engaging the selections prayerfully. There are four steps to the process: lectio—reading the passage; meditatio—meditating, or reading it several more times slowly; oratio— allowing the text to speak personally through its images, words, and ideas; and contemplatio— shifting focus to God and resting in His presence. Arthur is quick to recognize that the excerpts are not Scripture. But, she notes, the same principles can be well applied to poetry and novel, since Scripture is great literature as well. (15-16) Week after week we put aflame another candle, meditating and praying on literary substance. Arthur does not snub one age of poetry for another. Paul Willis and Christina Rossetti ask us to "begin with a change." Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Tania Runyan invite us into Christmas Eve and its sacred space "between darkness and light." Throughout the book, contemporaries and ancients alike share in the work of preparing our hearts for the Christ Child. What I appreciate as much as the richness of the selections is the order and the themes in which Arthur presents them. She does not minimize the times of darkness nor make chintzy the moments of light. After the slow illumination of the Advent season we are brought into the warm glow of Christ’s birth and the brief dawn of that first Christmas morn—each day given its own weeks’ worth of readings: Between Darkness and Light, and This Brief Dawn. But this is not our final destination. We cannot live forever at the scene of the nativity. There is the time between Christmas and Epiphany—Saints and Sinners, and Stunned Back to Belief—both themes forcing us to reckon with all we have just witnessed at the manger. Then Epiphany begins. Through poetry selections by Elizabeth Rooney and Gerard Manley Hopkins among others, and an excerpt from Henry Van Dyke’s "The Other Wise Man," Arthur turns our heads towards the sky to consider the message of the stars and our continued pilgrimage. For, "…it is better to follow even the shadow of the best than to remain content with the worst. And those who would see wonderful things must often be ready to travel alone" (from "The Other Wise Man" by Henry Van Dyke, 109). With that, we blow out the candles of Advent and Christmas, and turn toward the season of Epiphany–a journey of revealing. Epiphany is, says Arthur, the beginning of the shortest season called Ordinary Time. (14) To me, however, it was anything but. Who can stand to look upon the fallen nature of humanity? More than once I was loathe remaining on the road. Each week and theme drew me further into the darkness. Yet somehow—through the Spirit’s faithfulness alone—I kept in my heart that the Light has come. The hardships we face this side of eternity are not for naught. Then as carefully as we are led down into the darkest places of the cellar, readings from the final weeks of Epiphany guide us back into the light. They are the words of Luci Shaw, Scott Cairns, Walter Wangerin Jr., Synesius and others, who implore us to remember Advent. Remember Christmas. Remember the Light. Let it continue to pierce our darkness so that we can, with Synesius, proclaim: In the Father’s glory shining Jesus, Light of light art Thou; Sordid night before Thee fleeth, – On our souls Thou’rt falling now. (from "In the Father’s Glory Shining" by Synesius, 194) By the depth and quality of her selections, Sarah Arthur reveals her passion and her reverence for literature that brings light. Her introductory notes set a contemplative tone, fringed with anticipation and expectation for the reader. And she is right: I was changed by this compiled work of great literature— from the first Sunday of Advent to the final week in Epiphany. There will be some who may shrink back from this book, fearing times of frustration at not "getting" a particular poem’s meaning. But here is where Arthur’s words are reassuring and her offering the process of lectio divina a salvation to those of us who are poetry simpletons. I had a few mornings of stumbling through; fighting my own hurried nature that enjoys checking boxes and extracting bullet point insights. But I found that as I faithfully applied the steps of lectio divina, even those poems mysterious to me intellectually, became—through prayer and meditation—a field ripe with meaning, ready for my soul to harvest. Light upon Light is for all lovers of a word well spoken. It is for the pilgrim, the sojourner; for those who desire to journey toward Bethlehem rather than march. And who believe, like Sarah Arthur, that there is eternal power in great literature, power to pierce the darkness with its Spirit-infused light. —Shari Dragovich, Englewood Review of Books

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  1. Coastal Virginia
    5 Stars Out Of 5
    Light Upon Light
    January 10, 2015
    Garner Mom
    Coastal Virginia
    Quality: 5
    Value: 5
    Meets Expectations: 5
    A rich and satisfying collection of poems, prayers and short passages from literature gathered thematically with focus Scripture suggestions in weekly readings. The readings induce joy and worship as well as self examination and confession. I especially appreciate Arthur for providing what I can only describe as a survey course in Christian poetry with names familiar to me like Donne, Herbert, Chesterton, Rossetti, Milton and Shaw, and new voices like Nye, Kamienska and Cairns . There are excerpts from literature as well which has caused me to hunt down some classics and read them afresh. I highly recommend this book, as well as the Ordinary Time guide entitled At The Still Point.
  2. Warren, Maine
    Age: 45-54
    Gender: female
    5 Stars Out Of 5
    Slow Christmas
    December 15, 2014
    Michele Morin
    Warren, Maine
    Age: 45-54
    Gender: female
    Quality: 5
    Value: 5
    Meets Expectations: 5
    The problem with reviewing a book like Light Upon Light is that Sarah Arthur has done such a fine job explaining her purpose in the introduction that anything I say feels superfluous. As a guide to prayer during the season of Advent, she has compiled a rich assortment of poetry and prose from long ago and far away as well as from down the road and practically yesterday.

    Finding the works for this collection, discovering some of these authors and poets, has been like lighting one candle after another. Flame upon flame, light upon light, until the hallowed sanctuary of our quiet devotion becomes something of a shrine.

    And thats exactly how it feels to read it and savor it, day by day, through the dark of December.

    The readings are arranged into eighteen sections for four weeks of Advent, one for Christmas Eve, one for Christmas Day, two for the following Sundays, one for Epiphany and nine for the following weeks of Epiphany. Flexibility is the name of the game, so this is not another holiday straight-jacket, but, instead, a warm, comforting sweater. Each reading has a suggested prayer, a psalm and suggested Scriptures, an assortment of readings to add flame upon flame, and then a suggested closing prayer. The index of contributors is a valuable resource for further reading of favorite authors, or for answering the burning question, Who wrote these gorgeous words?

    Partake of Light Upon Light like a delectable Christmas treat. Let the words waft over you like the aroma of Christmas tea and hot cider. Slow down your Christmas and find the Holy that has been right there all along.
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