For the past few years, I’ve read through an Advent devotional during this time of contemplation that begins quietly in late November or early December, and carries us on silent wings through Christmas Eve. This year, a new title caught my attention: Christmas in the Four Gospel Homes: An Advent Study.
When I opened it on December 2, the first day of Advent this year, I had every intention of reading a bit each day. I was, however, immediately enchanted by the premise and found myself reading the whole thing in one sitting. A small volume at only 106 pages, this was not a difficult feat.
“How might a house look for Christmas based on what each Gospel says about it?” is the question this little book poses. Author Cynthia M. Campbell, along with artist Kevin Burns, brings us into the imagined homes of the four gospel writers for a unique celebration of the Messiah’s birth, life, and sacrifice.
We begin with Mark who “lives in a spare, simple home…His house has just what it needs and not much more: a door, a couple of windows, a chimney,” writes Campbell (1). There is not much of a Christmas celebration here — no decorations or holiday cheer. Why is that, we may ask? To which Campbell answers, “Christmas stories are left on the cutting room floor because they don’t serve Mark’s purposes. Mark knows (and tells us in his opening words) that Jesus is the Son of God. He doesn’t need stories of a miraculous or mysterious birth to ‘prove’ that” (5). Campbell continues,
“Old-time Christmas nostalgia doesn’t insulate us from a broken and fearful world. Hope is what we need, but as Cousin Mark reminds us, hope is to be found in the manger only because it is found first on the cross. The hope that Mark offers is not in spite of suffering; it is hope that has been through suffering and emerged on the other side. From the very beginning of this fast-paced Gospel story, we know that Jesus is headed toward his death” (8).
We continue on to Matthew’s house, which Campbell and Burns imagine as a stately, sprawling Victorian, full of family photos and bursting with history. Where does each gospel writer begin the story of Jesus, asks Campbell. For Matthew, “the beginning (the genesis) of the good news is Abraham” (15).
“We may think that Matthew is just ‘proof-texting,” writes Campbell,
“that is, citing these ancient stories as a way to lend legitimacy to the story of Jesus. But Matthew’s point is much subtler than that. He is not trying to prove a point as much as he is attempting to show the deep relationship between the story of Jesus and the story of Israel. He is embedding Jesus in the religious heritage of his audience” (17-18).
Campbell also notes that included in Matthew’s version, are people not usually mentioned — the women in Jesus’ ancestral lineage, and “outsiders,” the magi, who were more likely astrologers than kings. “…theologically, their ideas had no place in the thought-world of Israel,” says Campbell (20). And yet, they are welcome here, in Matthew’s house. “Their tradition is different, but their goal is to bring their offerings and to bow in wonder” (18). Indeed, in Matthew's house, there is room for everyone, and everyone is family.
The envisioning of Luke’s house was my favorite to read about. Burns’ illustration is an instantly inviting farmhouse, complete with wraparound porch, children playing together in the yard, and a variety of curious farm animals milling about, including a dog, lamb, and even a llama.
Luke’s house, says Campbell, is fully decorated for Christmas. “At Christmas time, Luke’s place is decorated within an inch of its life…. Christmas at Luke’s house is just what we all want most: beauty and joy and peace” (25-26). To accomplish this, Luke begins Jesus’ story by orienting his readers not just in time and place, but theologically and politically as well. Everyone — from the angels to Zechariah to Mary, the mother of Jesus — is proclaiming who God really is, at a time when emperors and kings were claiming the son of God title for themselves. The angels tell us this title belongs to this newborn child; Mary sings of a God who lifts up the lowly and fills the bellies of the hungry, while turning the rich away unsatisfied; Zechariah tells of a God who will bring redemption to his people, and “one who will bring light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death” (32).
At Luke’s house, Campbell concludes, “we see with the eyes of faith and (God willing) we shape our lives accordingly” (34).
Finally, we come to John’s house. “The first problem in visiting John’s house is finding the house itself,” writes Campbell.
“The directions are a little sketchy. The house, you see, is set far off the main road. Once you find the driveway, you wind down a long, dark road, trees pressing in on both sides. Just when you think you’re completely lost, you round a curve, go up a hill, and there it is — a fabulous home that looks as if it is made out of light, a light that shines in the deep darkness” (39).
John’s gospel is all about the light that shines through the darkness, giving life to all it touches, restoring the broken and hurting to “the beautiful and loving people we are meant to be” (43).
Included in the book, along with Campbell’s devotionals, are thoughts from artist Kevin Burns, who is an architect and Bible teacher. It is a rare book, indeed, that includes the artist’s words, and I appreciated learning about Burns’ thoughts on why he crafted each gospel house the way he did.
The book closes with prayers and questions for reflections, as well as ideas for group study for anyone who wants to use the book in that way.
This was a lovely little book to read during Advent and for visual learners like myself, imagining the gospel narratives as distinct homes has helped to bring the Christ story to life in a whole new way for me.
Alisa Williams is managing editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.
Book cover image courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press.
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