Advent in Plain Sight

Beth Waltemath reviews Jill Duffield's new book.

Jill J. Duffield
Westminster John Knox, 174 pages | September 14, 2021

Advent is the season for anticipation, but it can be hard to garner the attention of the average church-goer for another round of waiting and wondering what will come when Christmas arrives. Like many of our favorite holidays and most celebrated liturgical seasons, Advent themes often feel predictable.

Jill J. Duffield, former Outlook editor and author of “Lent in Plain Sight,” has taken an original approach to the harried but humdrum holidays by focusing not on additional spiritual practices nor on elusive virtues like hope, peace, love and joy, but on everyday objects. In “Advent in Plain Sight” Duffield selects Bible passages that feature each object, bridging the gap between the mundane and the sacred. She explains: “We lose sight of the holy in our midst, distracted by commercialism or an unexamined sense of what the season is supposed to entail.” Duffield does not seek to add to our plate with more decorations and rituals for us to attempt (and forget to sustain). Instead, she invites us to have “the eyes to see and the ears to hear the holy in the middle of the daily.”

The objects – gates, tears, belts, trees, hearts and gold – and the Scripture associated with them freshen up the season by adding beauty and context to Christ’s birth narrative and the whole of salvation history. Duffield illustrates how – from Genesis to Acts – faithful seekers enter gates to reach heaven, to achieve righteousness, to worship, to meditate on the word, to seek mercy at the feet of beauty and to be nearer to God. This book is for the person who wants to attend to the season not with many things but just one, precious thing: a regular time of reflection that will cast a lingering light on whatever they notice throughout the day.

A few years ago, our church introduced objects to enhance the Advent journey, building on the chancel a progressive art installation, developing our theme over four weeks. When we imagined the story of the holy family’s immigration, we built a full-size door and hung the frame with lanterns to convey the realities of how we do (or do not) welcome others in our midst. The effect was similar to Duffield’s intentions as she plumbs the interplay of objects, Scripture and reflection on contemporary realities. The door magnified all the other doors I opened each week; that simple act of opening what was at first closed invited me into a deeper understanding of what was (and was not) welcome in my life, heart and spirit.

I recommend not just Duffield’s book but her devotional approach through choosing objects as a portal in personal reflection or corporate worship to make the words of Scripture and the workings of the Holy Spirit more tangible in our everyday encounters. For who knows? Perhaps our encounters with common gates or precious tears might be the threshold we’ve been waiting to cross in Advent — the one where, on the other side, the incarnation becomes real to us again.

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