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Focusing Children on Heart of Christmas


JESSE TREE KIT: An Advent Project for Family, Classroom, or Parish
SAINT NICHOLAS: The Story of the Real Santa Claus
THE NATIVITY: History & Legend
THE ESSENTIAL POPE BENEDICT XVI: His Central Writings and Speeches
The Perennial Merton

THE LIGHT OF CHRISTMAS, by Dandi Daley Mackall, illustrated by John Walker. Concordia Publishing House. 28 pp. $14.99.

THE VISIT OF THE WISE MEN, by Martha Jander, with illustrations by Lin Wang. Concordia Publishing House. 28 pp. $14.99.

WHAT HAPPENED TO MERRY CHRISTMAS?, by Robert C. Baker, art by Dave Hill. Concordia Publishing House. 28 pp. $14.99.

MAKE YOUR OWN CHRISTMAS NATIVITY, by Clare Beaton. Pauline Books & Media. 16 pp. $8.95.

JESSE TREE KIT: An Advent Project for Family, Classroom, or Parish, by Lynn Simms and Betsy Walter. Pauline Books & Media. 24 pp., plus poster. $10.95.

SAINT NICHOLAS: The Story of the Real Santa Claus, retold by Mary Joslin, illustrated by Helen Cann. Pauline Books & Media. 24 pp. $14.95.

THE LULLABY SHEPHERDS, story and pictures by Barbara Eisenhardt. Wren House Publishing. 32 pp. $16.95.

Reviewed by BARBARA BECKWITH, book review editor of this publication.

THESE LOVELY OVERSIZE books and activity kits aim to focus children on the heart of Christmas.

The Light of Christmas, with realistic art, explores why we have lights on our Christmas trees, relating them to Jesus our light. Starting with the creation of light in Genesis, Dandi Daley Mackall emphasizes the uses of light in the Christmas story and then later in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

The Visit of the Wise Men uses rhymed text and more romantic art and Orientaldesign endpapers. It tells the tale of “some thinkers—very wise—who studied the starry skies” (thus avoiding the question of whether they were astronomers or astrologers). It also wisely avoids the slaughter of the innocents.

What Happened to Merry Christmas? tackles the problem of eliminating the idea of Christmas from the holiday, to accommodate better Jewish, Muslim and Baha’i sensibilities in our American public schools and society.

Here a mother explains to her worried son that the Christmas part of our celebration comes from Christians reading into the symbols of the season the religious message we want them to have. Christians can see Christmas everywhere.

I suspect, though, that more Christian adults than children struggle with this change in our culture and see it leading to further secularization.

Activity books, like the fourth and fifth offerings here, are do-it-yourself projects that teach and keep little hands busy. Make Your Own Christmas Nativity contains a cover and center color pages that can be used to create the stable and background, 15 Nativity figures for children to color and cut out, templates and instructions for making a treetop angel and a 12-pointed star, and six pages with the Nativity story. It also has a glossary of words, like manger, that may puzzle young children.

Another activity book focuses on the Advent tradition of the Jesse Tree. The kit features 28 pre-drawn ornaments of figures and symbols from salvation history (which children can color), Scripture verses to accompany each ornament, options for using a real tree branch or a poster to display the ornaments, and a suggested Jesse Tree prayer service.

The sixth book retells the real story of the origins of Santa Claus in Myra, now in Turkey. When Bishop Nicholas attends a lavish wedding and is given some coins, he passes them on to three poor girls who might otherwise not have a dowry and so would be unable to marry. According to this version, he throws the coins down the chimney of the family home, and some land in the stockings hanging by the fire. Helen Cann’s soft watercolors and Turkish motifs complement the text well.

The final book is the story of Italian shepherd boys in the 1900s who must take their family’s flocks high into the mountains for greener meadows during summers of drought. They spend the long months creating beautiful songs about Mary and her child. And when they return with plump sheep in the fall, they sing their lullabies to the villagers, touching “the hearts of all those who listened.”

Even the sheep in these tender, colorful illustrations have sweet faces. The book’s only flaw is that it lacks an example of one of these lullabies. The story is based on the experiences of the grandfather of the author’s husband.



THE BAD CATHOLIC'S GUIDE TO GOOD LIVING and THE BAD CATHOLIC'S GUIDE TO WINE, WHISKEY & SONG, by John Zmirak and Denise Matychowiak. The Crossroad Publishing Co. 232 pp. and 414 pp., respectively. $14.95.

Reviewed by JOHN F. FINK, veteran Catholic journalist and author of books on saints and Catholic history.

ON PAGE 115 of the second of these books, the authors tell us that the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., refuses to sell their books because they’re “tasteless.” They aren’t kidding. I’d also use the adjectives crude, sophomoric and risqué.

But they’re also funny, cleverly written and packed with information about the Catholic Church that you’re not likely to find elsewhere.

Crossroad published The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living in 2005. Its apparent success led to The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey & Song as a sequel.

The publisher describes the first book as “a loving look at the lighter side of the Catholic Faith, with recipes for feasts and fun.” You’d better be able to laugh at some parts of Catholicism if you’re going to read this book.

It’s a trip through the liturgical calendar, more or less, with stories about some of the saints—some well-known and some obscure. (Yes, St. Anthony of Padua is included on June 13 and St. Francis of Assisi on Oct. 4.)

One coauthor, a cook and pastry chef, includes recipes families can use when celebrating feast days. (How many people, though, would really serve bunny fricassee for Easter?) There are also suggestions for parties. If anyone were to follow all the suggestions, they could be sure to get a reputation as “that crazy family down the block.”

Occasionally, the book is serious and teaches the reader about Church teachings—including sections on each of the seven sacraments.

The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whiskey & Song is described as “an exploration of the beers, wines, and liquors of the world from Absinthe to Zinfandel, and how many of them were invented by monks or are made by nuns.” This book, too, has recipes and suggestions for drinking games.

I suspect, though, that readers who expect the sequel to be just like the first book will be disappointed. It’s a much heftier book, both in the number of pages and in content. It still has some of the irreverence of the first volume, but not quite the bad taste—usually. Discussion of wines and whiskeys invented by monks (and friars) is only the starting point for lengthy, but witty, essays on aspects of Catholic doctrine or history.

The book is divided alphabetically, but the authors are quite liberal in what they include under each letter. Under “I,” for example, they begin with “Infusion” so they can write about the theological and cardinal virtues. Irish Cream provides the opportunity to write about the problems the Irish had in America and their champion, Archbishop John Hughes.

French beers with the picture of St. Joan of Arc on them offer the chance to devote five pages to that saint. Opus Dei gets seven pages, in which the authors make fun of Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code while telling what Opus Dei really is—and how it differs from the expensive wine Opus One.

When it comes to growing grapes and making wines, it appears that the Benedictine monks have the edge, but the book does include vineyards tended by Franciscans, both in Europe and formerly in Napa Valley, California.

Scattered through the book are essays on what the authors call “loopholes in the Ten Commandments,” all quite orthodox but written with considerable humor. As for the “Song” in the title, there are 10 drinking songs, along with their backgrounds—although I’d never before thought of “Faith of Our Fathers” as a drinking song.

In this book about booze, there’s also an essay on temperance and another on “Tipsiness vs. Drunkenness”—how to discern the line between wine’s use (which Catholic doctrine sees as good) and abuse (which is bad).

If only all religion and history books were written with such wit!



CHRISTMAS LIGHTS: A Novel, by Christine Pisera Naman. Doubleday. 122 pp. $14.95.

THE NATIVITY: History & Legend, by Geza Vermes. Doubleday. 192 pp. $17.95.

Reviewed by CHRISTOPHER HEFFRON, an assistant editor of this publication.

NOT TO BE a cynic, but for many people the season of Christmas seems less about “peace and good will,” and more about overspending, overextending and overeating. In a largely consumerist culture, the holidays often mean sharing mall space with strangers more than sharing time with loved ones.

But every once in a while something reminds us of what Christmas is about.

Doubleday brings us two vastly different books which focus on the Christmas season. Christine Pisera Naman, author of Christmas Lights: A Novel, tackles the intricacies of interpersonal relationships amidst the stresses of the holidays. And in The Nativity: History & Legend, author Geza Vermes deconstructs important moments surrounding the conception and birth of the Christ child.

Naman’s book may involve the busy, funny and unpredictable lives of seven women, but their stories are not entirely gender-specific. Each of us can relate.

In these heartwarming vignettes, we meet Katherine, wrestling with the pain of caring for her dementia-stricken husband; Julianna, in a classroom surrounded by a sea of rambunctious children; Adrianna, a wife in a strained marriage; Cassandra, a mother trying to keep her head above water; Victoria, battling loneliness and a preachy mother; Alexandra, surviving the terrifying hours as she waits to hear from her doctor; and Isabella, realizing the joys of being a mother.

Naman’s gift as a writer stems from her deft ability to convey to the reader her characters’ inner lives. Only a handful of pages are given for each character, yet the author’s presentation of them is so grounded, so earthy, so attainable that only the most hardened reader will be unmoved.

Christmas Lights may be a work of fiction, but there’s nothing fictitious about these seven flawed but faith-filled women: They are your neighbors, your colleagues, your sisters, your friends. Naman’s book should be kept close during the month of December to ward off holiday disenchantment.

Geza Vermes’s The Nativity: History & Legend is a fascinating, if highly academic, rediscovery of the Nativity scene. Perhaps the most beloved moment in the New Testament, the iconic Nativity story is turned on its head by Vermes. Beware: The author makes some controversial suggestions, namely that the Nativity weaves together fact and legend.

For example, the author asserts that Jesus was probably not born on December 25; there is no evidence that he ever shared a stable with animals; and Joseph may not have been an old man.

Vermes, a professor emeritus of Jewish studies at Oxford University and a well-known authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls and on Judaism at the time of Jesus, takes another controversial step: He suggests that the Virgin Mary may not have been a virgin.

“After closer inspection the case is less clear-cut than it seems,” Vermes writes. “In fact, it is quite equivocal. For contrary to Matthew, Luke never expressly declares that between the annunciation and the birth of Jesus, Joseph abstained from ‘knowing’ Mary.”

The Nativity: History & Legend is an interesting, skillfully researched book, but it’s hardly a leisurely winter read and best read in increments. But its respectful handling of some controversial ideas will likely have you picking it back up for a sporadic glimpse into what might have been.

Startling claims aside, Vermes believes that Christmas is a holy time of the year, but one that demands closer analysis. ’Tis the season for rediscovery.

You can order CHRISTMAS LIGHTS: A Novel and THE NATIVITY: History & Legend from St. Francis Bookshop.


THE MANY MARKS OF THE CHURCH, by William Madges and Michael J. Daley, editors. Twenty-Third Publications. 232 pp. $24.95.

Reviewed by NORMAN LANGENBRUNNER, a pastor and former high school teacher in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, and mission presenter for Desales Resources and Ministries, Stella Niagara, New York.

SINCE THE COUNCIL of Constantinople in 381, the Church has described itself as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” These characteristics are considered essential marks of the true Church established by Jesus Christ. Every Sunday at Mass, Catholics worldwide profess in the words of the creed their belief “in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”

William Madges and Michael Daley, however, suggest that there are (or should be) many more characteristics of Christ’s Church. Calling on a litany of Church leaders, teachers and theologians, the two editors solicited descriptions about the four classical marks, plus essays on three dozen additional “marks of the Church.”

Many of the essayists are well-known in American Catholicism, including Michael Novak, Cardinal Avery Dulles, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Sister Dianne Bergant, C.S.A., and Father Richard McBrien.

Some of the contributors were chosen because of their long-standing passion for specific ministries or because of their promotion of ongoing reforms in the post-Vatican II Church.

Leonard Swidler, founder of the Association for Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARCC), urges Catholics to recognize that “throughout its history the Catholic Church has been a kind of ‘limited democracy,’” as in the ancient practice of local communities selecting their own bishop. In addition, he recalls that Pope Paul VI set up a commission to develop a constitution for the Catholic Church, but Pope John Paul II canceled the effort.

Dolores Leckey, the first director of the Secretariat for the Laity established by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1977, thinks that one of the obvious marks of the Church is “the lay faithful.” She recalls Cardinal John Henry Newman’s remark when he was urging the importance of consulting the laity in matters of doctrine. He made the wry observation, “The Church would look rather silly without them.” At Vatican II the laity were solemnly recognized as a constitutive element in the mission of the Church.

The editors explain that they want to offer “a picture of the Church that is broad, inclusive, and relevant to our situation in the 21st century.”

They propose that the real Church will stand out because it is suffering, sacramental, priestly, prayerful, intellectual, charismatic, biblical, courageous and even medieval.

The essays are of uneven quality as the variety of authors and topics might suggest. Tim Unsworth’s effort to show that the Church is humorous (he implies that Catholics need a sense of humor to cope successfully with the foibles of Church leaders) is less convincing than Michael Himes’s examination of the Church as conciliar (he argues that the coming together of the Church in councils is necessary for the fulfillment of the Church’s mission).

Other essays address contemporary concerns, such as the Church’s role in immigration, ecology, nonviolence and sexuality. Charles Curran insists that “sinfulness is the fifth mark of the Church.” He recalls Pope John Paul’s carefully worded apology in 2000, which acknowledged sins committed by Church members, though the pope avoided saying “sins of the Church.” Curran admits that Pope John Paul would not have accepted sinfulness as a mark of the Church but, as Curran reminds readers, according to the old axiom, the Church is ecclesia semper reformanda—always in need of reform.

Madges and Daley’s project provides an excellent resource for discussion groups and for Catholics who seek a summary of contemporary understanding of the Church.

You can order THE MANY MARKS OF THE CHURCH from St. Francis Bookshop.


THE ESSENTIAL POPE BENEDICT XVI: His Central Writings and Speeches, edited by John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne. Introduction by D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D. HarperSanFrancisco. 464 pp. $27.95.

Reviewed by PAT McCLOSKEY, O.F.M., editor of this publication. During his six years of working as the director of communications at the worldwide headquarters of the Order of Friars Minor, he heard Cardinal Ratzinger speak several times.

A VERY VALUABLE book, The Essential Pope Benedict XVI presents key texts from the pope in conversational style. But it is also an incomplete book because the editors chose not to date 20 of these writings or indicate the audiences for which they were originally intended.

In the Preface, editors Thornton and Varenne write, “Our primary goal was to produce in broad strokes, through his own words, a portrait of the man who is now leading a billion Roman Catholics worldwide into the new century and who is ex officio as well as personally of considerable interest to his constituents.”

Father Twomey, one of Ratzinger’s former doctoral students, opens the 20-page Introduction with these words: “Joseph Ratzinger is, to the best of my knowledge, the first academic theologian in two centuries to fill the Shoes of the Fisherman, just as his immediate predecessor was the first professional philosopher ever to do so.”

Twomey emphasizes Ratzinger’s great respect for the history of the questions addressed in these writings and his willingness to listen to many speakers seeking to explain an issue because he believes truth is discovered, not created. Although Twomey says that Ratzinger has written 86 books, 471 articles or prefaces, and made 32 contributions to various encyclopedias and dictionaries, Ratzinger never set out to create a system or a “school of thought.”

This volume presents 40 writings, most between 1966 and 2005. All but three predate his election as pope on April 19, 2005. They are organized around eight themes (homilies and addresses, Church, liturgy, theology, Scripture, priesthood, Christian morality and the entire text of God Is Love, his first encyclical).

Readers may expect Ratzinger to quote the Church’s greatest thinkers (and he does), but he also cites, among others, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rudolph Bultmann, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Eugene Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone Weil. He mentions artwork by Andrei Rublev and Matthias Grunewald, and a Leonard Bernstein concert that he attended.

One example of the book’s conversational style occurs in “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty,” his 2002 message to the annual Communion and Liberation meeting in Rimini, Italy. Cardinal Ratzinger writes, “Nothing can bring us into close contact with the beauty of Christ himself other than the world of beauty created by faith and light that shines out from the faces of the saints, through whom his own light becomes visible.”

My major complaint about this volume is that the editors chose to be incomplete in two vital areas of dating and audience. The editors write, “We decided against opening every selection with an account of the item’s original context or with a surmise of Benedict’s intentions in composing it.” I agree that readers do not need any editorial surmising about Benedict’s intentions, but dates of publication would have been very appropriate.

There is an editing problem with Chapter 25 (“Liberation Theology”). The Ratzinger Report, from which this text is taken, shows that Chapter 25 is partly from Cardinal Ratzinger but also partly from the 1984 Instruction Concerning Certain Aspects of Liberation Theology, a document of which he is not the sole author.

Helpful features include a five-page chronology of his life, 19 pages of endnotes, three pages of bibliography by and about Ratzinger, a seven-page index and four pages of acknowledgments.

You can order THE ESSENTIAL POPE BENEDICT XVI: His Central Writings and Speeches from St. Francis Bookshop.



The Perennial Merton

Thirty-nine years ago this month, the famous Trappist monk died, but his words continue to be published and spark fruitful reflection.

PASSION FOR PEACE: Reflections on War and Nonviolence, by Thomas Merton, edited and with an Introduction by William H. Shannon (The Crossroad Publishing Company, 174 pp., $14.95), is an abridged version of Passion for Peace: The Social Essays. It contains Merton’s insights into the nature of violence, war and terrorism. The words may have been written during the Cold War and the Vietnam War, but they’ve never been timelier.

BRIDGES TO CONTEMPLATIVE LIVING WITH THOMAS MERTON: One: Entering the School of Your Experience, and Two: Becoming Who You Already Are, edited by Jonathon Montaldo and Robert G. Toth of the Thomas Merton Foundation (Ave Maria Press, 64 pp., $5.95), are two of eight booklets in a series intended for anyone seeking to live more contemplatively. Each session is structured for group use. It aims to provoke “listening” dialogue.

ECHOING SILENCE: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing, edited by Robert Inchausti (New Seeds Books/Shambhala Publications, 215 pp., $14, U.S.; $18, Canada), contains Merton’s thoughts on the interplay between writing and faith, culled from his books, essays, journals and letters. He even evaluates his own work and has advice for other writers.

Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 8621 Winton Road, Cincinnati, OH 45231, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling, $2 more for each additional book. Ohio residents should also add 6.5 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.

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