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
SAINT NICHOLAS: The Story of the Real Santa Claus, retold by Mary
Joslin, illustrated by Helen Cann.
Pauline Books & Media. 24 pp.
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
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
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
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
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.
You can order THE LIGHT OF CHRISTMAS, THE VISIT OF THE WISE MEN, WHAT HAPPENED TO MERRY CHRISTMAS?, MAKE YOUR OWN CHRISTMAS NATIVITY, JESSE TREE KIT: An Advent Project for Family,Classroom, or Parish, SAINT NICHOLAS: The Story of the Real Santa Claus and THE LULLABY SHEPHERDS from St.
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.,
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
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
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
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!
You can order THE BAD CATHOLIC'S GUIDE TO GOOD LIVING and THE BAD CATHOLIC'S GUIDE TO WINE, WHISKEY & SONG from St. Francis Bookshop.
CHRISTMAS LIGHTS: A Novel, by
Christine Pisera Naman. Doubleday.
122 pp. $14.95.
THE NATIVITY: History & Legend, by Geza Vermes. Doubleday. 192 pp.
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
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
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
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
“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’
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.
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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.