Something happened.
Something happened that was so significant that every year we pause and sing songs about it, share gifts with each other and re-tell the story.
Something happened that changed everything.
Something good.
When a child is born, it’s natural for parents to be in awe — wondering who their precious baby will grow up to be. But the birth of Jesus also created a transcendent wonder that has echoed down to us through the years — wonder because of who He already was.
Whether you choose to read them during the Christmas season or throughout the year, Advent offers thirty-one reflections exploring why Jesus came and offers hope that is practical, transformative and, ultimately, good news for all people.

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It is not easy to bring freshness to the story of Jesus’ birth. Every year we relive the scenario; our children play their bit parts in the nativity play and the carols reverberate in our heads as we’ve walked through the crowded shopping malls. But Nathan Brown is a storyteller and, in his hands, this magnificent story comes to life. We enter the places, notice the presence of all the characters and feel the impact of the words as the gospels record it, as if for the first time. This is a beautiful collection. You will be drawn into the heart of incarnation—with all its earthiness, danger, inclusivity and glory.

Tim Costello, AO
Director of Ethical Voice; Executive Director of Micah Australia; Senior Fellow of Centre for Public Christianity

Feeling jaded, weary, unsure that you can face Christmas this year? This is a must read—perhaps as daily readings for December, but once you start, it is so inspiring, provoking, relevant and unique that you may want to read it all in one sitting.

Dr Peter Roennfeldt
author, Following Jesus

The Christmas story feels so familiar—the stable, the manger, the shepherds, the wise men—that meaning easily gets lost as we recite each part. Advent pulls together all the well known elements we love and invites us to refocus our attention back to the heart of Christmas to rediscover the beautiful richness of this age-old story.

Lyndelle Peterson
pastor and national ministry leader

At last, a re-telling of the story of Jesus’ birth that peels away 2000 years of added Christmas schmaltz to focus on what was really happening. Advent unwraps God’s gift of Jesus to reveal the depth and meaning of Jesus’ birth for then and for now.

Dr Bruce Manners
author, The Command

Advent is like hearing a new bell sounding for Christmas. Nathan Brown has a way of pointing out the details and joining the dots to make the big picture meaningful again. Reconnecting with this peace and hope has never been more important.

Joanna Darby
artist, teacher, author and activist

I am genuinely excited to be adding Advent to my mix of Christmas traditions, to enjoy the rich depth that Nathan Brown brings with his insights into the story, the cultural context of the time and his own travels to the places in which this beautiful story unfolds. I know so many others will embrace this book as something they want to make a part of their journey in getting to know Jesus and the story of His birth.

Joshua Stothers
pastor and podcaster, Burn the Haystack

photo of nathan brown

Meet Nathan Brown

Nathan Brown is a writer and book editor, based near Melbourne, Australia. He holds degrees in law, literature, English, writing, and theology and justice. Nathan is author or editor of 16 previous books, including Of Falafels and Following Jesus, For the Least of These, Why I Try to Believe, Do Justice and Nemesis Train (a novel). He continues to write regularly for publications around the world.

Other books by Nathan

After 30 Years

The soldiers were coming! In the early morning darkness, the parents grabbed what they could, packing as quickly and quietly as possible, not expecting they would ever be able to return. Whatever they couldn’t pack or carry would be lost and they had to carry whatever they needed to survive on the run. They had a little money and a few valuable possessions they might be able to sell but they would never receive what they were really worth. If they could make it to the border they might be safe but they couldn’t afford to stop to wonder how they might be received in the neighbouring nation.

As the husband packed their meagre possessions together, he kept urging his wife to hurry. “The soldiers are coming!” he whispered again to his already frantic wife. The infant child was wrapped to keep him warm against the cool night air and the couple did one more look around the bare room to see what they had forgotten. This was not a time for sentiment but the wife-and-mother paused for just a moment. This had been their first home as a family and she expected they would never see it again.

The village seemed unusually quiet as they stepped out the door after extinguishing the light. Sticking to the shadows, they were soon out of the village and less concerned about being quiet, more concerned about travelling as quickly as possible. By daylight, they were well away from the village but exposed to the dangers of the road. There were always those ready to take advantage of desperate travellers.

She shuddered at the thought of what might have happened if they had not been warned to leave when they did. But she was still uneasy. Was there a risk of being pursued? Had anyone seen them leave? Although her husband’s family came from this region, she had never before been this far south. How long would it take them to reach the border? Would they be safe even then? Would they ever see their home again?

Amid the uproar and outrage, the horror and the grief of the next morning, no-one noticed the sudden absence of that peasant family from up north. They were distant cousins somehow and they might have left a week ago. And if they were away from here, they were luckier than the rest of them.

After 30 years, the villagers’ memories of that time were a blur. It had been strange time. First there had been the census and the influx of visitors to the village. Then there were stories of some of the out-of-town shepherds seeing angels and awhile later a group of strange foreigners came looking for a recently born child. They seemed exotic and wealthy and quite unlike any other visitors the village could remember.

But these occurrences were all but lost in the sorrow of the morning the soldiers came and killed a generation of their children. This was still painfully clear. “Messiahs” came and went—and the people’s hopes with them—particularly in Bethlehem, which seemed to have a special place in some of the old prophecies. People were used to that. But there were not used to having their children brutally murdered.

The order from Herod had been to kill all the boys under two years old but with ruthless efficiency and the taste for blood, the soldiers were not checking carefully. In their small village, at least 20 children were dragged from their mothers’ arms, taken from their humble homes, and callously murdered that morning.

For three decades, Bethlehem had suffered the reminder of a missing generation. They had not celebrated any 30th birthdays for a couple of years now but this gap had been obvious at each stage of these missing lives. Each absent milestone was a reminder of the tragedy that had been sent to their village—and a time to mourn anew. Although dulled by the years, the grief was still real.

Today was Rachel’s particular day for grief. Her firstborn son would have been turning 30 today. He had been six days old the morning when the soldiers came. She was still considered “unclean” and had not yet left the house since giving birth. Worse, her son had not yet been named. As they had watched their newborn son with pride, Rachel and her husband had narrowed their list of ideas to three, but they had two more days before he would to be circumcised and named.

In the early morning, she had heard noise coming from the street. Numbed by the fatigue of early motherhood, she had not dragged herself from the bed to look out at what was going on. But she would barely have had time to anyway. Suddenly, the door was roughly pushed open and in a blur of violence and brutality too horrible to describe, her son was taken from her and all she could remember were her own screams.

Then her son was gone. He was never named. Three later sons used each of their shortlisted names. Now men with young families of their own, she loved them dearly—but her first-born was always absent.

That she was not alone in her sorrow offered little comfort at first. Her grief was hers alone, too raw to share. Without having properly named her son, it always seemed too difficult to talk about him. And having spent so little time with him, she had few stories to tell. Her own nine-month relationship with her son in her womb was something she was unable to talk about or even understand. There were so many why questions.

At first, she refused the comfort offered by other families but an informal “club” of the bereaved grew among those mothers over the years. It was a terrible bond but a bond no less. When they acknowledged each other in the street, there was a deeper knowing between them. At times, they remembered quietly together. And they eventually became the group of women who would work together to support a family that lost a child in some new tragedy.

But today was another day for Rachel’s own grief. Not only did she still mourn her son, she mourned not getting know him better, seeing him grow, the young man he would have become. She mourned the lost years and also the lost hope. What if one of the boys from their village had been the Messiah as the king had feared? What if it might have been her son? She hardly dared think further on this. What if the tyrant Herod had won? There was always talk of “messiahs”—but what if Israel really had lost their one true hope in that morning of murder? Would God have let that happen?

To add salt to the wound of her grief and insult to her dark reflections, there was a buzz around Bethlehem that morning about a new teacher—undoubtedly, another possible “messiah”—who was attracting some attention and was said to be coming through their village. Being so close to Jerusalem, they heard most of the stories of new teachers and potential messiahs, but this man was becoming known for being able to work miracles and part of the interest in his rumoured visit to their village focused on this. It seemed there was a possibility of a miracle today. The village waited with excitement.

Mary had told Jesus the stories of Bethlehem many times but, when He turned 12, she told Him the story of their escape from Bethlehem in the early morning darkness and the massacre that happened behind them. She told the story with a heavy heart, remembering Simeon’s warnings to her, but also recognising the duty placed on her by the first angel announcing her miraculous child. “Highly favoured,” perhaps, but also seriously burdened with an awesome responsibility.

It was a key moment in Jesus’ understanding of His identity and His mission. This story cemented His growing and sobering realisation that He must be “about His Father’s business,” the explanation He gave for His three-day disappearance at the temple in Jerusalem later that same year. While it would be years before He became publicly known as a teacher and possible messiah, Mary’s telling of this story worked in His heart and mind like a carpenter’s splinter.

It was a bitter irony that the tragedy that had visited Bethlehem was not because of the people’s godlessness, as some would allege, or because of God’s indifferent absence, as so many more would argue with their desperate question, “Where was God?” Instead, this horrific crime came about precisely because of His presence. This troubled Him deeply.

In His first major public sermon, He referenced this story at the climax of His list of those who are “blessed” in the kingdom of heaven: “Blessed are those who suffer because of Me.” Even before He was conscious of His identity—either His humanity or His divinity—there were those who had suffered because of Him. It broke His heart and, more so, as He imagined the countless more who would suffer in so many different ways “because of Him” or “for His sake.” Somehow they must be “blessed.”

So His journeying took Him to Bethlehem. He could hardly stay away. It was becoming more difficult for Him around Jerusalem and He expected He would soon focus His ministry around Galilee, away from the dangerous crowds and politics of the city. But first He wanted to visit the village of His birth that had featured in so many of Mary’s special stories, as well as being so significant in the history of the Hebrew people. Not knowing quite what He would find there, He suspected He would not be able to ignore the darker, more troubling story of His family’s escape on the eve of the darkest day in Bethlehem’s history.

As news of His soon arrival spread through the village, Rachel joined the small crowd in the marketplace who were curious to see this teacher and supposed miracle worker. It seemed a good distraction from her dominant thoughts of the day and she was as curious as anyone. The market was winding down after the morning’s trade and she stood under the shade of a small tree with a group of “the mothers.”

The crowd accompanying this teacher was a strange assortment but, judging from their accents, they were mostly Galileans and mostly uneducated, which was strange for a teacher and his disciples. Almost all of them were dressed as common people, unwashed and dusty from the road. There was nothing to distinguish their teacher from the rest of the crowd except for the attention directed toward the one they called Jesus.

For a teacher rapidly becoming famous, she was surprised that He seemed so young, maybe about . . . 30. He could . . . he could have been her son.

As they came to the marketplace, the local villagers were subsumed into the travelling crowd and the group came to a halt as Jesus turned to speak directly to the informal gathering. Rachel and the other women stayed in their shade and a step removed from the group but could hear what was said.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus began. His followers’ response suggested they recognised a message they had heard a number of times before.

“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.”

Eventually, perhaps, thought Rachel bitterly. The teacher had hit a sensitive spot, especially today. She had spent so long refusing to be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth,” Jesus continued, pausing after each statement to allow responses.

“Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” A few villagers were still arriving but the marketplace had grown quiet as the teacher’s voice hung in the warm afternoon air.

“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.”

Rachel could sense the grandeur of what this Jesus was saying. He was describing a way of living and measuring life that seemed so different from what she experienced. She looked around her. For the most part, these were the poor, the mourning, the meek, even the hungry sometimes.

She had tuned out for a moment but Jesus caught her attention again.

“Blessed are those who suffer because of Me”—and then He caught her eye, looking directly at her, under the tree.

It was as if He saw her 30-year-old pain. She held her breath, as He stepped toward her and the crowd opened before Him. A murmur went through the crowd, unsure why Jesus had picked out Rachel, not knowing or remembering the significance of this date.

Then He was standing before her, like the son she had never known. “Blessed are those who suffer because of Me,” He repeated quietly.

“What . . . what do you mean?” Rachel asked, her hurt wrestling with her confusion. “I have suffered—as have many here—but not ‘because of you’ . . .”

“The Son of Man is a son of Bethlehem,” Jesus said.

“But all the stories say you are from Galilee, from Nazareth?” a bystander interjected.

“The Son of Man is also a son of Bethlehem,” Jesus repeated, still focussed on Rachel. “I was born here. My mother told me the story of how my family left Bethlehem after being warned that King Herod was trying to kill Me. My mother and Joseph had no idea how Herod would do that—or they would have warned everyone.”

“Why . . . ?” Rachel began to ask the countless questions that had haunted her for 30 years but stopped as tears filled her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Jesus said to her with a sincerity that could not be doubted and somehow an authority that seemed enough.

For a few agonising moments, Rachel continued to sob. And Jesus wept.

Then God hugged Rachel until their tears subsided and she and Jesus were silent together under that tree in the village marketplace, as the crowd looked on with a strange sense of impromptu road-side reverence.

And, after 30 years, she was comforted.

31 Days of Christmas

Review of Advent by Lee Dunstan

I love Christmas, and opening Nathan Brown’s latest book, reading each page, is like opening a carefully wrapped Christmas present, undoing the gift card attached with ribbon and bow, folding back the bright cellophane wrapping and lifting the lid off a curious little box containing the Gift itself. The gift in this case, is, of course, the Christ.

In Advent: Hearing the Good News in the Story of Jesus’ Birth, Nathan, a former Signs editor and colleague (so I’ll call him by his first name), embroiders the warp and weave of the nativity story with personal anecdote and experience to produce what is among his best books to date. It is creative in both content and structure, it has a point to make and a clear purpose, takes us by surprise along the way, reveals something that is new, and is constant and undeviating in its advent theme. Which, repeated numerous times, is clearly this: What happened at Christmas all those 2000-and-something years ago in an insignificant town of Palestine that holds such significance for today and the future? It’s around this theme that a cast of Advent characters, a wide range of Christian concepts and some deceptively deep theology circulate.

But what’s in for me (and you)?

Well, a lot as it turns out. And especially so if, like me, you’re something of a Christmasphile (is that a thing?) and looking for something about Christmas that is a little more worthwhile than a mere summer “good read”.

Like those “12 Days of Christmas” about which we sing without any idea of their meaning, Advent is a structured on the 31 days of Christmas, an evenly paced, evenly spaced introduction to the story of Jesus’ birth, the hinge of history. Advent mimics the structure, giving a rhythmic four pages of content per chapter across the 31 days of December. It is possibly unique in this, but you needn’t take a month to read it, devoting 10 minutes a day. Rather, you might simply devour it in a single sitting for, despite its breadth and depth, it is eminently readable and, unlike your heavy Christmas dinner, it’s completely digestible in small bites, even for those with little biblical knowledge, seeking to establish what actually happened at Christmas, and why.

That is not say that Advent is a superficial read; its brevity (four pages per chapter) and overall economy (just 131 pages), contain some very deep concepts, but they’re depths that are easily plumbed given Nathan’s facility with words and ideas. The chapter titles spell what those bite-sized pieces are—the familiar Christmas themes of “Peace”, “Love” and “Lowly”; “(Good) News” and “Glory”; climaxing on Day 25 with “Joy” and ending a few chapters on with “Hope”.

Each of these ideas is gently teased out, illustrated and supported, taking in the long historical arcs of the Old and New Testament timelines, from prophecy to present, along the way dispelling the myths, discarding the fake and the fables, and highlighting the real Jesus.

Assisting Nathan is his personal experiences of his three visits to the Holy Land, acknowledging a cynical predisposition that caused him to doubt the point of such, and admitting a change of attitude that resulted from his experiences there. Having been there a couple of times myself, I understand this completely. It wasn’t so much the veracity of the sites but the stories, he says, that gave him the perspective from which he penned much of Advent, the Shepherds Field outside of Bethlehem, for example, and which adds immeasurably to one’s understanding of the advent story. It is this the wider context of the advent that he presents, along with its unlikely cast of characters, main and supporting. These include the usual Christmas pantomime personalities of King Herod, the Magi, the shepherds, prophets and priests, Joseph and Mary of course, and a cameo by her cousin Elizabeth.

And it’s to the story of what happened at Christmas that Advent returns time and again. Everyone knows that “something happened”, but exactly what is the question that Advent answers. And apparently, it’s a lot more than you (and I) thought, convincingly presented, annotated and documented by commentators, ancient and modern, biblical and beyond, among them some of Nathans’ favourite authors. One that caught me was a humorous anecdote from C S Lewis’s life, its humour I found particularly appealing, who overheard a woman on bus exclaim upon passing by a Nativity scene in front of a church: “Oh Lor’! They bring religion into everything. Look‚ they’re dragging it even into Christmas now!” It’s such ignorance that Nathan works hard to dispel.

What do we learn from Advent that’s new? That will depend on where you are in your journey of faith. And were I to tell you, then there’d be little point in your reading it for yourself. But there’s plenty.

Did Advent contain any surprises? Well, yes. I was taken by Nathan’s common touch, as he is more often a quite a serious and analytical writer, which is what I was expecting to find. It is the absence of the abstract and “cerebral” and the presence of its everyday language and concrete real-life illustrations that help make it so readable. Personally, I found it delightful, informative and interesting from beginning to end. I love the narrative in literature, moving along a timeline, with the ultimate resolution of a seemingly intractable problem by or for a person (in this case our world) at its climax and conclusion.

But will it touch your heart? Is it likely to change you, or at least how you think about Christmas? Of course. The story of Jesus’ birth and death (the latter explored in the post-Christmas chapters of Advent) cannot help but do so—if you’ll let it. After all, it is the Greatest Story ever told.

Lee Dunstan served as editor of Signs of the Times for 25 years between 1993 to 2018. He currently heads up Christian Services for the Blind and Hearing Impaired.

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