A Feature Review of
Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent
Reviewed by Emma Stencil.
Like the Lenten season before the celebration of Easter, Advent was traditionally a time of fasting and thrift within the early Christian churches. Today it should be a time to quiet one’s mind and prepare one’s body for the coming of Christ. In the celebration of Advent, we recognize the first coming of Christ as a child in a manger, visited and worshipped by shepherds and wise men. We also recognize and ponder Christ’s second coming at the Resurrection, when He will return in glory and power to save His followers and to judge His enemies. The very name of the season, “Advent,” was borrowed from the Latin word adventus, which refers to the grand ceremony in ancient Rome in which a conquering emperor was welcomed into a city as part of a military campaign. Christ’s second coming is to be the triumphant entry of the king into His transformed city. The season of Advent provides Christians with a time to ponder this great and terrible moment that all of time is racing to meet.
In Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent, author Enuma Okoro leads us through the contemplative weeks of Advent, providing daily meditations to prepare the reader for the celebration of the Nativity on Christmas Day. Okoro revisits some traditional messages and images of the Advent season, but also brings fresh perspective from an unexpected direction. She chooses to focus her meditations on the often-overlooked narrative of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the soon-to-be-parents of John the Baptist, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. We also look closely at Mary’s experience of the Annunciation and the comforting friendship she finds with Elizabeth. The book dwells on the themes of silence, stillness and attentiveness in a season of waiting; fellowship within a faithful community of believers; God’s perfect and inconvenient timing; and times of doubt without despair. Through daily meditations, Okoro invites us to journey alongside Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary, whose intimate encounters with God bring them through postures of silence, seclusion, and, ultimately, of praise and thanksgiving.
Born in the United States, Enuma Okoro nevertheless spent most of her childhood in Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and England. After receiving her Master of Divinity degree from Duke University, she began a fulfilling and diverse career as writer, speaker, and spiritual director. In 2010, Okoro co-authored the visionary Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals with Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, as well as published her own memoir Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert’s Search for Spiritual Community. In Silence, she narrows her vision to focus on the deep truth that can be gleaned from a relatively short portion of the Gospels.
The book is divided into 28 short daily meditations that provide thoughts on a particular theme inspired by that day’s readings from the Bible. The commentary is then followed by a relevant prayer that invites God to manifest those truths explored in the text. Thoughtful and effective in their simplicity, the daily sections are short enough to be easily managed in this ironically busy time of year. And although each day functions as a separate thought, the one day prepares us for the next just as each note in a symphony flows gracefully to the following one. On the last day of each week Okoro includes an invitation to reflect on the themes presented and to complete personal responses, what she calls “prayerful challenges,” which are helpful if one is using the book as a personal devotional. The back of the book provides a guide for small group leaders to help create a reverent and safe place in which people can reflect and share, and provides a structure to facilitate discussion of the text. Silence is a versatile work, easily adapted to the needs of the individual or the group. And what a gift this book would be to that committed group who pledge to spend an evening each week in reflection and in fellowship, faces lit by the warm glow of the Advent candles.
There is an unexpected and delightful emphasis on the fellowship between believers in Okoro’s Advent devotional. The idea of fellowship is often absent from our thoughts of Advent, the season of expectant waiting, of reflection on sobering truths, of reverence and stillness. But Okoro reminds us through her Bible selections and exposition that we are people in relationship. If we are experiencing doubt in God and His promised outcomes, often the best response is to share our struggles with others in the faithful community. “Advent,” Okoro reminds us, “is a fitting time to remember that we are all members of the body of Christ. Individual efforts do not sustain faith.” When we face a time of despair and emptiness, we should find encouragement in the intercession of a “believing community [that] shoulders hope when circumstances seem hopeless.”
When our patience wears thin during a time of waiting on God’s promises, simply waiting with others can make all the difference. Okoro calls our attention to a beautiful example of this in the friendship between Elizabeth and Mary. After Mary is visited by the Angel and learns of her imminent pregnancy, she goes to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, also miraculously pregnant in her old age. What might these two women have talked about during their three months together? What comfort did they draw from one another? With great insight, Okoro comments, “We should not be surprised at the divine consideration in having this young girl and this old woman wait together for the fulfillment of God’s respective words to them. God exists within a holy community, the Trinity. God’s self is a thriving community, and God created us to flourish in our interconnectedness and mutual support of one another.” Our relationships with others are often God’s way of being present with us. Of the many names given to Jesus, I find the most beautiful to be “Emmanuel,” which means “Christ with us.” The name reflects God’s promise to never leave us, to always be present. And sometimes, this promise is fulfilled in the people that God sends to be with us in our times of celebration and our times of sadness.
Enuma Okoro reminds us, along with many wise reflections, that “Advent seems as much a time to dwell in holy friendship as a time to wait on God.” As we reverently begin a new Advent season and enter a posture of waiting and reflectiveness, let us be guided by this humble devotional and its vision of thriving Christian fellowship.