An Earthy Path Towards Christmas
A Feature Review of
Expecting Emmanuel: Eight Women Who Prepare the Way
Paperback: Herald Press, 2022
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Reviewed by Lindsey Cornett
When reading Scripture, it’s easy to gloss over genealogies. We eagerly turn to parables and psalms. Even the Old Testament’s long lists of rules and regulations are at least sometimes surprising or confusing. But a genealogy? Not much to interest or entertain.
But of course, every part of Scripture serves a purpose, and a genealogy can reveal much about God’s care, God’s work, and God’s creative storytelling throughout history. This is the reality upon which a new Advent devotional, Expecting Emmanuel: Eight Women Who Prepare the Way by Joanna Harader, is based.
The first chapter of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus that is unique for two reasons. First, it follows the family line of Joseph, significant because this is the family through which Jesus fulfills prophecy and the family into which Jesus is adopted. Second, and essential to the premise of Expecting Emmanuel is that this genealogy includes five women. From the get-go, Matthew’s genealogy is not mere fact-finding or record keeping, but an important part of the Gospel’s storytelling and key to unraveling the truth of who Jesus is. Harader writes, “This genealogy is an insistence on the incarnation.”
Expecting Emmanual is an invitation to eschew the traditional and even predictable “Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men” construction of the Christmas story. Instead, Harader invites us to consider the five women in Jesus’ lineage–Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary–who are each used as the basis for about one week of devotional content. There is an additional sixth section about “Anna, the weeping mothers, and wisdom.” (More on that section later.)
Essentially, Harader asks, “Why do these women matter in the story of Scripture, and how can they add meaning to our Advent season?” By mostly ignoring the familiar and comfortable Christmas narratives we all know, Harader invites the reader to ask different questions and make fresh connections.
None of these stories are easy to read or make sense of. Content warnings abound for this book (as they might for the Scriptures themselves), because in the lives of these women we encounter sexual violence and coercion, death, grief, poverty, abandonment, and more. Harader shies away from none of it; this is a bold-faced and honest accounting. Still, God was present for each of these women the same way God is present to us in our complicated holiday season. As Harader writes, in these stories “[w]e encounter a lot of complicated moral and spiritual questions that don’t lend themselves to sweet, warm, Christmassy reflections. And in the midst of all this complexity, we encounter God.”
Practically speaking, this book offers many resources and connection points for the reader. It is dated beginning November 27 (the earliest possible date on which Advent might begin in any given year), but is unlike many Advent devotionals in that it continues all the way through the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas up to Epiphany on January 6. Each reading contains Harader’s intimate, feminist reflections on Jesus’ ancestors as well as ideas for connection and consideration. The activities suggested are diverse–interviewing a family member, sitting in silence, journaling, prayer, seeking beauty. Some will take only seconds, while others are more involved, and I appreciated the variety. At the conclusion of the book, Harader goes beyond the “small group discussion questions” readers would expect to find in a book like this and includes a robust collection of resources for small groups and worship gatherings, including sermon ideas, liturgies, and spiritual practices.
My favorite part of the book, and the most personally impactful, came at the end of each section when the book shifts from exposition to prayer. First, Harader includes an illustration by cut paper artist Michelle Burkholder, perfect for practicing visio divina or simply savoring. (Though in my print copy, these images are fuzzy, with a slight gray shadow. From what I can gather online, this is not typical of the artist’s work and is instead a feature or defect of the printing. Mine was not an advance copy; I hope this is not consistent across the printing.)
Following these illustrations, Harader provides prayers written from the perspectives of each woman. Even when the Biblical narratives leave out the perspectives of the women whose stories they tell, Harader gives them each a unique voice. These prayers add a layer of richness to the devotional, and I found them profoundly moving. In Rahab’s blessing, for example, Harader writes, “When you face impossible choices, may you act with integrity and courage, resting in the shield of God’s grace. When others dismiss you with a label, may you claim your deep identity as a beloved child of the Creator.”
The sixth and final section of the devotional is called, “Anna, the weeping mothers, and Sophia.” Unfortunately, I found this section to be the book’s weakest, lacking some of the emotional depth and insight of the earlier sections. On January 6, Harader offers a reflection on “Sophia,” the Greek personification of wisdom, and how wisdom is incarnated in Jesus. It was an intriguing idea but could not be adequately explored in only two pages of text. I wondered if the author wanted to cram an abundance of content into the final 6 days or if she was stretching to find enough content to carry the book all the way through Epiphany. Whatever the case, the book offers no conclusion of any kind, jumping straight from the Epiphany reflection to the supplemental worship guide. The book would have been stronger and the reader better served with some conclusional thoughts– to be reminded about the power and value of these stories, not only as 40 individual ideas, but as a whole.
While a bit uneven, Expecting Emmanuel is an excellent Advent and Christmas devotional for those who want to acknowledge and be present to the less “merry and bright” side of Christmas, who want to account honestly for grief and uncertainty. It’s likewise a perfect choice for anyone longing to elevate the voices and stories of the Bible’s women. Because of its unique perspective and robust opportunities to connect to the content, it’s a valuable addition to your holiday bookshelves.
Lindsey Cornett is a loud talker, obsessive coffee drinker, and lover of the written word who lives in downtown Indianapolis with her scientist husband, 3 kids, and crazy Bernedoodle. Most days, you’ll find her wrangling the dog, managing snacks, reheating her coffee, and trying to savor as much joy and gratitude as she can in the middle of these very full days. Lindsey writes a monthly-ish email newsletter about the intersections of faith, community, and curiosity at lindseycornett.substack.com.