Sylvie Vanhoozer – The Art of Living in Season [Excerpt]

The Art of Living in SeasonWelcoming Jesus in Wonder and Expectation

Read an excerpt from this excellent new book,
released this month!

The Art of Living in Season: A Year of Reflections for Everyday Saints
Sylvie Vanhoozer

Paperback: IVP Formatio, 2024
Buy Now: [ BookShop ] [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]

*** Read an excerpt from this book:

[ Adapted from the Introduction ]

Every year throughout the South of France, in villages set amid hills dotted with olive trees and scented with thyme and juniper, enchanting little parables unfold—part of a unique tradition unknown to most outsiders. At Advent, santons —“little saints”—appear in the shoebox-sized manger scenes, or crèches, that appear in the dining or living rooms of people’s homes just as they have always done since the nineteenth century. These santons are clay figurines, just three inches tall, painted colorfully in period dress. Each carries a simple gift for the baby Jesus, products from their own terroir, that distinct local place that nurtures their growth. These crèche scenes do not so much represent the story of the Christmas night as restage it, setting the birth of Jesus in the terroir of the people of Provence. This is where my own story starts. 

But it is only the beginning. For these little clay figures, which I recall from my own childhood home, have become part of popular culture, so much so that they have come to represent the people of Provence and their way of life. Yet always in the background lies the Christ child. He is an integral part of this scene as well. Many Provençaux may not talk about him, nor know much about him, yet he still belongs to the scene. He is every bit as essential to the crèche as the olive trees and villagers. His quiet presence hallows the land. He is what renders these clay figurines of plain villagers something special: He makes them “little saints,” set apart to serve him and his story. (For more details on the historical background of the santons—and pictures!—see my website www.theartoflivinginseason.com.) 

Unlike other manger scenes, the Provençal crèche does not so much depict a static scene as provide a stage for a Christmas pageant. Action! For these little saints are on a mission, a pilgrimage to Bethlehem (now transported to Provence). A strong desire to see the baby Jesus urges the pilgrims on. They come because they want to present their gifts: not gold, frankincense, and myrrh (those come too, in due course), but simpler gifts related to their everyday vocations: a baker brings baguettes, a weaver brings wool blankets, a farmer brings produce from his field, and so forth. The songs and stories that accompany these pilgrims make them very human, so like us. Each little saint is cast in a specific role; each has a story of their own, within the greater story of Christmas, and each comes with their own fears and foibles. When they finally find the crèche, they offer Jesus what they have: their gifts, yes, but their fears and foibles too. And they receive something back. 

So, perhaps, do the larger saints, the twenty-first century children and adults who keep the crèche—call them “everyday saints.” For, thanks to this singular custom, Christmas in Provence is a story that involves not simply clay figures, but every son and daughter of Adam, the original clay figure. This is a story that invites ongoing participation, and not just at Advent. This is a story not just to believe in, but to live in, and to live out. To the one with eyes to see, the crèche is an invitation to step into Advent—and perhaps beyond it. 

This is why, during my own years of pilgrimage from my homeland of Provence to new lands—California, the mid-Atlantic, England, Scotland, the Midwest—I began to wonder: what if, once Christmas is over, I continued the pilgrimage, in spiritual company with the santons, through all the seasons of the year? What if I were to follow Jesus outside the crèche in order to keep on doing, throughout the year, what these little saints did in Advent and Christmas? Could I bring an offering to Jesus daily, in my place and time, as the santons did in theirs? Could joining their pilgrimage help me answer the question, “What am I doing here?” Could it help me get out of bed in the morning? It would take intentionality, a discipline of paying attention to the seasons in which I find myself: the seasons of the church that teach us about Christ’s life and ministry; the seasons of nature that reveal the goodness of our Creator; the seasons of life that unfold God’s plan for my story. Could I approach every new season, whether I was in Bethlehem, Provence, or somewhere else, with the wonder and expectation of Advent? If so, what would that look like? 

Little did I know, as a child growing up in Provence, how transformative these little clay figures would later become in my life. Their story has become my story, an invitation to “come and see” the Christ child. I came; I saw; I followed. Over the years, I have become not a fixture in the crèche, but an everyday saint. Like the santons, I come to Jesus, and then, inspired by these little figures, I follow Jesus out of the manger, through all the seasons of life. 

The early seeds from my childhood traditions—sown in the crèche with its stories that embraced southern French village life—have finally grown roots in my new land for new generations. There is indeed a precious seed here, the germ of a new kind of life, which is well worth protecting, passing down, and transplanting in different contexts. Perhaps the Jesus who comes to us—in Bethlehem, Provence, or the heartland of America—makes every place and time special, as he makes Christmas special, gracing us again and again with the gift of his presence. Our culture has trained us always to rush ahead toward the next big thing. But rushing ahead is not how everyday saints learn the art of living in season, the art of appreciating the possibilities of offering gifts to Christ in the particular time and place where God has planted us. I encourage saints on an everyday pilgrimage to relearn how to walk. Walking is wonderful exercise; everyone knows that. It is also the fundamental activity of the Christian pilgrim—a spiritual exercise. 

Join me in the company of santons. Let us learn from them the art of living for Christ as women and men for all seasons.


Adapted from The Art of Living in Season  by Sylvie Vanhoozer. ©2024 by Sylvie Vanhoozer. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. www.ivpress.com

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