Reviewed by Susan Sharp Campbell, PWV Associate for Educational Ministry

Light of the World: A Beginner’s Guide to Advent by Amy-Jill Levine explores the Nativity stories in the gospels of Luke and Matthew, looking at the historical contexts and literary connections in each story. The first three chapters consider the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth (chapter 1), Mary and the angel (chapter 2), and the birth of Jesus and his first visit to the temple (chapter 3). The final chapter looks at the story from Joseph’s side, the visit of the magi and the slaughter of the children. Throughout each chapter, Levine considers the different characters in the narratives, as well as their place and importance in the story, as she seeks to help the reader understand what these stories would have meant to those who first heard them, as well as what they might mean to us today and to faith communities near and far.

Levine notes, “Each [gospel] presents the story of Jesus’ birth in its own way, and each offers a narrative that challenges, that provokes, that shocks, and that makes the reader want to hear more” (p. 113). She looks at the nativity narratives in light of Jewish tradition and history and the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as the political realities in the first century. In addition, she draws out implications for today and how we live as followers of Christ; there are questions for reflection interspersed throughout the book. Also throughout the book, Levine’s knowledge of the New Testament texts and their connection with Old Testament texts is evident, as is her sense of humor.          

I found this an easy to read, insightful book that provides background for the stories of Jesus’ birth in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. There were a number of connections and insights I had not read or heard before that will enhance and inform my preaching and teaching. With four chapters, it would be a good book of individual reading and reflection during the Advent season, or it could be used as an adult or older teen group study. There is also a Leader’s Guide and accompanying video available for use, particularly with groups. The book and accompanying materials are available from a number of sellers, including Cokesbury and Amazon.