Advent, Day 5: In a Fog

LOOK: Blind Light by Antony Gormley

Gormley, Antony_Blind Light
Antony Gormley (British, 1950–), Blind Light, 2007. Fluorescent light, water, ultrasonic humidifiers, toughened low-iron glass, aluminum, 320 × 978.5 × 856.5 cm. Temporary installation at the Hayward Gallery, London. Photo: Stephen White.

Sir Antony Gormley OBE RA is a leading contemporary sculptor and installation artist whose work focuses on the human figure. His Blind Light installation from 2007 consists of a large semitransparent glass chamber lit by fluorescent light and filled with a dense cloud of mist. “Upon entering the room-within-a-room, the visitor is disoriented by the visceral experience of the fully saturated air, in which visibility is limited to less than two feet.”

One visitor took a two-minute video of the experience:

Gormley says,

Architecture is supposed to be the location of security and certainty about where you are. It is supposed to protect you from the weather, from darkness, from uncertainty. Blind Light undermines all of that. You enter this interior space that is the equivalent of being on top of a mountain or at the bottom of the sea. It is very important for me that inside it you find the outside.

Sometimes the human experience feels like a groping through fog. It’s hard to see the bigger picture. The not-seeing can be frustrating. There is a doorway leading out into the clear, into full vision—but our passage through isn’t granted us until the general resurrection. Meanwhile, “we walk by faith” (2 Cor. 5:7), stumbling alongside one another through mists of unknowing, but with God’s word and Spirit as guides, giving us glimpses of clarity and confidence to step forward. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face,” the apostle Paul writes in anticipation of the day of the Lord. “Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

LISTEN: “Clouds of Waiting, Clouds of Returning” by Jacob Goins and Hannah Wyatt, on in the twilighting (2020)

I’m quiet in cloudy waiting
Assured of little but weaknesses
Of faith and seeing
And I’m wanting only to be filled
In this day

And I know you’re coming soon
But would you show me where you are right now
In cloudy waiting

I’m craving the clouds of your returning
Assured of little but a strength
Beyond faith and seeing
But I’m wanting only to be filled
I’m wanting only to be stilled
In this day

I know you’re coming soon
But would you show me where you are right now
In cloudy waiting

I’m hopeful for the fruits of faithfulness
But they are slow in their growing
And I’m quick to accuse
When heavy silence comes

Advent, Day 4: Maranatha (multilingual)

LOOK: God Heals by Anila Hussain

Hussain, Anila_God Heals
Anila Hussain, God Heals, metallic black and white print on Fujifilm paper with frame, 50 × 50 cm

A finalist for the 2021 Chaiya Art Awards, this black-and-white photograph shows a person at prayer, her hands cupped, anticipating in faith the receipt of what she’s asked for but open to whatever God gives. The woman pictured is photographer Anila Hussain’s eighty-something-year-old mother, who has suffered for years from chronic pain and prays multiple times a day for relief. Hussain is her primary caregiver.

With the woman’s face in the shadows and her rough, overlapping hands illuminated, closely cropped, and in the foreground, God Heals emphasizes a posture of humble and heartfelt entreaty.

LISTEN: “Ven, Señor Jesús, Maranathá” (Come, Lord Jesus, Come, O Lord), performed by Harpa Dei, 2020 [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Born in Germany and raised in Ecuador, siblings Nikolai, Lucía, Marie-Elisée, and Mirjana Gerstner form the sacred vocal quartet Harpa Dei. Here they sing a traditional chant invoking Christ’s return in ten languages, shifting voice parts and harmonies to beautiful effect. The lyrics are in the video and also below.

Māranā thā is Aramaic (the language of Jesus) for “Come, O Lord.” Christians have prayed this prayer since the apostolic era, looking toward the cosmic healing and restoration that Christ’s second coming will usher in.

SPANISH: ¡Ven, Señor Jesús, Maranathá!
ENGLISH: Come, Lord Jesus, Maranatha!
GERMAN: Komm, Herr Jesus, Maranatha!
FRENCH: Viens, Seigneur Jésus, Maranatha!
ITALIAN: Vieni, Signor Gesù, Maranatá!
CHINESE: 来吧,主耶稣 (Lai ba, zhu Ye su, Maranatha!)
HEBREW: !בּוֹא אָדוֹן יֵשׁוּעַ  מרנאתא (Bo Adon Jeshua, Maranatha!)
RUSSIAN: Гряди, Господи (Gryadi Gospodi, Maranatha!)
GREEK: ἔρχου, Κύριε (Erhu Kyrie, Maranatha!)
LATIN: Veni Domine, Maranatha!

Sheet music can be found here.

“seasonal ghazal” by Harry Gilonis (poem)

Kandinsky, Wassily_Three Sounds
Vasily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866–1944), Three Sounds, 1926. Oil on canvas, 23 5/8 × 23 1/2 in. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

the silent stars descend to us
come angel seraph sheep pear-tree

o holy o cold
dawn come in snow

offspring of day
light is lily above us

glory birds, calling birds
sun, the fields shining

the day, the earth, skies
peace, contemplation and music

hosanna, no, holly stand
suddenly tree displayed

the yonder star our comfort
bring time again

joy, excelsis a-leaping
world and hope embrace

lullay image and sing sing
a happy new begin

“seasonal ghazal” by Harry Gilonis appears in the chapbook The Twelve Poems of Christmas, vol. 3, ed. Carol Ann Duffy (Candlestick Press, 2011), and in Haphazard by Starlight: A Poem a Day from Advent to Epiphany by Janet Morley (SPCK, 2013). Used by permission of Harry Gilonis.

A ghazal is a traditional Arabic verse-form originating in seventh-century Arabia and spreading in the medieval era into Africa, Spain, Persia, South Asia, and Turkey, where it has continued to develop. It is made up of five to fifteen self-contained couplets connected loosely by mood or theme, however allusive. The poet Agha Shahid Ali compares each ghazal couplet to “a stone from a necklace” that should continue to “shine in that vivid isolation.”

Harry Gilonis’s “seasonal ghazal” doesn’t adhere to all the principles of the classic form (which involve rhyme and refrain), but it does give us autonomous couplets of roughly equal length that unfold without linearity, and these all center on the twinned seasons of Advent and Christmastide. Gilonis composed the poem using a cut-up technique, in which he printed out pages’ worth of sacred and secular English carol texts, excised words or short phrases that stood out to him, and rearranged those excised fragments into varying combinations, creating a medley of seasonal keywords that strikes a new chord.

By separating the words from their original syntactic contexts and collaging them together in new ways, he defamiliarizes and thus revivifies them. Traditional elements of the Christmas story are playfully refreshed.

The poem captures the magic and wonder of the season and a hint of its yearning and lament. For example, the exultant excelsis, Latin for “highest,” from the angels’ song to the shepherds is followed one stanza later by lullay, an archaic word used to soothe children to sleep and voiced in the “Coventry Carol” by mothers of ancient Bethlehem who lullaby into eternal rest their infant sons who are about to be slain by Herod. Elevated choral anthems contrasted with deep, mournful groans. Christmastide is full of “light” and “glory,” but there’s also “cold.”

The line “world and hope embrace” is particularly compelling—a picture of hope throwing its arms around a weary and skeptical world, and the world hugging back.

Because of the poem’s fragmentary nature, the grammatical mood of some of the verbs can’t be definitively discerned, but I read the following, in addition to the Hebrew-derived “hosanna” (“save us, please!”), as imperatives addressed to God: “descend,” “come,” “bring,” and the final word, open and expansive, “begin”—a curtailment of the noun “beginning.”

Jesus’s birth was a new and universal beginning. Can you hear echoes of Isaiah?: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isa. 43:19a NIV). Many Christians see in this Hebrew Bible passage the promise of a messianic kingdom inaugurated by Jesus’s birth but not yet brought to completion. The speaker of “seasonal ghazal” seems to recognize the salvation project that’s in motion but longs for “the day” of the Lord, “the earth, skies” reunited. “Begin,” he beckons. Bring in the new era.

What word combinations in this poem stick out to you? What meaning(s) do you see?

Advent, Day 3: Come Christmas

LOOK: Home by Olya Kravchenko

Kravchenko, Olya_Home
Olya Kravchenko (Ukrainian, 1985–), Home, 2012. Egg tempera on gessoed board, 29 × 39.9 cm.

This painting shows a cottage on a snowy hillside at night. Inside, a fire is lit in the hearth, casting a warm glow and sending smoke rising up the chimney. There’s a cat in the window and a sled on the lawn.

On all sides, the sky is populated by a mystical swirl of birds and flowery tendrils and angelic beings. Two of those angels, represented by large golden heads, hold wisps of snow in their hands and embrace the house, offering a protective presence.

Sadly, this cozy winter idyll is elusive for many this year, not least those in Ukraine, where this painting comes from. Many Ukrainians have had to flee their homes to evade the encroaching Russian troops. Others are dealing with the trauma of having lost family members in the war, or the fear of having loved ones on the front line.

Kravchenko told me this month that the situation in her country is “terrifying and unfathomable,” and she alerted me to a few of the recent icons she has painted in response to the war, including Air Defense, The one who protects the sky above the city, Crucifixion in War, and The Virgin of Peace and Victory. Follow her on Instagram @olyakravchenkoart.

LISTEN: “Jul, Jul, Strålande Jul” (Christmas, Christmas, Glorious Christmas) | Words by Edvard Evers, 1921 | Music by Gustaf Nordqvist, 1921 | Performed by Zero8 on A Zero8 Christmas, 2011 (YouTube: 2016)

Jul, jul, strålande jul, glans över vita skogar,
himmelens kronor med gnistrande ljus,
glimmande bågar i alla Guds hus,
psalm som är sjungen från tid till tid,
eviga längtan till ljus och frid!
Jul, jul, strålande jul, glans över vita skogar!

Kom, kom, signade jul! Sänk dina vita vingar,
över stridernas blod och larm,
över all suckan ur människobarm,
över de släkten som gå till ro,
över de ungas dagande bo!
Kom, kom, signade jul, sänk dina vita vingar!

English translation by Michael A. Lowry:

Christmas, Christmas, glorious Christmas: shine over white forests,
heavenly crowns with sparkling lights,
glimmering arcs in the houses of God,
hymns that are sung throughout the ages,
eternal longing for light and peace!
Christmas, Christmas, glorious Christmas, shine over white forests!

Come, come, blessed Christmas: lower your white wings,
over the battlefield’s blood and cry,
over the sighs from the bosoms of men,
over the loved ones who’ve gone to their rest,
over the daybreak of newborn life!
Come, come, blessed Christmas: lower your white wings!

“Jul, Jul, Strålande Jul” is one of the most widely sung Swedish Christmas songs. It personifies Christmas as a luminous winged being, asks it to descend over our wooded neighborhoods and over our songs and our longings, dispensing blessing; to extinguish our wars and raging and spread its comforts over our anxieties and losses; and to cradle the new lives that have been born this year, reminders of innocence and signs of hope for a future.

Advent, Day 2: Come Light

LOOK: Distant Hope by Bruno Walpoth

Walpoth, Bruno_Distant Hope
Bruno Walpoth (Italian, 1959–), Lontane speranza (Distant Hope), 2015. Nut wood, 80 × 41 × 32 cm.

LISTEN: “Come Light” by Gregory Thompson, on Lamentations by Bifrost Arts (2016)

Kindle the flint, the tinder
Liven the hearth, the stone
Shelter the dying lantern light
Gladden the shadowed home
Into this wilderness of shadows
Come, Light original

Answer our famine yearning
Nourish our blighted fields
Raise all our fallen storehouses
Leaven the bitter yield
Into this emptiness, this hunger
Come, Bread all-bountiful

Out of the blowing starlessness
Over the frozen sea
Into our barren midnight
Up from the fruitless trees
O come

Loosen the cloaks of journeymen
Mend all the broken roads
Wake us from fitful forest sleep
Lighten the lonely load
Into this pilgrimage, this journey
Come, Home perpetual

Dr. Gregory Thompson is a minister, civil rights scholar, author, and producer whose work focuses on race and equity in the United States. He was the senior pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, when the music collectives Bifrost Arts and later the Porter’s Gate were founded by Trinity worship arts director Isaac Wardell, and his leadership was deeply influential in that work. His contributions to those two music projects extend even to the writing or cowriting of some of the songs that made it onto the albums: “The Zacchaeus Song” (Justice Songs), “O Jerusalem” (Lament Songs), and of course “Come Light” (Lamentations). The latter two he sings on the recordings.

“Come Light” is poetry as prayer. Come, Light of Light, into our shadowy wilderness. Come, all-bountiful Bread; feed our hunger. Come lighten our loads and make straight our paths as we journey Home into your very heart. Such beautiful words, full of yearning, enhanced by the plaintive tune that carries them.

Advent, Day 1: Stars

LOOK: Beyond the Stars by Zarina

Zarina_Beyond the Stars
Zarina (Indian American, 1937–2020), Beyond the Stars, 2014. Woodcut printed on BFK light paper collaged with gold leaf and Urdu text, mounted on Somerset Antique paper, 24 × 23 in. Photo: Farzad Owrang.

Printmaker Zarina Hashmi, who preferred to identify herself professionally by her first name only, was born and raised in the small university town of Aligarh, India, and was displaced to Karachi, Pakistan, after the partition of India in 1947. She had a cosmopolitan education, studying woodblock printing in Bangkok and Tokyo and intaglio in Paris. At the beginning of her career she moved to New York, living and working there for forty years before finally moving to London in 2018 to be near family. She passed away two years later.

In Beyond the Stars Zarina shows, through the medium of woodcut, the glory of a night sky. Innumerable stars dot the black ink, as do a smattering of small 22-karat gold orbs that could be read as angels or as the divine presence made visible. 

LISTEN: “All Shall Be Well” by Jill McFadden, on Good News by Ordinary Time (2016)

He called him into the night, said
Abram, count the stars so bright
Through you true peace will come
To every tribe and tongue
Though no one knows my Name
Blessing is coming all the same

And all shall be well

Now many years went by
Of withered hopes, unanswered cries
Till one night a virgin heard
A cry that broke the silence of God
That star above them bright
Had shone for Abram that night
This child so weak, so small
Brings peace and rest to all

And all shall be well (2×)

The years unending seem
Here in this in between
“Peace on earth, God’s will for men”
Seems like it came and went
The wars, they linger on
The darkness overcomes
We need not stars but sun
Break in, O Coming One
Sometimes we cannot tell
That You will make all well

But all shall be well
All shall be well

Jill McFadden is one-third of the sacred folk band Ordinary Time. She wrote the song “All Shall Be Well” for a Lessons and Carols service, to correspond with the Genesis 22 reading (cf. Gen. 15), where God tells Abraham, “I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore . . . and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves” (vv. 17–18).

This covenant extended down through the ages, reaching fruition many generations later in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Promised One from of old and on high, born to make all things well. As the song’s lyrics put it: “many years went by of withered hopes, unanswered cries, till one night a virgin heard a cry that broke the silence of God.” That is, the cry of Mary’s newborn son, whom the angel Gabriel called the “Son of the Most High” and said would establish a kingdom that has no end (Luke 1:32–33).

The Star of Bethlehem, the song says, was one of the millions present when God first promised to bless the world through Abraham’s seed, and now it burns particularly bright over the spot where that blessing is enfleshed in a brand-new and earthshaking way—for the babe in the manger is God incarnate.

But has all really been made well by God’s coming in Christ? There’s still violence and sin and pain and relational fracture. Where’s the peace?

The third stanza of “All Shall Be Well” entreats Christ’s second coming. It laments how peace and light seem elusive here on earth and asks God to make good on his ancient promise. Show us the blessing! Show us the new day, that universal redemption. We’ve received foretastes, but we want to sink our teeth into the whole magnificent meal.

The refrain is a reassurance rooted in God’s steadfast love and faithfulness: “All shall be well.” No matter how far-off that total wholeness feels for you, know that it’s written in the stars, so to speak. The God who created everything good will make it good again as he promised. Until then, we continue to hope and pray, work and wait.

If you would like a harmonized lead sheet, chord chart, and/or string parts for this song, email info@ordinarytimemusic.com, and Jill will make them freely available to you.

Advent Prelude: What Happens

LOOK: Norwegian Wood by Yuri Yuan

Yuan, Yuri_Norwegian Wood
Yuri Yuan (Chinese American, 1996–), Norwegian Wood, 2020. Oil on canvas, 63 × 73 in.

This painting by New York–based artist Yuri Yuan shows a woman in a belted brown trench coat, her back to us, standing at the edge of a frozen pond. A small gust of snowy wind whips her hair and scarf. Though her face isn’t visible, she appears to be deep in thought.

Reflected on the pond’s surface is a man dressed in black. We don’t see his physical form, and his features are indistinguishable in the mirroring ice. Who is he? Does he wish to speak to the woman? Does he come with news, or an invitation, perhaps? Or simply to wait with her in silence?

There’s a mystic quality to the image that’s heightened by the incongruity between the environment and its reflection. In the upper left, the trees are barren and dusted with the white of winter, and indeed the woman is dressed for the cold. And yet in the trees’ reflection in the pond, they are in full foliage, leafy green, as if it were summer.

It’s as if two worlds are converging here in this wood. Or the woman foresees, with the eyes of her spirit, a lushness that has not yet come to pass.

Notice how the snowbanks piled up along the water’s edge could almost double as clouds, particularly in the bottom left, where the white mass meets the sky’s reflection. The heavens and the earth becoming one.

I chose this image to kick off the Advent season (which begins tomorrow) because it captures the sense of longing that the church leans into most especially during these four weeks, but also the sense of promise, the possibility, that’s just as characteristic of the season. In the eschatological reality that Israel’s prophets foresaw, the barren becomes verdant and the dead come to life. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom” (Isa. 35:1).

Strangely, Norwegian Wood is a painting of both absence and presence, distance and nearness.

If you like, imagine Yuan’s mystery man as God coming close—which is what the Incarnation is: God coming closer than close!

What invitation might God have for you this Advent? What heartache from the past year, or even further back, do you need to bear to the Healer? What hopes do you need to speak out loud?

LISTEN: “When God Comes Close” by Tara Ward of Church of the Beloved, on Adventus (2010)

We wait, we hope
We yearn, prepare
For who or how or what or where?
Maybe the changing of the tide
Maybe the turning of someone’s eye
Maybe the falling of the snow
Only heaven knows
What happens when God comes close

We wait, we hope
We yearn, prepare
For who or how or what or where?
Maybe the healing of a heart
Maybe reunion of a drift apart
Maybe a child’s coming home
Only heaven knows
What happens when God comes close

We wait, we hope
We yearn, prepare
For who or how or what or where?
Maybe the song, a place to belong
Maybe some faith, just a touch of grace
Maybe love, it’s rarely what we think of
Only heaven knows
What happens when God comes close

For another Advent song by Tara Ward, see https://artandtheology.org/2021/12/19/advent-day-22/.

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25 Poems for Christmas

Hawkins, William L._Nativity Scene
William L. Hawkins (American, 1895–1990), Nativity Scene, 1987. Oil on canvas, 48 × 48 in. Newark Museum of Art, Newark, New Jersey.

1. “Remembering that it happened once” by Wendell Berry: For the last forty-plus years, Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry has been writing what he calls “Sabbath poems,” which emerge from his spiritual practice of walking outdoors on Sundays without any to-do’s. “I go free from the tasks and intentions of my workdays,” he says, “and so my mind becomes hospitable to unintended thoughts: to what I am very willing to call inspiration.” This Sabbath poem from 1986 explores how the sacred permeates the mundane and how Christ is, in a sense, always being born. For an SATB choral setting by Doug Brandt, see here.

Source: A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979–1997 (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1998); compiled in This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2014)

2. “BC:AD” by U. A. Fanthorpe: Ursula Askham Fanthorpe (1929–2009), CBE, FRSL, was an English poet who is well loved by both critics and the general public. She was also a practicing Quaker. Each year she wrote a new Christmas poem to send to friends, of which “BC:AD” is the best known. It considers Jesus’s birth as the pivotal point in history, dividing time into epochs, into “before” and “after.” At this nativity, kairos invaded chronos—and we’re still singing about it millennia later.

Source: Christmas Poems (London: Enitharmon, 2002)

3. “Making the House Ready for the Lord” by Mary Oliver: For many of us who succumb to cultural pressures, December is a time of rushing around, making sure the house is decorated like a magazine, the Christmas cards sent out, the cookies baked to perfection, the gifts individually selected and bought and wrapped. But in all this flurry of activity, are we missing “the better part” (Luke 10:42)? The speaker of this poem, Martha-like, is busy making preparations for Jesus, who’s coming to visit, but as she’s cleaning, outdoor critters keep popping in. At first she bemoans their presence—they’re not on the guest list!—but eventually she comes to accept, even welcome, them, surrendering her fussy desire for orderliness to a charitable embrace of whatever is. And on another level, this poem is about how all of creation longs for Christ (Rom. 8:19–22); the animals, too, want to see him, want to join the party.

Source: Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006)

4. [It’s all so messy] by Kelly Belmonte: A haiku for Advent.

Source: https://allninemuses.wordpress.com/

5. “Second Advent” by Anya Krugovoy Silver: Memorializing a friend (Ishiuan Hargrove) who died of metastatic brain tumors, “Second Advent” unsettlingly combines stark hospital-room and anatomical language with language that is soft, gentle, lyrical. Recounting one of Ishiuan’s several neurosurgeries, the poet remarks how her head was nimbed by surgical lights and then swaddled in gauze. The title refers to Ishiuan’s waking up on the second Sunday of Advent, but also to the hope of Christ’s second coming, when pain, disease, and sorrow will be done away with. Anya Silver was herself a cancer patient, an experience she wrote much about in her four volumes of poetry, before dying of breast cancer in 2018.

Source: Second Bloom (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017)

6. “The Nativity” by Henry Vaughan: “Peace!” rang the angels’ song the night of Christ’s birth—and yet what irony, that he who came to bring peace was himself no beneficiary of it in this life, being born among animals in a borrowed stable, then made a refugee, then later disbelieved, betrayed, mocked, tortured, and crucified. The darkness that bred such unwelcome of the Son of God still persists—violence, ignorance. Referencing the Genesis 1 creation narrative as well as the journey of the magi, the poem ends with an invocation for God’s light to manifest once again, leading us to Christ.

Source: Thalia Redivina: The Pass-Times and Diversions of a Countrey-Muse (London: Robert Pawlet, 1678). Public Domain.

7. [little tree] by E. E. Cummings: One of E. E. Cummings’s earliest published poems (it came out in the January 1920 issue of The Dial), “little tree” was intended to appear as one of five “chansons innocentes” in Cummings’s first book of verse, Tulips and Chimneys, but his editor, Thomas Seltzer, cut it (along with sixty-five others!). In it a young child consoles a recently felled evergreen tree—enlisted for the holiday festivities—with promises of glory and love. Though it runs the danger of being read as twee, Cummings remained fond of the poem and even had it printed and sent it as his family Christmas card in 1960, two years before he died.

Source: XLI Poems (New York: The Dial Press, 1925); compiled in E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems, 1904–1962 (New York: Liveright, 2016). Public Domain.

8. “Messiah (Christmas Portions)” by Mark Doty: The speaker of this poem is unexpectedly transported by a local community choir performance of Handel’s Messiah. He marvels at how these ordinary, flawed neighbors of his can produce such beauty with their collective voices. The last line is probably a reference to the accompagnato and air sung by the bass toward the end of the oratorio, taken from 1 Corinthians 15:51–54—about how we will all be changed in a moment at the last trump, and the corruptible will put on incorruption.

Source: Sweet Machine (New York: HarperFlamingo, 1998); compiled in Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008)

9. “What the Body Knows” by Jean Janzen: The anonymous scribes and illuminators of the Book of Kells spent countless hours copying and beautifying God’s word amid Viking raids. In this ekphrastic poem, Jean Janzen reflects on the Gospel-book’s five whimsically painted folios of Luke’s genealogy of Christ, commenting on the continual inbreaking of God into our world and the “wild safety” of God’s love.

Source: What the Body Knows (Telford, PA: DreamSeeker Books, 2015)

10. “Confession” by Leila Chatti: The Tunisian American poet Leila Chatti was raised by a Muslim father and a Roman Catholic mother, and both religious traditions have shaped her faith and her writing. Islam and Christianity hold many sacred figures in common, including Mary (Maryam), whose conception and delivery of Jesus (Isa) are narrated in the Quran 19:16–34. Chatti confesses to being more compelled by the Islamic characterization of Mary as grunting and sweating in the pangs of labor (in contrast to Catholic teaching, which says her birthing experience was effortless, her contractions painless, though the Bible itself doesn’t specify). Chatti finds comfort in picturing Mary not as someone exempt from the effects of the fall and set apart on a pedestal of supreme virtue, but as one who suffered the same physical and emotional toll as other childbearing women—and who probably did have the occasional selfish thought, which, in moments of intensity and vulnerability, she deigned to vocalize!

Source: Deluge (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2020) | https://www.leilachatti.com/

11. “Two Carols” by Evelyn Underhill: An English Anglo-Catholic writer and mystic, Evelyn Underhill meditates in this double poem on how Christ set foot on the long, hard road we travel to be a balm for our wounds and those of the earth. The epigraph to part 1 is from the Latin Vulgate of Song of Solomon 2:12: “The flowers appear on the earth.” What follows are several Catholic titles for Mary: rose without thorn, queen, generatrix. The epigraph to part 2 is a quotation of Romans 8:22: “The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” The refrain, Dominus tecum!, translates to “The Lord is with you!,” words spoken by the angel Gabriel to Mary and, by virtue of the Incarnation, to all humanity. The other Latin phrases translate to “He who is in the heavens,” “A King is born,” and “Let the kingdom come!” Adveniat regnum!

Source: Immanence: A Book of Verses (London: J. M. Dent, 1912). Public Domain.

12. “The Christmas Babe” by Fr. John Banister Tabb: Written by a Catholic priest from Virginia, this simple quatrain marvels at the paradox of God’s simultaneous largeness and smallness.

Source: Poems (London: John Lane, 1894). Public Domain.

13. “Snowflakes” by Jennifer Grotz: When the world is viewed through a sacramental lens, we recognize God in commonplace wonders like falling snow, and such things can be a sort of wordless prayer that we offer back to God through our enjoyment of them.

Source: Window Left Open (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2016) | https://www.jennifergrotz.com/

14. [The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman] by Emily Dickinson: In these two compact stanzas, Dickinson reflects on how kind Jesus was (an understatement!) to have made the far journey to Bethlehem, “a rugged billion Miles” from heaven, especially in the cold month of December, all “for little Fellowmen.” She refers to him as “docile”—obedient, submissive—harking to Philippians 2, to his bowing to the eternal will of the Father, submitting to human limitations, suffering, and death for the life of the world.

Source: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1976)

15. [Wilt thou love God, as he thee? Then digest] (Holy Sonnet No. 15) by John Donne: A self-address to the soul, this poem by the English poet-priest John Donne, first published in 1633, two years after this death, celebrates the Triune God’s salvific workings: we’re adopted by the Father, redeemed by the Son, indwelt and regenerated by the Spirit. The closing couplet, referencing the imago Dei, packs a wallop: “’Twas much, that man was made like God before, / But, that God should be made like man, much more.”

Source: Poems (London: M.F. [Miles Fletcher], 1633). Public Domain.

16. “The Little Towns of Bethlehem” by John Terpstra: All over Canada, Christ is being reborn this Christmas, in the sense that the Story has taken root, is retold, and continues to have impact. The speaker imagines the Christ child “wrapped in cast-off flannel” in a boxcar stopped on the tracks in Esther, Alberta, or feeding at his mother’s breast in a broken-down car on the shoulder of a road in Englehart, Ontario—actual sights that one might encounter today. Localizing the Story can help us to see it afresh, and to see the sacred humanity of families experiencing homelessness or other hardships.

Source: Two or Three Guitars (Kentville, Nova Scotia: Gaspereau Press, 2006) | http://johnterpstra.com/

17. “Song of the Shepherds” by Richard Bauckham: Richard Bauckham, FRSE, FBA, is best known as a biblical scholar—he’s one of today’s tops, in fact—but he also writes poetry! (I featured one of his poems last year.) In this poem, the shepherds on Bethlehem’s hillsides recall an ancient tale about the stars singing at the creation of the universe, which they thought merely a poetic embellishment, until they experienced something of the like for themselves: “a song of solar glory” eclipsing the lesser lights and exorcising the dark, creating the world anew. Unforgettable.

Source: Tumbling into Light: Collected Poems (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2022) | https://richardbauckham.co.uk/

18. “Those Magi” by Kathleen O’Toole: What exactly were the magi seeking? What compelled them to leave their treasure behind in that cattle shed? Whence their strength to defy Herod? Besides musing on these questions, the poem also contains a passing metaphor that I found striking and new: cow breath as incense.

Source: Christian Century, January 18, 2019 | https://kathleenotoolepoetry.com/

19. “Carol of the Brown King” by Langston Hughes: Tradition names one of the wise men who visited the Christ child “Balthazar” and says he’s from Africa. Langston Hughes, a preeminent poet of the Harlem Renaissance, exults that there was “one dark like me—part of His Nativity.” This poem is included in Hughes’s musical play Black Nativity and is one of six Nativity poems by Hughes that make up a children’s book illustrated by Ashley Bryan.

Source: Crisis (Dec. 1958), p. 615; compiled in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Knopf, 1994)

20. “Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter, 1993” by Jane Kenyon: I couldn’t find the particular church mosaic program that Kenyon is writing about, but here’s my interpretation. Set inside a Serbian Orthodox church during the Bosnian War, this poem imagines a mosaic of Christ Pantocrator hovering in the dome, lamenting the violence that goes on beneath. Under the gaze of the I AM is another mosaic, portraying Jesus’s birth, but also, in a way, Mary’s, as she herself is being reborn in Christ, her mind increasingly shaped in accordance to his. Nativity icons often show Mary framed by a red blanket that she’s reclining on at the mouth of a cave, which Kenyon reads as embryonic.

Source: Otherwise (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 1996); compiled in Collected Poems (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005)

21. “Breath” by Luci Shaw: This poem reflects on the contraction of the infinite God who breathed the universe into existence into a finite human being needing oxygen, who, as is foreshadowed at his birth, will finally ex-pire (“breathe out” his last) on a cross before entering his “next dark cave,” a prelude to resurrection.

Source: Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006) | https://lucishaw.com/

22. “Mary’s Vision” from medieval Ireland: Mary foresees the future suffering of her infant son and dialogues with him about it in this poem translated from Middle Irish by Eleanor Hull (the same woman who, through her translation and versification, gave us the hymn “Be Thou My Vision”!).

Source: The Poem-Book of the Gael (London: Chatto & Windus, 1912). Public Domain.

23. “Joseph at the Nativity” by Tania Runyan: Staring at the “shriveled pod” that Mary just birthed, Joseph grapples with his complicated feelings—doubt, embarrassment, jealousy, helplessness, confusion, pride—and with figuring out what role he should play in the life of this child going forward.

Source: Simple Weight (Lexington, KY: FutureCycle, 2010) | https://taniarunyan.com/

24. “Waiting in Line After Christmas” by Sharron Singleton: (Scroll down to fourth poem) Rather than exchanges of refunded money for unwanted items, Singleton ponders what a mutually life-giving exchange of intangibles might look like.

Source: Our Hands a Hollow Bowl (Hartford, CT: Grayson Books, 2018)

25. “Burning the Old Year” by Naomi Shihab Nye: Through the act of forgetting, we must destroy the worthless trivialities of the year, and we must let that which is solid, that which matters—the “stones”—be revealed and remain.

Source: Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Portland, OR: Far Corner Books, 1995)

Oji-Cree Nativity painting

Jackson Beardy (1944–1984) was an Anishinaabe artist born on the Garden Hill Reserve in Manitoba. He belonged to the Woodland school of art [previously], adopting its distinctive style of Indigenous expression characterized by thick black outlines and vivid, compartmentalized color. His paintings draw on Ojibwe and Cree oral traditions and often express cosmological and spiritual concepts.

Nativity by Jackson Beardy
Jackson Beardy (Oji-Cree, 1944–1984), The Nativity, 1975. Acrylic on canvas, 121.1 × 172.1 cm. Collection of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. © Concacan Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Beardy is one of twenty Canadian artists commissioned by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1975 to convey the Christian message using whatever idiom they wished. Beardy chose to portray the Virgin Mary pregnant with the Word, the sun’s fire pouring into her and yet she is not consumed. He provided the following artist’s statement:

It is my personal belief that a messenger from the Great Spirit came to earth in the form of His image after Him through a virgin birth in unrecorded history. Through this man, knowledge was passed on to man from the Great Spirit. Many of the teachings of this man have been kept by word of mouth through the ages by the elders of all tribes.

We see the virgin mother-to-be holding on to an embryo connected to the sun symbol (the Great Spirit) [center] who has deemed it necessary to send his messenger to his people. The mother is also connected to Mother Earth, who is nursing her [see the breast shape below]. She too is connected by a lifeline to the sun symbol. Around her are all the orders of creatures who come to see the messenger. He is born to explain their existence, [to restore] harmony between humanity and the elements, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

On the other side of the sun symbol we see an elder in prayer, ritually offering a bowl filled with sacred things. You can see the sun symbol is resting on his hunched frame, bearing him down with doubts, fear, depression, and all the ills of his time, his back to the very miracle he is praying for. It will take time for all to fully comprehend this phenomenon which has come to pass.

The four semicircles represent the elements of the air: snow, rain, tornadoes, heat. The moon [the blue circle] is painted above the elder. We regard the moon as our Grandmother who keeps vigil over all creatures during the night.

Though titled The Nativity, the painting is actually a prebirth scene, as Jesus is still in utero. Beardy shows the Christ child taking root in Mary’s womb (having been conceived by the power of the Great Spirit) and growing to full term as people and animals alike long for his arrival. They groan, they watch, they wrestle and seek. Creator Sets Free—as the First Nations Version of the New Testament translates the name Jesus—is almost here.

(Note: There’s a flipped version of this image floating around online. I confirmed with the CCCB that the file posted here, which I licensed directly from them, represents the correct orientation.)

Leaning into that Advent yearning, here is a performance of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in Ojibwe—“Ondaas, Ondaas, Emaanooyen”—performed by E Halverson:

Now, I have a crowdsourcing request: I am searching for Advent or Christmas songs originally written in Indigenous Canadian or Native American languages, preferably by an Indigenous person. If you know of any, please let me know in the comments below, or in an email. Thanks!

Advent roundup: “All Creation Waits,” Rev Simpkins on “the last things,” and more

Before I launch into the Advent content, I want to alert newcomers to, and remind old-timers of, my Thanksgiving Playlist on Spotify (introduced here), which is revised and expanded since last year. You can get an overview at this blog post. From Destiny’s Child to Yo-Yo Ma, Meister Eckhart to Mister Rogers, there’s a little something for everyone, I hope. And exemplifying the global nature of Christianity, there are songs in Hebrew, Luganda, Zulu, Swahili, Yoruba, Spanish, French, Hawaiian, Arabic, Korean, and Tamil.

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ESSAY: “All Creation Waits” by Gayle Boss: In the northern hemisphere, Advent is accompanied by a deepening of the dark and cold. In her bestselling and wholly unique Advent devotional, All Creation Waits, Gayle Boss provides twenty-five reflections that detail how wildlife—turtles, loons, black bears, and so on—adapts to these changing conditions. Animals know that the darkness is a door to a new beginning, and we would do well to embrace this wisdom. In the book, each day’s reading is paired with a woodcut illustration by David G. Klein.

The year of the book’s 2016 release, On Being published the introduction on its blog, where Boss answers, “Why animals for Advent?” and describes some of the inspiration behind and framing of the book. This year Paraclete Press released a hardcover gift edition with a new introduction and afterword.

Woodcut by David G. Klein
Woodcut by David G. Klein, 2016. In All Creation Waits, Gayle Boss tells a story of how one year, a week into Advent, she found a manger in the woods, which local children had filled with hay for the animals, then shelled corn.

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SONG: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”: There are hundreds of arrangements and recordings of this most beloved Advent hymn. Last year I featured two that I particularly like, and I think I’ll start a trend on the blog by doing the same at the beginning of each Advent—sharing two new renditions of the song.

>> Anna Hawkins. Anna Hawkins is a singer-songwriter of Irish heritage living in New Zealand. In her version of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” from her album Divine (2015), she sings the first verse in Hebrew, honoring the lyrics’ rootedness in the Hebrew scriptures. The music video was shot in Israel (cinematography by Michael Hilsden from Aspiring Productions). [HT: Global Christian Worship]

חזור חזור עמנואל
ופדה אסירי ישראל
שבגולה נאנחים
עד כי תבוא בן- האלוהים
,שמחו! שמחו! עמנואל
יבוא לכם בני ישראל

Chazor, chazor Immanu-El
Ufde asirei Israel
Shebagola ne’enachim
Ad ki tavo Ben Elohim
Simchu, Simchu, Immanu-El
Yavo lachem bnei-Israel

[English translation:]
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

>> CeCe Winans, arr. Alvin Love III. CeCe Winans is a gospel legend. On Something’s Happening! A Christmas Album (2018), she collaborated with her son, Alvin Love III, who wrote the lush orchestral arrangements and produced the record. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” opens with a celesta, which sounds like a music box or twinkling stars and has long been associated with the supernatural. The accompaniment is played by the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Tim Akers.

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VISUAL MEDITATION: “I Corinthians 7:29-31: God Only Knows” by Lynn Miller: The Rev. Dr. Lynn Miller is an author, ecclesiastical artist, workshop leader, and Presbyterian minister who holds a BFA in graphic design, an MA in art history, an MFA in creative writing, an MDiv, and a DMin. From 2014 to 2021 she ran the blog Art&Faith Matters, curating a diversity of images based on the liturgical calendar. In this post she guides us in looking at the surrealist painting At the Appointed Time by Kay Sage, which features a mysterious, draped figure or object and lines receding toward the horizon. “What do you see in the painting? What do you think about what you see? What do you wonder about this painting?” She posits a number of possible interpretations.

Sage, Kay_At the Appointed Time
Kay Sage (American, 1898–1963), At the Appointed Time, 1942. Oil on canvas, 81.3 × 99.1 cm. Newark Museum of Art, Newark, New Jersey.

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PODCAST SERIES: “Whispered Light: Advent Reflections on Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell” by Matt Simpkins: In this four-episode podcast series from December 2020, the Rev. Matt Simpkins, an Anglican priest and musician from Essex, explores the four themes traditionally contemplated by Christians during Advent—death, judgment, heaven, and hell—through four old American folk songs. He performs the songs, giving their history and using them as a launchpad for spiritual and theological reflection, which also integrates discussion of the Psalms. He addresses misconceptions about these “last things,” tracing the thread of hope and redemption that runs through them all. Just twenty to thirty minutes each, the episodes are available on your favorite podcast app and on YouTube (links below).

Simpkins records music under the name Rev Simpkins & The Phantom Notes. Check him out on Spotify or wherever you listen to music.