God breaking in on our world

This year for Advent, my church has built into its liturgy a time for guided reflection on an art image—one per week—corresponding to one or more of the season’s themes. Today I led the congregation in looking at a seventeenth-century German engraving based on John 1. Here’s what I said (adapted from the Advent devotional I published this month):

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Word by Christoph Weigel
Christoph Weigel (German, 1654–1725), Word, 1695. Engraving from Biblia ectypa: Bildnussen auss Heiliger Schrifft Alt und Neuen Testaments. Image courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

This copperplate engraving is from a picture Bible by Christoph Weigel published in Augsburg in the late 1600s. The Bible consists entirely of engraved images—839 in all—with key scripture texts inscribed above and below, from Genesis to Revelation.

Looking at this one, you might think of the creation story—God speaking, “Let there be light.” You wouldn’t be wrong to make that association, but actually this engraving illustrates the first chapter of John’s Gospel: the eternal Word of God taking on flesh and entering human history, a doctrine we call the Incarnation. This is the big bang of the new creation. This is God once again hovering over the chaos and proclaiming, “Let there be light.” And there was Light. Because the Savior came, and is still coming.

The top inscription says in Latin, “In the beginning was the Word” (v. 1). And the German one below says, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not comprehended it” (v. 5).

In Weigel’s illustration, the name YHWH is surrounded by a blast of light that showers down to our dark earth in this magnificent glory-stream. Before this, Israel’s covenant God was mostly invisible and unapproachable, but now he reveals himself as man and Son, the second person of the Trinity, Jesus. He’s still Yahweh, but now he’s Yahweh brought low, to be seen and touched and engaged face-to-face.

This image emphasizes the cosmic nature of the Incarnation and reinforces the meaning of the Greek word for Jesus that John uses in his prologue: Logos, which our English Bibles translate as “Word” with a capital W. This term is a loaded one, used in most schools of Greek philosophy to designate the underlying principle of the universe, one that is rational, intelligent, and vivifying; other translations include “Mind,” “Power,” “Cause,” “Act,” “Ground,” “Reason,” “Structure,” or “Universal Bond.” Philosophers had been reinterpreting the concept of Logos for centuries, but John was the first to link it to the person of Christ.

Advent is a time for us to consider what it means for the Word of God, the Logos, to have a body and be among us.

This season, may we dwell in awe of the historic and continuing eruption of hope and light that is the Incarnation.   Continue reading “God breaking in on our world”

New folk musical: The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby

This December hundreds of churches around the world will no doubt bring to life onstage the unusual tale of Mary and Joseph’s baby. Most of the characters will be played by little kids dressed up in robes and star-tinsel garlands, and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is sure to make the song list. A beloved tradition—but one that has perhaps made Jesus’s birth too familiar to us, rendered it not unusual or shocking at all.

The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph's Baby poster

Into this milieu comes Don Chaffer and Chris Cragin-Day’s new musical, The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby, to shake things up. Running December 8–18 at River and Rail Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee, the play retells Matthew and Luke’s nativity accounts with a modern imagination, focusing on the hopes and fears of the young couple chosen to bear God into the world. My husband and I attended its world premiere this August at the New York International Fringe Festival, produced by Firebone Theatre, and loved it. (We’re still singing “Hel-looo! Hel-looo!” to each other—the catchy angelic greeting.) Far from the tired, pious storytelling of many a Christian-penned pageant, The Unusual Tale bursts with energy and even surprises, inviting believers and nonbelievers alike to consider anew the meaning of the Incarnation.

The show has a cast of four: Mary, Joseph, and two multirole characters (one male, one female). Mary and Joseph are humanized and given dimension. They are at times angry, scared, hurt, frustrated, confused, happy, tired, skeptical, or insistent. Their personalities sometimes clash—Mary is plucky and passionate and refuses to accept the way things are, whereas Joseph is mostly content and prefers to play it safe. When they are confronted with the outrageous news that Mary is to give birth to the son of God, they are forced to exercise a degree of trust in God and in each other that they had not been required to previously, and it doesn’t come easy. But they grow together into God’s plan in their own different ways as they learn more and more how to do the work they’ve been called to.

One of the most enthralling possibilities that the play opens up is that the Incarnation was triggered not just by God’s feeling that “now’s the time” or by some generic devoutness on the part of Mary but by a spoken vow of hers. Fed up with how the Roman authorities have been roughing up her fiancé at work, Chaffer and Cragin-Day’s Mary starts sermonizing about how God raised up stuttering Moses to deliver their people from slavery in Egypt, and little ole David to conquer a Philistine giant, and why couldn’t he do the same today?

“You know what I think? I think God is just waiting for someone to step up and say, ‘I’ll do it. Choose me.’ Like David did. So you know what I’m gonna do?” Mary says, stepping onto a crate, despite Joseph’s objections.

“I’ll do it, God. I’ll slay Goliath. I am available and willing.”

“One of these days, God’s gonna call your bluff,” Joseph says.

“I’m not bluffing.”   Continue reading “New folk musical: The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby

A prayer of thanksgiving

Feast of Creation by Pablo Sanaguano Sanchez
Pablo Sanaguano Sanchez (Ecuadorian, 1966–), Feast of Creation.

“O my God,
. . . . . . . . . .
I bless You for the soul You have created,
For adorning it, for sanctifying it,
Though it is fixed in barren soil;
For the body You have given me,
For preserving its strength and vigor,
For providing senses to enjoy delights,
For the ease and freedom of limbs,
For hands, eyes, ears that do Your bidding;
For Your royal bounty providing my daily support,
For a full table and overflowing cup,
For appetite, taste, sweetness,
For social joys of relatives and friends,
For ability to serve others,
For a heart that feels sorrows and necessities,
For a mind to care for my fellow-men,
For opportunities of spreading happiness around,
For loved ones in the joys of heaven,
For my own expectation of seeing You clearly.
I love You above the powers of language to express,
For what You are to Your creatures.
Increase my love, O my God, through time and eternity.”

—Puritan prayer, published in The Valley of Vision (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Trust, 1975)

Advent art slideshow and devotional

Advent is just around the corner, commencing Sunday, November 27. To support Christians in their seasonal journey toward Christmas, I’ve developed two companion resources: a slideshow of art images for congregational use, and a devotional booklet for individuals or small groups that offers written reflections on these images.

The structural backbone is a liturgical text written by Jonathan Evens, which has as its refrain the plea “Come, Lord Jesus, come.” It looks forward to Christ’s second advent but also, necessarily, back to his first, in all its various aspects. Along with themes of peace, love, and sacrifice, you are invited to consider

  • what it meant for Jesus to be born of woman—coming as seed and fetus and birthed son;
  • the poverty Jesus shared with children around the world;
  • culturally specific bodies of Christ, like a dancing body and a yogic body;
  • how we are called to bear God into the world today;
  • and more.

Art is a great way to open yourself up to the mysteries of God, to sit in the pocket of them as you gaze and ponder. “Blessed are your eyes because they see,” Jesus said. Theologians in their own right, artists are committed to helping us see what was and what is and what could be. Here I’ve taken special care to select images by artists from around the world, not just the West, and ones that go beyond the familiar fare. You’ll see, for example, the Holy Spirit depositing the divine seed into Mary’s womb; Mary with a baby bump, and then with midwives; an outback birth with kangaroos, emus, and lizards in attendance; Jesus as a Filipino slum dweller; and Quaker history married to Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom.

My vision is for the two-minute slideshow to be shown in church on the first day of Advent during the main service. Two minutes is not nearly enough time to take in twenty-four images, so the slideshow is really just an invitation to deeper, one-on-one engagement with the images throughout the week, and that’s where the booklet comes in—as an aid to contemplation. To reinforce the practice and to make it more communal, pastors might consider drawing one image per week into his or her sermon, or discussion could be built into the Sunday school hour. There are twenty-eight days in Advent this year but only twenty-three reflections, so I’ll leave it up to you how to parse them out.

A humongous thanks to the artists and institutions who have granted permission for use of their work. Copyright of the images is retained by them, except where “Public Domain” is indicated, and reproduction outside the context of this slideshow and booklet is prohibited without their express permission. You of course are encouraged to show the slides publicly, and to distribute the booklet, but you must not charge a fee.

I hope these images fill you with wonder and holy desire—to know Christ more and to live into the kingdom he inaugurated two thousand-plus years ago from a Bethlehem manger.

Download the slideshow as a PowerPoint file.

Download the devotional booklet as a PDF. (Note: This version is slightly edited from the original.)

Want to have the booklet print and bound? Use this print-ready version. (I recommend a coil bind with a clear plastic front cover and a vinyl back cover. This will run you about $20 each at most commercial print centers, or less for larger quantities. Be sure to print double-sided, head-to-head.)

I realize that Sara Star’s The Crowning might be too graphic for some churches. Although I personally am compelled by it and obviously endorse it through its inclusion (what better complement to the line “Coming down the birth canal”?), I offer the following as alternative image suggestions for those who might want to substitute it with something more abstract or sanitized: Through the Needle’s Eye by Grace Carol Bomer; the Dieu parmi nous (God Among Us) panel from La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord) by Sophie Hacker; Motherhood by Matthew Gill; or Nativity by Paula Rego. Please note that I have NOT received copyright clearance for any of these alternates, which means that if you were to use one, you would be responsible for securing the proper permission.

If you have any questions about how to use these resources, or if you’d like to share any feedback with me—either on how the images or format were received in your congregation, or suggestions for future improvement—feel free to contact me at victoria.emily.jones@gmail.com, or use the comment field below. This is really my first attempt to bring the principles of this blog out into the local church, so I’m eager to see what kind of fruit it bears.

Jesus comes to Singapore: The New Testament imagery of Eugene Soh

In 2010 Eugene Soh was enrolled in Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design, and Media, on track to becoming a game programmer, when Campus magazine, aware of his photography hobby, asked him if he’d like to contribute a centerfold to an upcoming issue. He said yes but, after combing through his photos, realized he had nothing great to offer—he’d have to shoot something new, something epic. He chose to restage Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper at Maxwell Road Hawker Centre (a “hawker center,” or kopitiam, is what Singaporeans call their open-air food courts), using vendors as models for Christ and his disciples.

The Last Kopitiam by Eugene Soh
Eugene Soh (Singaporean, 1987–), The Last Kopitiam, 2010. Photograph, 140 × 230 cm.

The photo was published but went without much notice until two years later in 2012, when it went viral online. Galleries started contacting him to do shows, not realizing that The Last Kopitiam was a one-off thing. Soh decided to finish out his concentration in interactive media, graduating in 2013, and then to pursue fine art photography as a career.

Encouraged by the interest in his Leonardo adaptation, Soh translated more Western art masterpieces into a contemporary Singaporean idiom, among them the Mona Lisa (renamed Moh Lee Sha), The School of Athens (Food for Thought), The Birth of Venus (Arrival of Venus), Saturn Devouring His Son (Saturn Devouring His Naan), A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Singapore), Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Arrangement in Grey, Black and Yellow), and American Gothic (Singapore Gothic).

His Creation of Ah Dam, after Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco, shows a wet-market grocer transferring the spark of life to “Ah Dam” via carrot.

Creation of Ah Dam by Eugene Soh
Eugene Soh (Singaporean, 1987–), Creation of Ah Dam, 2015. Photograph, 80 × 120 cm.

It is Soh’s process, as demonstrated in these photos, to shoot his human subjects separately and then stitch them together digitally to create a single composite image. The hawkers in The Last Kopitiam, for example, couldn’t all get away from their stalls at the same time, so this sort of cut-and-paste manipulation was born out of necessity. At first Soh was resistant to using Photoshop in this way, thinking of it as “cheating,” but he quickly became convinced of its legitimacy and artistic potential.

Earlier this year Soh developed a new series called The Second Coming, which reenvisions the life of Christ on Singaporean soil (much like David LaChapelle did, for America, in his 2003 series Jesus Is My Homeboy). Mounted as a solo show in February and March at Chan Hampe Galleries, The Second Coming draws on familiar devotional image types, like the Madonna and Child, the Crucifixion, and the Pietà, as well as invents some new ones, like Jesus answering his cell (Hold Up, Dad’s Calling) or helping one of his hosts prepare dinner (What’s Cooking, Jesus?).

In Happy Birthday & Merry Christmas, Jesus, Jesus blows out the candles on his cake. The mise-en-scène includes a foam crown, maracas, and an umbrella drink.

Happy Birthday & Merry Christmas, Jesus by Eugene Soh
Eugene Soh (Singaporean, 1987–), Happy Birthday & Merry Christmas, Jesus, 2016. Photograph, 140 × 140 cm.

In contrast, the mood of The Last Christmas is gloom and doom. According to the artist, Jesus has just announced that he is going to destroy the world, putting a damper on the birthday festivities (though one attendee chooses to make light of the news). Staged like a Last Supper, this imagined scene takes place immediately preceding Armageddon. It’s everyone’s last Christmas. Continue reading “Jesus comes to Singapore: The New Testament imagery of Eugene Soh”