The Advent Project published yearly by Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts (CCCA) is an online devotional that brings together daily scripture readings, visual art, music, poetry, and written reflections for the seasons of Advent and Christmas (which this year is December 3–January 6). Introduced in 2013, it is the only recurrently published art-forward Advent/Christmas devotional I know of, and I recommend it highly. It is in large part what inspired my year-round “Artful Devotion” series and the Advent art booklet I e-published last year.
With so many different elements, design matters a lot, and I’m super-impressed by what Biola has come up with. The homepage is laid out as a gridded calendar with thumbnail images; click on a date, and you’re brought to a new viewing mode in which a large image and a music player are set in a fixed position on the left while the right sidebar contains scrollable text, separated into two tabs—the main content, and biographical information about the artists. This design enables the image to remain before your eyes so that you can continue to reference it as you read on (something that, frustratingly, I cannot achieve with Art & Theology’s long-scrolling format), and it also relegates the bios to “back matter.” It’s all very organized and easily navigable.
This initiative is an outworking of the CCCA’s mission to explore the rich interrelationships between contemporary art making, theology, and religious tradition. Be sure to check out the other sections of their website; they offer plenty of free resources, including an archive of past Advent (and Lent!) devotionals, and a calendar of events, such as lectures, workshops, symposia, art exhibitions, concerts, film screenings, and more.
Below is one of my favorite Advent Project entries from last year, reproduced by kind permission of the CCCA. Centered on Mary’s Magnificat, it brings together the work of an Italian Renaissance painter, a contemporary British video artist (who I’ve written about before), a modern Bohemian Austrian poet, and a minimalist composer working with Spanish, Latin, and English texts. Adjunct professor of philosophy Evan Rosa (who is a superb writer!) reflects on how scandalous Mary’s humility is for power-hungry Western Christians—just as it would have been for the Greco-Roman world in which she lived. He concludes with a prayer that invites us to move from self-magnification to the magnification of God.
Due to this blog’s design limitations, I had to adapt the following content from its original format. To view the devotion on the Biola website, click here. I have excluded biographical information for the song performers and poet.
ARTWORKS: The Visitation by Pontormo; The Greeting by Bill Viola
About the Artist and Artwork #1:
Jacopo Carucci (1494–1557), usually known as Pontormo, was an Italian Mannerist painter and portraitist from the Florentine School. His work represents a profound stylistic shift from the calm perspectival regularity that characterized the art of the Florentine Renaissance. He is famous for his use of twining poses, coupled with ambiguous perspective; his figures often seem to float in an uncertain environment, unhampered by the forces of gravity. Pontormo’s painting The Visitation, completed in 1528, now adorns the altar of a side chapel in a small church called the Pieve di San Michele in Carmignano, a town west of Florence, Italy. The setting for this painting is the visitation of the Virgin Mary on her older pregnant cousin Elizabeth, the wife of Zacharias. Elizabeth and Mary, who are painted in profile, gracefully embrace each other as they exchange glances of mutual affection and share in the news of Mary’s pregnancy. They dominate the canvas as they stand on the threshold of Zacharias’s house.
About the Artist and Artwork #2:
Bill Viola (b. 1951) is internationally recognized as one of today’s leading artists. He has been instrumental in the establishment of video as a vital form of contemporary art, and in so doing has helped to greatly expand its scope in terms of technology, content, and historical reach. His works focus on universal human experiences—birth, death, the unfolding of consciousness—and have roots in both Eastern and Western art as well as spiritual traditions.
Bill Viola’s large-screen video installation The Greeting was inspired by The Visitation, painted by Italian Mannerist artist Jacopo Pontormo. Viola’s video sequence echoes the drama of Pontormo’s Visitation, but transforms the moment into an enigmatic contemporary narrative. In this still frame, three women are dressed in long, flowing garments and stand in an Italianate architectural setting similar to that in Pontormo’s painting. The woman in the orange dress, her stomach visibly swollen, has just entered the scene from the left, interrupting a conversation and perhaps whispering to the older woman the news of her pregnancy. This encounter was filmed in less than a minute, but Viola has slowed the video down to ten minutes. The use of extreme slow motion draws attention to the nuances of the women’s gestures and glances, and intensifies the psychological dynamic of the exchange.
MUSIC: “Magnificat” from El Niño by John Adams
About the Composer:
John Coolidge Adams (b. 1947) is one of America’s most admired composers. His compositions, both classical music and opera, have strong roots in minimalism. His operas include Nixon in China (1987), which recounts Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, and Doctor Atomic (2005), which covers Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, and the building of the first atomic bomb. The Death of Klinghoffer is a controversial opera for which he wrote the music, based on the hijacking of the passenger liner Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985, and the hijackers’ murder of wheelchair-bound 69-year-old Jewish-American passenger Leon Klinghoffer. One of John Adams’ most recent works is an oratorio based on the life of Mary Magdalene called The Gospel According to the Other Mary. Adams is currently Creative Chair of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
About El Niño:
At the turn of the century, Adams composed El Niño (2000), an oratorio based on the Christmas story of Jesus. El Niño’s texts are in Spanish, Latin, and English and are gathered from approximately 30 different sources including poems by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648/51?–1695), Rosario Castellanos (1925–1974), Gabriela Mistral (1899–1957), Rubén Darío (1867–1916), and Vicente Huidobro (1893–1948). The Biblical texts include familiar Old Testament prophecies and New Testament Nativity accounts, as well as writings from the Apocrypha, non-canonical texts from the early Christian era. There are anonymous verses from the medieval Wakefield Mystery Plays, a passage from a Christmas sermon by Martin Luther (1483–1546), and the hymn “O Quam Preciosa” by Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179). The music is derived from many different idioms, including Handel, pop, and liturgical music. Some music critics are referring to El Niño as a new Messiah for the 21st century.
At the time of the premiere, Adams said,
The piece is my way of trying to understand what is meant by a miracle. When I recently re-read some of the New Testament gospels I was struck as never before by the fact that most of the narratives are little more than long sequences of miracles. I don’t understand why the story of Jesus must be told in this manner, but I accept as a matter of faith that it must be so. The Nativity is the first of these miracles, and El Niño is a meditation on these events. In fact, my original working title was “How Could This Happen?” This phrase, taken from the Antiphon for Christmas Eve, also must surely have been uttered by me at the births of my own son and daughter.
SCRIPTURE: Luke 1:46–55
And Mary said,
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.
POEM: “And Then That Girl the Angels Came to Visit” by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated from the German by Robert Bly
And then that girl the angels came to visit,
she woke also to fruit, frightened by beauty,
given love, shy, in her so much blossom, the forest
no one had explored, with paths leading everywhere.
They left her alone to walk and to drift
and the spring carried her along.
Her simple and unself-centered Mary-life
became marvelous and castlelike.
Her life resembled trumpets on the feast days
that reverberated far inside every house;
and she, once so girlish and fragmented,
was so plunged now inside her womb,
and so full inside from that one thing
and so full—enough for a thousand others—
that every creature seemed to throw light on her
and she was like a slope with vines, heavily bearing.
MEDITATION: “Humble Estate” by Evan Rosa
Humility was a vice in Ancient Greco-Roman culture. It is also a vice to modern Enlightenment thinkers. Seeking humility is truly a “scandalon” or scandal. It is an offense, a literal stumbling block. It brings you low to the “humus” or soil of the earth.
But Jewish thought, and as a result Christian thought, prized humility as a character virtue. Beautiful and good for its own sake, it also moves a person toward others and finds social good for the sake of finding shalom or eudaimonia as individuals in community.
Humility is fundamentally recursive and self-regarding, but also fundamentally relational and others-regarding. Humility, I think, is a state of low self-concern matched with an ownership of limitation and finitude. It moves us toward solidarity with those “beneath us,” reflecting our utterly dependent and socially embedded nature.
But it is most definitely a stumbling block. We love to praise humility, but we hate to seek it.
Mary’s humility is especially scandalous for us power-hungry Western Christians.
We’ve been living life upside-down. We’ve sought power, influence, honor, strength, government office, employee of the month, homecoming king, productivity, likes, retweets. But life at the top is lonely. We’re baffled when our formulas fail. We’re shocked when greatness doesn’t feel so great. We still wonder—stupefied—why life doesn’t seem to work.
And so the magnifying (making great) eschatological vision spoken by the Mother of God should come as the pain of failure to the contemporary American church. If it is offensive, it is because we are upside-down and she is right-side-up. And like the Mother she is, she has words and example to guide us.
The question is, Will you and I follow Mary’s vision of greatness?
And another question is, Where do you think Jesus learned that the first shall be last and the greatest are servants and exaltation comes through humility? (Matthew 23:11–12)
Mary the Mother of Jesus is a 14-year-old Middle Eastern girl, about to become a political refugee, shameful to her family and her betrothed, the kind of person that “gets put away quietly.” We would ignore her, at best. Maybe we would do much worse.
It is this despised and oppressed body that becomes pregnant—very full indeed—with God. The Logos enters the Chaos through her. Word made flesh burrowing and borrowing and plunging into her womb, as Rilke said. It was Mary’s flesh offered to Christ’s. Those pluripotent cells reduplicated, feeding off her humble body. The morning sickness, the aching lower back, the blood and waters of delivery. Radical particularity. Radically unknown. Upside-down.
But almost immediately, we affirm with her, the Magnificat. We want it to make sense. We want to get it. This moment is so glorious and ecstatic for us. We see the better, lower road whereby humility leads to our ultimate good. Rilke thinks of Mary as somehow growing, able to bear countless others, every other creature throws light and finds themselves righted by this complete reception of one’s humble estate, a productive humility that bears many children full of life. She was “the forest no one had explored.” “Her simple and unself-centered Mary-life” of humility offers “paths leading everywhere.”
Advent is an earthquake at dawn. For those of us whose eyes have not been adjusted, its light is blinding and disorienting. It moves the earth under our feet, it causes us to stumble from our prideful heights. Our eyes are still fixed on the way of power, success, wealth, and brutal self-exertion and self-magnification. Our feet are still planted on the sand of our own glory. But Mary’s little way sees clearly in this dawn of light, and deftly moves through the world restoratively, for it is already low to the ground and prepared for God’s own humble way of love.
Evan Rosa is Director of Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought and hosts The Table Audio, a podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions.
Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
I have sought Joseph’s privilege and power, but came away empty.
I want Mary’s humility, but I’m afraid of what that will mean.
Make me hungry, empty, weak, dependent, low.
Bring me to the rich soil where the ignored, the oppressed, the shamed, the excluded, and the wretched sit together, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
I daresay, make me humble.