Roundup: Advent art, songs, poems

So much to share today! Be sure not to miss “Psalm 126” by Drew Miller (a new favorite Advent song) and Matthew Milliner’s excellent presentation on the Virgin Mary in art, which opened an exhibition that’s running in Southern California—both below. (If you only have time to take in a few items from this post, those are the ones I’d recommend.)

PODCAST EPISODE: “A Time for Wanting and Waiting: An Advent Conversation with W. David O. Taylor”: In this recent episode of The Road to Now, hosts Bob Crawford and Chris Breslin interview liturgical theologian David Taylor [previously] about the season of Advent: what it is, its history and how it fits into the wider church year (see especially 43:29ff.), the canon of Advent and Christmas songs, and the gift the Psalms offers us during this season. Referencing his 2015 Washington Post article, Taylor says our picture of Christ’s coming, especially as expressed through our hymnody, tends to be unidimensional and far too sanitized:

We should permit the Nativity stories to remain as strange and bizarre and fantastical and difficult as they in fact are, rather than taming and distilling them down to this one nugget or theme of effusive joy. There is effusive joy in that—it’s simply that that’s not the only thing that characterizes these stories. Unfortunately, most of our canon of Christmas carols or hymns tends to focus on what I would argue is only 50 percent of the Nativity stories. Everything that begins with Elizabeth and Zechariah and goes all the way to, say, Anna and Simeon and the visit of the Magi and the flight to Egypt . . . it really is one whole story that is being told with these subplots.

I would love to see us create . . . new music that either retells portions that we are already telling but not the whole of it, or we need to tell parts that have not yet been told. . . . Let’s ask ourselves how God is at work in all the minor-key or difficult or dissonant parts of the Nativity stories, not absent from—those are not extraneous to God incarnating himself in Jesus Christ. Those are essential parts of it. And so how can our hymns become ways of praying ourselves into these stories so they can sink deeply into the fibers of our hearts and minds and bodies, and for us to say, “Oh, all the weird and difficult and dissonant parts of our lives are part and parcel of God’s good work,” not, again, on the margins of it, or things we should eschew.

To help deepen and expand the church’s repertoire of Christmas music, Taylor founded, along with a few others, the Christmas Songwriters Project. The Psalms are an inspiration in this task, as they express a joy that is at times quiet and at others raucous, as in the Nativity narratives, and that exists as part of a dynamic constellation of emotions and postures that praise can encompass. Most of us don’t recognize the pure, undistilled happiness that is marketed to us throughout December, Taylor says, and we shouldn’t force ourselves to try to feel it but rather should take a cue from the Psalms and also see the same emotional complexity at work at the beginning of the Gospels:

The Psalms, and I think Christian faith at its heart, can make space for joy and sorrow to exist alongside each other in a way that happiness, as we commonly understand it, cannot, or only with great difficulty. . . . What the psalms of praise do . . . is that in one movement, there’s this effusive joy or a shouting joy or a convivial joy, and then it segues to a quieter joy or a contemplative joy or a yearning, painful kind of joy. . . .

So in the season of Advent, when we look at the characters in scripture—you know, Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth and the shepherds and Anna and Simeon—every one of them has this moment, perhaps, of which we could say, “That sounds like joy.” . . . But immediately before or immediately after, it transitions to something else. So does that mean that joy is negated? Is joy squashed? Is joy extinguished? Or is joy able to continue to exist side by side, to subsist, with a continued experience of longing or a sudden moment of sadness?


ART BY SCOTT ERICKSON: This month Portland-based artist Scott Erickson has been posting on Instagram Advent-themed images he has made, along with thoughtful meditations. Some emphasize the bodiliness of the Incarnation, which often gets overlooked, presumably out of a sense of propriety. But “grace comes to us floating in embryonic fluid . . . embedded in the uterine wall of a Middle Eastern teenage woman,” Erickson writes about With Us – With Child, to which one Instagrammer responded, “This is trajectory changing. Thank you for this. Nipples, vaginas, and Jesus CAN coexist!” Another mentioned how she had never seen Mary with a belly button and a linea nigra before. The image reminds us that Jesus was indeed “born of woman” (Gal. 4:4).

Erickson, Scott_With Us, With Child
Scott Erickson (American, 1977–), With Us – With Child, 2016 [purchase as poster]
Another imaginative image suggests that Christ came to set the world on fire, so to speak. God, who is of old, gives himself to earth as a Jewish babe (“Love has always been FOR GIVENESS,” Erickson writes), sparking a revolution.

Erickson, Scott_Advent
Art by Scott Erickson

View more art by Scott Erickson @scottthepainter.


LECTIONARY POEMS FOR ADVENT: This year Englewood Review of Books launched a new feature on their website: a weekly post of four to six poems that resonate with the Revised Common Lectionary readings for that week. “We will offer here a broad selection of classic and contemporary poems from diverse poets that stir our imaginations with thoughts of how the biblical text speaks to us in the twenty-first century. We hope that these poems will be fruitful not only for preachers who will be preaching these texts on the coming Sunday, but also for church members in the pews, as a way to prime our minds for encountering the biblical texts.” I’m really enjoying these stellar selections, several of which are new to me.


EXHIBITION: Blessed Art Thou: Images of the Virgin Mary in the Ahmanson Collection, Ahmanson Gallery, Irvine, California, November 2, 2019–February 15, 2020: “Features singular works by nineteen artists that engage with the subject of the Virgin Mary. The selection of images spans five centuries and includes paintings, drawings and sculptures; the devotional sensibility of each image articulates the deep, personal journey of faith that the Ahmansons have embarked on as a couple. . . . The placement of the works in the exhibition are organized around the most commonly depicted themes of Mary throughout art history: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, and the Pietà.”

Wickman, Patty_Overshadowed
Patty Wickman (American, 1959–), Overshadowed, 2001. Oil on canvas, 78 × 104 in. Collection of Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. and Roberta Green Ahmanson.
Kurelek, William_Stand-In for the Christmas Stable, Alberta
William Kurelek (Canadian, 1927–1977), Stand-In for the Christmas Stable, Alberta, 1975. Mixed media on masonite, 24 × 24 in. Collection of Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. and Roberta Green Ahmanson.
Orta, Alfonso Castillo_Tree of Life Nativity
Alfonso Castillo Orta (Mexican, 1944–2009), Tree of Life Nativity. Hand-colored and painted ceramic, 35 × 26 × 9 in. Collection of Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. and Roberta Green Ahmanson.

LECTURE: “Blessed Art Thou: Images of the Virgin Mary in the Ahmanson Collection” by Matthew Milliner: Matthew Milliner [previously] is one of my three favorite writers/speakers/thinkers in the field of art and theology. He’s an evangelical Mariologist, I’d say, with advanced degrees in both art history and divinity and a specialization in Byzantine and medieval art. In this talk, which starts at 5:15 and is based on the catalog essay he wrote for Blessed Art Thou, Milliner says we tend to want a Mary who exists between two poles—saint-sinner, passive-active, asexual-sexual, confessional-ecumenical, cosmopolitan-local—and explores how artists, those within and without the collection at hand, have toggled between them.

I learned about several new artworks from this talk, including Helen Chadwick’s One Flesh, a Madonna and Child collage that features a floating golden placenta, and the 1941 mural by Maxo Vanka on the ceiling of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, Pennsylvania, which shows Mary interposing herself between soldiers on a battlefield. Furthermore, I appreciated the connections Milliner draws between contemporary and historical works of art: for example, his comparison of Patty Wickman’s Overshadowed to Henry Ossawa Tanner’s Annunciation, his reading of William Kurelek’s Stand-In for the Christmas Stable, Alberta as a loving critique of Edward Hopper’s lonely Gas, and his recognition of the tortilla making in Alfonso Castillo Orta’s spectacular Tree of Life Nativity (which in some ways reminds me of the Neapolitan Nativity I wrote about last Christmas) as a prophetic vignette much like Sandro Botticelli’s Madonna of the Eucharist.

There were many exciting discoveries for me here (e.g., a fifteenth-century icon of Mary confecting the Eucharist! cf. Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership, available for free download), but perhaps foremost was the “Marian male” imagery inside Saint Nicholas Kasnitzi Church in Kastoria, Greece. Milliner is clear that the Incarnation happened without any male participation (“Sorry, men in this audience: we were not involved in the salvation of the world. God did it with a woman and the Holy Spirit, without us” [34:47]). But in the final prong of his four-pronged talk, “Blessed Art Thou,” he claims that Gabriel’s salutation to Mary is addressed to all of us; we are all called, male and female alike, to bear Christ within us. And so along those lines, Milliner presents a twelfth-century fresco of Saint Menas that clearly draws on iconography of Our Lady of the Sign, showing Menas conceiving Christ in his “womb.” Wow! (Update, 3/25/20: Milliner explores this idea further in the just-published New York Times article “What Men Can Learn from Mary, Mother of Jesus.”)

St. Minas bearing Christ within
Saint Menas icon in Saint Nicholas Kasnitzi Church, Kastoria, Greece, 12th century

To view the artworks in the Blessed Art Thou exhibition, including detail shots, go to and select “Slideshow” at the bottom.


Advent albums 2019

NEW ALBUMS: ’Tis the season of new album releases! Here are a few that have caught my attention, with a favorite song from each:

Peace by Audrey Assad (Nov. 23): A mix of originals and revamps, including a Mumford & Sons cover, a retune of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and a rewrite of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” transforming it into a peace anthem: “Your Peace Will Make Us One.” (Update, 12/23/19: Shigé Clark has just written a great article about this song at the Rabbit Room: “Battle Hymn of the Body.”)

Mine eyes have seen the glory
Of the coming of the Lord
You are speaking truth to power
You are laying down our swords
Replanting every vineyard
Till a brand-new wine is poured
Your peace will make us one

I’ve seen you in our home fires
Burning with a quiet light
You are mothering and feeding
In the wee hours of the night
Your gentle love is patient
You will never fade or tire
Your peace will make us one

Glory, glory, hallelujah
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Your peace will make us one

In the beauty of the lilies
You were born across the sea
With a glory in your bosom
That is still transfiguring
Dismantling our empires
Till each one of us is free
Your peace will make us one

Glory, glory, hallelujah
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Your peace will make us one

The Beauty to Come by Nathan Partain (Nov. 30): “I did not grow up celebrating Advent. So I have been a curious student over the past 20 years as I have ministered at churches that celebrate this season. I have found it difficult yet spiritually enriching to focus each year for a season on what it means to eagerly await for Jesus to return and to see how our hearts are united with those who were so long in waiting for their messiah to be born. My hope is that through these songs, the Christmas season can be reinterpreted, expanded and deepened in a fresh way for our hearts. That we would see the birth of Jesus and the return of Jesus as a connected cosmic event which has been set in motion and will not be thwarted until it is brought to full fruition in the new heavens and the new earth being inaugurated by the literal return and reign of Jesus Christ. May we be formed to sincerely proclaim from our deepest heart, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’” Here’s “Emmanuel”:

Consolation by Drew Miller (Dec. 6): “My music is guided by St. Augustine’s insight that ‘to sing is to pray twice.’ . . . My current project explores the themes of desolation and consolation as experienced in today’s world, challenging listeners to ‘make peace, make dinner, make room.’” Consolation is a companion EP to Desolation, released in September (read more). “Psalm 126” is a standout for me—I first encountered it through a YouTube recording Drew Miller made two years ago with Janie Townsend (vocals), Lincoln Mick (mandolin), Kevin Gift Jr. (bass), and Camille Faulkner (violin). Now there’s a studio recording! Beautiful.

Laughter filled our mouths
Spread across our faces
It was like a dream
When we found how good your grace is

Those who sow with tears reap songs of joy

You have done great things
You came to us a child
We can’t help but sing
Of your glory, meek and wild

Those who sow with tears reap songs of joy

So go out in your weeping
Carrying the seed
God will surely find you
In your deepest need

Those who sow with tears reap songs of joy

No more let sin or sorrow grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found

Face of the Deep by Sister Sinjin (Dec. 6): Sister Sinjin is Elizabeth Duffy and Kaitlyn Ferry. They write, “These five songs are based on the poetry of Christina Rossetti in her book The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse. We released these songs for Advent 2019 because in this season of waiting to celebrate the incarnation we also anticipate the final unveiling. We all live and love and create and grieve between the already and the not yet, between the first coming and the second.” Such a unique source text for an Advent album, but perfectly fitting—I love it! The EP opens strong with “That We Might See.” (Note: There are slight modifications to Rossetti’s verse throughout.)

Lord, grant us eyes that we might see
Within the seed a mighty tree
Within the glowing egg a bird
Within the shroud a butterfly

Then taught by such as these we see
Beyond all creatures it is thee
And listening for thy tender voice
We hear “Fear not, for it is I”

P.S. Sister Sinjin’s debut album, Incarnation, which has just been re-released with three new tracks, is one of my favorite Advent albums, so you should definitely check that out too if you haven’t already!

6 thoughts on “Roundup: Advent art, songs, poems

  1. Marvelous post, Victoria. I was especially interested in the Ahmanson exhibit. I recently “discovered” Drew Miller through the Rabbit Room.


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