Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
Severino Blanco is a Quechuan Christian artist from Cochabamba, Bolivia. In the early 1980s he was commissioned by Father Manfred Rauh (1932–2011), a Jesuit missionary from Germany who spent most of his priestly life in Bolivia, to create a Life of Christ painting cycle for the interior of the chapel of the Casa del Catequista (CADECA), a training center for catechists. To make the gospel story really come alive for the catechists, who are mostly Quechua and Aymara, Blanco chose to set it in an Andean context, with Jesus as an indigenous South American—fully human, fully immersed in history and culture, fully for them. The images are reproduced, with commentary, in the German-language book Von Befreiung und Erlösung: Bilder in CADECA Cochabamba/Bolivien (Of Liberation and Redemption: Pictures in CADECA Cochabamba, Bolivia). A few can also be viewed online here, here, and here. The chapel was consecrated in 1984 and is still in use.
Though I couldn’t confirm it, I believe Blanco’s Simeon Blessing the Christ Child is located in the CADECA chapel. Joseph, dressed in poncho and chullo (knitted hat with earflaps), carries two little birds to present as an offering for his son’s dedication. Mary, barefoot, is dressed in a red hooded shawl and a long blue skirt—the colors traditionally associated with Mary in the West—and has just laid down what I’m guessing might be an aguayo, the sling she uses to transport Jesus on her back. (Or perhaps it’s Simeon’s hat, which he removed in reverence?) As for Jesus, he is swaddled in colorful, patterned, homespun wool. When Mary passes the babe to Simeon, he is elated to receive into his arms salvation incarnate. He turns his eyes upward to God the Father, whose presence is suggested by a golden sun-face, whose rays shine forth also in the halo of the Son. The designs on these terminals, and around the border of the painting, are deeply influenced by traditional Andean art.
“A light for revelation to the Gentiles,” salvation prepared for “all peoples”—these phrases from the lectionary jingle in my ears as I meditate on Blanco’s painting.
Here are the Artful Devotions for Candlemas from the previous two church year cycles:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
—1 Corinthians 1:18–25
SONG: “The Old Rugged Cross” | Words and music by George Bennard, 1913 | Performed by Angie Sutherland and Edgar Napier, 2019
In this recording from last year, Angie Sutherland sings “The Old Rugged Cross” with her father on their front porch in West Virginia, a favorite pastime. A few months later, on August 25, he died of cancer.
The classic hymn reflects on the paradox of the cross that Paul teases out in this week’s epistle reading: it’s both ugly and beautiful, both shameful and glorious. George Bennard, the songwriter, describes it as “the emblem of suffering and shame,” “so despised by the world,” “reproach[ful]” (disgraceful, discrediting). And yet for the Christian it “has a wondrous attraction,” “a wondrous beauty,” rough and blood-stained though it is, because the sacrifice of Christ that took place there brings about the world’s salvation. And so we love it, cherish it, cling to it, as the greatest gift and our only hope, though the world may laugh.
The paradoxical nature of the Crucifixion makes it especially challenging for artists to represent visually. How do you show something that is utterly degrading and an apparent defeat but that is actually a cosmic victory, an act of self-giving worthy of praise? Artistic renderings are often accused of being either too sanitized or too gory.
The subject of Christ’s crucifixion is rare in early Christian art, entirely absent from the catacombs and sarcophagi in Rome, and, despite its centrality in preaching and the textual theology of the church fathers, doesn’t become common until the Byzantine period—and even then it is the cross’s victory that is shown, at the expense of its shamefulness. This rejection of Crucifixion images wasn’t an issue of depicting God the Son, as he showed up in other scenes early on—feeding at his mother’s breast, talking to the woman at the well, healing the hemorrhaging woman, raising Lazarus from the dead, enthroned in heaven, and even during other stages of his passion. The rarity of the crucified Christ in art of the first several centuries of the Common Era has puzzled art historians and theologians alike, who can only speculate that the shame associated with crucifixion as a form of execution and the stigma thus attached to worshiping a crucified deity are behind it.
For the primary image of this Artful Devotion, I’ve taken a different tack and am featuring an anti-Christian image, a historical artifact from ca. 200 Rome that shows just how shameful crucifixion was. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing . . . a stumbling block . . .” It’s a graffito that was discovered in 1857 during an excavation of the ruins of a paedagogium, a boarding school for imperial page boys, on the Palatine Hill, within the emperors’ palace complex. (The school had been walled up sometime in the third century to support constructions above it.) Richard Viladesau describes the image in his book The Beauty of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts—from the Catacombs to the Eve of the Renaissance:
In an unfrequented corner of the Palatine museum in Rome there is a collection of ancient graffiti. Most visitors give them no more than a glance before passing on to the more attractive statues and artifacts. Roughly etched on slabs of marble, these inscriptions once defaced the walls of the imperial palaces that stood on the spot. Among them is one from the residence of the imperial pages called the graffito of Alexamenos. It consists of a very roughly drawn image and a few words of Greek. In style and appearance it has nothing to distinguish it from the many other similar pieces of graffiti that abound in Roman museums; but for the Christian it has a particular significance. The rough incision shows a crucified man with the head of an ass. Next to him is a smaller figure with an arm extended in his direction. Nearby are the crudely carved words ΑΛΕ ξΑΜΕΝΟϹ ϹΕΒΕΤΕ ϑΕΟΝ, “Alexamenos worships [his] God.” It is the earliest known pictorial representation of the crucifixion of Christ and of his adoration as divine. In a city so full of the triumphant monuments of Christianity, there is something strangely moving in finding this first visual testimony to the Christian faith amidst the fragments of daily life of pagan Rome; and even more so in finding it in this rude sketch, probably drawn by a palace page with cruel schoolboy humor to mock the faith of a fellow slave.
The graffito reminds us of how Christianity must have appeared to the sophisticated ancient pagan world: a strange minority religion from a small backwater of the civilized world: a religion that was centered on a man punished as a criminal with the most humiliating form of execution, and a faith practiced mostly by slaves and people of the lower classes. It reflects the Roman belief that the Jews worshipped a god with the head of an ass—a notion that was apparently also carried over to Christians. It also shows graphically the scandal of the cross to which St. Paul refers. For sophisticated Hellenistic society, the notion of a suffering god was ridiculous: an obviously mythological conception. For the adherents of popular religion, Jewish or gentile, the notion of a savior who was himself defeated by the powers of evil was equally absurd.
How did the cross, the symbol of degradation, an occasion for mockery, become the primary symbol of Christian faith? (19–20)
(That concluding question is precisely what Viladesau explores in the rest of the book, one in a series!)
As a juxtaposition to that anonymous Roman bully’s scrawl, consider the splendidly jeweled, gold repoussé cover of a Carolingian Gospel book from the court school of Charles the Bald, known as the Lindau Gospels. (It came quite a bit later, in the ninth century.) It majors on the “glory” side of Paul’s equation, even though the peripheral figures are shown in mourning.
I wonder what part of the story we lose with this beautiful, gleaming, physically strong Christ erect on his cross. And on the converse, with Crucifixion images that focus heavily on suffering, humiliation, showing a Christ who’s beaten, bloody, forsaken, and crying out in agony. Is it possible to convey both aspects of the Crucifixion—the shame and the glory, the pain and transcendence—simultaneously? Can you name any artists who have done so successfully? (I have some thoughts, but I want to hear yours!) Or do we need a plenitude of Crucifixion images to hold one another in check and to help us more fully abide in the multifaceted mystery that is the death of Christ? Or, whether the Crucifixion image is, at face value, repellent or attractive, is that irrelevant—does the Christian viewer simply bring his or her theology to the image, reading into an ugly Crucifixion the beautiful redemption wrought by such a sacrifice, or into a beautiful Crucifixion the ugliness of humanity’s depravity that led to such (implicit) suffering?
This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.
To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, cycle A, click here.
But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.”
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
The Jewish prophet Isaiah was active during the Assyrian captivity in the second half of the eighth century B.C. The Israelite lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were, along with Gilead in Transjordan, the first to fall to Assyria; the people were deported, and their lands became Assyrian provinces. But these three areas, according to Isaiah 9:1, would also be the first to see the dawning of a glorious new era, where the people step out of darkness and desolation into the fruits of God’s victory, and all military equipment is cast once and for all into an enormous bonfire, for war is over, and oppression is no more.
The future is written as something which has already happened, for it belonged to the prophetic consciousness of men like Isaiah to cast themselves forward in time and then look back on the mighty acts of God, saying to us: ‘Look forward to it, it is certain, he has already done it!’ Because of this confidence, Isaiah can place the light of 9:1ff. in immediate proximity to the darkness of 8:22, not because it will immediately happen but because it is immediately evident to the eye of faith; those walking in the darkness can see the light ahead and are sustained by hope. . . .
Isaiah insists here that hope is a present reality, part of the constitution of the ‘now’. The darkness is true but it is not the whole truth and certainly not the fundamental truth. (98–99)
This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.
To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, cycle A, click here.
EVERYPSALM: Over the next three years, indie-folk duo Poor Bishop Hooper (whom I blurbed here) will be writing and releasing one biblical psalm setting per week, sequentially from Psalm 1 to Psalm 150. And they are very graciously making all these songs available to download for free! They’ve already released the first three, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying them. To sign up to receive a weekly download link in your inbox, visit https://www.everypsalm.com/. You may also want to consider giving to the project.
PHOTO SERIES: Un-Daily Bread by Gregg Segal: For his latest project, US-based photographer Gregg Segal has been photographing Venezuelan immigrants with the entirety of their belongings lying around them. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an organization that Segal is collaborating with, the number of people in Venezuela forced to leave their homes due to violence, insecurity, threats, and/or lack of essential services keeps increasing, with more than 4.6 million refugees and migrants from the country living around the world, mostly in South America. In the photograph below, you can see a young mother and her two children surrounded by a few changes of clothes, a doll, a baby bottle, medicine, diapers, arepas, and a Bible. The three traveled over six hundred miles from Maracaibo to Bogotá, hitching rides and catching buses.
Un-Daily Bread it is an offshoot of Segal’s Daily Bread series, in which he photographed images of kids from around the world surrounded by what they eat each day.
LITURGY: Impelled by the various antagonisms that have been on the rise both domestically and abroad, Aaron Niequist has written and compiled a ten-page Liturgy for Peacemakers, which includes a call to worship, two songs, a confession of sin and assurance of pardon, scripture readings, and prayers, including one minute of holy space each to pray for a global enemy, a local enemy, and a personal enemy. The liturgy, which focuses on shaping us to be instruments of God’s peace in the world, is free for you to use in your living rooms and/or churches, and to adapt in any way you wish.
EXHIBITION: Andy Warhol: Revelation, October 20, 2019–February 16, 2020, Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh: Ever since reading Jane Daggett Dillenberger’s illuminating book The Religious Art of Andy Warhol(1998), I’ve been interested to explore more deeply the Byzantine Catholicism of Andy Warhol and how it influenced his art. (I was surprised to learn, for example, that although he had a complicated relationship with Christianity, Warhol regularly attended Mass, wore a cross around his neck, carried a pocket missal and rosary, and prayed daily with his mother in Old Slavonic over the forty years he lived with her.) A pioneer of the pop art movement best known for his silkscreen prints of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s soup cans, Warhol also made giant cross paintings as well as screen prints of famous Renaissance religious paintings in full or in detail (by Piero della Francesca, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci)—especially The Last Supper, his last and largest series. Jesus is surely a part of American pop culture, so Warhol’s use of such imagery is not all that unusual in light of his larger oeuvre. But is there anything more to this choice of subject?
I’ll be driving to Pittsburgh next weekend, where Warhol grew up, to see an exhibition of his religious works curated by José Carlos Diaz from the Andy Warhol Museum’s permanent collection. I’ll also be attending a lecture at the museum given by Jonathan A. Anderson, titled “Religion in an Age of Mass Media: Andy Warhol’s Catholicism.” (It’s January 25 at 6 p.m. Update: Watch the lecture on YouTube.) In and around Pittsburgh is also where Fred Rogers (of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fame) spent most of his life, so I’ll be visiting a few key spots related to him as well!
EXHIBITION: Scott Avett: INVISIBLE, October 12, 2019–February 2, 2020, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh: “Internationally recognized as co-founder of the band The Avett Brothers, Scott Avett has been a working artist, focusing on painting and printmaking, since he earned a BFA in studio art from East Carolina University in 2000. But until now this art-making part of his life has been a secret and a more solitary creative pursuit in comparison to his life as a musician, singer, and songwriter. This solo exhibition features Avett’s large-scale oil paintings. These are psychologically charged and emotionally intense portraits focused on his family and himself—often intimate, vulnerable, and sometimes uncomfortably truthful portrayals. Like his songs, Avett’s paintings speak to universal issues of spirituality and struggle, love and loss, heartache and joy, as well as more personal stories of career, family, and living in the South.”
As an Avett Brothers fan, I made it a point to see this exhibition in December when I was visiting family for Christmas, and actually, it exceeded my expectations. It was endearing to see portraits of Avett’s three children tumbling around, swinging, engaged in deep thought at the dinner table, playacting as monsters, wailing—and he and his wife in the middle of it all, experiencing both the joys and stresses of parenting. My favorite pieces were probably the companion paintings Motherhood and Fatherhood, which show the messiness of those callings.
Fatherhood is one of several self-portraits in the show. The one that’s most prominently displayed, right at the entrance, is Black Mouse, White Mouse, which references Leo Tolstoy’s personal essay “A Confession,” about an existential crisis. In it Tolstoy recounts a fable of a man who falls into a well with a dragon at the bottom. On his way down he grabs hold of a branch growing out of the wall, but it’s being nibbled by two mice, and his fall to death is imminent. This scenario is representative of where we all find ourselves: finite beings in an infinite world, dangling over the abyss. There are four possible ways to respond, says Tolstoy: ignorance, epicureanism, suicide, or hanging on to life. He thinks suicide the most logical but says he lacks the nerve to carry it out.
Tolstoy then launches into metaphysical musings, grappling with the question of God’s existence, when suddenly, he has an epiphany that “God is Life,” and that “I live, really live, only when I feel Him and seek Him.” He continues, “I returned to the belief in that Will which produced me and desires something of me. I returned to the belief that the chief and only aim of my life is to be better, i.e. to live in accord with that Will. And I returned . . . to a belief in God . . .”
Avett’s spirituality isn’t overt in any of the paintings, but it’s been interesting to hear him open up more about that aspect of himself in artist talks and interviews. In an October talk, for example, he said, “I’m a true believer that every single one of us is a beloved son or daughter of God, period. I know that for certain. And because of that, this [pointing to himself] isn’t the only bright shining person in this room. It’s insane how true that is. . . . I’ve just always lived like that—like someone was watching. It was God the whole time; he was right there with me and in me, the whole time. When I was younger it was so much easier to access that. And now growing older, it’s about opening up to access that again.”
SONG: “Offertory” by John Ness Beck, performed by Future:Past: Micah 6:8 has, for me, functioned as what some would call a “life verse”: a guiding principle that I return to again and again to reorient myself to the divine will. I long to be the kind of person the verse describes: one who does justice, loves mercy, and walks humbly with God. Thanks to Paul Neeley at Global Christian Worship, I’ve just been made aware of a beautiful musical setting of this passage, which happens to be one of the Revised Common Lectionary readings for February 2 this year.
“With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
The music was composed in the second half of the twentieth century by John Ness Beck and was adapted for TTBB (tenor-tenor-bass-bass) by Craig Courtney—performed here a cappella by Josh Adams, Davis Gibson, Jon Kok, and Matthew Reiskytl of the Christian music and media ministry Future:Past. To purchase sheet music for “Offertory” (available in SATB, SSA, and TTBB voicings, with keyboard and optional string quartet), click here.
I waited patiently for the LORD;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the LORD.
SONG: “Oh, He’s Taken My Feet” | Early American folk hymn, performed by Lucy Simpson, with Rock Creek (Bill Destler, Wally Macnow, Tom McHenry), Mary Alice Amidon, Peter Amidon, and Caroline Paton, on Sharon Mountain Harmony: A Golden Ring of Gospel (1982, 2002)
Lucy Picco Simpson (1940–2006) was a prodigious collector of old hymns, amassing four hundred hymnals, mostly from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, over her lifetime. From their pages she would dig out old gems and help revive them—such as “Oh, He’s Taken My Feet.” After recording the song for Folk-Legacy Records in 1982, it was picked up by folk singers Jean Redpath and Lisa Neustadt in 1986, and thenceforth by others.
Sharon Mountain Harmony, where Simpson’s simple rendition appears, is one of my favorite albums. In his 1983 review for the Washington Post, Richard Harrington wrote,
On “Sharon Mountain Harmony” the inspiration is the particularly rich motherlode of gospel song, both black and white traditions. Rock Creek [the vocal trio comprising Wally Macnow, Tom McHenry, and Bill Destler] shares the album with Lucy Simpson of Brooklyn, and Mary Alice and Peter Amidon of Vermont. Simpson and Rock Creek alternate leads while providing a constant, thick backing of informal and earthy harmonies with heavenly aspirations. The singing is comfortable, unhurried. No matter which voice leads – Simpson’s ethereal and soft soprano, Bill Destler’s gentle tenor or Wally McHenry’s persuasive baritone – it’s the richness of the ensemble, the entrancing vocal weaves, that make this album a quiet gem. Another plus is the choice of material. All 16 songs are deeply rooted in prayer meetings, crusty hymnals and songbooks, revival tents, amen corners, rural radio programs; they come from the land and they’ve been well-used. There’s the clipped bluegrass harmony of “Glory Bound,” the shape-note urgency of “There Are Angels Hovering Round,” the exuberant Baptist release of “Oh, He’s Taken My Feet” and “Trouble So Hard,” the spiritual grace of “Blessed Quietness” and “Time Has Made a Change in Me,” the calming reassurance of “I Will Arise.” These are all wonderful songs, beautifully displayed. They reflect intensely personal convictions and a tremendous respect for the grace of unadorned voices singing from the heart.
Folk artist Sam Amidon, one of the sons of Peter and Mary Alice Amidon (who sing on Sharon Mountain Harmony), learned “Oh, He’s Taken My Feet” from Lucy Simpson, a family friend. Music critic Ryan Foley calls Amidon a “clever re-inventor, overly ambitious re-animator, whiz-bang music folklorist, fusty archivist . . . disassembling and then reconstructing antiquated sacred songs, secular ballads, and folk tunes.”
That’s what he does with this song on his 2013 album Bright Sunny South. “Brimming with unexpected shifts and subtleties,” Amidon’s arrangement of “He’s Taken My Feet” “begin[s] with a spare guitar and voice, [then is] slowly joined by hints of trumpet, understated fretless bass, and other elements until the song, very gradually, grows to a burning climax of dissonant guitars, synths, and explosive drums” (Fred Thomas). The sonic chaos at the end lasts almost a full two minutes and represents “the mire and the clay”—all that pulls us down, gets us stuck.
The melancholic tone that culminates in clashing is not what you’d expect from a psalm of testimony about the rock-solid stability God provides. But when the song is taken in context of the whole biblical psalm on which it is based, which vacillates between praise and lament, it makes perfect sense. Psalm 40 opens by celebrating the deliverance God has wrought in the past, but then it moves into the miry present, where the psalmist is in need of another deliverance:
For evils have encompassed me
my iniquities have overtaken me,
and I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head;
my heart fails me.
Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me!
O LORD, make haste to help me!
. . .
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God! (vv. 12–13, 17b)
Amidon’s arrangement of “He’s Taken My Feet” captures the believer’s struggle through adverse circumstances to find firm footing once again on the “Rock of Ages.” From within the fray the speaker remembers God’s faithfulness, sings God’s faithfulness, and that weary song creates anticipation for yet another act of divine rescue.
This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.
To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, cycle A, click here.
This article contains a synopsis of sorts, which means there are some mild “spoilers.” Page numbers are from the Picador Modern Classics edition, published in 2015.
A masterpiece of twentieth-century literature, Jesus’ Son (1992) by Denis Johnson is a semiautobiographical collection of loosely linked short stories narrated by a twenty-something male drug addict named F***head (“FH” for short). The book, set in the early 1970s, has nothing to do with a holy bloodline; its title refers to two lines from the Lou Reed song “Heroin,” which are given as the epigraph:
When I’m rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus’ Son . . .
FH’s drug-induced escapades constitute the main narrative, which meanders through vignettes that are by turns mundane, repulsive, darkly comic, or just pathetic. Some of the events, like Georgie’s acts of life-saving heroism, are likely hallucinated (FH’s narration is unreliable). But over all the depravity, boredom, and pain that feature prominently in the book, a subtle through line of redemption winds haphazardly, as FH searches for spiritual purpose and connection, for someone “who knew my real name” (111).
Part of this search involves his struggle to overcome the emotional numbness that prevents him from feeling both happiness and pain. In the opening story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” a married couple traveling with their infant picks up FH on the side of the road and soon after collides with an oncoming car. At the hospital, FH twistedly muses on how “wonderful” and radiant the newly widowed woman’s wail is:
Down the hall came the wife. She was glorious, burning. She didn’t know yet that her husband was dead. We knew. That’s what gave her such power over us. The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere. (12)
FH feels completely detached from the woman’s grief and yet envious of it—a grief so raw, so real. He wishes he could feel as deeply as her.
This desire to feel something, anything, is what attracts him to the passionate Michelle, who so often sweeps him up into her passion, whether it be angry or romantic. Their relationship is volatile:
When we were arguing on my twenty-fourth birthday, she left the kitchen, came back with a pistol, and fired it at me five times from right across the table. But she missed. It wasn’t my life she was after. It was more. She wanted to eat my heart and be lost in the desert with what she’d done, she wanted to fall on her knees and give birth from it, she wanted to hurt me as only a child can be hurt by its mother. (116)
FH’s desperate pursuit of aliveness leads him to drugs, under whose influence he receives visions—a naked woman parasailing (embodying pure freedom), a mysterious man on the subway whose “chest was like Christ’s” (“I decided to follow him,” 108), and a Jacob’s ladder:
We bumped softly down a hill toward an open field that seemed to be a military graveyard, filled with rows and rows of austere identical markers over soldiers’ graves. I’d never before come across this cemetery. On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity. The sight of them cut through my heart and down the knuckles of my spine, and if there’d been anything in my bowels I would have messed my pants from fear.
Georgie opened his arms and cried out, “It’s the drive-in, man!”
“The drive-in . . .” I wasn’t sure what these words meant.
“They’re showing movies in a f***ing blizzard!” Georgie screamed.
“I see. I thought it was something else,” I said. (91–92)
Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.
Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
“I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the LORD; that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to carved idols.
Behold, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth
I tell you of them.”
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
You yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. . . .
He is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.
Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,
great David’s greater Son!
Hail in the time appointed,
his reign on earth begun!
He comes to break oppression,
to set the captive free;
to take away transgression,
and rule in equity.
He comes with succor speedy
to those who suffer wrong;
to help the poor and needy,
and bid the weak be strong;
to give them songs for sighing,
their darkness turn to light,
whose souls, condemned and dying,
are precious in his sight.
He shall come down like showers
upon the fruitful earth;
love, joy, and hope, like flowers,
spring in his path to birth.
Before him on the mountains
shall peace, the herald, go,
and righteousness, in fountains,
from hill to valley flow.
To him shall prayer unceasing
and daily vows ascend;
his kingdom still increasing,
a kingdom without end.
The tide of time shall never
his covenant remove;
his name shall stand forever;
that name to us is love.
The dome of the great sixth-century Arian Baptistery in Ravenna, Italy, shows, in glimmering mosaic, a young, beardless, fully nude Christ standing waist-deep in the waters of the Jordan as John the Baptist, dressed in leopard skin, anoints him—the archetypal event for the liturgy that used to be performed below. And actually, the anointing water in this representation comes from the beak of a dove, God the Holy Spirit.
The old man on the left is a personification of the Jordan River, whose attributes are derived from that of the Hellenistic river gods. He holds a reed in his hand and leans against a spilled jar, from whose mouth flows the river water, while from his head there sprouts a pair of red crab claws. He is clothed in the same moss that covers the rock John stands on.
Around this central scene, which is framed by a laurel wreath, is a procession of the twelve apostles, led by Peter (the gray-haired man with the key) and Paul (the dark-haired man with the scrolls). The apostles carry jeweled crowns in their veiled hands—a sign of humility—as they make their way to the empty throne of Christ’s promised return, the hetoimasia, prepared with a plush purple cushion and jeweled cross.
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands
render him tribute;
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations serve him!
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
SONG: “Behold That Star” or “Behold the Star” | Negro spiritual | Performed by various artists (see below)
I first heard this song years ago on Pete Seeger’s Traditional Christmas Carols (1967; reissued 1989), one of my favorite Christmas albums.
William L. Dawson’s choral arrangement, recorded by the St. Olaf Choir in 1997, has become the standard for choirs all over the country. The recording features, as soloist, African American operatic soprano Marvis Martin:
For a gospel version, check out Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians’ album Christmas Time (1955, reissued 2015), which combines the song with “Carol of the Bells”:
Or the version by James Cleveland with the Angelic Choir and the Cleveland Singers on Merry Christmas (1969, reissued 1987):
One of the most upbeat gospel renditions is by the Patterson Singers from 1963:
There’s also a much slower R&B rendition from Black Nativity: A Gospel Christmas Musical Experience, a musical produced by Dominion Entertainment Group in Atlanta and adapted from the 1961 song play by Langston Hughes. (“Behold That Star” is not in the Hughes original.) I couldn’t find who arranged this version, but the performers are Lawrence Flowers, Benjamin Moore, and Brandin Jay. Oddly (and perhaps under the influence of the song “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow”), this production has the song being sung by shepherds rather than wise men:
You can also find numerous recordings of “Behold That Star” being performed by children’s choirs, its simplicity making it accessible to young ages. It was one of several spirituals and other classics the kiddos at my church sang in our 2018 Christmas play (see video below). I’m at the piano playing from the African American Heritage Hymnal, no. 216, transposed down three half-steps to D; the arrangement is by Nolan Williams Jr. (I’m still woefully lacking in the ability to embellish in a gospel style, I’m afraid!)
Clementine (pronounced KLEH-mehn-teen) Hunter was a self-taught Afro-Creole artist known for depicting life in the Cane River region of central Louisiana, especially in and around Melrose Plantation, where she worked as a farm laborer for most of her life, even into old age. She didn’t begin painting until she was in her fifties, and she would do it at night on whatever surfaces she could find—window shades, jugs, bottles, gourds, snuff boxes, iron pots.
During her early art career she would sell her paintings at the local drugstore for a dollar or less, but by the time of her death, her paintings were selling to dealers for thousands. She received significant recognition during her lifetime, including from US presidents. Today her work can be found in the collections of the Smithsonian, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and other prestigious institutions.
In the Christmas-/Epiphanytide painting reproduced above, Christ is born on Melrose Plantation in the southern US, surrounded by sheep and chickens and horses and palm trees. On the left a black angel leads a pregnant black Mary down a footpath to a farmhouse, while on the other side Mary sits on a stool with the newborn Jesus in her lap and Joseph behind her, as three men in wide-brimmed hats come bearing gourds as gifts. Above the scene is the giant yellow star that led these men to the spot, and two white-clad angels (with a scattered choir of others) trumpeting the good news of the Savior’s birth.
The magi were a subject Hunter turned to in many of her paintings. Here’s another fine example:
I love how Hunter was able to see the sacred in the everyday—God’s grand story unfolding in her immediate environs. It reminds me of a poem by Wendell Berry from A Timbered Choir that begins,
Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe . . .
Written in 1941 by Katherine Kennicott Davis, “Carol of the Drum,” later retitled “The Little Drummer Boy,” tells the story of a poor boy who cannot afford to bring any material gifts to the newborn Christ child, so instead he brings a heartfelt drum song.
Come, they told me Pa rum pum pum pum
A newborn king to see Pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring Pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the king Pa rum pum pum pum Rum pum pum pum Rum pum pum pum
So to honor him Pa rum pum pum pum
When we come
Little baby Pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too Pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring Pa rum pum pum pum
That’s fit to give a king Pa rum pum pum pum Rum pum pum pum Rum pum pum pum
Shall I play for you Pa rum pum pum pum
On my drum
Mary nodded Pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for him Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for him Pa rum pum pum pum Rum pum pum pum Rum pum pum pum
Then he smiled at me Pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum
The song has been recorded hundreds of times, even serving as the basis of an animated children’s movie, and yet it often makes the top of “most hated Christmas carols” lists. It’s far too sentimental, people say, or just plain annoying. Some Christians get in a huff about the invented drummer boy character; “there was no such boy at the birth!” they insist.
But I must admit, I rather like the song. Like the story of the widow’s mite, “The Little Drummer Boy” affirms that no gift offered in love is insignificant. The child has no gold, frankincense, or myrrh to offer to God, but he offers his very self, which is no meager thing. He brings his love and devotion. This idea of bringing a sacrificeof praise for the Savior’s birthday is found in other carols too, such as “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “What Can I Give” (Mahalia Jackson).
Here I’d like to call out four global renditions of “The Little Drummer Boy.” I know the song has been performed in many languages and countries, but these four have distinct cultural flavors that make them unique among the many covers of the carol over the years.
Nigeria: Alex Boyé, feat. Genesis Choir, 2015
Alex Boyé is a British-born singer, dancer, and actor of Nigerian descent. He became a Mormon in 1986 at age sixteen, moved to Salt Lake City in 2000, and became a US citizen in 2012. He is known for his uplifting African-infused pop music, much of it of a religious nature.
In 2015 Boyé created a music video for an “African tribal version” of “The Little Drummer Boy,” which starts with a mother and her two daughters being evicted from their home. A neighbor lets them stay in his RV, but they are obviously dejected. Over this introductory narrative, Boyé sings “Nearer, My God, to Thee”:
Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer to thee!
E’en though it be a cross
That raiseth me.
Then a knock comes at the door of the camper. It’s a bright-eyed little African drummer boy, come to cheer up the family. The mom dismisses him, but another knock brings her to the door once more. This time it’s the whole neighborhood, bearing a song, a dance, and gifts.
Oluwa! Olodumare! Olorun! Boyé exclaims before he and his troupe break out into their syncopated number. These are Yoruba names for God, so this is a way, I’d imagine, of marking the song as one of worship, suggesting that the love of neighbor expressed through the characters’ gift giving is an extension of their love of God.
India: Terry McDade and the McDades, feat. Cassius Khan, 2004
The McDades are siblings Shannon Johnson (fiddle, vocals), Solon McDade (upright bass, vocals), and Jeremiah McDade (woodwinds, vocals, etc.), hailing from Canada. Their music is multicultural to begin with, blending Celtic, jazz, Canadian folk, and worldbeat influences. It’s hard to categorize, and that’s one of the things I like about it.
They sometimes perform with their dad, harpist Terry McDade, as on the album Noël. For their mostly instrumental rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy,” they also collaborated with classical Indian musician Cassius Khan, who plays the tabla (drum) and tanpura (drone) on the track, as well as sings the opening vocals.
Shannon plays the violin and Jeremiah plays the bansuri (Indian bamboo flute).
Because of the group’s improvisatory approach to music making (and a change in guest percussionist), the studio recording sounds quite different from the live stage performance from 2016, which features Eric Breton on frame drum (in place of Khan on tabla), Andrew Hillhouse on acoustic guitar, Solon McDade on upright bass, Terry McDade on harp, and a chamber orchestra:
There are no Indian musicians in this performance, so it doesn’t have as strong of an Indian feel, and in fact the drum has a smaller role overall, giving way in parts to a full orchestral sound. Also, Khan’s classical Indian singing at the beginning of the song on the album is replaced here by Jeremiah McDade’s Tuvan throat singing!
“El Pequeño Cantor (Little Drummer Boy)” appears on the 2009 compilation album Natale a Cuba [Spotify], whose metadata credits “Tania Tania” as the singer and Luis Ríos (born 1963) as the arranger. I wasn’t able to find any information about the singer, whom I suspect goes by just the first name Tania, or when the song was originally recorded. And I don’t know enough about Cuban music to identify the genre. But I really like this fun, danceable arrangement.
Norway:Eva Holm Foosnæs (arr.) and theNTNU Department of Music, 2016
OK, so Norway is not known for its drumming as are Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, so this arrangement, by Eva Holm Foosnæs, is not as rhythmic as the others, nor is there anything particularly “Norwegian” about the music that I can tell, other than that it’s performed by singers and instrumentalists from Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim. But the gorgeous regional landscapes in which the music video was shot—over snowy mountain paths, through evergreen forests—give the song a magical, wintry, dark, folklorish feel that I associate with Scandinavia.
This feel comes across too in the dramatic swells and minor chords of the music.
The singers are Magnus Fremstad, Sivert Jullumstrø, Thale Jørstad, Torunn Kroknes, Eline Kolstad, Trygve Misvær, Fredrick Skjeldal, and Frida Skotte. The strings players are Björn Guo, Astri C. Hoffman, Anders Holmås, Anders H. Rove, and Carl N. Wika. And the percussionist is Henriette Kolset (a drummer girl—nice!).
Are there any culturally specific renditions of “The Little Drummer Boy” that you know of and enjoy? I was hoping to find one from Japan, as I love listening to taiko drumming, but had no luck.
A professional studio recording by the Eric Whitacre Singers was released on the 2010 album Light & Gold:
Calida gravisque pura velut aurum
Et canunt angeli molliter
warm and heavy as pure gold
and angels sing softly
to the new-born babe.
“The Virtual Choir is a global phenomenon, creating a user-generated choir that brings together singers from around the world and their love of music in a new way through the use of technology. Singers record and upload their videos from locations all over the world. Each one of the videos is then synchronised and combined into one single performance to create the Virtual Choir.” With 185 singers from twelve countries, “Lux Aurumque” was the Virtual Choir’s first project. Four other songs have since followed, the latest one featuring more than eight thousand singers, ages four to eighty-seven, from 120 countries.