Holy Thursday: Mount of Olives

And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

—Luke 22:39–46 (emphasis added)

LOOK: Abraham Rattner (American, 1895–1978), Martyr, 1944. Oil on canvas, 32 × 24 in. (81.3 × 61 cm). Private collection.

Rattner, Abraham_Martyr

Jewish artist Abraham Rattner did not specify the identity of the figure in his 1944 painting Martyr, but he painted many images of the passion of Christ during the forties, so it’s likely meant to be a part of that body of work. Because the man’s hands are clasped together, I’m assuming it represents the Agony in the Garden (as opposed to the dead Christ supported by angels).

Luke is the only Gospel writer to mention that in response to Jesus’s anguished pleas in Gethsemane, an angel came down to “strengthen” (enischýō) him. Renaissance artists almost always included an angel in the scene, but at a remove—usually hovering over the mount or peeping out of a cloud, presenting to Jesus the cup of suffering. Often Jesus is shown with a beatific glance upward.

What Rattner gives us, though, is a much more intimate interaction, made all the more so by its being tightly cropped. The angel firmly yet tenderly embraces Jesus’s slumped body, weak with exhaustion and dripping with blood and sweat; the pressure of his grip around arm and torso is palpable. Empathetic, the angel closes his eyes as if trying to absorb Jesus’s pain, to feel it along with him. The two faces appear to merge.

Physical contact between the divinely sent minister and his charge at Gethsemane is not unheard of in the Old Masters; see, for example, Veronese, Giacinto Brandi, Francesco Trevisani, Adriaen van de Velde. But I think Rattner paints it best, capturing a compassionate moment while avoiding mawkishness.

The angel’s simply being there, present to Jesus’s sorrow, doesn’t immediately soften the tension Jesus holds in his body or eliminate his fears. But it does reinvigorate his trust in the Father’s will and prepares him to accept the cup, to drink its bitterness to the dregs.

I wonder how long the angel stayed with Jesus that night. That week. Perhaps the angel strengthened him at other points during his passion too?

LISTEN: “’Tis Midnight, and on Olive’s Brow” | Words by William B. Tappan, 1822

’Tis midnight, and on Olive’s brow
The star is dimmed that lately shone;
’Tis midnight in the garden now,
The suff’ring Savior prays alone.

’Tis midnight, and from all removed,
The Savior wrestles lone with fears—
E’en that disciple whom he loved
Heeds not his Master’s grief and tears.

’Tis midnight, and for others’ guilt
The Man of Sorrows weeps in blood;
Yet he that hath in anguish knelt
Is not forsaken by his God.

’Tis midnight, and from ether plains
Is borne the song that angels know;
Unheard by mortals are the strains
That sweetly soothe the Savior’s woe.

In this hymn the Rev. William B. Tappan of Massachusetts does not indicate the physical presence of an angel with Jesus in Gethsemane but instead imagines a faint waft of angelic song, heard only by Jesus, servicing Jesus’s spirit in his moment of intense need. A fanciful touch, but sure! The repetition of “’tis midnight” at the beginning of each stanza emphasizes the deep darkness—physical, psychological, and spiritual—of that Thursday night when Jesus was forcibly seized from prayer to be put to death on a cross.

I’m not a fan of the traditional tune by William B. Bradbury that’s used in hymnals for this text, though the Green Carpet Players have a fine recording of it. The hymn first came alive to me through a modern retune by The Wilders, sung with a simple banjo accompaniment. Shortly after, I discovered another compelling retune by Hymn Factory, a moody jazz waltz.

>> Music by Eve Sheldon of The Wilders, on On the Wings of a Dove (2002, re-released 2007)

>> Music by Patty Chung of Hymn Factory, on Guide Me: Treasured Hymn Verses in Melodious Pop Songs (2006)

Both these songs appear on the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist.

Spy Wednesday: Fear

When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.”

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.” . . .

Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.

—Matthew 26:1–5, 14–16

It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest [Jesus] by stealth and kill him, for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.” . . .

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him.

—Mark 14:1–2, 10–11

Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to put [Jesus] to death, for they feared the people.

Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them. And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. So he consented and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of a crowd.

—Luke 22:1–5

Holy Wednesday is commonly referred to as Spy Wednesday, as it’s the day Judas negotiated with the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council) to betray Jesus. The religious leaders had been had been plotting to get rid of Jesus since the beginning of his ministry, really; for example, Mark the Evangelist notes that after Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, “the Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (Mark 3:6). They didn’t like Jesus’s interpretations of God’s law. And they certainly didn’t like his claiming to be the Son of God—blasphemy.

Their plotting kicks into high gear this week, when they get an insider from Jesus’s traveling band to surreptitiously report on his activity and whereabouts, which will enable them to swoop in for an arrest.

LOOK: Maynard Dixon (American, 1875–1946), Shapes of Fear, 1930–32. Oil on canvas, 40 × 501⁄8 in. (101.5 × 127.3 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. [object record]

Dixon, Maynard_Shapes of Fear

In this painting by Maynard Dixon, four shadowy figures, cloaked and hooded, stand on a mound of earth. They move clandestinely, at dusk, it appears. One of them faces us directly, but his face is missing, evoking a sense of menace.   

I first encountered Shapes of Fear at one of my local museums a few years ago and was transfixed by it. There was no description to contextualize the scene.

I am reminded of the chief priests, scribes, and elders, who acted stealthily to see that this Jesus fellow, so-called Son of God, was done away with. Fear was a big motivator for them. Fear of losing their power, of God’s truth being corrupted, of a changing status quo, of confronting their own hypocrisy. Mark 11:18 states it outright: “And the chief priests and the scribes heard it [Jesus’s rebuke of the money-changers in the temple] and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching” (emphasis added).

Some churches hold a Tenebrae (Latin for “shadows” or “darkness”) service on Spy Wednesday, which involves a gradual extinguishing of candles along with readings from the passion narratives.

LISTEN: “The Hour” by Joseph Tawadros, on The Hour of Separation (2010)

Egyptian Australian musician Joseph Tawadros [previously] is one of the world’s leading oud (fretless lute) players and is credited with expanding the instrument’s notoriety in mainstream Western culture. In this piece he performs alongside his percussionist brother, James Tawadros; drummer Jack DeJohnette; guitarist John Abercrombie; and bassist John Patitucci. The latter three are jazz heavyweights from New York.

Several times in the Gospels, Jesus refers forebodingly to “the hour” in which he will be captured, tortured, and killed. After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem he tells the crowds that followed him that “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23), and he goes on to talk parabolically about his death. In his Farewell Discourse, he tells his disciples that “behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone” (John 16:32). And a few beats later, in John 17:1, Jesus “lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you . . .’”

In the parallel account of Gethsemane in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus prays that “the hour might pass from him” (Mark 14:35), and when God declines the request, Jesus concedes that “the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners” (Mark 14:41).

For more songs for Holy Week, see the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist.

Holy Monday: Expulsion

And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”

—Matthew 21:12–13 (cf. Mark 11:15–17; Luke 19:45–46)

During Jesus’s visit to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, he was enraged to find in the outer court of the temple opportunistic businessmen setting up shop, charging Jewish pilgrims from throughout the Diaspora exorbitant rates to exchange their coins for temple currency so that they could purchase the requisite animal sacrifices. Pigeons and doves, the poor man’s offering (Lev. 5:7), were also price-gouged. Jesus wouldn’t stand for this exploitation, especially not in his Father’s house. Nor could he allow such commercial hustle and bustle in a space demarcated for prayer. Nuh-uh. No sir.

So he flipped over the sales tables and drove out the offenders. John recounts a similar episode at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry (John 2:13–17), mentioning the use of a makeshift whip!

Mark places this event on Monday, the day after the triumphal entry.

[Related post: “Turn Over the Tables (Artful Devotion)”]

LOOK: Quentin Matsys (Flemish, 1466–1530), Jesus Chasing the Merchants from the Temple, 1520s. Oil on panel, 50 × 39 cm. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp.

Matsys, Quentin_Jesus Chasing the Merchants from the Temple

LISTEN: Piano Concerto No. 1, third movement: Toccata con fuoco by Keith Emerson, 1977 | Performed by the English progressive rock group Emerson, Lake & Palmer with the London Philharmonic, on Works: Volume 1 (1977)

A toccata is a virtuosic piece of music featuring fast finger work; con fuoco means “with fire.”

For more songs for Holy Week, see the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist.

Palm Sunday: Sannanina (Hosanna)

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’” And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. And some of those standing there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”

—Mark 11:1–10

LOOK: Betty LaDuke (American, 1933–), Guatemala: Procession, 1978. Acrylic on canvas, 72 × 68 in.

LaDuke, Betty_Guatemala-Procession

In Imaging the Word, vol. 3, the artist describes the inspiration behind this painting:

Before Christmas, at the Mayan village of Chichicastenango in Guatemala, statues of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints are . . . carried aloft in an annual procession. In my painting Guatemala: Procession, Christ appears on a donkey surrounded by the masks worn by the Mayans who dance to honor and celebrate their indigenous roots. They also dance a re-enactment of the brutal Spanish invasion, with satirical masks representing conquistadores. Inside the church many candles are lit and prayers are offered. (181)

So it seems LaDuke has imagined Christ entering this Maya community of Christian celebrants who remember biblical history alongside their history as a people. This isn’t a Palm Sunday image per se, since it visualizes a procession that occurs toward the beginning of the liturgical year, but Jesus’s presence in the center on donkeyback, in a gateway backlit with glorious yellow, flanked by crowds and with angels overhead, evokes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem five days before his death.

LISTEN: “Sanna, Sannanina,” traditional South African

“Sannanina” is a Xhosa derivate of the Greek word “Hosanna,” which is itself a transliteration of a Hebrew phrase that means “Save us, please!” (For more on the word “hosanna” and how its meaning shifted from a cry for help to a shout of exultation—“Salvation!”—read here.) In the first video below, the song is performed by the Africa University Choir. The second video is a demo produced by MennoMedia in preparation for the publication of the Mennonite hymnal Voices Together in 2020.

For more songs for Holy Week, see the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist.

Thorns and resurrection with Paul van Dongen

Thistles, seaweed, ivy, and other plants and flowers appear often in the work of Dutch artist Paul van Dongen [previously], whose creative output includes a series of etchings titled Crown of Thorns. Made in 2004–5, shortly after his return to the Christian faith, each of these pieces portrays a ring of twining briars that evoke the headpiece forced mockingly on Jesus prior to his execution.

Dongen, Paul van_Crown of Thorns (2)
Paul van Dongen (Dutch, 1958–), Crown of Thorns (2), 2004. Etching, 25 × 37 cm. All photos courtesy of artist.

Dongen, Paul van_Crown of Thorns (3)
Paul van Dongen (Dutch, 1958–), Crown of Thorns (3), 2004. Etching, 28 × 40 cm.

Dongen, Paul van_Crown of Thorns (4)
Paul van Dongen (Dutch, 1958–), Crown of Thorns (4), 2004. Etching, 25 × 37 cm.

Dongen, Paul van_Crown of Thorns (5)
Paul van Dongen (Dutch, 1958–), Crown of Thorns (5), 2005. Etching, 25 × 37 cm.

“I think all nature is not just botanical,” the artist told me in an email when I inquired about the series. “It’s also a sign—a signal, if you please—of something or Someone supernatural.” Some items found in nature, like these thorn branches, even have a Christological association, thorns having been an instrument of Christ’s passion.

Etching is a printmaking process in which a metal plate (in van Dongen’s case, zinc) is first coated in an acid-resistant ground of wax. The artist then draws a picture or design into the plate with an etching needle, exposing the bare metal so that when the plate is dipped into an acid bath, the acid bites into the exposed areas to create recesses that can retain ink. Next the artist removes the wax ground, inks the plate (letting the ink settle into the etched grooves), wipes clean the surface, and finally rolls the plate through a press with a sheet of paper, to which the reverse image adheres. Voila!

Van Dongen collects organic materials from his surroundings in Tilburg, bringing them back to his studio. His drawings on the plate are done directly from life, with no sketches beforehand or photographs. “Everything has to be present before me,” he says.

For his Crown of Thorns etchings, he gathered thorny twigs and branches from bramble bushes and bent and wove them into circular forms—“a painful job”! One of these crowns he keeps on the wall of his studio, next to a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century Portuguese corpus (body of Christ) that his aunt gifted to him.

Paul van Dongen studio with crown of thorns

Continuous in some ways with this somber series and yet visually and thematically distinct is van Dongen’s vibrant Verrijzenis (Resurrection) etching, made with colored inks and, using a process of his own making, printed watercolor. I and the Daily Prayer Project team chose this image for the cover of our Easter 2021 periodical, which is available for purchase in print or digital format. (As a side note, I contributed a written piece to this edition, “Praying with the Eyes.”)

van Dongen, Paul_Resurrection
Paul van Dongen (Dutch, 1958–), Verrijzenis (Resurrection), 2006. Watercolor etching, 70 × 33 cm.

I appreciate how van Dongen finds a unique way into the subject of Jesus’s resurrection, taking a nonfigural, conceptual approach that invites contemplation. His etching shows a thorny stem with a few withered shoots bisecting a crown of thorns, breaking it in two, evoking the breaking of Jesus’s body on the cross and, moreover, the breaking of the curse of sin and death, of which thorns are a symbol (Gen. 3:17–19). Consider, too, the covenant of the pieces that God made with Abraham (Gen. 15:1–15), wherein God, manifest as fire, passed between the animal sacrifices Abraham had cut in half, ratifying the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey for all his descendants.

The spherical forms in the background are skulls, an allusion to human mortality and to Golgotha, the “Place of the Skull.” (Van Dongen has worked with this vanitas motif par excellence several times, and even participated in the Skull Show at the ACEC in Apeldoorn in 2019–20; see, e.g., here and here.) But the skulls are dissolving. They and the other organic matter are rendered in red, yellow, green, blue, violet—colors of the rainbow, that ancient sign of God’s promise. The brokenness of creation is being transformed into new life, and even the orientation of the artwork invites us into that “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14), its strong verticality lifting our eyes in a rising motion.

“For me there is no fundamental difference between my explicitly religious works and my more profane, earthly works of art,” van Dongen says. “Nature with its cycle of growing, flowering, dying, and sprouting out again is symbolic to me of Christ and his resurrection. And the other way around.”

Each of the etchings on this page, excluding Resurrection, is from an edition of 15. There are still a few impressions left; contact the artist using the contact form on his website, www.paulvandongen.com, if you wish to inquire about a purchase. Follow him on Instagram @paulvan.dongen.

“The Annunciation” by Theodosia Garrison

Casorati, Felice_Portrait study
Felice Casorati (Italian, 1883–1963), Study for Portrait, 1919. Oil on cardboard. Museo del Novecento, Florence.

God whispered, and a silence fell; the world
Poised one expectant moment, like a soul
Who sees at heaven’s threshold the unfurled
White wings of cherubim, the sea impearled,
And pauses, dazed, to comprehend the whole;
Only across all space God’s whisper came
And burned about her heart like some white flame.

Then suddenly a bird’s note thrilled the peace,
And earth again jarred noisily to life
With a great murmur as of many seas.
But Mary sat with hands clasped on her knees,
And lifted eyes with all amazement rife,
And in her heart the rapture of the spring
Upon its first sweet day of blossoming.

This sonnet by Theodosia Garrison (1874–1944) originally appeared in The Earth Cry: And Other Poems (New York: Mitchell Kennerly, 1910) and is in the public domain.

Holy Week Playlist

There are hundreds of thousands of musical works, from a range of genres, inspired by Christ’s passion, especially his death on the cross, which, along with the resurrection, is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. I’ve curated just a sampling of these on Spotify, from across time periods and countries, to serve as an aural guide through the final week of Jesus’s life. The drama begins with Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, where he’s hailed with hosannas, and then continues with a last supper shared with his disciples, an agonized prayer in Gethsemane followed by betrayal and arrest, then, all in one day, multiple trials (religious and civil), conviction by mob, a public execution, and burial. Many of the playlist selections are narrative in character, while some have a more theological bent. My hope is that these pieces aid you in observing this most holy of weeks, walking with Christ through the shadows, taking in how “he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds [we] have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24).

To add the playlist to your account, open the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist link, then click on the More (…) icon and select “Save to Library.”

Art & Theology Holy Week playlist (art by Odilon Redon)

[Playlist cover art: Odilon Redon, Christ, ca. 1895, charcoal, chalk, pastel, and pencil on paper, Museum of Modern Art, New York]

The playlist is a mixture of classical and popular (indie-folk, gospel) music. In this post I want to provide a little context for some of the pieces, by which I mainly mean translations of all the non-English lyrics. Because of what you see here, you might get the wrong impression that the list is almost entirely classical; actually, it’s only about half.

The opening track, “Herr, unser Herrscher” (Lord, Our Ruler), is a unique arrangement of the opening chorus from Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion, a Good Friday oratorio in German.

Herr, unser Herrscher, dessen Ruhm
In allen Landen herrlich ist!
  Zeig uns durch deine Passion,
  Daß du, der wahre Gottessohn,
  Zu aller Zeit,
  Auch in der größten Niedrigkeit,
  Verherrlicht worden bist!
Lord, our ruler, whose fame
In every land is glorious!
  Show us, through your passion,
  That you, the true Son of God,
  Through all time,
  Even in the greatest humiliation,
  Have become transfigured! [source]

Unique, because the Baroque choir and orchestra are accompanied by an ensemble of Gabonese musicians who contribute their own rhythmic profile, along with solo percussionists Sami Ateba from Cameroon and Naná Vasconcelos from Brazil. The recording, rereleased on the compilation album Babel (2008), is originally from Lambarena: Bach to Africa (1995), a collaboration between French composer and producer Hughes de Courson and Gabonese composer and guitarist Pierre Akendengué, synthesizing two disparate sound worlds. (“Bombé / Ruht wohl, ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine” is another highlight from the album. For weeks I debated whether to include it on this playlist—adding it, taking it off, adding it back again—ultimately deciding to leave it off, the reason being that it overlays Bach’s choral rondo with music and invocations to the dead from a Bwiti religious ritual. Though sonically compelling and worth listening to, I felt that it might impede some Christians’ ability to engage this list in a devotional way; so I opted for a traditional Western classical recording instead.)

Other selections from Bach’s St. John Passion are:

>> “Christus, der uns selig macht”

Christus, der uns selig macht,
Kein Bös’ hat begangen,
Der ward für uns in der Nacht
Als ein Dieb gefangen,
Geführt für gottlose Leut
Und fälschlich verklaget,
Verlacht, verhöhnt und verspeit,
Wie denn die Schrift saget.
Christ, who makes us blessed,
committed no evil deed,
for us he was taken in the night
like a thief,
led before godless people
and falsely accused,
scorned, shamed, and spat upon,
as the scripture says. [source]

>> “Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück”

Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück,
Seinen Gott verneinet,
Der doch auf ein' ernsten Blick
Bitterlichen weinet.
Jesu, blicke mich auch an,
Wenn ich nicht will büßen;
Wenn ich Böses hab getan,
Rühre mein Gewissen!
Peter, who did not recollect,
denied his God,
who yet after a serious glance
wept bitterly.
Jesus, look upon me also,
when I will not repent;
when I have done evil,
stir my conscience! [source]

>> “O große Lieb”

O große Lieb, O Lieb ohn alle Maße,
Die dich gebracht auf diese Marterstraße!
Ich lebte mit der Welt in Lust und Freuden,
Und du mußt leiden.
O great love, O love beyond measure,
that brought you to this path of martyrdom!
I lived with the world in delight and joy,
and you had to suffer. [source]

>> “Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine”

Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine,
Die ich nun weiter nicht beweine,
Ruht wohl und bringt auch mich zur Ruh!
Das Grab, so euch bestimmet ist
Und ferner keine Not umschließt,
Macht mir den Himmel auf und schließt die Hölle zu.
Rest well, you blessed limbs;
now I will no longer mourn you.
Rest well and bring me also to peace!
The grave that is allotted to you
and encloses no further suffering
opens heaven for me and closes off hell. [source]

For Bach’s St. Matthew Passion—one of the most celebrated works of classical sacred music ever written, right up there with Handel’s Messiah—I’ve drawn from the abridged English version (rather than the original German), translated by the Rev. Dr. John Troutbeck and performed in 1962 by the New York Philharmonic and Collegiate Chorale under the direction of Leonard Bernstein. I chose just a few pieces from it, not wishing to replicate the whole thing; as you can see, I tend to favor chorales over arias.

Continue reading “Holy Week Playlist”

Analysis of “The Feast” by Henry Vaughan (poem) and The Eucharistic Man of Sorrows by Friedrich Herlin (painting)

O come away,
Make no delay,
Come while my heart is clean and steady!
While faith and grace
Adorn the place,
Making dust and ashes ready!

No bliss here lent
Is permanent,
Such triumphs poor flesh cannot merit;
Short sips and sights
Endear delights:
Who seeks for more, he would inherit.

Come then, True Bread,
Quick’ning the dead,
Whose eater shall not, cannot die!
Come, antedate
On me that state
Which brings poor dust the victory.

Ay! victory,
Which from Thine eye
Breaks as the day doth from the East;
When the spilt dew
Like tears doth shew
The sad world wept to be released.

Spring up, O wine,
And springing shine
With some glad message from His heart,
Who did, when slain,
These means ordain
For me to have in Him a part.

Such a sure part
In His blest heart,
The Well where living waters spring,
That with it fed,
Poor dust, though dead,
Shall rise again, and live, and sing.

O drink and bread,
Which strikes Death dead,
The food of man’s immortal being!
Under veils here
Thou art my cheer,
Present and sure without my seeing.

How dost thou fly
And search and pry
Through all my parts, and, like a quick
And knowing lamp,
Hunt out each damp,
Whose shadow makes me sad or sick!

O what high joys!
The turtle’s voice
And songs I hear! O quick’ning showers
Of my Lord’s blood,
You make rocks bud,
And crown dry hills with wells and flowers!

For this true ease,
This healing peace,
For this taste of living glory,
My soul and all
Kneel down and fall,
And sing His sad victorious story!

O thorny crown,
More soft than down!
O painful cross, my bed of rest!
O spear, the key
Opening the way!
O Thy worst state, my only best!

Oh! all Thy griefs
Are my reliefs,
And all my sins Thy sorrows were!
And what can I
To this reply?
What—O God!—but a silent tear?

Some toil and sow
That wealth may flow,
And dress this Earth for next year’s meat:
But let me heed
Why Thou didst bleed
And what in the next world to eat.

Henry Vaughan (1621–1695) [previously] was a Welsh metaphysical poet, translator, and physician, known chiefly for his religious poetry in English. For info on his life and times, as well as his literary importance, see https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/henry-vaughan.

Vaughan’s “The Feast” was originally published in 1655 in the expanded edition of his celebrated collection Silex Scintillans (1650). (The book’s title is Latin for “The Fiery Flint,” referring to the stony hardness of man’s heart, from which divine steel strikes fire.) The poem consists of thirteen sestets (six-line stanzas), each following the syllable pattern 4-4-8-4-4-8, with a few cheats. More specifically: the first two lines of each stanza are in iambic dimeter, and the third is in iambic tetrameter, repeat. Which is simply the technical way of saying that the rhythm sounds like da-DUM, da-DUM—unstressed syllable, stressed syllable. The rhyme scheme is AABCCB. I mention these details because it’s important to see the structure of a poem.

Now let’s walk through it piece by piece.

O come away,
Make no delay,
Come while my heart is clean and steady!
While faith and grace
Adorn the place,
Making dust and ashes ready!

No bliss here lent
Is permanent,
Such triumphs poor flesh cannot merit;
Short sips and sights
Endear delights:
Who seeks for more, he would inherit.

The speaker starts out by beseeching Christ’s return. He’s saying that he, who is mere dust, has put the affairs of his heart in order and is ready for the next life. He has come to realize that earthly pleasures are but “short sips,” quick delights, and he wants a long, slow drink, one that infinitely satisfies. Like the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:13–14, to whom Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks of this [physical] water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Those who truly seek for more than what this world has to offer will find it.

[Related post: “Lent, Day 3”]

Come then, True Bread,
Quick’ning the dead,
Whose eater shall not, cannot die!
Come, antedate
On me that state
Which brings poor dust the victory.

“Come then, True Bread,” the speaker exclaims, addressing Christ in biblical metaphor. John 6 is a major reference point for Vaughan throughout this poem, which is where Jesus addresses the crowds whom he had just fed the day before with miraculously multiplied loaves and fishes:

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. . . .

“Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Jesus is the bread of life, whose flesh we eat at the Communion table, taking his self into our selves. Those who feed on Christ are strengthened in their union with him in both his crucifixion and resurrection. As the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:16, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”

“Come,” the poem’s speaker continues, “antedate / On me that state / Which brings poor dust the victory.” He, as one who has already lost battle after battle against sin, asks that Christ grant him the victory post-factum, rendering his past losses of no account. In other words: “Christ, have mercy.”

Continue reading “Analysis of “The Feast” by Henry Vaughan (poem) and The Eucharistic Man of Sorrows by Friedrich Herlin (painting)”

Roundup: Hope installation, new musical setting of Saint Ephrem’s Prayer, Global Stations of the Cross, and more

EXHIBITION: “I hope . . .” by Chiharu Shiota, January 12–March 21, 2021, König Galerie, Berlin: Grace Ebert of Colossal writes, “A towering expanse of red thread, a new installation by Chiharu Shiota suspends 10,000 letters within the nave of Berlin’s König Galerie, a Brutalist-style space located in the former St. Agnes church. The immersive construction runs floor to ceiling and is awash with notes from people around the world who share their dreams following a particularly devastating year. Aptly named ‘I hope…,’ the large-scale project hangs two wire boats that appear to float upward at its center, evoking travel into an unknown future.” On view for a few more days!  

Shiota, Chiharu_I hope
Chiharu Shiota (Japanese, 1972–), “I hope . . . ,” 2021. Rope, paper, steel, installation view at König Galerie, Berlin. Photo: Sunhi Mang, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

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SONGS:

>> “Saint Ephrem” by Prairie House Hymns: Sam(antha) Connour, whom you might know as Lo Sy Lo, has a new home for her church music: she will now be releasing it under the name Prairie House Hymns, which harkens to her roots in small-town churches and Midwestern culture. (“Seriously melodic theology from the Great Plains”!) Her first single since this rebrand is a prayer attributed to the fourth-century Syrian theologian Ephrem. “In the Byzantine tradition, this prayer is considered to be the most succinct summation of the spirit of Great Lent and is hence the Lenten prayer par excellence, prayed during all Lenten weekday services” (source). The video below is a demo that Connour recorded in November 2020, followed by the official recording released March 15, which includes backup vocals by Alec Watson. I’ve added the song to the Art & Theology Lent Playlist on Spotify.

O Lord and Master of my life
Keep me from indifference
Keep me from discouragement
Lust of power and idle chatter

Will you grant to me your servant
The spirit of wholeness of being
Humblemindedness
Patience and love

O Lord and King of my life
Grant me grace to be aware
Of my sins and not to judge
My brother and my sister

For you are blessed
Now and forever
For you are blessed
Now and forever

>> “Your Blood” by Matt Redman, arr. Sam JC Lee: This video recording is from the “Jazz Hymns and Liturgy” concert at The Lilypad in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on February 16, 2020. Composer, bassist, and bandleader Sam JC Lee [previously] leads his group in an original jazz arrangement of this contemporary hymn. The musicians are Gabriela Martina on vocals, Gregory Groover Jr. on sax, Jiri Nedmoa on piano, Tyson D. Jackson on drums, and Lee himself on bass.

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VIRTUAL EXHIBITION/PILGRIMAGE: Global Stations of the Cross 2021: These fifteen contemporary artworks, organized around the Stations of the Cross but with a multifaith approach, were curated by Dr. Aaron Rosen, director of the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. In 2019 I participated, as pilgrim, in the Amsterdam iteration of the annual Stations of the Cross project that Rosen cofounded (which I chronicled in detail here), and his project inspired the Stations of the Cross experience I designed, independently, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum—which, I know from people having reached out to me, has been utilized by several churches, families, and neighborhoods over the years.

McAfee, Antonio_Roger's Station (Ninth Station)
Antonio McAfee (American, 1983–), Roger’s Station (Ninth Station), 2021

Though “in previous years, the central experience of Stations of the Cross involved walking through host cities, inviting visitors to experience the incidental insights and revelations that come from navigating urban spaces in search of sacred experiences,” COVID has required adaptation. So Rosen took the opportunity to make this year’s exhibition multicity and global, and entirely online. Audio commentary is provided by the artists, as are photos of each work. The theme is “monuments and memorials,” and many of the artists have a personal connection to the topics they address, which include the execution of Catholics under the Joseon dynasty in nineteenth-century Korea, political imprisonment under Stalin, the bombing of Coventry during World War II, displacements caused by the British Partition of India in 1947, rising Sinophobia (anti-Chinese sentiment) this past year, California wildfires, gun violence, police brutality, and the ongoing refugee crisis. Here is an excerpt from Rosen’s curatorial statement:

Each station in this journey responds to a monument or memorial, reflecting a tumultuous year in which fresh memorials sprung up to grieve the dead and historic monuments to prejudice were toppled and dismantled. We invited artists to keep these connotations in mind, but ultimately we left the terms ‘monument’ and ‘memorial’ open to interpretation, for artists to construct as they saw fit. Some, like Todd Forsgren, turned familiar images, like the Washington Monument, on their head—evoking the disorienting, disturbing politics of the past four years, and especially the recent insurrection at the nation’s capital. G. Roland Biermann photographed the Millennium Wheel in London, a tourist attraction that now sits sedentary as a stone, lit by an eerie blue light in honor of National Health Service workers. Others chose sites which are legible as memorials only to an intimate circle, who know the tragedy which transpired there. This is the case for Antonio McAfee’s work, which honors his cousin, murdered at a Baltimore metro stop. Another artist, S. Billie Mandle, reminds us that the natural world can, within moments, turn into a graveyard, as she reveals in a photograph taken in the aftermath of devastating wildfires in her home state of California.

There is no single memorial which can effectively capture the myriad traumas of the past year, from the staggering toll of the pandemic to bleak examples of systemic racism and climate crises of biblical proportion. While these challenges have intersected this past year, often with devasting effect, Stations of the Cross does not attempt to summarize them, or generalize the agonizing impact they have had on specific communities, families, and individuals. Instead, this project invites viewers to bear witness to this troubling season through the intimate reflections of individual artists, who find in the Passion a lens to interpret the present.

. . .

While the celebration of resurrection is unabashedly Christian, as it should be, the via dolorosa offers a path that can be instructive across multiple faiths, and none. Christians may travel its route in anticipation of salvation, but that is not the only possible destination. The Stations of the Cross invite an empathy that knows no theological copyright and requires no passport. It demands, quite simply, the capacity to behold—to truly see—the suffering of the Other in our midst. And, at least for the moment, that may be miracle enough.

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LECTURE: “Otto Dix and the Gospel of Matthew: An Exercise in Wirkungsgeschichte by Dr. Jonathan T. Pennington: In 1960 the German expressionist artist Otto Dix [previously] published Matthäus Evangelium, a cycle of thirty-three lithographs based on the Gospel of Matthew, recounting Jesus’s birth, healing ministry and other miracles, passion, and resurrection. Last year Sojourn Arts, a ministry of Sojourn Church in Louisville, Kentucky, hosted an exhibition of this body of work as well as a contextualizing talk by New Testament scholar and Sojourn East staff preacher Jonathan T. Pennington, given February 21, 2020. Pennington shows how Dix uses Matthew to say something about his own time and culture, and how Dix helps us see certain things about Matthew because of his own situatedness. Starting at 13:25, Pennington walks through the images one by one, interpreting them with a facility I don’t often see in preachers without an art specialization! (He says he spent several weeks studying and reflecting on the lithographs, which goes to show how an image’s meaning reveals itself to those who are willing to sit with it; a bit of biographical research helps too.)

The exhibition Otto Dix: Matthäus Evangelium is available for rental for just $250/month plus shipping—a killer deal! The loaner is Sandra Bowden, a collector of twentieth- and twenty-first-century biblical art who is also an artist herself. She’s such a generous person, and I had the pleasure of meeting her once at her home in Cape Cod, not far from the Community of Jesus, of which she is an oblate.

Dix, Otto_Flight to Egypt
Otto Dix (German, 1891–1969), Die Flucht nach Ägypten (The Flight to Egypt), lithograph from Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (The Gospel according to Matthew), 1960

Dix, Otto_Christ Mocked
Otto Dix (German, 1891–1969), Die Verspottung (Christ Mocked), lithograph from Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (The Gospel according to Matthew), 1960

“The Avowal” by Denise Levertov

Rawles, Calida_Radiating My Sovereignty
Calida Garcia Rawles (American, 1976–), Radiating My Sovereignty, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 84 × 72 in.

For Carolyn Kizer and John Woodbridge,
Recalling Our Celebration
of George Herbert’s Birthday, 1983

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

This poem is from Oblique Prayers, copyright ©1984 by Denise Levertov, and also appears in Levertov’s The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.