>> “Ghosts in Los Angeles” by Arthur Aghajanian, Ekstasis: The author of this essay reflects on Andres Serrano’s Nomads (1990), a humanizing series of portrait photographs of men and women experiencing homelessness in New York City. “Serrano titled each photograph with its subject’s first name, suggesting a familiarity with those portrayed while retaining their anonymity. . . . The images mimic the visual style of fashion and advertising, while also referencing historical portraits of the wealthy and powerful. The work restores the visibility along with the dignity of its subjects. . . . His diverse group reflects the vulnerabilities we all share, and the grace that sustains us in adversity.”
>> “The Cleft in the Rock: A Theology of Negative Spaces” by Daniel Drage, Image: This Image journal essay explores profound negative spaces in scripture—the first Sabbath, exile, the passage opened up by the parting of the Red Sea, empty wombs, tombs, nail wounds, the cleft of a rock, the space between the gold cherubim’s wings above the mercy seat—bringing them into conversation with works by contemporary British sculptors David Nash, Rachel Whiteread, and Andy Goldsworthy. Emptinesses that are full and presence via absence are key ideas.
ANIMATED SHORT FILMS:
>> Migrants, dir. Hugo Caby, Antoine Dupriez, Aubin Kubiak, Lucas Lermytte, and Zoé Devise: The graduation project of five film students from the Pôle 3D school in France, this short follows a mother polar bear and her cub who are displaced from their Arctic home. When their ice float runs aground a new habitat and they’re forced to learn a new way of life, the native brown bears treat them with hostility. The filmmakers said the project was initially inspired by the story of the Aquarius, a watercraft filled with refugees that grabbed global headlines when it was refused entry at Italian ports in 2018. [HT: Colossal]
>> Tokri (The Basket), dir. Suresh Eriyat: A father-daughter story set in Mumbai, this stop-motion animated short from Studio Eeksaurus is about mistakes and forgiveness, and how meaningful a kind extended hand from a stranger can be . . . or not. [HT: Colossal]
Garrett Soucy is a pastor, writer, and musician living on the coast of Maine with his wife, Siiri, and ten children. He and Siiri make up the indie-folk music duo Mr. & Mrs. Garrett Soucy; he writes the songs, sings lead, and plays guitar, and she backs him with vocal harmonies. From the River to the Ends of the Earth, released this month, is their fifth LP, after Mr. and Mrs. Garrett Soucy (2012), Procession of the Ram (2014), Wayword (2016), and According Lines (2020). An album of self-examination, of spiritual wandering and homecoming, From the River gives voice to the desire for meaning and rest, ultimately locating it in the person of Christ, whose welcome is wide and whose Way is life.
Lyrically subtle and complex, these songs express, for the most part, a restlessness of soul. The speaker sustains various dependencies and even the illusion of independence. But he also admits to weakness. “I lifted my Petrine eyes [i.e., eyes like Peter] and almost drowned.” He seems to want more faith, to want holiness. Without moralizing, the songs poke at idolatries, “broken crutch[es],” recognizing them to be just that and moving toward confession of the One who alone is worth leaning on.
The title of the album comes from Psalm 72:8:
May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
The opening track, “One Big Bruise,” is a breakup song, but it can also function allegorically. It seems to me to be inspired by Hosea 2 and the wider-spread metaphor of ancient Israel as God’s unfaithful (KJV “whoring”) wife, hooking up with other gods.
“1, 2, 3, 4” is a celebration of the four seasons.
“No American Savior” is a renunciation of hope in salvation through politics, on the one hand, and on the other, an admonishment against apathy or deferred responsibility when it comes to the welfare of the nation. Just because the Christian’s primary citizenship is in heaven doesn’t mean we ought not to care about the flourishing of others here and now, and just because our preferred party is not in office or we detest certain policies doesn’t mean we should dissociate ourselves from our country. However, lest we overestimate the ability of law to transform society, this song reminds us that a perfect, roomy kingdom with a perfect, loving head will one day come. Until then, let’s not stand passively by; let’s allow our primary allegiance to Christ to work itself out in our neighborhoods and cities. At least that’s what I hear in the song.
Next, “What’s Hiding in Thee” is a meditation on Matthew 12:33–37 (“out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks . . .”). Our speech often reveals what’s inside us.
“No Longer Egypt” is about not settling for anything less than what God has for us. It references the Israelites’ desire, upon encountering the hardships of their desert journey to the promised land, to return to Egypt (Exod. 16:2–3; Num. 14:1–4), the land of their enslavement, where at least things were familiar and predictable. In a similar way, we are sometimes drawn back to our former life of bondage to sin, which carried with it at least some form of stability, however savage. The song could also be interpreted as nudging us out of our bondage to play-it-safe normalcy. God is in the business of calling us out of our bubbles into unknown territory and uncomfortable, even risky, situations. How do we respond?
The most jubilant song on the album is “Love Like the World’s Never Known,” which uses the tune of the African American spiritual “I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land.” But instead of a home “way beyond the blue,” as the nineteenth-century lyric goes, Soucy sings about a home “that’s coming in slowly,” glory breaking in right here, right now. He sees it in the love and goodness of his wife, in his children at play, in the experience of forgiveness, and in the wisdom of God’s word lived out.
He relishes the process of sanctification, of being conformed more and more to the image of God’s Son. “I’m on a 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 storey mountain. I’ve gotta keep on drinking from an eternal fountain.” (The seven-story mountain refers to the mountain of purgatory from Dante’s Purgatorio.) He seeks to build a home of hospitality that reflects the hospitality of God, where anyone can come and sit at the table, know love, and be filled.
The poetic quality of Soucy’s lyrics is a hallmark of the album. I can’t say I grasp the meaning of all of them, but here is just a sampling of lines that stood out to me:
“Be it that the eyes of all of us should recognize Thee, being that true being is the essence of your Name. . . . Be it that the wills of all of us will follow rather than quench the One whose power is to keep us on the Way.” (“Two Sisters”)
“Part of us conquers. Part of us falls. Part of us feigns to be crushed ’neath it all. Atlas is grunting but sincere and still. Nobody’s told him that yoke has been filled.” (“Restless Heart”)
“Every love isn’t love. True enough, true enough. Sometimes what you think is a hand is a glove.” (“What’s That”)
Hear Mr. & Mrs. Garrett Soucy perform live with Bernie Nye at the Camden Opera House in Camden, Maine, in 2020, starting at 4:08 of the video below. Eight of the ten songs they sing at this concert appear on From the River.
Also, Soucy is enthusiastic about helping to foster the development of thoughtful art among Christians and to that end is a founding member, with Christopher Finn, of the Christian Artists Guild of New England (CAGNE), which had its inaugural gathering this month. Check them out if you’re in the Northeastern US!
1 Cor 13
Embraces the woman whose child screams
on the floor of the cereal aisle.
Enters the friend’s new mansion,
lifts eyes to the skylights, gives thanks.
Yields the last word on the Facebook fight.
Looks the frowning barista in the eye.
Takes a breath and thanks God
there is even a zipper to get stuck.
Sends a gift to the wall-punching uncle.
Glances away from the handcuffed boys
on the side of the road and prays.
Smiles and listens to the grandmother complain
about her knees, rubs the knees,
ladles another bowl of soup.
Believes there is a reason that slumped man
in the alley was born. Trusts he’ll believe it.
Endures the quiet, thankless song of work.
Echoes long after the cymbals have died.
This poem is from Second Sky by Tania Runyan(Cascade/Wipf & Stock, 2013), a collection that “intertwines the life and writings of the Apostle Paul with the spiritual journey of a modern suburban woman confronting the broken world.”Used with permission.
“Lift Up Your Eyes” (Advent 2021): Kezia M’Clelland’s annual “Alternative Advent” video is here—a compilation of news photos from the year, from various photojournalists, matched with promises/declarations from scripture and a song. (I’ve described this project in years past; see here.) Migrant caravans, refugee camps, hospitals overwhelmed with COVID patients, a protest against a military coup, wildfires, volcanic aftermath . . . the global suffering we hear about in headlines and statistics is made personal in these intimate photographs of people who are experiencing it firsthand. M’Clelland bears tender witness to this suffering, but she also takes care to include signs of hope. Alongside images of devastation and misery are images of love, joy, and fortitude. The overall tone is one of somberness but not despair. As I do with each year’s “Alternative Advent,” I spent an afternoon interceding with God for each person in the photos and for others enduring the same harrowing journeys or disasters. I realize how my privilege as a white, middle-class US American insulates me from a lot of these realities, and I know that prayer must be accompanied by action.
VIDEO ROUNDUP FROM FULLER STUDIO: The Arts for the Life of the Church: In these six, five-minute videos shot by Fuller Studio, artists and creatives (most of them participants in the Brehm Residency) reflect on the diverse ways that the arts enliven, shape, and define their faith, their theology, and their work. Here’s one from the series, in which interdisciplinary artist Dea Jenkins discusses the ways the Spirit’s leading can be intertwined with the process of art-making, and how art has the capacity to be both prophetic and healing.
Michelle Lang-Raymond on how theater and the arts can create opportunities for us to safely yet deeply engage with today’s polarizing issues
Rachel Morris on how incorporating the arts into worship services and pastoral care can contribute to the church’s healing work in the lives of its members
Jin Cho on the holistic, social, and communal dimensions of preaching and the liturgy
John Van Deusen on the significance of creating art in community and on the ways we are shaped by inviting both God and others into our creative processes
ON BEING INTERVIEWS:
>> “Remembering Desmond Tutu”: The South African Anglican bishop, theologian, and human rights activist Desmond Tutu died December 26, 2021, and the On Being podcast re-released this 2010 interview Krista Tippett conducted with him. It’s a great introduction to his story, which includes especially his faith. He discusses the Bible as “dynamite,” our identity as “God-carriers,” the interfaith makeup of the anti-apartheid movement, God’s sense of humor, reconciliation as a process, his experience voting for the first time at age sixty-three (after decades of disenfranchisement), how entrenched racism had become in his own thinking, the beating heart of love at the center of existence, and more. And oh, his laughter is so sweet!
>> “A Life of Holy Curiosity: In Friendship with Rachel Held Evans” with Jeff Chu: Jeff Chu is a journalist, preacher, and co-leader of the Evolving Faith community. When his friend Rachel Held Evans, the famous Christian writer, died unexpectedly in 2019, he took it upon himself to bring to fruition the unfinished book she was working on, Wholehearted Faith (HarperOne, 2021). I enjoyed learning more about Evans through this conversation, and about Chu. They read several excerpts from the book and discuss Chu’s Chinese Baptist upbringing, the recent phenomenon of “religious-but-in-exile,” the enormity of God’s love, the Incarnation, the Psalms, doubt, grief, and the lesson of the compost pile.
(As a side note: I recently came across Evans’s other posthumously published book, for children, titled What Is God Like?, in Target and bought it on a whim. It’s fabulous.)
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
LOOK: Comet by Antonello Silverini
LISTEN: “May It Be” | Words by Roma Ryan, 2001 | Music by Enya, 2001 | Performed by Voces8, 2018
May it be an evening star Shines down upon you May it be when darkness falls Your heart will be true You walk a lonely road Oh, how far you are from home
Mornië utúlië Believe and you will find your way Mornië alantië A promise lives within you now
May it be the shadow’s call Will fly away May it be you journey on To light the day When the night is overcome You may rise to find the sun
Mornië utúlië Believe and you will find your way Mornië alantië A promise lives within you now A promise lives within you now
At the behest of composer Howard Shore, film director Peter Jackson approached Enya to write a song for his 2001 epic fantasy adventure The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the first in a trilogy. Enya brought her lyricist Roma Ryan on board, and together they wrote “May It Be.” The song, which plays during the movie’s end credits, contains two lines in the fictional Elvish language Quenya that J. R. R. Tolkien invented: “Mornië utúlië” and “Mornië alantië,” which translate to “Darkness has come” and “Darkness has fallen.”
Why am I sharing this “secular” song (inspired by a tale of hobbits, elves, and wizards) on today’s feast of Epiphany, the grand finale of the Christmas season? I could have chosen one of the church’s many beautiful works of music written explicitly for this day (and I have in previous years, such as here, here, and here, not to mention yesterday’s festive feature)—perhaps something louder, brighter, more triumphant—but instead I wanted to cap off the Twelve Days of Christmas with a benediction. It’s from an unlikely source, sure, but it speaks well, I think, to where we’re at in the liturgical year.
According to Christianity, darkness entered the world with humanity’s rebellion against their Creator in the garden of Eden. Sin and death became a reality that, millennia later, we still grapple with. But a promise was spoken in the beginning, was born in a manger at Christmas, walked the dusty streets of Israel-Palestine teaching the Way and performing wonders, was nailed to a cross and buried but then rose from the grave and now lives in the hearts of millions. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God’s promise of salvation and holistic restoration—shalom, the world set right again.
The light of Christ shone on the small Jewish town of Bethlehem at the Nativity and on the wider Gentile world at Epiphany (when the magi traveled from afar to receive personal revelation, an experience they brought back with them to their homelands), and it continues to shine, often in unexpected places.
Advent is a journey through the dark into the light that breaks at Christmas/Epiphany. Although in one sense morning has broken, in another sense this earth is still very much in darkness. Even the “children of light” (1 Thess. 5:5), those who have been reborn in Christ, experience (and sometimes, sadly, inflict) ache and horror as much as anyone else.
But hope has come. The Word has been spoken, redemption won, even if it’s not yet been consummated. We walk in the valley of shadows, but eventually the night will be vanquished, as Enya’s song says, and we will rise and greet the sun—or, to put a Christian inflection on it, the Son!
May we walk forward into 2022 true to our calling as sons and daughters of God. May we welcome God’s light and bear it to others, and trust the Promise that indwells us.
This is the final post in the 2021–22 Advent/Christmas series. Thanks for following! You can find a collation here (Advent) and here (Christmas). I will now return to my regular publication schedule of roughly one post a week.
LISTEN: “We Three Cool Kings” | Words and music by John H. Hopkins, 1857 | Arranged by Eugene Gwozdz, 2015 | Sung by Alan H. Green, Mykal Kilgore, Dennis Stowe, Nili Bassman, Josh Davis, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Linda Mugleston, Brian O’Brien, Mary Michael Patterson, Mike Schwitter, and Rashidra Scoti on Broadway’s Carols for a Cure, vol. 17, 2015
We three kings of Orient are; bearing gifts, we traverse afar, field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star.
O star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright, westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.
Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown him again, King forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign.
Frankincense to offer have I; incense owns a Deity nigh; prayer and praising, voices raising, worshipping God most high.
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Glorious now behold him arise, King and God and Sacrifice: Alleluia, Alleluia, sounds through the earth and skies.
This jazzified version of the Christmas classic “We Three Kings” is performed by the Broadway cast of At This Performance… Written in the voices of the magi (whose traditional names are Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar), it propounds the symbolic significance of the three gifts they give to the Christ child. I love how the arranger has layered those middle three verses!
Launched in 1999, Carols for a Cure is an annual collection of seasonal songs sung by members of the Broadway and Off-Broadway theater community to raise money for the charity Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS. Its latest volume, number 21, was released in 2019.
Valentine Reyre was a French artist who participated in the revival of religious art in the first half of the twentieth century. She was the cofounder, with Maurice Storez and Henri Charlier, of L’Arche, a group of Catholic artists and architects active from 1919 to 1934. She also participated in the Ateliers d’art sacré, a movement that sought to reconcile tradition and modernity, art and craft, in the decoration of church interiors, especially those devastated by World War I. Members of the Ateliers—the most famous of which were Maurice Denis and George Desvallières—rejected academism on the one hand and the avant-garde (e.g., futurism, cubism) on the other, seeking a third way forward for religious art.
Reyre’s Dominican Nativity is set outside a Dominican convent in the hills of France. The focal point is the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, clothed in white and seated under a small, open, roofed structure. It’s deliberately ambiguous as to whether these figures are meant to be present in the flesh in this space or are a statue; in other words, is this the holy birth transplanted to another time and place, occurring as if for the first time, or is it the birth memorialized? Either way, a procession of nuns winds through the tree-studded landscape to offer their worship and devotion to Christ, their shaping mirrored by the ribbon of angels that unfurls from distant sky to the foregrounded rooftop. The adult male figure at the right is probably Saint Dominic, the medieval Castilian priest who founded the Dominican order, as he is tonsured and wears a habit.
I love the intersection of time and eternity in this image—heaven breaking into the everyday. A community of sisters bows in prayer and re-members Christ’s Nativity.
LISTEN: Hymns and Sacred Songs, FS 83: No. 1. Förunderligt at sige | Words by Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig, 1845 (reworked from “Mit hierte altid vanker” [“My Heart Always Wanders”] by Hans Adolph Brorson, 1732) | Music by Carl Nielsen, 1919 | Performed by the Svanholm Singers, dir. Sofia Söderberg Eberhard, on December, 2010
Forunderligt at sige, Og sært at tænke paa, At Kongen til Guds Rige I Stalden fødes maa, At Himlens Lys og Ære, Det levende Guds Ord, Skal huusvild blandt os være, Som Armods Søn paa Jord!
Selv Spurven har sin Rede, Kan bygge der og boe; En Svale ei tør lede Om Nattely og Ro; De vilde Dyr i Hule Har hver sin egen Vraa: Skal sig min Frelser skjule I fremmed Stald paa Straa?
Nei, kom! jeg vil oplukke Mit Hjerte, Sjæl og Sind, Ja, bede, synge, sukke: Kom, Jesus, kom herind! Det er ei fremmed Bolig, Du den har dyrekiøbt! Her skal du hvile rolig, I Kiærligheden svøbt!
How wonderful to sing of, And strange to think at all, The sovereign of God’s kingdom Is born within a stall, All heaven’s light and honour, God’s living word, e’en he, On earth shall homeless wander, The son of poverty.
The sparrow, with her nesting, Can build herself a home; We find the swallow resting, At night she needn’t roam. The wild beasts abide in The burrows where they stay. Shall then my Saviour hide in An unknown stall on hay?
No, come, I’ll open to thee My heart, my soul, my mind. I’ll pray and sing and sue thee, “Come, Jesus, come inside!” For here thou art no stranger; This home thou dearly bought. Rest now within this manger In swaddling love has wrought.
Jenny Rebecca Rytting describes this Danish carol’s complex textual history, starting with its origins in an eighteenth-century carol by the Danish bishop and hymn-writer Hans Adolph Brorson. Brorson’s text has eleven verses; Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig cut it down to six in 1837, adapting these verses but following Brorson’s wording fairly closely. In 1845 Grundtvig made “extensive changes” to his initial reworking of the carol and published it in a booklet of his hymns. Much later, in 1939, the editors of Højskolesangbogen (The Folk High School Songbook) published Grundtvig’s text with only three verses (verses 1, 5, and 6 of his 1845 version). That’s the version that’s most often used today. Rytting has produced an English translation, posted above. For a translation of all six verses, albeit one that’s a bit clumsy, see here (scroll down to #50, “How wonderful to ponder”).
Carl Nielson, widely recognized as Denmark’s most prominent composer, wrote a musical setting for “Förunderligt at sige” in 1914 (in a letter to his wife at the time, he described it as “the most beautiful I have yet composed”), and it was first published in 1919. Cataloged as CNW 165, it is now considered the standard tune for the carol.
The text is inspired in part by Jesus’s words in Matthew 8:20: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” He was born in an out-of-town stable, lived as a stranger in Egypt, and spent years as an itinerant preacher, never staying for too long in any one place. The speaker invites the wandering Christ to take up permanent residence within her, as he has already bought her (Gal. 3:13; 1 Cor. 6:20). Her love, she says, will provide the swaddling, a cozy warmth.
LOOK: The Passion of Mary by Katherine Kenny Bayly
This collage by Katherine Bayly is from the 2006 CIVA traveling exhibition Highly Favored: Contemporary Images of the Virgin Mary. In seven alternating vertical bands, it combines Michelangelo’s Pietà from St. Peter’s Basilica with a Virgin and Child painting by Laurent de La Hyre, showing Christ’s birth and death as two sides of the Incarnation coin. One can hear echoes of Simeon’s prophecy to Mary, that “a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35)—a veiled reference to the Crucifixion.
Since the Middle Ages artists have often embedded symbolic or other visual references to Christ’s passion in Nativity paintings—a goldfinch, a coral rosary, a bunch of grapes, a cave that recalls the tomb, swaddling bands that look like burial wrappings, a manger that looks like a sarcophagus or altar, or, more explicitly, angels holding the arma Christi (instruments of the passion). Sometimes artists would use a diptych format to juxtapose images of Mary holding Jesus as a vibrant young infant with her holding him as a pale adult corpse deposed from the cross, a pairing that strikes an emotional tenor, as there’s perhaps no deeper grief than a mother’s loss of a child. Bayly draws on this tradition in The Passion of Mary, foreshadowing a future sorrow and reminding us that Christ came to earth not only to live but also to die.
LISTEN: “Baby Boy” by Rhiannon Giddens, on Freedom Highway (2017)
Baby boy, baby boy, don’t you weep Baby boy, baby boy, don’t you weep You will be our savior But until then, go to sleep
Young man, young man, I’ll watch over you Young man, young man, I’ll watch over you While you lead our people to the promised land I will shelter you
Baby boy (Young man) Baby boy (Young man) Don’t you weep (I will watch over you) Baby boy (Young man) Baby boy (Young man) Don’t you weep (I will watch over you) You will be (You will be) Our savior But until then, go to sleep
Beloved, beloved, I will stand by you Beloved, beloved, I will stand by you When you leave this place to do what you must I will always love you
Baby boy (Young man) (Beloved) Baby boy (Young man) (Beloved) Don’t you weep (I will watch over you) (I will stand by you) Baby boy (Young man) (Beloved) Baby boy (Young man) (Beloved) Don’t you weep (I will watch over you) (I will stand by you) You will be (You will be) Our savior But until then, go to sleep
Poignantly performed by Rhiannon Giddens [previously], Lalenja Harrington, and Leyla McCalla, “Baby Boy” is a lullaby written in the voice of a mother to her son, her salvation, whom she sings to sleep. She pledges to always watch over, shelter, and support him to the best of her ability.
The subject of the song could be Moses and the speaker his birth mother, Jochebed, as there’s mention of him leading his people to the promised land. This boy will grow up to shepherd a nation into its rest.
Or it could be Jesus, the New Moses, who liberated humanity at large, breaking their bondage to the powers of evil. Remembering the angel’s promise, Mary whispers her grand hopes to this cuddly little bundle she holds who will be their fulfillment, even as she shushes his cries.
Note, though, how there are three voices singing—a trio of women, a sisterhood united in their love of this child and their eager expectation of deliverance. Think of the women who, against all odds, ensured Moses’s protection as a young one and those who later walked alongside him in his difficult calling. Think, too, of all the women who supported Christ throughout his ministry, materially and spiritually, standing by him until the end, mourning his death, and spreading the news of his resurrection. One might imagine this song being sung by the three Marys, for example. They have a faint sense of the danger ahead and know the hero Jesus will become, but for now, they simply wish him sound slumber and sweet dreams. “Until then . . .”