Lent, Day 19

I am my beloved’s, and my beloved’s is mine . . .

—Song of Solomon 6:3a (cf. 2:16)

He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.

—Song of Solomon 2:4

I will extol thee, O LORD; for thou hast lifted me up . . .

—Psalm 30:1a

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ . . .

—Ephesians 1:3

LOOK: Ethiopian Angels, Debre Birhan Selassie Church

Ethiopian church ceiling
Painted wood ceiling, 19th century, Debre Birhan Selassie Church, Gondar, Ethiopia. Photo: A. Savin.

Debre Birhan Selassie (Trinity and Mountain of Light) Church in Gondar, the imperial capital of Ethiopia from 1636 to 1855, is famous for the colorful paintings that cover every inch of the interior walls and ceiling. The south wall concentrates on the Life of Christ, while the north wall depicts various saints. The focal point—on the east wall, in front of the holy of holies—is a Crucifixion scene and an icon of the Trinity. But the most celebrated visuals inside the church are the hundred-plus winged heads painted in rows between the wooden beams of the ceiling, representing the cherubim and God’s omnipresence.

The original church, which was round, was consecrated in 1693 by Emperor Iyasu I, but lightning destroyed it in 1707. The rectangular stone church that stands on the site now likely dates to the late eighteenth century, and it is the only one of the forty-four Orthodox Tewahedo churches in Gondar to survive the 1888 sack of the city by Mahdist soldiers from Sudan. (Locals say the marauders were miraculously rerouted by a swarm of bees.)

According to Ethiopia (Bradt Travel Guide) writer Philip Briggs, “The paintings are traditionally held to be the work of the 17th-century artist Haile Meskel, but it is more likely that several artists were involved and that the majority were painted during the rule of Egwala Seyon (1801–17), who is depicted prostrating himself before the Cross on one of the murals.”

Debre Birhan Selassie is still an active church, but priests also offer tours. Here’s some video footage of the inside (you’ll see it’s very dark, and flash photography is not allowed), and some drone footage of the exterior.

The church is part of a larger imperial compound, known as Fasil Ghebbi, that has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979 and that includes palaces, monasteries, and public and private buildings.

Angels (Debra Berhan Selassie Church)
Photo: Alan Davey

LISTEN: “His Banner Over Me Is Love” by B. C. Laurelton (pseudonym of Alfred B. Smith), 1965 | Performed by Christy Nockels on Be Held: Lullabies for the Beloved, 2017 | CCLI #28579

I am my Beloved’s and He is mine—
His banner over me is love.
I am my Beloved’s and He is mine—
His banner over me is love.
I am my Beloved’s and He is mine—
His banner over me is love,
His banner over me is love.

He brought me to His banqueting table—
His banner over me is love.
He brought me to His banqueting table—
His banner over me is love.
He brought me to His banqueting table—
His banner over me is love,
His banner over me is love.

He lifted me up to the heavenly places—
His banner over me is love.
He lifted me up to the heavenly places—
His banner over me is love.
He lifted me up to the heavenly places—
His banner over me is love,
His banner over me is love.

I sang a version of this song in children’s church regularly when I was little (with hand motions!) and have carried it with me all these years, a gentle assurance that I am divinely loved and protected. I’ve quoted the scriptures it’s drawn from above. Its refrain comes from Song of Solomon 2:4: “his banner over me was love.”

The Song of Solomon, aka the Canticle of Canticles, has traditionally been read, at least on one level, as an allegory of the love between God and the human soul—or, more specifically in the Christian tradition, Christ and his church.

From the root “to cover,” the Hebrew word for “banner” in this verse refers to a military standard. It is being used figuratively here to indicate that we enlist ourselves under Love’s banner, which goes forth in triumph and protects those under its billows. We belong to love, commit ourselves to love, overcome through love. The verse is perhaps an allusion to the names of generals being inscribed on the banners of their armies. God’s name is Love (1 John 4:8).

The image is at once vigorous and gentle. The NRSV translates the phrase as “his intention toward me was love.”

The song “His Banner Over Me Is Love” was written by Alfred B. Smith (1916–2001), an itinerant song leader, songwriter, and Christian music publisher. Smith compiled and published his first songbook, Singspiration One: Gospel Songs and Choruses, while he was a student at Wheaton College in 1941, to support the evangelistic meetings he was running with his roommate, Billy Graham (yes, that Billy Graham!). Two years later he founded Singspiration Publishing Company, which published several popular series of songbooks. In 1963 he sold Singspiration to Zondervan, but he ran other publishing ventures (i.e., Better Music Publications and Encore Publications) for the remainder of his ministerial career.

According to Music in the Air: The Golden Age of Gospel Radio by Mark Ward Sr., Smith composed “His Banner Over Me Is Love” in 1965 as an impromptu offertory while serving as a visiting song leader at First Baptist Church–Laurelton in Brick, New Jersey. Afterward he received requests from the congregation for the music. His original notation read “B. C. Laurelton” (for “Baptist Church Laurelton”) to designate where he wrote the song, and it was copied as such as people shared the music with others—so when the song was later published in 1972, Smith decided to adopt “B. C. Laurelton” as a pen name.

Singer-songwriter Christy Nockels [previously] sings “His Banner over Me” on an album of lullabies to a twinkling piano accompaniment.

May this truth—that God’s banner over you is love—soothe you and give you confidence.

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