Roundup: Alternative Advent, Fuller Studio videos, Desmond Tutu and Jeff Chu interviews, Psalm 121 in Arabic

“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.

Find out more context for the photos and their sources on Instagram @alternative_advent.

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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.

The other videos feature . . .

  • Young-Ly Hong Chandra on how she sees her creative work participating in God’s work of creation
  • 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

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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.)

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SONG: “I Lift My Eyes” by Christopher Tin: A setting of Psalm 121 in Arabic, performed by Abeer Nehme with Christopher Tin and the Angel City Chorale. Nehme is a Lebanese singer and musicologist, one of whose specializations is sacred music from the Syriac Maronite, Syriac Orthodox, and Byzantine traditions. [HT: Joy Clarkson]

An Epiphany Blessing

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.

—Isaiah 60:1–2

LOOK: Comet by Antonello Silverini

Silverini, Antonello_Comet
Comet, a digital collage by Antonello Silverini (Italian, 1966–). Used with permission.

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.”

The original recording by Enya, the London Voices, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra is gorgeous, but I’m partial to the 2018 rendition by the British vocal ensemble Voces8, arranged by Matthew Sheeran. It’s absolutely stunning. I must have listened to it at least a hundred times!

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.

Christmas, Day 12

LOOK: 3 Kings by Helen Siegl

Siegl, Helen_Three Kings
Helen Siegl (Austrian American, 1924–2009), 3 Kings, n.d. Etching and collagraph, 3 × 5 in. (7.6 × 12.7 cm).

Ah, such whimsy!

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.

Christmas, Day 11

LOOK: Dominican Nativity by Valentine Reyre

Reyre, Valentine_Nativity
Valentine Reyre (French, 1889–1943), Nativité aux dominicaines (Dominican Nativity), 1918. Oil on canvas. Private collection. Photo: Michel Guérin.

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!

English translation by Jenny Rebecca Rytting, 2012:

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.

Christmas, Day 10

LOOK: The Passion of Mary by Katherine Kenny Bayly

Bayly, Katherine_The Passion of Mary
Katherine Kenny Bayly (American, 1945–), The Passion of Mary, before 2006. Collage on paper, 8 × 12 in.

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 . . .”

Christmas, Day 9

LOOK: Holy Family in Saffron by Frank Wesley

Wesley, Frank_Holy Family
Frank Wesley (Indian, 1923–2002), Holy Family in Saffron, ca. 1950. Watercolor, 21 × 16 cm. Gould Collection. Photo courtesy of the Asian Christian Art Association.

Frank Wesley [previously] was a fifth-generation Christian from North India who began painting biblical subjects in 1947 when the Christian Home Committee of the National Christian Council of India began licensing original images from him for their magazine, a relationship that lasted for decades. His initial training had been in commercial art, but from 1950 to 1952 he studied as a postgraduate at the School of Art in Lucknow under the Hindu artist Bireshwar Sen, kickstarting his fine-art career. The Lucknow school of watercolor painting, developed during the Bengal Renaissance in the first half of the twentieth century, is the style with which he is most associated, and which the above painting is representative of, with its graceful, calligraphic lines.

With the aid of an American patron, Wesley continued his art education at Kyoto Art University from 1954 to 1958, where he learned traditional and modern Japanese painting techniques, lacquer work, textile design, woodblock printing, and ink drawing, and in Chicago from 1958 to 1960, which included coursework at the Art Institute, where he learned about modern abstraction and how to work with oil paint.

Wesley returned to India in 1960 and, after a four-year courtship, married Athalie Brown, an Australian nurse working in a mission hospital in Azamgarh. They had two children. Seeking better opportunities, he emigrated to Australia with his family in 1973 and lived there until his death in 2002. Even in his new adopted country, he continued painting biblical scenes in an Indian style.

You can view thumbnails of other paintings by Frank Wesley at www.frankwesleyart.com. For better-quality reproductions along with more detailed biographical information, there’s the book Frank Wesley: Exploring Faith with a Brush by Naomi Wray (Auckland: Pace Publishing, 1993), but it’s out of print and difficult to find.

LISTEN: “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” (original: “Josef lieber, Josef mein”) | Traditional German carol, 14th century (tune: RESONET IN LAUDIBUS) | English translation of verses by Percy Dearmer,* 1928; refrain translated by Edward T. Horn III, 1958 (from the carol “Long Ago and Far Away”) | Arranged and performed by Blue Water Highway on Christmastide, 2014

“Joseph dearest, Joseph mine,
Help me cradle the Child divine.
God reward thee and all that’s thine,
In paradise,” so prays the mother Mary.

He came among us at Christmastide,
At Christmastide, in Bethlehem;
Men shall bring him from far and wide
Love’s diadem: Jesus, Jesus,
Lo, he comes, and loves, and saves, and frees us!

“Gladly, dear one, Lady mine,
Help I cradle this Child of thine.”
“God’s own light on us both shall shine,
In paradise,” as prays the mother Mary.

All shall come and bow the knee;
Wise and happy their souls shall be,
Loving such a divinity as all may see
In Jesus, son of Mary.

Sweet and lovely, little one,
Princely, beautiful, God’s own Son,
Without thee all of us were undone;
Our love is won by thine, O son of Mary.

* Some sources cite Neville S. Talbot as the translator; I’m going with The Oxford Book of Carols, whose original 1928 edition, and subsequent ones, name Dearmer.

RESONET IN LAUDIBUS (Let the voice of praise resound) is a fourteenth-century German carol tune associated with a carol text of the same name as well as with “Josef lieber, Joseph mein.” The latter carol is from a medieval mystery play from Leipzig that survives in multiple manuscripts. It spotlights Joseph’s faithful presence and loving support during Christ’s infancy.

The original carol did not have a refrain; an unknown editor spliced that in from a different fourteenth-century German carol at some point, but it still often circulated with the verses only, including in the earliest English translations. In 1958, however, the American pastor Edward Traill Horn III (1909–1994) translated the refrain from German into English for incorporation into a new Christmas carol he wrote, “Long Ago and Far Away.” Blue Water Highway uses verses and refrain for their recording “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine.”

Find free sheet music here.

If you prefer choral music, I really like Kirke Mechem’s arrangement of the carol, from his Seven Joys of Christmas suite, as performed by the Stanford University Chamber Chorale and Orchestra under the direction of Stephen M. Sano.

Christmas, Day 8

LOOK: Presence by Ventzislav Piriankov

Piriankov, Ventzislav_Presence
Ventzislav Piriankov (Bulgarian, 1971–), Presence, 2000. Mixed media on canvas, 100 × 70 cm.

LISTEN: “Incarnation Hymn” by Carl-Eric Tangen, on Incarnation Hymns (2008)

Love comes down
Love tears the shroud

Love becomes a man
And Love takes my hand

Love bears the scars of time

Love has dirty hands
Love, Love will understand

And Love
Love makes me a man
Love

For another devotion featuring a song from this album, see “Now I’ve Seen It All,” centered on Simeon’s encounter with the Christ child. And for one featuring a different painting by Piriankov, see “Radiant.”

Christmas, Day 7

LOOK: Babe in a Manger by Janpeter Muilwijk

Muilwijk, Janpeter_Babe in a Manger
Janpeter Muilwijk (Dutch, 1960–), Kind in Bakje (Babe in a Manger), 1999. Watercolor and pencil on paper, 58 × 38 cm. Private collection, Netherlands.

LISTEN: “Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace) / Auld Lang Syne” | Arranged and performed by Yo-Yo Ma (cello) and Chris Botti (trumpet), on Songs of Joy & Peace (2008)

The three-word Latin prayer “Dona nobis pacem,” which translates to “Grant us peace,” is part of the Agnus Dei section of the Catholic mass. The traditional melody associated with it likely originated in the sixteenth century.

“Auld Lang Syne” (Old Long Since) uses a traditional Scots folk melody.

In this final track on Yo-Yo Ma and friends’ 2008 holiday album, Ma plays the “Dona Nobis Pacem” theme alone on cello and then is joined by trumpeter Chris Botti playing “Auld Lang Syne” as a countermelody. The two are cozily layered together in an expression of warm wishes for the new year.

Christmas, Day 6

LOOK: Adoration of the Shepherds by Hugo van der Goes

van der Goes, Hugo_Adoration of the Shepherds
Hugo van der Goes (Flemish, ca. 1440–1482), Adoration of the Shepherds, ca. 1480. Oil on oak wood, 99.9 × 248.6 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

After the angel of the Lord announced the birth of the Messiah to a band of shepherds, “they went with haste” to the place where he lay (Luke 2:16). The Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes shows the shepherds’ hurried arrival at the manger. One of them gallops through the door panting, having run from the scene in the upper right corner, and another removes his hat and kneels. Two more stand behind them just outside the shed—one playing a recorder, the other in midclap.

van der Goes, Hugo_Adoration of the Shepherds (detail, Annunciation)
van der Goes, Hugo_Adoration of the Shepherds (detail, shepherds)

In the center of the composition, the Christ child squirms in his makeshift bed, surrounded by his parents, an ox and ass, and a coterie of angels. At the foot of the manger is a sheaf of wheat, an allusion to Jesus as “the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:51) and, by extension, to the Eucharist. This painting, after all, was originally made, most likely, to hang over an altar.

van der Goes, Hugo_Adoration of the Shepherds (detail, Jesus)

In the foreground two men draw open a set of curtains, revealing God made flesh. An actual wooden rod is attached to the panel and painted with rings, enhancing the illusion. Most scholars agree that the men represent Isaiah (left) and Jeremiah (right), Old Testament prophets who foretold Christ (see, e.g., Isa. 7:14; Jer. 23:5–6)—though John Moffitt suggests they are the apostles Mark and Paul, two New Testament personages who specifically associate themselves with a veil as a sign of divine manifestation. Either way, these figures act as intermediaries between the viewer and the depicted narrative, inviting us, like the shepherds, to bear witness to the wondrous mystery of the Incarnation and to respond in adoration.

van der Goes, Hugo_Adoration of the Shepherds (detail, Jeremiah)

This Adoration, sometimes referred to as van der Goes’s Berlin Nativity, is not the artist’s most famous painting on the subject. That would be the central panel of the Portinari Altarpiece, painted a few years earlier.

LISTEN: “Where Shepherds Lately Knelt” | Words by Jaroslav J. Vadja, 1987, © Concordia Publishing House | Music by Carl F. Schalk, 1987, © GIA Publications, Inc. | Performed by Koiné on Emmanuel Lux, 2012

Where shepherds lately knelt and kept the angel’s word,
I come in half-belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred;
but there is room and welcome there for me,
but there is room and welcome there for me.

In that unlikely place I find him as they said:
sweet newborn babe, how frail! and in a manger bed,
a still small voice to cry one day for me,
a still small voice to cry one day for me.

How should I not have known Isaiah would be there,
his prophecies fulfilled? With pounding heart I stare:
a child, a son, the Prince of Peace for me,
a child, a son, the Prince of Peace for me.

Can I, will I forget how Love was born, and burned
its way into my heart, unasked, unforced, unearned,
to die, to live, and not alone for me,
to die, to live, and not alone for me?

Christmas, Day 5

LOOK: Tibetan Nativity thangka

Nativity thangka
Nativity Thangka, 1998. Painting on silk, 17 × 12 cm. Presented by H.H. the Dalai Lama to the World Community for Christian Meditation and housed at the Bonnevaux Centre for Peace, Marçay, France. Photo: Fr. Laurence Freeman, OSB. https://wccm.org/

A traditional Tibetan art form, a thangka (roughly pronounced tonka; literally “recorded message”) is a painting on a portable fabric scroll of silk or cotton. Traditionally they depict Tibetan Buddhist deities or influential leaders and are used for personal meditation or instruction of monastic students.

This thangka, however, portrays a Christian narrative: the birth of Jesus Christ. He lies on a leafy bed on the ground, surrounded by Mary, Joseph, two yaks, two horses, and an angel who is seated much like a bodhisattva and who plays the dramnyen (a Himalayan six-stringed lute, roughly pronounced dra-nyen). The stylization of the clouds and mountains is clearly Tibetan, whereas the angels seated on the clouds bear Western influence, as does Mary’s gesture of hands crossed reverently over the chest.

The Nativity Thangka was presented by the Dalai Lama in 1998 to the World Community for Christian Meditation, “a global spiritual community united in the practice of meditation in the Christian tradition . . . shar[ing] the fruits of this practice widely and inclusively . . . and building understanding between faiths and cultures.” It is on display at WCCM’s Bonnevaux outside Poitiers, France, a retreat center that is home to a residential community living in the spirit of Saint Benedict.

LISTEN: “Gawala! Gibala!” (O what joy! O what happiness!), a Tibetan Christmas carol | Composer and lyricist unknown | Performed by the WEC UK Resonance band, 2020 [HT: Global Christian Worship]  

Téring Gyamgön trungsong
Gawala!
Gyamgön Yeshu trungsong
Gibala!

Gawala! Gibala!

The Savior’s born on this day
Gawala!
The Savior Jesus is born
Gibala!

Gawala! Gibala!

He was born in Bethlehem
Gawala!
He was in a stable
Gibala!

Gawala! Gibala!

Shepherds saw the angels
Gawala!
Bringing news of great joy
Gibala!

Gawala! Gibala!

From the East a star rose
Gawala!
Showing where the road lay
Gibala!

Gawala! Gibala!

From the fields came shepherds
Gawala!
Shepherds sang their praise songs
Gibala!

Gawala! Gibala!

From the East came wise men
Gawala!
Offering gold and silver
Gibala!

Gawala! Gibala!

Angels filled the heavens
Gawala!
Singing songs of gladness
Gibala!

Gawala! Gibala!

The day of joy has risen
Gawala!
Songs of beauty sounding
Gibala!

Gawala! Gibala!

Gibä nyima sharsong
Gawala!
Nyenbä luyang langsong
Gibala!

Ian Collinge, the man leading this song in the video above, is an ethnomusicologist who trains people in cross-cultural and multicultural music at All Nations Christian College and London School of Theology. In addition, he and his wife, Helen, lead Arts Release, a ministry of WEC International that they founded in 2008. One of its initiatives is Resonance [previously], a multicultural collective of Christian musicians formed in the UK in 2011 with the aim of integrating songs from the global church into the Western worship repertoire. The Resonance band raises awareness of the beautifully rich diversity of musical expressions that exist around the world to praise the Triune God of the Bible.

Collinge learned “Gawala! Gibala!” while living in Nepal in the 1990s doing music research, which is also when he learned to play the dramnyen. Besides the dramnyen, the recording also uses a Tibetan instrument called the erkha, small pellet-bells that are sometimes attached to the legs and used in dancing or are otherwise played unattached to clothing, as here.

“I can easily imagine this song being done as a dance song, especially as a circle dance,” Collinge tells me. “I am playing it in the Southern Tibetan dramnyen style, distinguished by this tuning and introduction/ending and links patterns, and I have arranged it in the typical slow then fast section format.”

Addendum, 12/30/21: After reading this post, a friend of mine sent me a video of one of her friends, Migmar Dondup Sherpa, playing the same song on the dramnyen! I post it here with his permission. Sherpa is a worship leader at his church in Nepal, and he also writes his own worship songs in Nepali and Tibetan.