Advent, Day 27 (Christmas Eve)

LOOK: Queueing for Christmas by Sadao Watanabe

Watanabe, Sadao_Queueing for Christmas
Sadao Watanabe (Japanese, 1913–1996), Queueing for Christmas, ca. 1960. Stencil print, 6 × 16 in. © Tatsuo Watanabe, used with permission.

To view a catalog of works by Sadao Watanabe, one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated Christian artists, visit sadaohanga.info. See also the Image journal article “Profound Faith, Profound Beauty: The Life and Art of Sadao Watanabe” by John A. Kohan.

LISTEN: “The Bells” by Lee Bozeman, on Jubilee (2019)

Ring the bells for Christmas Vigil
Ring the bells and light your candles now
The stars are out

All the angels with covered faces
Let all mortal flesh keep silence now
All devout
Keep silence now
All devout

Ring the bells in every tower
Ring the bells, let every hour tell
All will be well

All the faithful come together
Hear the name they love and know so well
Emmanuel
All is well
Emmanuel

Ring the bells for Christmas Vigil
Ring the bells and light your candles now
The stars are out
Keep silence now
All devout

Lee Bozeman’s Jubilee is a wonderful little acoustic EP with three originals and a traditional. The title track, which Bozeman refers to as “a sorrow,” begins, “The kids won’t be home for Christmas . . .” That’s followed by “The First Artificial Snow of the Year,” an instrumental piano piece with jingle bells. Then “Down in Yon Forest,” a Renaissance-era carol from England that Bozeman sings a cappella. And lastly, “Christmas Vigil,” my favorite of the four—slow and solemn like the others, with understated echo effects, and I don’t know what that sound is he’s producing for the last thirty seconds, but it suggests an arrival.

Christmas Vigil is a common practice across church traditions, though the particulars may vary. Many churches hold their vigil around midnight on December 24, the time when Christmas Eve gives way to Christmas Day, so that the congregation can welcome in the feast of Christ’s birth just as soon as the clock ticks over into the a.m. (We have accounts of Midnight Masses being celebrated on Christmas Eve as early as the fourth century in Jerusalem.)

Other churches hold their Christmas Eve service earlier in the evening. Candlelight and corporate carol singing are usually involved. Churches that have lit an Advent wreath for each of the previous four Sundays will complete the wreath by lighting the Christ candle in the center.

Some Christians worship at home instead on this day with just their own family unit, perhaps with an informal liturgy or with special family traditions.

No matter how you mark the day, I pray that you are filled with excitement for God’s arrival in human flesh—that divine gift of himself—and with the peaceful assurance that, as God promised, all will be well.

This is the final post in the 2021 Advent Series—thank you for journeying with me through the season! Daily posts will continue throughout the twelve days of Christmas to the feast of Epiphany on January 6.

If you appreciated this series and have the means, please consider making a donation to the site to support future projects like this so that I won’t have to put them behind a paywall.

Advent, Day 26

For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

—Matthew 24:27

Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.

—Revelation 19:11–13

LOOK: Jesus Rides a White Horse by James B. Janknegt

Janknegt, James B._Jesus Rides a White Horse
James B. Janknegt (American, 1953–), Jesus Rides a White Horse, 2012. Oil on canvas, 18 × 36 in.

LISTEN: “Ride On, King Jesus,” African American spiritual | Performed by Olivet Nazarene University Proclamation Gospel Choir, 2018

Because this song was composed and transmitted orally, many lyrical variations exist. The lyrics used in this particular rehearsal performance are as follows:

Ride on, King Jesus!
No man can a-hinder thee
Ride on, King Jesus!
No man can a-hinder thee
No man can a-hinder thee

In that great gettin’-up morning
Fare thee well, fare thee well!
In that great gettin’-up morning
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Gonna talk about the coming of the Savior
Fare thee well, fare thee well!
Gonna talk about the coming of the Savior
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Lightning will be flashing
Thunder will be rolling
Trees will be bending
Trees will be bending

No man can a-hinder thee!

Advent, Day 25

You shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you . . .

—Leviticus 25:9–10

The LORD has proclaimed
    to the end of the earth:
Say to daughter Zion,
    “See, your salvation comes . . .”

—Isaiah 62:11

Immediately after the suffering of those days

the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
    and the powers of heaven will be shaken.

Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

—Matthew 24:29–31

“Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.”

—John 4:35

LOOK: Middle Eastern manuscript illumination of a trumpeting angel

Trumpeting angel (Islamic)
Angel from a detached page of the Arabic manuscript Aja’ib al-Makhluqat wa Ghara’ib al-Mawjudat, painted in Syria, Iraq, or Egypt, 1375–1425. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 38.9 × 24.6 cm (full sheet). British Museum, London.

Written around 1270, Aja’ib al-Makhluqat wa Ghara’ib al-Mawjudat (The Wonders of Creation and the Oddities of Existence) by the Persian cosmographer Zakriya ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini was one of the best known and most copied texts in the medieval Islamic world. This leaf from a fourteenth-century illuminated version shows an angel blowing a long trumpet that resembles a karnay, an ancient brass instrument still used throughout Central Asia, especially Uzbekistan, to herald celebrations.

The British Museum website identifies the angel in this painting as Gabriel; however, according to the hadith (records of the traditions and sayings of the prophet Muhammad) and the verso of this page, it is the angel Israfil who will blow the horn on the Day of Resurrection. Similar representations can be found here, here, here, and here. I sent a query to the museum asking why they’ve titled the painting “The Angel Gabriel” and whether it might be a mistake, and they told me they are looking into it.

Even though the Bible never specifies Gabriel as the trumpeter of the last days, he has come to be associated with that role in Christian tradition. The Armenian church was the first to assign it to him beginning in the twelfth century, and John Milton did likewise in his seventeenth-century epic, Paradise Lost. Gabriel’s trumpet is also a familiar trope in African American spirituals.

Israfil is not mentioned in the Bible. However, because whole hosts of angels exist and so few are named in scripture, all three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have naturally taken to supplying some names of their own.

The unknown artist of this image has creatively imagined an angel’s wing that tapers off into what looks like an animal head!

I chose the image for its ability to evoke Christ’s return—which, FYI, Muslims are also waiting for.

LISTEN: “Days of Elijah” by Robin Mark, 1996 | Arranged by Keith Lancaster and performed by the Acappella Company on Glorious God: A Cappella Worship, 2007

These are the days of Elijah
Declaring the Word of the Lord
And these are the days of your servant Moses
Righteousness being restored
And though these are days of great trials
Of famine and darkness and sword
Still we are the voice in the desert crying
Prepare ye the way of the Lord

Behold he comes
Riding on the clouds
Shining like the sun
At the trumpet call
So lift your voice
It’s the year of Jubilee
And out of Zion’s hill
Salvation comes

And these are the days of Ezekiel
The dry bones becoming as flesh
And these are the days of your servant David
Rebuilding a temple of praise
And these are the days of the harvest
The fields are as white in the world
And we are the laborers in your vineyard
Declaring the Word of the Lord

Behold he comes
Riding on the clouds
Shining like the sun
At the trumpet call
So lift your voice
It’s the year of Jubilee
And out of Zion’s hill
Salvation comes

There’s no god like Jehovah
There’s no god like Jehovah
There’s no god like Jehovah
There’s no god like Jehovah

In the fifth century BCE God told Israel through his prophet Malachi, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me. . . . Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes” (Mal. 3:1a; 4:5; cf. Isa. 40:3).

Four hundred years later came John the Baptist, whom Jesus referred to as Elijah (Matt. 11:14)—preparing the way, preaching the Word.

Northern Irish singer-songwriter Robin Mark invokes Elijah and, implicitly, his new-covenant counterpart, John, in the first stanza of “Days of Elijah,” comparing the ministries of these two prophets to that of the church. Just as John the Baptist prepared the way for the Messiah’s first coming, we are to prepare the way for his second.

The refrain pictures that second coming as a jubilee celebration—as freedom, rest, wholeness, the world set right—announced by a trumpet blast.

We are in the last days, the time between Christ’s two advents. And though we await the fullness of redemption, we do not do so passively. Filled with Christ’s Spirit, we labor as agents of justice and resurrection and praise, as the song suggests.

Above I featured a fairly standard (and skillful!) version of “Days of Elijah” that could be sung by your average church congregation. But here’s one to really knock your socks off: an arrangement by the South African gospel group Joyous Celebration, which they performed live in Johannesburg last month:

Advent, Day 24

LOOK: Night Travelers by Delita Martin

Martin, Delita_Night Travelers
Delita Martin (American, 1972–), Night Travelers, 2016. Gelatin printing, conté, collage, fabric, hand-stitching, and decorative paper, 72 × 149 in.

I saw an exhibition last year of Delita Martin’s work at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, and I was so taken by it. Though this piece wasn’t included, I was able to get a good sense of Martin’s unique technical approach, which combines printmaking, drawing, painting, and hand-stitching. The strength of African American women is a key theme in Martin’s work, as are African tradition, community, memory, and the spirit world.

LISTEN: “For the Long Night” by Dan + Claudia Zanes, on Let Love Be Your Guide (2021)

Sister, here’s a song for the long night
Sister, here’s a song for the longest night
Sister, here’s a song for the long night
And I’ll sing with you till the morning comes

Brother, here’s a prayer for the long night
Brother, here’s a prayer for the longest night
Brother, here’s a prayer for the long night
And I’ll pray with you till the morning comes

Mama, here’s a dream for the long night
Mama, here’s a dream for the longest night
Mama, here’s a dream for the long night
And I’ll dream with you till the morning comes

Father, what’s your wish for the long night?
Father, what’s your wish for the longest night?
Father, what’s your wish for the long night?
And I’ll wish for you till the morning comes

Neighbor, here’s a hand in the long night
Neighbor, here’s a hand in the longest night
Neighbor, here’s a hand in the long night
And I’ll build with you till the morning comes

And I’ll build with you (We will sing)
Till the morning comes (We will pray)
And I’ll build with you (We will dream)
Till the morning comes

Dan + Claudia Zanes [previously] wrote this song last year during the early waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, premiering it as part of their Social Isolation Song Series on YouTube the week of George Floyd’s murder. It is included on the duo’s debut album in a version that features a kora solo by Amadou Kouyate.

A song of consolation, “For the Long Night” is especially fitting for December 21, the shortest day (longest night) of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Sometimes it feels like we’re traveling through a night with no end, with no dawn on the horizon—but realizing that there are others in our boat, making the journey with us, is a tremendous encouragement. Together we must continue to sing, pray, dream, and build “till the morning comes.”

This year for the first time I learned about the Christian tradition of Blue Christmas / Longest Night services. Typically held on the winter solstice (either December 21 or 22), these services hold space for grief, whether over relationship loss or fracture, the death of a loved one, physical or mental health struggles, racialized hate and violence, financial hardship, loneliness, disappointment, or anything else. They also gesture toward hope and healing.

The Rev. Lisa Ann Moss Degrenia has provided a Blue Christmas service outline at The Pastor’s Workshop website, and Marcie Alvis-Walker of @blackcoffeewithwhitefriends has put together A Christmas Liturgy for Those Who Are Mourning.

Advent, Day 23

LOOK: Illustrations by Peter H. Reynolds, from the book Peace Train

To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Yusuf / Cat Stevens’s song “Peace Train,” this year HarperCollins published a picture book adaptation of the song by Yusuf, with delightful illustrations by Peter H. Reynolds.

Peace Train cover

LISTEN: “Peace Train” by Yusuf / Cat Stevens, on Teaser and the Firecat (1971)

The Spotify link below is to Yusuf’s original studio album recording, but the YouTube video, released this year for World Peace Day on September 21, is a “Song Around the World” version of “Peace Train” produced by Playing for Change [previously]. In addition to Yusuf, the video features thirty-five musicians from twelve countries, including oud player Ghassan Birumi from Palestine; Grammy-winning American artists Keb’ Mo’ and Rhiannon Giddens; Senegalese artist Baaba Maal; the Roots Gospel Voices of Mississippi choir; musicians from the Silkroad Ensemble and the Afro-Brazilian percussive group Olodum; Tushar Lall playing the harmonium in Delhi, India; Joshua Amjad playing the khartal in Karachi, Pakistan; and more.

Now I’ve been happy lately
Thinking about the good things to come
And I believe it could be
Something good has begun

Oh, I’ve been smiling lately
Dreaming about the world as one
And I believe it could be
Someday it’s going to come

’Cause out on the edge of darkness
There rides a Peace Train
Oh, Peace Train take this country
Come take me home again

Now, I’ve been smiling lately
Thinking about the good things to come
And I believe it could be
Something good has begun

Oh, Peace Train sounding louder
Glide on the Peace Train!
Come on the Peace Train

Yes, Peace Train, holy roller
Everyone jump up on the Peace Train!
Come on the Peace Train

Get your bags together
Go bring your good friends too
Because it’s getting nearer
It soon will be with you

Now come and join the living
It’s not so far from you
And it’s getting nearer
Soon it will all be true

Oh, Peace Train sounding louder
Glide on the Peace Train!
Come on the Peace Train

Now, I’ve been crying lately
Thinking about the world as it is
Why must we go on hating?
Why can’t we live in bliss?

’Cause out on the edge of darkness
There rides a Peace Train
Oh, Peace Train, take this country
Come take me home again

Oh, Peace Train sounding louder
Glide on the Peace Train!
Come on the Peace Train

Yes, Peace Train, holy roller
Everyone jump up on the Peace Train
Come on, come on, come on
Yes, come on, Peace Train
Yes, it’s the Peace Train

Come on now, Peace Train
Oh, Peace Train

Cat Stevens converted to Islam in 1977 and adopted the name Yusuf Islam the following year. For the next two decades he gave up his singing-songwriting, regarding it then as incompatible with his new faith. But after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he agreed to sing “Peace Train” at a benefit concert in New York City. At the encouragement of his Muslim community, he slowly returned to his music career. His latest album is Tea for the Tillerman 2, released in 2020.

Inclusive of all faiths, “Peace Train” invites people to join in committing to the way of peace, and to ride that commitment all the way “home.” Or, to put it another way, to let Peace transport you. In the introduction to Peace Train the book, Yusuf writes,

Each of us has the power to imagine and to dream. We all have our own picture of what a place called “heaven” would look like, and the ONE thing—for sure—we’d all expect to find there is PEACE. That’s what my song is based on: a train gliding to a world we all would like to share.

In Christianity, especially in the spirituals tradition, salvation is often pictured as a train that carries its passengers to their heavenly destination. “Peace Train” uses the same imagery, acknowledging that peace is already on the move (the Spirit is active, as Christians might say); we need only to get onboard. The song captures a sense of excited journeying toward. The train has arrived, and it’s taking us somewhere new.

Watch Yusuf “read” (sing!) the book, flipping page by page, in this Barnes & Noble Storytime Read Aloud session:

Also check out Yusuf’s Peace Train initiative, launched in 2020 to deliver relief, medical aid, and education globally.

Advent, Day 22

He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.

—Isaiah 40:11 (KJV) (cf. Micah 5:2–5a, today’s lectionary reading)

“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

—Matthew 11:28–30 (KJV)

LOOK: Good Shepherd mosaic, Ravenna

Good Shepherd (Ravenna)
Christ the Good Shepherd, 5th century. Mosaic from the tomb of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy. Photo: Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP.

[Related post: “Love, My Shepherd” (Artful Devotion)]

LISTEN: “He Shall Feed His Flock” | Text: Isaiah 40:11; Matthew 11:28–30 (KJV) | Music by Georg Frederic Handel, 1742 | Arranged and sung by Tara Ward on Adventus by Church of the Beloved, 2010

He shall feed his flock
Like a shepherd
And he shall gather
The lambs with his arm
With his arm

He shall feed his flock
Like a shepherd
And he shall gather
The lambs with his arm
With his arm

And carry them in his bosom
And gently lead those
That are with young
And gently lead those
And gently lead those
That are with young

Come unto him
All ye that labor
Come unto him
Ye that are heavy laden
And he will give you rest

Come unto him
All ye that labor
Come unto him
Ye that are heavy laden
And he will give you rest

Take his yoke upon you
And learn of him
For he is meek
And lowly of heart
And ye shall find rest
And ye shall find rest
Unto your souls

Take his yoke upon you
And learn of him
For he is meek
And lowly of heart
And ye shall find rest
And ye shall find rest
Unto your souls

Born out of a group of friends’ reading of Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen, the Church of the Beloved in Edmonds, Washington, was active from 2006 to 2019. It had a vibrant music ministry, led by Tara Ward, that put out four albums, including Adventus. One of the tracks on Adventus is Ward’s slow, ambient, synth-driven arrangement of “He Shall Feed His Flock,” an air from Handel’s Messiah. Charles Jennens, the librettist (lyricist) of the oratorio, combined passages from Isaiah and Matthew to evoke a sense of the deep soul-rest and care that Christ proffers. Church of the Beloved’s rendition so beautifully captures the weariness we often feel, whether we’re on a spiritual path or not, and is a gentle reminder that Christ is always calling us back into his bosom.

Advent, Day 21

LOOK: gloria by Corita Kent

Kent, Corita_gloria
Corita Kent (American, 1918–1986), gloria, 1960. Serigraph.

From the Corita Art Center:

Corita Kent (1918–1986) was an artist, educator, and advocate for social justice. At age 18 she entered the religious order Immaculate Heart of Mary, eventually teaching in and then heading up the art department at Immaculate Heart College. Her work evolved from figurative and religious to incorporating advertising images and slogans, popular song lyrics, biblical verses, and literature. Throughout the ’60s, her work became increasingly political, urging viewers to consider poverty, racism, and injustice. In 1968 she left the order and moved to Boston. After 1970, her work evolved into a sparser, introspective style, influenced by living in a new environment, a secular life, and her battles with cancer. She remained active in social causes until her death in 1986. At the time of her death, she had created almost 800 serigraph editions, thousands of watercolors, and innumerable public and private commissions.

LISTEN: “God in Flesh, Our Hope Divine” by The Brilliance (David Gungor and John Arndt), on Advent, vol. 2 (2012; reissued 2021)

God of heaven, Lord of earth
We beseech thee
Born of Mary, virgin birth
Lord, we greet thee
God in flesh, our hope divine
Alleluia
Babe of heaven, God’s own son
Alleluia

Star of David, Son of Man
God be with us
Suff’ring servant, wounded lamb
Bring peace to us
Broken flesh, our hope divine
Alleluia
Lifted up for all mankind
Alleluia

Gloria, gloria, gloria in excelsis Deo! (×2)

Root of Jesse which shall stand
Lord, we need thee
Banner o’er the nations
We receive thee
Glorious resting place for all
Alleluia
Jew and Gentile, welcome home
Alleluia

Gloria, gloria, gloria in excelsis Deo! (×2)

“Come, Lord Jesus,” people sing
We are yearning
Give us back the garden
We are longing
On that day we’ll see thy face
Alleluia
This whole realm in your embrace
Alleluia

Gloria, gloria, gloria in excelsis Deo! (×6)

Advent, Day 20

LOOK: The Nativity by Christopher Ruane

Ruane, Christopher_Nativity
Christopher Ruane (American, 1981–), The Nativity, 2014. C-print, 52 × 48 in. Click the link to zoom in.

This image by photographer and composite artist Christopher Ruane sets the Nativity of Christ on an urban street corner marked “Bethlehem” and casts racially diverse models in the biblical roles. Mary sits on the hood of an old beat-up car holding her sweet newborn with a protective grip—she has presumably just given birth in the backseat. She’s wrapped in a blue afghan, the color traditionally associated with the Virgin. Joseph leans over, gazing proudly at his new baby son. Instead of the traditional cow and donkey looking on, there’s a spotted dog.

In the foreground are the three “wise men,” which here are two men and a woman, offering their gifts to the family. One man brings a candle; another, a rose. A wealthier woman in a fur coat brings gold jewelry. They stand or kneel on the sidewalk before this miracle baby who will be their deliverer, the way strewn with flower petals.

In the middle ground are three young unhoused people around a trashcan fire, standing in for the shepherds. A cloud of steam rises up out of a manhole before their eyes and coalesces with a heavenly apparition, come to personally announce to them the Messiah’s birth.

Ruane, Christopher_Nativity (detail)

In the windows of the apartment building in the background are various people occupied with various activities. In one room a couple is engaging in sexual foreplay. Across the way, a man is vegging out in front of a TV. One woman, whose closet is spilling over with clothes, is hugging her collection of designer shoes.

Ruane, Christopher_Nativity (detail)

These represent different values or dependencies—for example, materialism, a literal clinging to one’s possessions. But there’s also pain.

On the top floor there’s a young man in a hoodie with a black eye. Maybe he’s abused by his father. Or bullied at school. Or in too deep with a gang. Either way, he is bitter and angry and scared and distrustful and has a gun.

Ruane, Christopher_Nativity (gunman detail)

Christ was born into this world of hurt and false loves. He came to call us out of the darkness of these and into light, to give us abundant life in God. The bright star above beckons us all to follow the light to the feet of Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us. 

LISTEN: “American Noel” by Dave Carter, 1994 | Performed by Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer on American Noel, 2008

Three wise men ridin’ hard through the cold
Lost on some big city street with no place warm to go
They are lookin’ for a manger, or a sign in the lights
But they’re a long way from Bethlehem tonight

But they heard about a savior
And a preacher in the park
Who will camp with the homeless
Where they shiver in the dark
He’ll deliver salvation
To the weary and the cold
And he’ll bring joy, joy, joy to the wanderin’ soul

The cleaning lady sighs as she closes up the gate
This job don’t quite pay the bills, and she’s always workin’ late
But all in a moment comes a light from above
It’s an angel speaking words of joy and love

And he tells her of a savior
And a preacher in the park
Who will camp with the homeless
Under bridges in the dark
He’ll deliver salvation
To the weary and the cold
And he’ll bring joy, joy, joy to the wanderin’ soul

Four in the mornin’ at the Tradewinds Motel
The register reads, “All Full Up,” and the clerk thinks, “Just as well”
But out in the toolshed by an old Coleman lamp
A little family makes its meager camp

And the wise men bring presents
And the angels gather round
The cleaning lady slips in through the door without a sound
And an old black dog looks on with the rest
At the little babe upon his mother’s breast

And there comes a savior (Joy to the world)
And a preacher in the park (The Lord is come)
And he camps with the homeless (Let earth)
Where they shiver in the dark (Receive her king)
He delivers salvation
To the weary and the cold (Let every heart sing)
And he brings joy, joy, joy to the wanderin’ soul
He brings joy, joy, joy to the wanderin’ soul

The American folk music singer-songwriter Dave Carter was one half of the duo Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, active from 1998 until Carter’s unexpected death in 2002. His songs have been covered by Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Willie Nelson, and others, and Grammer posthumously released several previously unreleased songs by Carter, including “American Noel.” She and Carter recorded the song sometime between 1999 and 2001 for a series of employee holiday gift compilations commissioned by the president of a hardware store chain.

Like Ruane’s digital photomontage, “American Noel” imagines the Incarnation happening on the margins of a modern American city, attracting low-wage workers and transients, among others. Jesus pitches his tent among the exhausted and despairing, “the weary and the cold,” coming not as an outsider but as one who will know struggle firsthand. His childhood, to say nothing of his adulthood, is marked by sudden flight from his homeland to escape a tyrannical king and by an upbringing in a country not his own.

Advent, Day 19

LOOK: Closed Society by Frank Kunert

Kunert, Frank_Closed Society
Frank Kunert (German, 1963–), Geschlossene Gesellschaft (Closed Society), 2011. C-print, 40 × 30 cm. Edition of 50 + 3 ap.

LISTEN: “The Ditchling Carol” (Roud 3216) | Words by William Robert Spencer, 1811 | Music by Peter Parsons (1825–1901) | Performed by Waterson:Carthy on Broken Ground (1999; reissued 2013)

Be merry all, be merry all
With holly dress the festive hall
Prepare the song, the feast of all
To welcome Merry Christmas

And all remember, gentles gay
For you who bask in fortune’s ray
The year is all a holiday
The poor have only Christmas

When you with velvets mantled o’er
Defy December’s tempest’s roar
Oh spare one garment from your store
To clothe the poor at Christmas

And all remember, gentles gay
For you who bask in fortune’s ray
The year is all a holiday
The poor have only Christmas

When you the costly banquet deal
To guests who never famine feel
Oh spare one morsel from your meal
To feed the poor at Christmas

And all remember, gentles gay
For you who bask in fortune’s ray
The year is all a holiday
The poor have only Christmas

From blazing logs of fuel awhile
Your homes are within summer’s smile
Oh spare one log from off the pile
To warm the poor at Christmas

And all remember, gentles gay
For you who bask in fortune’s ray
The year is all a holiday
The poor have only Christmas

So shall each note of mirth appear
More sweet to heaven than praise or prayer
And angels in their carols there
Shall bless the poor at Christmas

And all remember, gentles gay
For you who bask in fortune’s ray
The year is all a holiday
The poor have only Christmas

This carol from Ditchling in East Sussex has a very Dickensian feel to it. More sobering than the usual Christmas fare, it contrasts the lavish holiday feasts of the well-off with the poverty that exists outside their doors. Think Lazarus and the rich man. The poor rely on the feelings of goodwill and generosity that Christmas engenders, but as this song acknowledges, the needs persist year-round. Those whom God has blessed with good fortune would do well to share it—not just with family and friends of like socioeconomic status but with neighbors of all classes, and not just during the “season of giving” but on a continuing basis.

Peter Parsons (d. 1901), a Ditchling shoemaker and leader of the village glee club, found the poem above on a broadside ballad sheet from the early nineteenth century and was moved to write a tune for it. I encountered the carol through a nineties recording by Norma Waterson, her husband Martin Carthy, and their daughter Eliza Carthy, who have been at the forefront of the English folk music scene for decades.

I would go even further than the lyrics do and say, don’t just give the poor a morsel or a log; invite them in! What might radical hospitality look like for you this Christmas? How might your merriment expand to embrace those who are typically excluded?

Advent, Day 18

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

—Luke 21:25–36

LOOK: Country Gospel Music by Robert Gwathmey

Gwathmey, Robert_Country Gospel Music
Robert Gwathmey (American, 1903–1988), Country Gospel Music, 1971. Oil on canvas, 40 × 50 in. Private collection.

LISTEN: “I Believe in Being Ready” | Appalachian spiritual, 19th century | Performed by Rising Appalachia on Leylines (2019) [see also this performance at the Yuba River in Northern California]

I believe in being ready
I believe in being ready
I believe in being ready
For the time is drawing near

Brothers, sisters, please get ready
Brothers, sisters, please get ready
Brothers, sisters, please get ready
For the time is drawing near

Oh there’ll be signs and wonders
Oh there’ll be signs and wonders
Oh there’ll be signs and wonders
For the time is drawing near

We’ll turn round and just start over
We’ll turn round and just start over
We’ll turn round and just start over
For the time is drawing near

I believe in being ready
I believe in being ready
I believe in being ready
For the time is drawing near

I believe in being ready
I believe in being ready
I believe in being ready
For the time is drawing near

For the time is drawing near
For the time is drawing near

Folklorist Gerald Milnes gives some context to this religious folk song from the nineteenth-century frontier revival tradition in his book Play of a Fiddle: Traditional Music, Dance, and Folklore in West Virginia:

Whereas the Great Awakening may have brought about the first American break from established religious musical form, the Second Awakening and the rise of evangelical religious fervor, mostly in the Pennsylvania backcountry and southern mountains, left us with the spiritual folk songs, or folk hymns, that have a lingering legacy in West Virginia. This musical form developed during the period from the 1780s to the 1830s. The camp meeting was an old-world form brought by the Scots-Irish to America. The new spirituals that developed along with this form of worship on the frontier directly contributed to the religious fervor generated through the camp meeting.

“One might well remember, for example, that the camp meetings began and remained in nature surroundings, in the wilderness,” wrote [George Pullen] Jackson. Camp meetings in America (also called bush meetings, field meetings, and, today, brush-arbor revival or tent meetings) spawned a new emotion which materialized in song as the spiritual. At this point the chorus was introduced to the songs and became an identifying mark.

Choruses were repetitive, and verses were simplified for easy memorization by illiterate participants and where songbooks were nonexistent. Often only the introduction of a new person, as in mother, father, sister, and brother, differentiated one verse from another. Additional verses suggest more people such as sinner, preacher, playmates, etc. But it is the music—the old folk tunes clinging to all the sensitive and moving traits that attract many to folk music—that has caught the attention and held the fancy of West Virginians for as long as two centuries. These folk hymns are the predecessors to the “gospel hymns” that began about 1870 in the Protestant churches and continue to be sung today.

The song is more commonly called “When This World Comes to an End” and has been recorded under that title in this millennium by, for example, Tim O’Brien, Ashley Cleveland, and David Powell. We know of it thanks to Maggie Hammons Parker (1899–1987) from Pocahontas County, West Virginia, whose family participated in camp meetings in the early twentieth century. Parker sang the song as she remembers it for Alan Jabbour on a 1970 field recording, with the following lyrics. For more information, see the 1973 American Folklife Center publication The Hammons Family: A Study of a West Virginia Family’s Traditions.

I believe in being ready,
I believe in a-being ready,
I believe in being ready,
When this world comes to an end.

Oh, sinners, do get ready,
Oh, sinners, do get ready,
Oh, sinners, do get ready,
For the times is a-drewing near.

Oh, there’ll be signs and wonders,
Yes, there’ll be signs and wonders,
Oh, there’ll be signs and wonders,
When this world is to an end.

Oh, the sun, she will be darkened,
Yes, the sun, she will be darkened,
Oh, the sun she will be darkened,
When this world is to an end.

Oh, the moon, she will be a-bleeding,
Yes, the moon, she will be bleeding,
Oh, the moon, she will be bleeding,
When this world is to an end.

I believe in a-being ready,
I believe in being ready,
I believe in being ready,
When this world is to an end.

Oh, the stars, they’ll all be a-falling,
Yes, the stars will all be falling,
Oh, the stars will all be falling,
When this world is to an end.

Oh, sisters, do get ready,
Oh, sisters, do get ready,
Oh, sisters, do get ready,
For the times is a-drewing near.

Oh, fathers, do get ready,
Yes, fathers, do get ready,
Oh, fathers, do get ready,
When this world is to an end.

Oh, mothers, do get ready,
Yes, mothers, do get ready,
Oh, mothers, do get ready,
For the times is a-drewing near.

For there’ll be them signs and wonders,
Yes, there’ll be them signs and wonders,
There will be them signs and wonders,
When this world comes to an end.

For their 2019 recording of the song, the band Rising Appalachia adapted the lyrics and retitled the song after its first line. “Drawn to its haunting, modal melody and stark lyrics,” they write, “we put the heavy drum pulse of the bodhran behind it to rattle the ribcage. It is both apocalyptic and soothing to call forth and sing these words.”

Rising Appalachia was founded in 2004 by sisters Leah and Chloe Smith, who grew up in Atlanta, absorbing the city’s emerging hip-hop scene as well as traveling with their family to fiddle camps across the Southeast on weekends. Their music is a blend of folk, world, and urban. “Rising Appalachia has come out of this idea that we can take these traditions of southern music—that we’ve been born and raised with—and we can rise out of them, creating all these different bridges between cultures and stories to make them feel alive,” Leah says. “Our music has its foundation in heritage and tradition, but we’re creating a music that also feels reflective of the times right now. That’s always been our work.”

The Smiths are joined on the album Leylines by longtime band members David Brown (upright bass, baritone guitar) and Biko Casini (world percussion, n’goni) and by two new members: West African musician Arouna Diarra (n’goni, talking drum) and Irish musician Duncan Wickel (fiddle, cello). Special guests on the album include singer-songwriters Ani DiFranco and Trevor Hall and jazz trumpeter Maurice Turner.

“I Believe in Being Ready” is one of many songs on the Art & Theology Advent playlist on Spotify. Also check out my Christmastide playlist.