“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
LOOK: Byzantine fresco of the Parable of the Ten Virgins
LISTEN: “ها هوذا الختن” (“Behold the Bridegroom”), a troparion (short hymn) in Arabic from the Antiochian Orthodox Church in Syria
من الليل تبتكر روحي إليك يا الله لإنّ أوامرك نورٌ على الأرض.
ها هوذا الختن يأتي في نصف الليل فطوبى للعبد الذي يجده مستيقظا، أما الذي يجده متغافلا فهو غير مستحق. فانظري يا نفسي ألا تستغرقي في النوم ويغلق عليك خارج الملكوت وتسلمي إلى الموت، بل كوني منتبهة صارخة : قدوس قدوس قدوس أنت يا الله، من أجل والدة الإله ارحمنا.
My spirit seeks you early in the night watches, for your commandments are a light on the earth. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Behold, the Bridegroom is coming in the middle of the night, and blessed is the servant he shall find awake and watching; but unworthy is the one he shall find neglectful. Beware, therefore, O my soul. Be not overcome by sleep, lest you be given over to death and shut out from the kingdom. But return to soberness and cry aloud, “Holy, holy, holy are you, our God.” Through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.
In Orthodox churches the parable of the ten virgins is read, and “Behold the Bridegroom” sung, on Tuesday of Holy Week. In the West, however, the parable is associated more with Advent, since its focus is on Christ’s return.
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
LOOK: The New Jerusalem by Sassandra
Jacques Richard, whose artist name is Sassandra, was born in 1932 to a French missionary family in Sassandra, Ivory Coast, where he spent his youth. Upon returning to France, he studied art, followed by theology, and soon became an art teacher in Paris public schools while also maintaining a studio art practice of drawing, painting, collaging, and woodblock printing.
It shows the hands of God lovingly lowering the heavenly city to earth—the two realms reunited at last. The cross is at the center, forming the trunk of the tree of life, and the Holy Spirit spreads her wings over all.
LISTEN: “New World Coming” by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, 1969 | Performed by Nina Simone on Here Comes the Sun, 1971
There’s a new world comin’ And it’s just around the bend There’s a new world comin’ (joy, joy, joy . . .) This one’s comin’ to an end
There’s a new voice callin’ And you can hear it if you try And it’s growing stronger With every day that passes by (yeah, yeah, yeah . . .)
There’s a brand-new mornin’ Rising clear and sweet and free There’s a new day dawning That belongs to you and me
Yes, a new world’s comin’ You know the one I’m talking about The one we’ve had visions of And it’s comin’ in peace, comin’ in joy Comin’ in peace, comin’ in joy Come in peace, come in joy Comin’ in love
And I saw another sign in heaven Great and marvelous Seven angels having the seven last plagues For in them is filled up the wrath of God And I saw, as it were, a sea of glass mingled with fire And them that had gotten the victory over the beast And over his image And over his mark And over the number of his name Stand on the sea of glass Having the harps of God all around them
There’s a new world comin’ And it’s just around the bend There’s a new world comin’ This one’s comin’ to an end
There’s a new voice callin’ And you could hear it if you would just give it a try And it’s growing stronger With every day that passes by
And there’s a brand-new mornin’ Rising clear and sweet and free There’s a new day dawning That belongs to you and me
Yes, a new world’s comin’ The one we’ve had visions of
Comin’ in peace, yeah Comin’ in joy, yeah Comin’ in peace now, yeah Comin’ in love now, yeah Comin’ in peace now, yeah Comin’ in joy now, yeah Comin’ in peace now, yeah Comin’ in love, yeah Comin’ in peace . . . Comin’ in joy . . . Comin’ in love (joy)
This song, as you may have noticed, includes a recitation of Revelation 15:1–2:
Then I saw another portent in heaven, great and amazing: seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is ended.
And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. (NRSV)
After a cosmic battle between good and evil, peace, love, and joy come to roost.
Jesus began his public teaching ministry by reading the following passage from an Isaiah scroll at his local synagogue:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19)
Some theologians call this the Nazareth Manifesto. It’s Jesus’s inauguration speech, if you will, where he lays out his platform, his values, his mission.
The freedom that Jesus came to bring is not just spiritual, although it is at least that. It is also physical. He came to liberate us body and soul—from sin and its many ugly manifestations, both personal and systemic, that prevent us and others from thriving.
As we await Christ’s second advent, we can look forward to this promise: freedom is coming.
When Jessie Telfair invoked the power of a single word repeated over and over in this quilt, she knew the word would reverberate through the history of the United States, back to the “peculiar institution” of slavery and the freedom that she was still struggling to attain in the 1960s at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. The making of the quilt was incited by an incident she suffered in those years, when registering to vote was enough to cost this African American woman her job in a school kitchen. The bitterness of that experience still burned years later, and fellow quiltmakers urged her to express the pain through her art. Worked in the colors of the American flag, the quilt cries freedom. In a subtle metaphor, Telfair has set each repeated letter in its own block; all are visually related, but no two are alike.
LISTEN: “Freedom Is Coming” from South Africa, third quarter of 20th century | Performed by Kate Marks and friends on Circle of Song: Chants and Songs for Ritual and Celebration, 1999
Freedom is coming Freedom is coming Freedom is coming Oh yes, I know!
Jesus is coming Jesus is coming Jesus is coming Oh yes, I know!
This South African freedom song originated during the apartheid era (1948–1994). It’s one of the many songs collected by Swedish musician Anders Nyberg when he traveled with his choir Fjedur to South Africa in 1978 at the invitation of the South African Lutheran Church. Upon his return, “Freedom Is Coming” and other South African freedom songs and hymns were published in Sweden and soon after in the United States in the collection Freedom Is Coming: Songs of Protest and Praise from South Africa (Utryck, 1984), which is still in print. Fjedur’s performance of “Freedom Is Coming” at the Budapest Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation in 1984 was instrumental in disseminating the song around the world, and afterward it started appearing in more hymnals.
Fiske did not intend to present this Mary as the Virgin Mary, but because they share a name, the viewer begins to notice similarities. Images of the young Virgin Mary present her as innocent and demure, with her head lowered humbly, eyes downcast, and hands drawn to her chest. In Fiske’s portrait, the girl’s innocence is suggested by her youth. Though she may be a teenager, the braids in her hair and the pinafore she wears tie her to childhood. This Mary also slightly bows her head and modestly holds her hands close to her body. In addition, the Virgin’s traditional colors, royal blue and blood red, appear in the long dress worn by Fiske’s Mary. The Virgin’s head is usually framed by a halo; in Fiske’s portrait, a framed picture placed directly behind her Mary’s head creates a haloing effect. (248)
LISTEN: “Ave Maria (The Song for Mary)” by Jason Gray, on Christmas Stories: Repeat the Sounding Joy (2012)
She picks the flowers in the morning Tucks just a few in her hair The joy of her mother and father As she spins around unaware She carries her song in the evening And the dreams of all little girls She carries the bread to the table She carries the hope of the world
Ave Maria Ave Maria
Angels can carry glad tidings Or burdens to bear in the dark Love can take both fear and wondering And hold them inside the same heart You carried hope and a promise You carried shame and disgrace Which was the heavier burden That drew lines in a little girl’s face
Ave Maria, gratia plena Maria, gratia plena Maria, gratia plena Ave, ave dominus Dominus tecum Benedicta tu in mulieribus Et benedictus Et benedictus fructus ventris Ventris tui, Jesus
Held by the love you were holding Is this what it means to be blessed To carry your hope through the darkness As it carries you into your rest
When Nichole Nordeman, Cason Cooley, and I were conceptualizing this song, the idea was that musically it would be something like Michael Bublé meets Elvis and that lyrically it would zoom in on very personal details of what it might have been like in Mary’s world and then zoom out to the broad historical view, going back and forth between personal/intimate/rooted in the story that belonged to Mary alone, and then timeless/big picture/rooted in the story that belongs to all of humanity.
As a kid growing up Protestant, I sometimes felt like I didn’t quite know what to do with Mary—it seemed to my young mind that maybe she belonged more to my Catholic friends, so I felt tentative around the idea of her. But she has since become very dear to my heart and an inspiration to me—the progenitor of all who are called to bear Christ to the world.
My hope was to write a song that would contain both a very earthy picture of Mary intermingled with an otherworldly reverence of the mother of Christ. I love getting to sing it every year.
Hear Gray discuss the song further in this two-minute video, especially the double-sided nature of being “chosen”:
The refrain is, of course, a traditional Roman Catholic prayer in Latin, set to the famous tune by Franz Schubert (who actually wrote the tune for a Walter Scott poem!). Taken from the words of the angel Gabriel and, later, Elizabeth to Mary, it translates to “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”
I love how Gray’s adaptation of the Ave Maria captures Mary’s youthful innocence and the sense of her being forever changed by God’s call on her life.
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
LOOK: Zacharias and Elizabeth by Stanley Spencer
The modern British artist Stanley Spencer is famous for his paintings depicting the New Testament narrative unfolding in his small village of Cookham on the River Thames. The English countryside was a balm for him after his return from World War I, as in it he sensed the Divine. “Quite suddenly I became aware that everything was full of special meaning, and this made everything holy,” he said. “The instinct of Moses to take his shoes off when he saw the burning bush was very similar to my feelings. I saw many burning bushes in Cookham. I observed the sacred quality in the most unexpected quarters.”
Like Spencer’s other biblical paintings, Zacharias and Elizabeth features people and places that were familiar to him. Tate Britain, the museum that owns the work, describes it like this:
In the foreground of the composition is Zacharias, an elderly male figure dressed in white who is holding a pair of tongs over a flame, while another aged male, also wearing white – the Archangel Gabriel – approaches him stealthily from behind. The figure of Zacharias is also repeated in the background of the painting: behind a wood and metal fence, staring blankly outward while the auburn-haired Elizabeth stands to his right with her arms outstretched. A large, smooth, curved wall divides the painting vertically, separating these two scenes. The figure of Elizabeth appears again behind the wall, with only her upper body visible. Two further figures are also depicted in the painting: a gardener who resembles traditional representations of both Jesus and John the Baptist is seen at the right dragging an ivy branch, a conventional symbol of everlasting life and Resurrection, and an unidentified woman wearing a dark claret dress kneels behind a gravestone while touching the curved dividing wall with her right hand.
Art critic and curator Sarah Milroy interprets this woman in the left midground as a surrogate for Spencer. She writes,
In childhood, Spencer believed that the Bible stories his father read aloud to the family at night could be glimpsed in Cookham, if only he could get a peek over top of the cottage walls. The little girl with her feverish, ember-red eyes, spying on the holy scene from her hiding place behind the curved white wall, serves as a stand-in for the artist himself.
For another meditation I wrote on a Spencer painting, see “Resurrection Now,” part of the Visual Commentary on Scripture project.
LISTEN: “Zechariah and the Least Expected Places” by Ben Thomas, on The Bewildering Light by So Elated (2008)
Jerusalem and the holy temple filled with smoke Zechariah shuns the news from the angel of hope Stuck behind an incense cloud of religion and disappointment
God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks In alleys off the beaten path Open both your eyes
Prophets and kings and poets can contribute their work Just like eggs in a nest are alive with the promise of birds But the Lord of creation will not be subjected to expectation
God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks In alleys off the beaten path Open both your eyes
Elizabeth, barren, her knees black and dirty like coal Her consistent prayers float to the sky and revive her soul God, we will wait though we don’t understand your redemptive story
God keeps slipping out of underneath rocks In alleys off the beaten path Open both our eyes
LOOK: John the Baptist Receiving Instructions by David LaChapelle
A chronicler of pop culture, David LaChapelle is best known for photographing celebrities—Michael Jackson, Andy Warhol, Madonna, Elton John, Courtney Love, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, and so on. But he also maintains a fine-art photography practice, creating pieces that regularly reference religion and the metaphysical. His style is highly saturated and dramatic and combines elements of surrealism and pop art. He has exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Musée d’Orsay, and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.
In this photograph, John the Baptizer hears from God, his eyes rolled back as if in a trance. Perhaps he is receiving words for a sermon—he was a fiery preacher of repentance—or the call to rebuke the tetrarch Herod Antipas for divorcing his wife to marry his brother’s ex. He holds a palm branch, a symbol of martyrdom. For speaking truth to power, John literally lost his head.
LISTEN: “He’s a Keeper of the Fire” by Buffy Sainte-Marie, on Illuminations (1969)
He’s as heavy as a lead weight, baby He’s as skinny as a wire He’s a prophet of a new day, baby He’s a keeper of the fire
He’s got a funny kinda voodoo, baby You oughta see him at the zoo He’s got a heavy kinda hoodoo, baby And he can lay it on you
He can say it like an angel, baby He can say it like a blowhorn He can see a-seven devils, baby And never even give a whole turn
Been haunted like a razor, baby He’s been tested in the blood He’s a walker on the hot coals, baby And he’s a-heavenly bound
I saw him walkin’ in the valley, baby I could see him through the trees I saw him talkin’ to the moon there, baby He was walkin’ on his knees
He can play it like a rainbow, baby He can play it like a clown He can play it like a river, baby And he can follow you down
He’s as heavy as a lead weight, baby And he’s as skinny as a wire He’s a prophet of a new day, baby He’s a keeper of the fire
Buffy Sainte-Marie is an Indigenous Canadian American singer-songwriter, visual artist, and social activist. I’ve not found any indication that she wrote this song with John the Baptizer in mind, but boy does that reading seem to fit! The wild-eyed, desert-dwelling, locust-eating ascetic, burning with a heavenly ardor and treading flat the valleys to make way for his cousin Jesus. John prophesies a new day coming, one involving judgment. He carries the weight of this message. Unfazed by societal ridicule, he continues on in communion with God, inviting folks down to the river to be baptized—cleansed of their sin and awakened to new life, in preparation for the coming of Christ.
It’s worth noting that other songs on Sainte-Marie’s Illuminations center on biblical figures—namely, “Adam” and “Mary.” And the opening track is “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot” (brilliantly covered earlier this year by Chris Thile).
The Lignum Vitae (Tree of Life) by Bonaventure, an early Franciscan theologian from Bagnoregio, Italy, is a meditational treatise on the life of Christ. It asks readers to picture in their minds a tree bearing twelve fruits (cf. Rev. 22:2), its roots watered by an ever-flowing stream. Standing for specific attributes of Christ or events from the Gospels, “this fruit is offered to God’s servants to be tasted so that when they eat it, they may always be satisfied, yet never grow weary of its taste,” Bonaventure writes. “I call these fruits because they delight with their rich sweetness and strengthen with their nourishment the soul who meditates on them and diligently considers each one.” The chapter outline, organized by “fruit,” is as follows (translation by Ewert Cousins):
PART I. ON THE MYSTERY OF HIS ORIGIN
First Fruit: His Distinguished Origin
Jesus Begotten of God Jesus Prefigured Jesus Sent from Heaven Jesus Born of Mary
Second Fruit: The Humility of His Mode of Life
Jesus Conformed to His Forefathers Jesus Shown to the Magi Jesus Submissive to the Law Jesus Exiled from His Kingdom
Third Fruit: The Loftiness of His Power
Jesus, Heavenly Baptist Jesus Tempted by the Enemy Jesus Wonderful in His Miracles Jesus Transfigured
Fourth Fruit: The Plenitude of His Piety
Jesus, the Solicitous Shepherd Jesus Bathed with Tears Jesus Acclaimed King of the World Jesus, Consecrated Bread
PART II. ON THE MYSTERY OF HIS PASSION
Fifth Fruit: His Confidence in Trials
Jesus Sold through Guile Jesus Prostrate in Prayer Jesus Surrounded by the Mob Jesus Bound with Chains
Sixth Fruit: His Patience in Maltreatment
Jesus Denied by His Own Jesus Blindfolded Jesus Handed Over to Pilate Jesus Condemned to Death
Seventh Fruit: His Constancy Under Torture
Jesus Scorned by All Jesus Nailed to the Cross Jesus Linked with Thieves Jesus Given Gall to Drink
Eighth Fruit: Victory in the Conflict of Death
Jesus, Sun Dimmed in Death Jesus Pierced with a Lance Jesus Dripping with Blood Jesus Laid in the Tomb
PART III. ON THE MYSTERY OF HIS GLORIFICATION
Ninth Fruit: The Novelty of His Resurrection
Jesus Triumphant in Death Jesus Rising in Blessedness Jesus, Extraordinary Beauty Jesus Given Dominion over the Earth
Tenth Fruit: The Sublimity of His Ascension
Jesus, Leader of His Army Jesus Lifted Up to Heaven Jesus, Giver of the Spirit Jesus Freeing from Guilt
Jesus, King, Son of the King Jesus, Inscribed Book Jesus, Fountain-Ray of Light Jesus, Desired End
Written in Latin around 1260, the Tree of Life became an instant classic, giving rise to many visual representations—first in manuscript miniatures, then in panel paintings and large-scale frescoes, including one by the Florentine artist Taddeo Gaddi.
Painted in the mid-fourteenth century in the refectory (dining room) of the Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence, the fresco depicts, in its central register, Christ crucified, with twelve scrolls unfurling from the vertical shaft like branches on a tree. On these scrolls, inscribed in Latin, are all the subheadings from Bonaventure’s treatise—IHS EX DEO GENITUS, IHS PREFIGURATUS, and so on, where “IHS” is an abbreviation for the name Jesus. Leafy roundels bear the names of the twelve “fruits,” and others feature busts of prophets.
At the bottom of the cross is the Virgin Mary supported by three other women; St. John the Evangelist; the fresco’s patron, probably Vaggia Manfredi, kneeling in prayer; St. Francis, hugging the cross; St. Bonaventure, writing, “O crux, frutex salvificus, / Vivo fonte rigatus, / Quem flos exornat fulgidus, / Fructus fecundat gratus”; St. Anthony of Padua; St. Dominic; and St. Louis of Toulouse.
LISTEN: “O Crux (Frutex Salvificus)” | Original Latin words by Bonaventure, 13th century; translated into English by James Monti | Music by Elizabeth Duffy | Performed by Sister Sinjin on Incarnation (2016; reissued 2019)
O Cross, salvific stem, The watering, living fount, Whose blossom is fragrant, Whose fruit is longed for.
Jesus, begotten of God, Jesus foreshadowed, Jesus sent from heaven, Jesus born of Mary.
Jesus with the patriarchs, Jesus shown the magi, Jesus subject to the law, Jesus from your kingdom.
Jesus holy in the womb, Jesus tempted by Satan, Jesus wondrous in the signs, Jesus transfigured.
Jesus the good shepherd, Jesus sprinkled with tears, Jesus King of the world, Jesus Sacred Bread.
The Sister Sinjin song “O Crux (Frutex Salvificus)” layers the sixteen subheadings from part 1 of Bonaventure’s Tree of Life, “On the Mystery of His Origin,” with the first stanza of a poem that appears in different forms in the various manuscripts of Bonaventure’s works, including the Tree of Life. Another translation of this refrain’s source text, by José de Vinck, is “O cross, tree bearing the fruit of salvation / Refreshed by a living stream / Your blossom so sweetly scented / Your fruit so worthy of desire.”
The melody and stylings of the song are evocative of the Middle Ages. Elizabeth Duffy, Kaitlyn Ferry, and Elise Erikson Barrett sing to their own gentle guitar, mandolin, and banjo accompaniment.
For another Advent devotion featuring Sister Sinjin and an even older Italian fresco, see here.
A large-scale outdoor installation in northwestern Utah, Sun Tunnels by land artist Nancy Holt
consists of four large concrete cylinders, arranged on the desert floor in a cruciform pattern that aligns with the sunrise and sunset during the summer and winter solstices. In addition to this perfect solar framing, each of the cylinders is pierced with smaller holes representing the stars of four constellations: Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn. Holt’s design allows for an ever-changing play of celestial light and shadow upon the resolutely material surfaces of her work. Part timepiece and part compass, Sun Tunnels is also a “camera” of sorts, dependent on natural light, with the concrete tubes acting as viewfinders that frame precise images which, in Holt’s words, “bring the vast space of the desert back to human scale.” [source]
LISTEN: “Light Upon the Mountains” | Words by Henry Burton, 1910 | Music by Jackson T. Maust and Seth Thomas Crissman, 2015 | Performed by The Walking Roots Band on Hark! A Walking Roots Band Christmas, 2017
There’s a light upon the mountains and the day is at the spring, When our eyes shall see the beauty and the glory of the king: Weary was our heart with waiting, and the night-watch seemed so long, But his triumph-day is breaking and we hail it with a song.
In the fading of the starlight we may see the coming morn; And the lights of all are paling in the splendors of the dawn: For the eastern skies are glowing as with light of hidden fire, And the hearts of all are stirring with the throbs of deep desire.
He is breaking down the barriers, he is gathering up the way; He is calling for his angels to build up the gates of day: But his angels here are human, not the shining hosts above; For the drumbeats of his army are the heartbeats of our love.
Hark! we hear a distant music, and it comes with fuller swell; ’Tis the triumph song of Jesus, of our king, Immanuel! Go ye forth with joy to meet Him! And, my soul, be swift to bring All thy sweetest and thy dearest for the glory of our king!
Come, thou long-expected Jesus, Born to set thy people free; From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in thee.
Isaiah is the definitive Old Testament prophet of Advent, as he anticipates more than any other the coming of the Messiah and the renewal he will usher in. In chapter 35 he foresees deserts flowing with water and vegetative abundance: “the wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose” (v. 1).
Perhaps the modern Black artist Charles White had this scripture in mind when he created the lithograph Prophet I. It shows a robed man, who appears to be blind, gazing up at a pink rose suspended in the sky. (The blind prophet with keen inner sight is a common trope in ancient mythology.) On the cross-hatched wall he stands against are four eyes, which White said are there because the prophet sees more than the rest of us.
LISTEN: “Morning Dawn,” a Shaker hymn from New Lebanon, New York, 19th century | Performed by The Rose Ensemble on And Glory Shone Around: Early American Carols, Country Dances, Southern Harmony Hymns, and Shaker Spiritual Songs (2014)
Zion shall arise and blossom like the rose Her glorious light shine forth to the islands afar As when the Star of Bethlehem arose
Hail, all hail the coming day! Hail, all hail the coming day!
The wilderness shall bloom, hills and valleys rejoice Woodlands sing for joy, and the barren desert smile To hear the Savior’s voice
Hail, all hail the coming day! Hail, all hail the coming day!
Thus saith the Lord, it shall yet come to pass Many people and strong nations shall come to Jerusalem To seek and to pray before the Lord
Hail, all hail the coming day! Hail, all hail the coming day!