Advent, Day 10: Oil in My Lamp

LOOK: Oil Lamp by Andrew Wyeth

Wyeth, Andrew_Oil Lamp
Andrew Wyeth (American, 1917–2009), Oil Lamp, 1945. Tempera on hardboard panel, 34 × 42 in. (86.4 × 106.6 cm). Collection of Phyllis and Jamie Wyeth. Photo courtesy of the Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine.

Andrew Wyeth’s realist paintings center narratives of rural life in Pennsylvania, where he lived for most of each year, and Maine, where he and his wife spent their summers. This one shows his friend Alvaro Olson sitting in a room of his (Alvaro’s) eighteenth-century farmhouse in Cushing, Maine. Weary and worn, he stares off to the side, his face cast in the dim glow of an oil lamp. Alvaro tended to the family farm and took care of his increasingly debilitated sister, Christina, who is the subject of Wyeth’s most famous painting, Christina’s World.

Wyeth is one of my favorite artists, and I’ve featured his work a few times on the blog: here, here, and here.

LISTEN: “Oil in My Lamp,” traditional gospel song | Arranged by Gene Parsons and Clarence White and performed by the Byrds on Ballad of Easy Rider (1969)

Give me oil in my lamp
Keep me burning, burning, burning
Give me oil in my lamp, I pray
Give me oil in my lamp
Keep me burning, burning, burning
Keep me burning till the break of day

Sing, oh sinner!* sing, oh sinner!
Sing, oh sinner, to the King!
Sing, oh sinner! sing, oh sinner!
Sing, oh sinner, to the King!

* The traditional lyrics of the chorus are “Sing hosanna.”

This gospel song is inspired by Jesus’s parable from Matthew 25:1–13, in which ten bridesmaids are waiting for the bridegroom to come to them so that the wedding-night procession can start. Having not prepared an adequate supply of oil, five of the women foolishly allow their lamps to burn out, while the other five, ready with oil refills, keep theirs lit. The parable is a warning to be prepared for the Bridegroom’s return, always kindling our faith and shining forth our good works. The song is thus a plea that God would help us persevere.

I was first introduced to “Oil in My Lamp” through the country-rock arrangement by the Byrds’ guitarist Clarence White and drummer Gene Parsons, who recorded it with their bandmates in 1969. (This version was covered nicely by Neal Casal in 1999, using more minimal instrumentation and a slower tempo for more contemplative vibes.)

The song’s origins are elusive, with most sources simply using the attribution “Traditional.” Fascinated as I am by sacred song histories, I got a bit carried away trying to track down more information. So feel free to stop reading here—or follow to the end if you want to trace the song’s evolution and follow links to different creative interpretations!

The earliest appearance of the lyrics, at least one version of them, that I could find is in the short story “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” by Arthur Huff Fauset, an African American writer, published in Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life 7, no. 4 (April 1929), p. 126. At an Easter night service, the Reverend De Witt Coleman steps up to his Baptist pulpit and addresses the small male chorus seated at his side.

“Boys,” he screamed, “I want you to sing for me. Sing as you never sang before . . . that song of yours called, ‘Has My Gas Bill Been Paid,’ or something like that!”

The vast congregation roared with laughter at this facetious petition of their leader.

A group of five men arose and began to croon softly. The audience became suddenly still. The tenor gave the note, then the bass and other members of the chorus took up the tone. They launched into song:

Give me oil in my lamp,
Give me oil in my lamp,
Give me oil in my lamp, I pray;
Keep me singing in the camp,
Keep me singing in the camp,
Until the break of day.

When my cup runneth over,
When my cup runneth over,
When my cup runneth over with joy;
I find it easy to pray,
And to sing every day,
When my cup runneth over with joy.

Give me oil in my lamp,
Give me oil in my lamp,
Give me oil in my lamp, I pray;
Keep me singing in the camp,
Keep me singing in the camp,
Until the break of day.

Besides being an active figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Fauset was an anthropologist and a folklorist who conducted fieldwork among Black communities in the Deep South, the British West Indies, and Nova Scotia. He may have collected this song from any of the many people he interviewed, or churches he visited, in those places. My guess is that it originated in the United States as a camp meeting song in the early twentieth century, hence the line “Keep me singing in the camp” (though this lyric could have been a later adaptation to fit that context). “Camp meeting” is the name given to the outdoor evangelical religious services that spread across the American frontier in the early nineteenth century.

“The camp meeting tradition fostered a tradition of music and hymn singing with strong oral, improvisatory, and spontaneous elements,” reads a Wikipedia article. “Both tunes and words were created, changed, and adapted in true folk music fashion.” 

In the 1950s, “Oil in My Lamp” (alternatively titled “Give Me Oil in My Lamp” or “Sing Hosanna”) spread throughout the country through traveling song leaders, songbook publishers, and other networks. Boundless Praise, published in Lawrenceville, Tennessee, in 1944, is the earliest songbook appearance I can find (attribution: “Author unknown”), and the earliest recording I found is from The Four Girls gospel quartet, who sang it as part of a medley for an Easter 1954 broadcast (“Give me oil in my lamp / Keep me shining in the camp / Until the judgment day”).

Singspiration published the song text in 1951, citing A. Sevison as the author (probably because he added the verse “Make me a fisher of men, keep me seeking . . .” and possibly also the “Sing hosanna” refrain), and in 1963 they published an arrangement by “the Csehys” (Wilmos and Gladys Csehy?) and Norman Johnson.

After that, the song appeared in Girl Scouts / Girl Guides songbooks and, later, on major children’s music albums, like Wee Sing Bible Songs (1986), Bible Songs by Cedarmont Kids (1997), and Bob and Larry’s Sunday Morning Songs (2002) from the VeggieTales Sing-Alongs series. The children’s versions often include additional verses, such as “Give me joy in my heart, keep me singing . . . ,” “Give me peace in my heart, keep me resting . . . ,” “Give me love in my heart, keep me serving . . . ,” and so on.

One interesting thing I found is how popular—and widely recorded—the song was in Jamaica, starting in the sixties.

In 1964, five years before the Byrds release, Jamaican ska singer Eric “Monty” Morris recorded it with Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, and it was a huge hit. Other Jamaican artists, including Jackie Edwards (1964) and Desmond Dekker and The Specials (1993), followed, and the song appears on several reggae gospel compilations.

Jamaican singer-songwriter and percussionist Dick “Syncona” Smith, who became a linchpin of the Toronto music scene after migrating there in the 1960s, released a notable variation in 1974 that opens with this new verse:

When the burden of life makes me weary
And I feel that I can’t carry on
When my time’s running out and my nights get lonely
Lord, I need someone to hear my song

The extensive popularity of “Oil in My Lamp” among Caribbean artists makes me wonder if perhaps the song actually originated on Caribbean soil and was brought to the US by migrants.

If you have any additional information about the song’s history, or know of any recordings prior to 1954, please do share!

Advent, Day 9: La Luz

LOOK: Magna #1 by Luciano Cian

Cian, Luciano_Magna 1
Luciano Cian (Brazilian, 1973–), Magna #1, 2021. Giclée print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag 308 gsm, 110 × 90 cm. Edition of 20.

LISTEN: “La Luz” by Brother Isaiah, on Shade (2020)

You are the light of the world, yeah, yeah
You are the light of the world, yeah, yeah
You are the light, Lord, yes, you are the light

Well come alight, come fire, come and burn in me
Come alight, come fire, come and burn in me
Come alight, come fire, come and burn in me
Come and burn in me, yeah

Well I was sitting in the darkness
Waiting for the daybreak
Sweet dawn from on high
Come and break upon me, I pray
’Cause dawn seem so far away
’Cause dawn seem so far away
But he said, “Hope and watch and wait
Watch and pray
You know me coming, Sonny
You know me don’t delay
They call me New Sunshine
They call me New Daybreak
They call me Sweet Dayspring
’Cause with my help my kingdom bring

“So wait child”—and so I wait
I heard him say, “Pray child”—and so I prayed
I pray, “Light from light, come and drown on me now”
Me say, “Light from light, come and shine on me now”
Light from light, come and shine on me now
Me say, “Life from light from light”

You are the light of the world, yeah, yeah
You are the light of the world, yeah, yeah
You are the light, Lord, yeah, yeah, you are the light

Well come alight, come fire, come and burn in me
Come alight, come fire, come and burn in me
Come alight, come fire, come and burn in me
Come and burn in me, yeah

Well in the middle of the night
Beneath the starlight
I was sitting in the dark when I heard a cry
Singing, “Glory, glory, glory!”
There was angels singing, “Glory, glory, glory!”

Then in the quiet of my heart
There came a little light shining
Daystar rising, breaking through my night
And then a light from on high
Broke upon me inside
Like a fire burning bright
Put the darkness to flight

With all that glory, glory, glory
There was angels singing, “Glory, glory, glory!”
There was angels singing, “Glory, glory, glory!”
And all of heaven ringing, “Glory, glory, glory!”
And then my soul was singing, “Glory, glory, glory!”
There was singing, there were: “Glory, glory, glory!”

You are the light of the world, yeah, yeah
Yes, you are the light of the world, yeah, yeah
Yes, you are the light, Lord, yeah, you are the light, yeah

Come alight, come fire, come and burn in me
Come alight, come fire, come and burn in me
Come alight, come fire, come and burn in me
Come and burn in me, yeah

Come alight, come fire, come and burn in me
Come alight, come fire, come and burn in me
Come alight, come fire, come and burn in me
Come and burn in me, yeah

’Cause you’re the light of the world, yeah, yeah
Yes, you’re the light of the world, yeah, yeah
You’re the light, Lord, yes, you are the light
Yes, you are the light of the world, yeah, yeah
You are the light of the world, yeah, yeah

Yes, you are the light, Lord, yes, you are the light
Yes, you are the light, Lord, yes, you are the light

Fr. Isaiah Marie Hofmann, CFR, is a newly ordained priest with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, an institute founded in the South Bronx in 1987 by eight Capuchin friars desiring to work more definitively for personal and communal reform within the Catholic Church. Their mission is twofold: service to the materially poor, and evangelization. Father Isaiah joined this community as a lay brother in 2008, after graduating from Boston College, where he played lacrosse.

During his time as a friar, he has released four albums under the name Brother Isaiah: Shade (2020), Shade, Season 2 (2020), Poco a Poco (2018), and Broomstick (2016). “Music is where I wrestle with God—and where I find God,” he says.

Advent, Day 8: Prepare Ye the Way

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight.’”

—Matthew 3:1–3

LOOK: Painted staircases by Xomatok

Xomatok stairway
Painted staircase by Xomatok (b. 1985), Lima, Peru, 2021. All photos by Jeremy Flores.

Xomatok stairway
Xomatok stairway

From Colossal:

Artist Xomatok translates the vibrant, geometric motifs of handwoven Andean blankets, or llicllas, into large-scale works that mark the pathways through the hilly Alisos de Amauta neighborhood in Lima, Peru. Painted during the course of two months as part of the Municipality of Lima’s Pinta Lima Bicentenario, the 13 interventions were a collaborative undertaking by the artist and local residents, who transformed the public staircases that wind through the district into multi-level canvases. The resulting patterns are kaleidoscopic and highlight a spectrum of bright colors and symmetries often associated with the traditional textiles.

View more photos.

LISTEN: “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” by Stephen Schwartz, from the musical Godspell (1971)

The following video clip is the opening sequence of the 1973 film adaptation of the stage musical Godspell, which stars David Haskell as John the Baptist:

So. much. joy!

The ram’s horn issues its call. Ballet dancer, student, struggling actress, waitress, cab driver, businessman, businesswoman, parking attendant—they all leave their jobs, casting off their workplace trappings to accept John’s invitation to new and abundant life. They meet him at The Angel of the Waters, a sculpted fountain in New York City’s Central Park. They throw themselves into the fountain like children, receiving their baptism, their initiation into the upside-down kingdom of God.

But John notices Jesus standing at a distance, stripped down and ready for his own baptism. John’s lighthearted visage turns heavy for a moment in recognition that Jesus’s baptism is into suffering and death.

I wrote about Godspell two years ago when I featured one of its songs, “Turn Back, O Man,” to go along with a lectionary reading from Ezekiel. The musical is wacky, with the ragtag disciples forming a comic troupe to act out Jesus’s parables and teachings from the Gospel of Matthew. Some Christians find it all too silly and irreverent. Others, like me, see it as capturing an important element of the Good News, which is joy. This is what Godspell’s creator, John-Michael Tebelak, wanted to get across.

Perhaps the festive tone of the opening number seems disjunctive with what we know of John from the Gospels—a desert ascetic who preached about vipers and axes and fire and winnowing forks, warning his hearers of the wrath to come. Point taken.

However, while his message is a sobering one, repentance need not be a dour affair. We must take honest stock of our sins, yes, laying them out in confession before God, but scripture assures us many times over of God’s pardon, and that’s something to rejoice in! There is a joy to repentance and to following the way of Christ. Turning off the death-road, onto the road of life. As we unload the burdens that have accrued on our backs, we are freed to walk upright once again.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” John cries out on the riverbank.

I’d encourage you to read that not as a threat but as an invitation. The kingdom of heaven is marked by grace and possibility. It’s a pearl, it’s a seed, it’s a feast. When we embrace the gospel, our cities become a playground where we enact the values of Christ, childlike as they be, preparing the world to receive her coming King.

Advent, Day 7: Lift Up Your Heads

LOOK: Ps:24//7 by Marco Cazzulini

Cazzulini, Marco_Choral Cathedral
Marco Cazzulini (British, 1962–), Ps:24//7 (working title: Choral Cathedral), 2017. Digital artwork, 40 × 40 cm.

Based on a text that’s traditionally read during Advent and on Palm Sunday, this digital artwork by Marco Cazzulini is part of a larger series on the Psalms, which he has compiled in a limited-edition book. Cazzulini writes,

‘Lift up your heads, O you gates; and be lifted up, you age-abiding doors, that the King of glory may come in’ (AMPC). The language of the Psalms is deeply rooted in time and place, experience and tradition. It is likely to be so here. Nevertheless, these words are not hidebound to their history. This verse gives wings to the imagination and can be transposed onto other things.

This triumphal and celebratory cry ‘Lift up your heads, O you gates’ seems to herald the entry of Christ into the vaunted place of His dominion. That which is closed, opens, and that which is worn, patinated by age, is commanded to lift up its head and acknowledge the arrival of the King of Glory. He who stands, and waits, at the doors of our own closed hearts, worn out by bad experience, shut through unbelief, locked by fear, ruined by sin, is the same King of Glory. He comes, knocks, but never forces entry, and on His ‘coming in’ we are lifted up by His own virtuous majesty. His entry transforms and illumines. Jesus comes in divine eminence and meek humanity. He wears His crown with humility and His presence welcomed is like opening a door to a fresh scented breeze.

Great lofty cathedral interiors soaring into the void inform this artwork. Caught in the half light, their ceilings dissolve into a penumbral space as if no roof or limit existed. Their naves running into infinity, their transepts stretching into the unknown.

Bearing equal creative weight is the image of a path running through a grove of tall trees with light filtering through the canopy, camouflaging shapes and creating deep shadows. 

Follow the artist on Instagram @marcocazzuliniart.

For more on Psalm 24 as a whole, used in ancient times as an entrance liturgy for processions into the Jerusalem temple, see this commentary by Old Testament scholar Rolf Jacobson. “The poem,” Jacobson writes, “describes the contrasting natures of the God who enters into human space and those humans who are able to meet the advent of this God. Psalm 24 is about the advent of human beings into the presence of God, and the mutual advent of the King of glory into the presence of ‘those who seek the face of God.’”

Think of this world as a temple or your heart as a temple—that dark doorway of Cazzulini’s image the entrance—and meditate on Christ’s coming into it. Do you need to fling open the gates to let him in?

LISTEN: “Lift Up Your Heads” (original title: “Machet die Tore Weit”) | Text: Psalm 24:7–9 | Music by Andreas Hammerschmidt, 17th century, arr. Robert Field | Performed by Oasis Chorale, dir. Wendell Nisly, on Favorites, 2017

Lift up your heads, ye gates!
O eternal doors,
Lift up high!
And the king of great glory shall come in.
Who is this king of great glory?
He is the Lord, strong and mighty in battle.
Sing Hosanna in the highest!

The German Baroque composer Andreas Hammerschmidt (1612–1675) served as organist and choir director at the Protestant Johanniskirche (Church of St. John) in Zittau from 1639 until his death. He wrote the Advent motet “Machet die Tore Weit” for his community there, setting Martin Luther’s German translation of Psalm 24:7–9. Oasis Chorale sings the piece in English translation. To hear the original German, click here.

Roundup: Lessons & Carols, new Advent/Christmas albums, Advent Art Salon

N.B.: Upcoming dates:

  • December 4: “For God So Loved the Cosmos: A Service of Lessons and Carols,” Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • December 11: “A Dawning Light” service, Grace Mosaic, Washington, DC
  • December 14: (Virtual) Advent Art Salon, organized by Image journal

More info below!

STORY & SONG SERVICES:

>> “A Dawning Light,” Grace Mosaic, Washington, DC: On December 12 last year, I attended Grace Mosaic’s fourth annual “Dawning Light” service, an evening of Advent and Christmas gospel music and scripture readings. It was wonderful, progressing from darkness to light together, feeling collectively our longing and our joy. The service was organized by the church’s pastor of worship and formation, Joel Littlepage, who’s at the keys. The song list is below. My favorite is probably the “Emmanuel” medley around fifty-two minutes in, or the medley that follows.

  • Processional: “Wait for the Lord” by Jacques Berthier, Taizé Community
  • 9:06: “The Truth Sent from Above,” traditional English carol with music by Joel Littlepage
  • 15:50: “Come, O Redeemer, Come” by Fernando Ortega
  • 19:14: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” arr. Kimberly Williams | Soloist: Kimberly Williams
  • 26:17: “Tenemos Esperanza” by Federico J. Pagura (words) and Homero R. Perera (music), Argentina | Soloist: Melissa Littlepage
  • 35:51: “Lift Up Your Voices” by Nikki Grier, as performed by the Sunday Service Choir
  • 44:10: “O Holy Night” by Adolphe Charles Adam, Placide Cappeau, John S. Dwight, arr. Kimberly Williams | Soloist: Kimberly Williams
  • 52:13: “Emmanuel” by Solly Mahlangu, South Africa, sung in Sotho
  • 55:10: “Emmanuel” by Norman Hutchins | Soloist: Russ Whitfield
  • 59:20: “Christmas Worship Medley” (“Alpha and Omega,” “Be Unto Your Name,” “Magnificent and Holy,” “The Almighty Reigns”), as performed by Israel Houghton, arr. Dan Galbraith
  • 1:15:10: “Jesus Is the Reason” by Kirk Franklin
  • 1:20:19: “Joy to the World” by Isaac Watts (words) and George Frideric Handel (music) (congregational hymn)
  • 1:23:24: Recessional: “Joy to the World” (instrumental)

This year’s “Dawning Light” service will be held December 11 at 5:30 p.m. at Grace Mosaic in Northeast Washington, DC. A catered reception will follow. RSVP here.

>> “For God So Loved the Cosmos: A Service of Lessons and Carols,” December 4, 2022, LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan: This Sunday at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. Eastern, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship is holding a Lessons & Carols service (in-person and livestreamed) celebrating the Bible’s all-creation vision of redemption. The program is posted, and it looks great! If you’re remote, you can tune in on YouTube.

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2021 ADVENT ART SALON: Organized by Image journal, this virtual hour-long salon took place on December 14, 2021. The two highlights for me are Christopher J. Domig’s performance of the Shepherd’s monologue from “The Birth” by Frederick Buechner (12:54–18:33), in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, and the Rev. Dr. Lauren Winner’s reflection on Mary’s pregnancy (43:44–49:26), in which she shares, in addition to two images, an unusual Advent practice she follows, recommended to her by a Baptist pastor who is also a doula!

Leininger, Lorie_Infinite Riches in a Little Room
Lorie Dodge Leininger (American, 1926–2016), Infinite Riches in a Little Room, 1968. Woodblock print, 14 × 11 1/2 in.

Image is hosting another virtual Advent Art Salon this year on December 14 at 5 p.m. Eastern (2 p.m. Pacific). It will feature an Advent meditation by Amy Peterson, poetry readings by Karen An-hwei Lee and Jonathan Chan, a performance of Annie Dillard’s “God in the Doorway” by Rachel Ingram, a musical performance by Eric Marshall of Young Oceans (who is on my Advent playlist!), and a reading on feasting by Kendall Vanderslice. View more info here, and register here.

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NEW ADVENT/CHRISTMAS ALBUMS: All three of these are available on Spotify andother streaming services.

>> We Wait: Advent and Christmas, vol. 2 by The Many: An EP of two traditional songs and two originals by The Many, an intentionally diverse collective gathered around their “shared love of music and commitment to honest expressions of faith, peace-making, economic and racial justice, and LGBTQ+ inclusion.” They draw on indie-pop and gospel influences.

>> The Soil and The Seed Project, vol. 5: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany: The Soil and The Seed Project is a liturgical collective based in Harrisonburg, Virginia, writing music and at-home liturgies structured around the church year. They’ve just released their fifth collection, available for free through their website. The music portion includes, among other songs, retunes of a few traditional Advent hymns; the electro-hop “Restore Us,” a lament by Greg Yoder; a setting of the Beatitudes; and a setting of Psalm 96:1–2 in its original Hebrew by the late Rev. Dr. Anil Solanki, a former seminary professor of TSATSP director Seth Crissman’s (Crissman said Professor Solanki would often open his Hebrew exegesis classes by leading students in this song).

>> Christmas Hymns by Paul Zach: Four originals and twelve traditionals from one of my favorite sacred singer-songwriters. Most are for Christmas, but a few are more Advent-y. Taylor Leonhardt, Lauren Plank Goans, Keiko Ying, and Noah Zach provide supporting vocals. [Apple Music]

Advent, Day 6: That Holy Thing

LOOK: Holy Family at Night (Rembrandt’s workshop)

Rembrandt (workshop)_Holy Family at Night
Workshop of Rembrandt van Rijn, Holy Family at Night, ca. 1642–48. Oil on panel, 66.5 × 78 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

During the Dutch Golden Age, the master artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) ran a flourishing workshop in Amsterdam, overseeing the production of students’ paintings that continued the deep chiaroscuro and distinctive application of paint seen in his own work.

This painting from his workshop shows the Holy Family in a sparsely lit domestic interior at night. The Christ child lies asleep in a wicker cradle at the foot of a half staircase, his grandma Anne likewise nodding off as she rocks him gently with the cradle rope. Relieved by the quiet, Jesus’s mom, Mary, catches up on some reading, and Joseph taps liquid from a barrel on the left under the stairs (he’s very difficult to make out through the shadows).

This lived-in room is full of everyday objects from seventeenth-century Holland. Over the hearth on the left a copper candlestick holder is affixed to the wall. Behind Anne is a map, and beside her a spinning wheel, and a wicker basket hangs from the nail of a curved wooden beam. On the table to the right are a pair of old shoes, a flask attached to a leather belt, and a mortar and pestle, and a Jan Steen jug and other kitchenware are stored in the cupboard above. The shutters are drawn closed over the window. How utterly ordinary!

Although scholarly opinion since 1900 has identified the figures as biblical ones (the title is not the artist’s, as artists did not title their paintings at the time), for much of the painting’s history viewers interpreted it as simply a genre scene—that is, a scene showing regular people going about their daily lives. It lacks the “distinction, nobility, and loftiness” owed to biblical subject matter, it was believed, especially the Holy Family. There are no angels, no haloes. The only hint of sacredness is the pouring of light from a mysterious unknown source.

Rembrandt (workshop)_Holy Family at Night (detail)

But the ordinariness of the scene depicted is precisely what makes it so glorious. Jesus was born into a working-class family. For most of his life he labored as a carpenter, adopting Joseph’s trade. He wasn’t surrounded by lavish things. His upbringing looked much like that of all the other Jewish boys in Nazareth. That he was God incarnate would be revealed in time, to those who had eyes to see. But in the meantime, he cooed and pooed and cried and slept and fed and spit up like any other baby! And his mom was exhausted like any other mom, forced to sneak in some time for herself (including private devotional time, as she’s probably reading her Bible here) wherever she could, between childcare, chores, and other obligations.

That God chose to come to us as an ordinary human being born to an ordinary family (albeit conceived in an extraordinary way!) surprised everyone. The song that follows extends the surprise of the Incarnation into God’s other interventions in our lives, on a more personal scale. Just as he defied expectations in his first coming, so he often continues to surprise us in the ways he comes to us now—that is, not according to our own prescriptions, but down his “own secret stair,” when and where we’re least expecting it.

LISTEN: “That Holy Thing” | Words by George MacDonald, 1877 | Music by Katy Wehr, on In Others’ Words, 2008

They all were looking for a king,
To slay their foes, and lift them high:
Thou cam’st a little baby thing
That made a woman cry.

O Son of Man, to right my lot
Naught but thy presence can avail;
Yet on the road thy wheels are not,
Nor on the sea thy sail.

My how or when thou wilt not heed,
But come down thine own secret stair,
That thou mayst answer all my need,
Yea, every bygone prayer.

This song is a setting of a poem written by George MacDonald (1824–1905) in December 1877 and sent by letter to a handful of friends.* When it was first published in 1893 in the two-volume Poetical Works of George MacDonald, it was with this revised final stanza:

My fancied ways why shouldst thou heed?
Thou com’st down thine own secret stair;
Com’st down to answer all my need,
Yea, every bygone prayer!

The poem appears in the highly influential Oxford Book of English Verse (1900), compiled and edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch, but in its original form.

“That holy thing” is a translation of the Greek word hagios, which appears in Gabriel’s speech to Mary in Luke 1:35: “that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” Educator Missy Andrews unpacks the poem:

In “That Holy Thing,” MacDonald meditates on man’s expectations and God’s will. In the first line of the poem, the poet remembers the first-century Jews who suffered under Roman occupation, waiting for the Messiah who would restore the throne of David to Israel. He acknowledges their plight and their expectation, contrasting it with what they in fact received. The baby Christ represented both a gracious answer to their need, and an immediate disappointment. He satisfied the deepest intentions of their prayer and Yahweh’s ancient prophecies, but frustrated their earthy expectations for geographic kingdoms and vindication. Not only that, but the baby King “made a woman cry.” This references not only the immediate suffering and travail of the Christ Child’s mother, Mary, but ultimately the suffering that would rend her heart when He himself was lifted high upon the cross in answer to their desperate prayer for triumph over their foes.

The poet notes that his own travails and petitions, his own desperate need of God’s intervening help, is denied in its immediacy as well. For, although the Son of Man’s own presence alone can help to “right the lot” of the poet, his coming is not visible by road or sea. In this way, MacDonald acknowledges that his own expectations, like those of his spiritual forebears, eclipse his ability to see the Lord’s coming in his own circumstances. He acknowledges the differences between God’s ways and man’s, in faith acknowledging that the Lord answers man in his own ways and times, keeping secret His approach, but stealthily accomplishing man’s every need, answering his every prayer through the mystery of incarnation. This incarnate Child, the Son of Man, replete with humanity and no stranger to suffering, suggests a remedy for all who wait and suffer.

Andrews is a founding director of CenterForLit, whose goal is “to bring readers face to face with the world’s best books so they can know themselves more fully as God’s creatures.” The center has a special emphasis on equipping parents to teach the classics to their kids.

The commentary above is excerpted, with Andrews’s permission, from the first post of twenty-five published in Advent 2015 for the CenterForLit’s “Literary Advent” blog series (which is excellent!). Andrews provides interpretations of poems by John Donne, Madeleine L’Engle, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and more, combining literary analysis and theological reflection. You can enjoy Andrews’s series in print form with the book Wild Bells: A Literary Advent.

Kathryn Wehr, PhD, is a singer-songwriter whose most recent album, which leans folk rock in style, is And All the Marys: Women Encountering Christ in the Gospels (2018).

Besides being a musical artist, Wehr is also a scholar whose interests include theology and the arts, spiritual formation, and church history. Her specialization is the religious drama of Dorothy L. Sayers, and as such, she is the editor of the forthcoming book The Man Born to be King, Wade Annotated Edition (IVP Academic, 2023). In addition, she is the managing editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture at the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota. 

* Thank you to the Special Collections & University Archives at Taylor University, through whose British Author Collections I discovered this earlier composition date for the poem, as well as an authoritative version of stanza 3 from MacDonald’s own hand. They provided me with a scan of one of MacDonald’s handwritten copies of “That Holy Thing” (Ref. ID 482), which contains the headnote “Written for my friends—Christmas, 1877.”

Advent, Day 5: In a Fog

LOOK: Blind Light by Antony Gormley

Gormley, Antony_Blind Light
Antony Gormley (British, 1950–), Blind Light, 2007. Fluorescent light, water, ultrasonic humidifiers, toughened low-iron glass, aluminum, 320 × 978.5 × 856.5 cm. Temporary installation at the Hayward Gallery, London. Photo: Stephen White.

Sir Antony Gormley OBE RA is a leading contemporary sculptor and installation artist whose work focuses on the human figure. His Blind Light installation from 2007 consists of a large semitransparent glass chamber lit by fluorescent light and filled with a dense cloud of mist. “Upon entering the room-within-a-room, the visitor is disoriented by the visceral experience of the fully saturated air, in which visibility is limited to less than two feet.”

One visitor took a two-minute video of the experience:

Gormley says,

Architecture is supposed to be the location of security and certainty about where you are. It is supposed to protect you from the weather, from darkness, from uncertainty. Blind Light undermines all of that. You enter this interior space that is the equivalent of being on top of a mountain or at the bottom of the sea. It is very important for me that inside it you find the outside.

Sometimes the human experience feels like a groping through fog. It’s hard to see the bigger picture. The not-seeing can be frustrating. There is a doorway leading out into the clear, into full vision—but our passage through isn’t granted us until the general resurrection. Meanwhile, “we walk by faith” (2 Cor. 5:7), stumbling alongside one another through mists of unknowing, but with God’s word and Spirit as guides, giving us glimpses of clarity and confidence to step forward. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face,” the apostle Paul writes in anticipation of the day of the Lord. “Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

LISTEN: “Clouds of Waiting, Clouds of Returning” by Jacob Goins and Hannah Wyatt, on in the twilighting (2020)

I’m quiet in cloudy waiting
Assured of little but weaknesses
Of faith and seeing
And I’m wanting only to be filled
In this day

And I know you’re coming soon
But would you show me where you are right now
In cloudy waiting

I’m craving the clouds of your returning
Assured of little but a strength
Beyond faith and seeing
But I’m wanting only to be filled
I’m wanting only to be stilled
In this day

I know you’re coming soon
But would you show me where you are right now
In cloudy waiting

I’m hopeful for the fruits of faithfulness
But they are slow in their growing
And I’m quick to accuse
When heavy silence comes

Advent, Day 4: Maranatha (multilingual)

LOOK: God Heals by Anila Hussain

Hussain, Anila_God Heals
Anila Hussain, God Heals, metallic black and white print on Fujifilm paper with frame, 50 × 50 cm

A finalist for the 2021 Chaiya Art Awards, this black-and-white photograph shows a person at prayer, her hands cupped, anticipating in faith the receipt of what she’s asked for but open to whatever God gives. The woman pictured is photographer Anila Hussain’s eighty-something-year-old mother, who has suffered for years from chronic pain and prays multiple times a day for relief. Hussain is her primary caregiver.

With the woman’s face in the shadows and her rough, overlapping hands illuminated, closely cropped, and in the foreground, God Heals emphasizes a posture of humble and heartfelt entreaty.

LISTEN: “Ven, Señor Jesús, Maranathá” (Come, Lord Jesus, Come, O Lord), performed by Harpa Dei, 2020 [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Born in Germany and raised in Ecuador, siblings Nikolai, Lucía, Marie-Elisée, and Mirjana Gerstner form the sacred vocal quartet Harpa Dei. Here they sing a traditional chant invoking Christ’s return in ten languages, shifting voice parts and harmonies to beautiful effect. The lyrics are in the video and also below.

Māranā thā is Aramaic (the language of Jesus) for “Come, O Lord.” Christians have prayed this prayer since the apostolic era, looking toward the cosmic healing and restoration that Christ’s second coming will usher in.

SPANISH: ¡Ven, Señor Jesús, Maranathá!
ENGLISH: Come, Lord Jesus, Maranatha!
GERMAN: Komm, Herr Jesus, Maranatha!
FRENCH: Viens, Seigneur Jésus, Maranatha!
ITALIAN: Vieni, Signor Gesù, Maranatá!
CHINESE: 来吧,主耶稣 (Lai ba, zhu Ye su, Maranatha!)
HEBREW: !בּוֹא אָדוֹן יֵשׁוּעַ  מרנאתא (Bo Adon Jeshua, Maranatha!)
RUSSIAN: Гряди, Господи (Gryadi Gospodi, Maranatha!)
GREEK: ἔρχου, Κύριε (Erhu Kyrie, Maranatha!)
LATIN: Veni Domine, Maranatha!

Sheet music can be found here.

“seasonal ghazal” by Harry Gilonis (poem)

Kandinsky, Wassily_Three Sounds
Vasily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866–1944), Three Sounds, 1926. Oil on canvas, 23 5/8 × 23 1/2 in. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

the silent stars descend to us
come angel seraph sheep pear-tree

o holy o cold
dawn come in snow

offspring of day
light is lily above us

glory birds, calling birds
sun, the fields shining

the day, the earth, skies
peace, contemplation and music

hosanna, no, holly stand
suddenly tree displayed

the yonder star our comfort
bring time again

joy, excelsis a-leaping
world and hope embrace

lullay image and sing sing
a happy new begin

“seasonal ghazal” by Harry Gilonis appears in the chapbook The Twelve Poems of Christmas, vol. 3, ed. Carol Ann Duffy (Candlestick Press, 2011), and in Haphazard by Starlight: A Poem a Day from Advent to Epiphany by Janet Morley (SPCK, 2013). Used by permission of Harry Gilonis.

A ghazal is a traditional Arabic verse-form originating in seventh-century Arabia and spreading in the medieval era into Africa, Spain, Persia, South Asia, and Turkey, where it has continued to develop. It is made up of five to fifteen self-contained couplets connected loosely by mood or theme, however allusive. The poet Agha Shahid Ali compares each ghazal couplet to “a stone from a necklace” that should continue to “shine in that vivid isolation.”

Harry Gilonis’s “seasonal ghazal” doesn’t adhere to all the principles of the classic form (which involve rhyme and refrain), but it does give us autonomous couplets of roughly equal length that unfold without linearity, and these all center on the twinned seasons of Advent and Christmastide. Gilonis composed the poem using a cut-up technique, in which he printed out pages’ worth of sacred and secular English carol texts, excised words or short phrases that stood out to him, and rearranged those excised fragments into varying combinations, creating a medley of seasonal keywords that strikes a new chord.

By separating the words from their original syntactic contexts and collaging them together in new ways, he defamiliarizes and thus revivifies them. Traditional elements of the Christmas story are playfully refreshed.

The poem captures the magic and wonder of the season and a hint of its yearning and lament. For example, the exultant excelsis, Latin for “highest,” from the angels’ song to the shepherds is followed one stanza later by lullay, an archaic word used to soothe children to sleep and voiced in the “Coventry Carol” by mothers of ancient Bethlehem who lullaby into eternal rest their infant sons who are about to be slain by Herod. Elevated choral anthems contrasted with deep, mournful groans. Christmastide is full of “light” and “glory,” but there’s also “cold.”

The line “world and hope embrace” is particularly compelling—a picture of hope throwing its arms around a weary and skeptical world, and the world hugging back.

Because of the poem’s fragmentary nature, the grammatical mood of some of the verbs can’t be definitively discerned, but I read the following, in addition to the Hebrew-derived “hosanna” (“save us, please!”), as imperatives addressed to God: “descend,” “come,” “bring,” and the final word, open and expansive, “begin”—a curtailment of the noun “beginning.”

Jesus’s birth was a new and universal beginning. Can you hear echoes of Isaiah?: “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isa. 43:19a NIV). Many Christians see in this Hebrew Bible passage the promise of a messianic kingdom inaugurated by Jesus’s birth but not yet brought to completion. The speaker of “seasonal ghazal” seems to recognize the salvation project that’s in motion but longs for “the day” of the Lord, “the earth, skies” reunited. “Begin,” he beckons. Bring in the new era.

What word combinations in this poem stick out to you? What meaning(s) do you see?

Advent, Day 3: Come Christmas

LOOK: Home by Olya Kravchenko

Kravchenko, Olya_Home
Olya Kravchenko (Ukrainian, 1985–), Home, 2012. Egg tempera on gessoed board, 29 × 39.9 cm.

This painting shows a cottage on a snowy hillside at night. Inside, a fire is lit in the hearth, casting a warm glow and sending smoke rising up the chimney. There’s a cat in the window and a sled on the lawn.

On all sides, the sky is populated by a mystical swirl of birds and flowery tendrils and angelic beings. Two of those angels, represented by large golden heads, hold wisps of snow in their hands and embrace the house, offering a protective presence.

Sadly, this cozy winter idyll is elusive for many this year, not least those in Ukraine, where this painting comes from. Many Ukrainians have had to flee their homes to evade the encroaching Russian troops. Others are dealing with the trauma of having lost family members in the war, or the fear of having loved ones on the front line.

Kravchenko told me this month that the situation in her country is “terrifying and unfathomable,” and she alerted me to a few of the recent icons she has painted in response to the war, including Air Defense, The one who protects the sky above the city, Crucifixion in War, and The Virgin of Peace and Victory. Follow her on Instagram @olyakravchenkoart.

LISTEN: “Jul, Jul, Strålande Jul” (Christmas, Christmas, Glorious Christmas) | Words by Edvard Evers, 1921 | Music by Gustaf Nordqvist, 1921 | Performed by Zero8 on A Zero8 Christmas, 2011 (YouTube: 2016)

Jul, jul, strålande jul, glans över vita skogar,
himmelens kronor med gnistrande ljus,
glimmande bågar i alla Guds hus,
psalm som är sjungen från tid till tid,
eviga längtan till ljus och frid!
Jul, jul, strålande jul, glans över vita skogar!

Kom, kom, signade jul! Sänk dina vita vingar,
över stridernas blod och larm,
över all suckan ur människobarm,
över de släkten som gå till ro,
över de ungas dagande bo!
Kom, kom, signade jul, sänk dina vita vingar!

English translation by Michael A. Lowry:

Christmas, Christmas, glorious Christmas: shine over white forests,
heavenly crowns with sparkling lights,
glimmering arcs in the houses of God,
hymns that are sung throughout the ages,
eternal longing for light and peace!
Christmas, Christmas, glorious Christmas, shine over white forests!

Come, come, blessed Christmas: lower your white wings,
over the battlefield’s blood and cry,
over the sighs from the bosoms of men,
over the loved ones who’ve gone to their rest,
over the daybreak of newborn life!
Come, come, blessed Christmas: lower your white wings!

“Jul, Jul, Strålande Jul” is one of the most widely sung Swedish Christmas songs. It personifies Christmas as a luminous winged being, asks it to descend over our wooded neighborhoods and over our songs and our longings, dispensing blessing; to extinguish our wars and raging and spread its comforts over our anxieties and losses; and to cradle the new lives that have been born this year, reminders of innocence and signs of hope for a future.