Born a Child and Yet a King (Artful Devotion)

The Infant Savior by Andrea Mantegna
Andrea Mantegna (Italian, ca. 1431–1506), The Infant Savior, ca. 1460. Tempera on canvas, 70.2 × 34.3 cm (27 5/8 × 13 1/2 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace.

—Micah 5:2–5

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SONG: “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus / Joy to the World,” adapted and arranged by Folk Angel, on Live at Green Lux: Christmas Songs, vol. 6, 2014 | Words by Charles Wesley, 1744, with refrain and bridge by Isaac Watts, 1719 | Music by Rowland Hugh Prichard, 1830, and Folk Angel

The backbone of this Folk Angel song is the Advent classic “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” but into this the band has integrated lines from “Joy to the World,” traditionally sung at Christmastime. While the verses plead, “Come!,” the chorus declares, “He has come,” holding together the cries of both seasons. He whom the nations desire is here, “born to reign in us forever.” May earth receive him.

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.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Joy to the world!
The Lord has come;
Let earth receive her king.
Let earth receive her king.

Born thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a king,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By thine all-sufficient merit,
Raise us to thy glorious throne.

Joy to the world!
The Lord has come;
Let earth receive her king.
Let earth receive her king.

Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing!

Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free.
We are free.
We are free.
We are free.
We are free.

The verse melody is, of course, that well-loved Welsh tune HYFRYDOL, composed by Rowland Hugh Prichard. The chorus and bridge, however, employ an original tune by Folk Angel, resetting key excerpts from Isaac Watts’s carol that emphasize the kingly nature of the infant Christ. This crescendos into a triumphant repeat of the song’s first two lines, and a grateful acknowledgment of God’s fulfilled purposes: a people set free from their fears and sins, granted eternal rest under the loving rule of Christ. Even so, Lord, thy kingdom come.

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The Infant Savior by the great Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna brings me such delight—that little rosy, chubby-cheeked baby blessing me, blessing the world, this Christmas. You might call the painting a Christ Pantocrator, but it doesn’t fit the standard iconography, because instead of a half-length adult it shows a full-length child of about one year. Still, this is Jesus, “born a child and yet a king”: he wears a velvet robe with a golden clasp and lining, but underneath, his humble swaddling cloths are revealed, and he’s barefoot. His right hand is raised in a gesture of blessing, and in his left hand he holds, instead of a book (as is traditional in Pantocrator images), a cross-shaped scepter. A cross shape also comprises his “crown”—the three streams of light emitted from his bald little head.

Mantegna’s painting suggests that Christ’s kingship was established at his birth, and that it would be furthered by way of the cross.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, cycle C, click here.

Malcolm Guite on the imagination and God-with-us

I love listening to Malcolm Guite talk about spirituality, poetry, and the imagination; he’s a phenomenal teacher. In a December 2 podcast episode titled “Keeping Advent: Hope for a Dark World,” host Sally Clarkson interviews Guite on these topics as they relate to Advent. Before he launches into the meat of the talk, he describes the importance of the imagination in getting at truth:

God has given us all kinds of capacities with which to come to the truth, just like he’s given us different sense organs. When a bird is singing, your ears are telling you one part of what’s happening, and your eyes are telling you another. You’ve got both to get that whole experience. If you just had a silent film of the bird, you would be seeing something real, but you’d be missing something as well.

So I sometimes think that reason, the reason that makes for great science—analytic, helps us to think things through logically—that’s a very, very important test for truth, that’s a very important faculty, but it doesn’t get to everything. . . .

Imagination is the thing that shapes and puts things together. Shakespeare put this very beautifully. He said that imagination “apprehend[s] / more than cool reason ever comprehends” [A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.5–6]. He said we need to apprehend some joy before we can comprehend the bringer of the joy.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge believed that the imagination was part of our capacity to pay attention, and that the imagination would help us to remove, for a minute, the dull film of familiarity that we put over everything, and see it with freshness again. He also used a very beautiful analogy. He uses the example of a little insect, the horned fly, and how, when it’s still in the squashy pupa phase and it’s going to metamorphose, it makes a cocoon—a kind of carapace. He says that when that little fly does that, it leaves room in its involucrum, he calls it—what a wonderful word—for antennae yet to come [Biographia Literaria, vol. 1, chap. 12]. He says that’s what the imagination does.

Sometimes the artistic imagination, the poetic imagination, comes to us with something marvelous. And what that marvelous thing is doing is it’s holding open a shape that the rest of our mind is going to grow into, so that the antennae, the real reasoning and figuring it all out, can come a bit later, but the story [or poem or image] gives us something.

Igor Paneyko
Painting by Igor Paneyko (Ukrainian, 1957–)

In this interview Guite also reads one of his Advent sonnets, the last in a series of seven he wrote that were inspired by the traditional liturgical chants known as the O Antiphons. Titled “O Emmanuel,” the poem is a prayer for God to come among us again, in all his myriad attributes, and to rebirth not only the hearts of humanity but the whole earth.

“O Emmanuel” by Malcolm Guite

O come, O come, and be our God-with-us
O long-sought With-ness for a world without,
O secret seed, O hidden spring of light.
Come to us Wisdom, come unspoken Name
Come Root, and Key, and King, and holy Flame,
O quickened little wick so tightly curled,
Be folded with us into time and place,
Unfold for us the mystery of grace
And make a womb of all this wounded world.
O heart of heaven beating in the earth
O tiny hope within our hopelessness,
Come to be born, to bear us to our birth,
To touch a dying world with new-made hands
And make these rags of time our swaddling bands.

This and other poems, by Guite and others, can be found in the book Waiting on the Word: A Poem a Day for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. You can read more about “O Emmanuel” on Guite’s blog, which contains a wealth of writings. For additional books by Guite, see his Amazon page.

Roundup: Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Hanukkah lamps, building walls, and more

NEW MUSICAL ARRANGEMENTS FOR ADVENT/CHRISTMAS

For cello and piano: “In the Bleak Midwinter,” arr. Sheku Kanneh-Mason: Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a multi-award-winning cellist from England who, since being named 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year, has gone on to release, this January with Decca, his first full-length album (a chart topper), to perform as a soloist at the marriage ceremony of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and to serve, for the 2018–19 season, as a Young Artist in Residence at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Time magazine recently listed him as one of 25 Most Influential Teens of 2018. He’s nineteen years old.

Stream on Spotify | Purchase on iTunes

In a recent recording session at Abbey Road Studios, Sheku performed one of his own arrangements with his sister Isata Kanneh-Mason, a pianist who, like him, is on scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. Sheku is the third of seven siblings, and all of them are musical. They competed together in 2015 on Britain’s Got Talent and regularly perform together. See the CBS Sunday Morning featurette “The family that plays together.”

This piece is, in the truest sense of the word, awesome. Gustav Holst’s melody, which the duo plays straightforwardly for the first verse, is already beautiful; Sheku’s creative coloring of each subsequent verse, utilizing different playing techniques, elevates the song’s beauty even more. I could listen to this on repeat all day long. Oh wait. I have.

For jazz trio and voice: “Love Came Down” and “Comfort Ye,” arr. Deanna Witkowski: This fall, jazz pianist and composer Deanna Witkowski released recordings of two of her arrangements of Advent/Christmas classics: Christina Rosetti’s “Love Came Down at Christmas” and, just last month, “Comfort Ye,” whose seventeenth-century text (based on Isaiah 40:1–8) is by Johann Olearius, with a later English translation by Catherine Winkworth. Witkowski is on piano, Daniel Foose is on bass, and Scott Latzky is on drums, making up the Deanna Witkowski Trio. Sarah Kervin is the vocalist.

“Love Came Down” (gospel/funk) – Purchase track on Bandcamp | Purchase piano/vocal score

“Comfort Ye” (gospel/R&B) – Purchase track on Bandcamp | Purchase choral (SAT) / piano score

 

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ART EXHIBITION: “Accumulations: Hanukkah Lamps,” Jewish Museum, New York City, October 12, 2018–February 9, 2020: This year’s Hanukkah celebrations have just passed (December 2–10), but the Jewish Museum in New York is still running, for quite a while, its exhibition of eighty-one Hanukkah lamps from its collection of nearly 1,050—the largest collection of Hanukkah lamps in the world. The lamps in the current show represent four continents, six centuries, and a range of materials. I’m most drawn to the modern ones, which rethink traditional ideas about the ritual object.

Hanukkah Lamp by Moshe Mann
Hanukkah lamp from Russia, mid-19th century. Cast lead, each 2 × 13/16 × 13/16 in. (5.1 × 15.2 × 2.1 cm). Jewish Museum, New York.
Menorah Memories by Larry Kagan
Larry Kagan (American, 1946–), Menorah Memories, 1981–82. Welded steel scraps, 21 1/4 × 19 × 4 1/2 in. (54 × 48.3 × 11.4 cm). Jewish Museum, New York.
Tree of Life by Erte
Erté (Romain De Tirtoff) (French, 1892–1990), Tree of Life, 1987. Polished bronze, 15 1/2 × 12 1/2 × 7 9/16 in. (39.4 × 31.8 × 19.2 cm). Jewish Museum, New York.

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ART ACQUISITION: Christ as the Man of Sorrows by Quentin Metsys: On November 27 the J. Paul Getty Museum announced its acquisition of Christ as the Man of Sorrows by Quentin Metsys (alternatively spelled Massys), one of the leading painters in sixteenth-century Antwerp, known for his delicate modeling and crisp details. For centuries, the painting has been in a private collection, previously unknown to art historians; the Getty purchased it in a private sale. Its discovery and attribution expands Metsys’s oeuvre and is already attracting much attention from scholars. After a short period of conservation and technical study, it will go on view in spring 2019, exhibited to the public for the first time in modern history. It is the first work by Metsys in the Getty’s collection.

Christ as the Man of Sorrows by Quentin Metsys
Quentin Metsys (Netherlandish, 1466–1530), Christ as the Man of Sorrows, ca. 1520–30. Oil on panel, 19 1/2 × 14 1/2 in. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. [pre-conservation]

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SONG: “Why We Build the Wall” by Anaïs Mitchell: Hadestown is a 2016 stage-musical adaptation of a 2010 folk-opera concept album of the same name, both by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell. It invites audiences on an epic journey to the underworld and back, following two intertwining love stories—that of Orpheus and Eurydice and of Hades and Persephone. I was struck by the current US political resonances of the song “Why We Build the Wall,” which Mitchell says she wrote in 2006. In this A Prairie Home Companion broadcast, Mitchell sings as Hades, king of the underworld, leading her minions in an anthem that celebrates the importance of a nonporous border. She is joined by Chris Thile on mandolin and vocals and by the First-Call Radio Players. The song starts at 1:07.

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VISUAL MEDITATION: Mother and Child by Gilly Szego: In a recent contribution to ArtWay, Anglican vicar Jonathan Evens reflects on a work by UK artist Gilly Szego, the wife of a Hungarian refugee. Szego painted Mother and Child in response to the expulsion of South Asians from Uganda in 1972 following a wave of Indophobia. St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, one of London’s most prominent churches, displayed the painting that year, helping to raise awareness of these refugees’ plight and that of others around the world. The figures could easily be read as the Virgin Mary and Jesus, who were themselves displaced from their homeland.

Mother and Child by Gilly Szego
Gilly Szego (British, 1932–), Mother and Child, 1972. Oil on canvas with wood frame and barbed wire, 52 × 48 in.

Evens shares some words from Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, St. Martin’s current vicar:

Jesus is a displaced person in three senses. Fundamentally, he is the heavenly one who sojourned on earth. And it didn’t go well: as John’s Gospel puts it, ‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (John 1:11). Then he finds himself a refugee in Egypt, his parents fleeing Herod’s persecution. Third, he spends his ministry as an itinerant preacher and healer, with nowhere to lay his head.

Meanwhile the story of Israel is one of migration from beginning to end. Adam and Eve leave the Garden; Noah and family sail away from destruction; Abraham follows God’s call; Joseph and family head down to Egypt; Moses leads the people back; Judah is taken into exile in Babylon; Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the return. None of these people were going on a package holiday: they were refugees, asylum seekers or trafficked persons. There is precisely one verse commanding the children of Israel, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’; there are no less than 36 verses saying ‘love the stranger.’ Care of the alien is how Israel remembers its history with gratitude.

Rejoice Greatly, Daughter! (Artful Devotion)

The Third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word for rejoice. Churches and families all over the world will be lighting the joy candle of their Advent wreath—traditionally rose-pink instead of purple like the other three—and worshipping with gusto in anticipation of the great joy to come at Christmas.

Eclat by Gill Sakakini
Gill Sakakini (British), Éclat, 2015. Acrylic on board, 120 × 90 cm.

Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you;
he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall never again fear evil.

On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
“Fear not, O Zion;
let not your hands grow weak.
The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.
I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival,
so that you will no longer suffer reproach.
Behold, at that time I will deal
with all your oppressors.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you in,
at the time when I gather you together;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes,” says the LORD.

—Zephaniah 3:14–20

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SONG: “Rejoice” | Adapted from the soprano air “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” from Handel’s Messiah | Performed by the Broadway cast of Mamma Mia, feat. Jenn Noth, Felicity Claire, Gerard Salvador, and Albert Guerzon, on Broadway’s Carols for a Cure, vol. 15 (2013)

[Listen on Spotify] [Listen on YouTube]

(I was unable to find the name of the adapter/arranger of this song. If you know, please notify me.)

This song is a setting of Zechariah 9:9a:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he . . .

Though this verse is not an assigned lectionary reading for this week, its sentiments are echoed in the Zephaniah passage.

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The title of Gill Sakakini’s painting pictured above is Éclat, a French word meaning brilliance, glow, glory, or a burst. Sakakini discusses it in an interview with Mark Byford in the book The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest (274). The painting captures a post-Annunciation moment, she says: Mary, alone in her room, responding to Gabriel’s news “through a bursting, embodied YES!” A bold, botanic wallpaper design forms the backcloth, emphasizing openness and fecundity; “the ‘garden,’ like creation itself, shares the immediacy of her joy through the shape of wide open, fully ripe petals which reinforce the openness of her limbs in this accepting gesture.” Sakakini says she’s aware that Mary almost surely cycled through other natural responses to the unexpected news of her pregnancy, like shock and fear, but that her ultimate posture was one of joyful acceptance, of celebration of what God was doing through her. “I’m not denying there were other stages, but this is the fruit of all those other interior conversations. . . . This is when she’s finally arrived.”

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Jucundare, filia Sion,
exsulta satis filia Jerusalem, alleluia.

Daughter Sion, be glad!
Dance, dance, daughter Jerusalem! Alleluia.

—from the monastic liturgy (Antiphonale Monasticum)


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, cycle C, click here.

The Rich Man who passed through the eye of a needle

Poem: “Advent” by Suzanne Underwood Rhodes

Through the needle’s eye
the rich man came
squeezing through stars of razor light
that pared his body down to thread.
Gravity crushed his heart’s chime
and his breath that breathed out worlds
now flattened as fire between walls,
the impossible slit stripped him
admitting him
to stitch the human breach.

This poem was first published in What a Light Thing, This Stone (Sow’s Ear Press, 1999) and is used here by permission of the author.

My research interests have to do mainly with art’s theological potential and its ability to, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, “disclose” truths that are “closed” by prose. I love how it often surprises, and how it can make connections I would have never thought to make myself.

Suzanne Underwood Rhodes’s poem “Advent” demonstrates these values magnificently. Its topic is the Incarnation. But her mooring point is not John 1 or Luke 1–2 or Philippians 2 or any other scripture text traditionally associated with the doctrine. Instead she draws on the famous aphorism of Jesus that’s recorded in Matthew 19:24: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

In this Gospel interaction, Jesus is explaining how terribly difficult it is for wealthy people to enter heaven because they tend to cling tightly to their earthly wealth rather than to God; they let it make claims on them, and they trust in its promises, to the neglect of the claims and promises of God. While the needle saying, in context, pertains to man passing from earth to heaven, Rhodes turns it on its head to suggest the movement of God from heaven to earth. A seeming impossibility—infinity becoming finite, God becoming man. But “with God, all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). To save us, he would give up all the riches of heaven, assuming the role of a servant and ultimately giving up his very life.

Rhodes uses harsh, uncomfortable words—“squeezing,” “razor,” “pared,” “crushed,” “flattened,” “stripped”—to convey a sense of compression into human flesh. God’s breath, once so powerful and expansive that it brought the universe into existence, is now, in the person of the Son, walled in by a rib cage and dependent on oxygen. His heart pumps actual blood. Thus pared down to thread, he slips through the needle “to stitch the human breach,” to repair what we have torn through our disobedience. Severed from God no longer, we are held together with him by Christ himself.

Musical composition: “As by Fire between Walls” by Joshua Stamper

The evocative imagery of this poem has inspired artists in other media to respond in kind. One of them is composer Joshua Stamper, who, commissioned in 2014 by City Church Philadelphia, wrote a four-and-a-half-minute experimental jazz piece for chamber orchestra titled “As by Fire between Walls.”

 

It starts with minor chords on the piano, floating around ethereally. Then a violin tremolo kicks in (suggestive of the “razor light”), and other sharp bowing techniques (“par[ing] his body down”). Then soulful, wordless vocals. Then a staccato rhythm played on the mellotron, and percussion. Brass too. It’s a wonderfully wrought piece of music, a soundscape of the Incarnation, inclining the ear back toward Rhodes’s words and the heart to the grand story of scripture.

Painting: Through the Needle’s Eye the Rich Man Came by Grace Carol Bomer

Suzanne Rhodes is a friend of visual artist Grace Carol Bomer’s, who has a studio practice in Asheville, North Carolina. In 1993, Bomer was invited by the Asheville Art Museum to exhibit eight of her paintings for a Christmas show. Through the Needle’s Eye the Rich Man Came, inspired by Rhodes’s “Advent,” is one of those eight.

Through the Needle's Eye by Grace Carol Bomer
Grace Carol Bomer (Canadian American, 1948–), Through the Needle’s Eye the Rich Man Came, 1993. Mixed media on torn canvas on wood, 48 × 48 in.

About it, Bomer says,

The Christ of Christmas is God incarnate, the focal point or fulcrum of history. To show this glorious Incarnation, I chose to paint a piercing V (fulcrum) of light rending cloth (canvas on wood). The torn canvas symbolizes the veil of the temple. . . .

It was my personal challenge to show in painting that Christ is God, Spirit and flesh, in a way that would not be trite and sentimental. The Renaissance nativities are infected with beautiful Platonic realism, suited for Christmas card sentimentality. I feel they do not adequately exalt the “mystery hidden for ages,” the Christ of power and glory. Jesus Christ is Spirit and flesh, Son of God and Son of Man. Reality is both “abstract” and “realistic.” So too, art must seek to find this mysterious balance in order to proclaim the gospel. Art totally divested of realism, like Abstract Expressionism, becomes meaningless. Art must proclaim creation, fall, and redemption. I would like the poetic nuances in my work to stimulate the imagination to “see” in the abstract painting the spiritual truths that cannot be painted realistically.

In this piece there are suggestions of blood on doorways, symbolizing a Passover fulfilled, as Christ pushes open the door separating God and man.

So this painting integrates the coming down with the at-one-ing that happens at the cross, the physical tear of the canvas alluding simultaneously to the “human breach” of Rhodes’s poem and the tearing of the temple veil, which symbolizes humanity’s reconciliation to God. Birth and death are wrapped up in a single image, as both are key to Christ’s salvation project.

Through the Needle’s Eye is one of Bomer’s early works, but she has a whole series she calls Incarnation, which can be viewed on her website at https://gracecarolbomer.com/section/300298-Abstract-Incarnation.html.

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See how a poet’s imagination and craft can unfold the beauty and wonder of a heady doctrine with such concision? In Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, Laurence Perrine defines poetry as “a kind of language that says more and says it more intensely than does ordinary language” (509). That’s just what Suzanne Underwood Rhodes does in “Advent.” And that intense language of hers has inspired works of musical and visual art that explore even further what it means that the Son of God, the “Rich Man” from heaven, constricted himself for our sakes, becoming impossibly small, taking up residence in a virgin’s dark womb, in humanity’s dark world, so that he could stitch back together our ruptured relationships with the Father and with one another.

The Sunrise Shall Visit Us (Artful Devotion)

The Stell Falstone by Judith Appleby
Judith Appleby (British, 1952–), The Stell Falstone, 2011–14. Acrylic on canvas.

The following prophecy, known as Zechariah’s Canticle, is given by the temple priest after the birth of his son, John—who would become “John the Baptist,” the forerunner to Jesus Christ. Zechariah can taste the sweet nearness of redemption, and he sings its song.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

—Luke 1:68–79

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SONG: “The Dawn Will Break Upon Us” by Mike Crawford and His Secret Siblings [previously], on Jacob’s Well, vol. 3: Songs for the Advent Conspiracy (2010)

 


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, cycle C, click here.

Near (Artful Devotion)

Praying Youth (early medieval fresco)
Fragment of a Roman Christian fresco, 8th–9th century. Dumbarton Oaks Museum (BZ.1938.59), Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

—Luke 21:28

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This upcoming Sunday marks the beginning of Advent, a yearly church season of waiting, watching, hoping, praying, and preparing for the coming of the Savior.

There are theological reasons for observing a serious Advent without being swallowed up prematurely by the Christmas rush. Advent offers an unparalleled opportunity to take a fearless inventory of the darkness in our world and in our hearts, into which the True Light will come.

Fleming Rutledge

The season of Advent is an opportunity both to discover the nature of our enfeebled waiting muscles as well as our tired practices of anticipation and to discipline our hearts and minds, bodies and lives so that we might become, together, a people who wait with hope, who anticipate with faith, and who welcome the arrival of the Lord with courage in our hearts.

W. David O. Taylor

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SONG: “Christmas Is Now Drawing Near at Hand” (Roud 808) | English folk carol, 16th century | Performed by James Elkington, 2017

 

This carol, likely from the sixteenth century, was traditionally sung by beggars, travelers, and the “roaming folk” of England around Christmastime. Because of its strong moralism, it has fallen out of favor, but interest in it revived somewhat when it was recorded by the Watersons on their 1965 album Frost and Fire. Their version is based on one of those found in the 1914 edition of the Journal of the Folk-Song Society, compiled by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp from the West Midlands and counties adjoining Wales. James Elkington’s rendition adds a blues tilt, as his “masterful picking style tumbles and curls around the mournful melody,” accompanied by organ and slide guitar.

Christmas is now drawing near at hand
Come serve the Lord and be at his command
God a portion for you will provide
And give a blessing to your soul besides

Down in the garden, where the flowers grow in ranks
Get down on your bended knees and give the Lord thanks
Down on your knees and pray both night and day
Leave off your sins and live from pray to pray

So proud and lofty is some sort of sin
Which many take delight and pleasure in
Whose conversation doth God smirch as lie
And yet he shakes his sword before he strikes

So proud and lofty do some people go
Dressing themselves like players in a show
They patch, paint, and dress with idle stuff
As if God had not made ’em fine enough

Well, even little children learn to curse and swear
They can’t rehearse one word of godly prayer
Teach them better, oh teach them to rely
On Christ, the sinner’s friend, who reigns on high


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the First Sunday of Advent, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Peaceable Kingdom; Mary Poppins; art writing contest; “On Reading Well”; new Advent/Christmas albums

Congrats to the three winners of the Wounded in Spirit book giveaway. Thank you all for entering. I will be giving away another free book, from Eerdmans, sometime in the next month or two, so stay tuned!

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The Peaceable Kingdom (detail) by Edward Hicks
A bear and a cow share a snack of grass, and a child pets a leopard without consequence, in this charming little detail from Edward Hicks’s 1834 Peaceable Kingdom in the National Gallery of Art.

ADVENT ART VIDEO: The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks: This year I was invited to make a guest contribution to art historian James Romaine’s annual Art for Advent video series on YouTube. For 2018, he is spotlighting paintings from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, my neck of the woods. I chose to write about The Peaceable Kingdom by the nineteenth-century Quaker preacher-artist Edward Hicks, which visualizes the prophecy of Isaiah 11 about predators and prey lying down together in friendship, and a little child leading them. But Hicks’s image of “peace on earth” is not as simplistic as it may seem at first; there is tension. See the video below, and be sure to check back on the Seeing Art History YouTube channel next week for subsequent videos. For more on Hicks and this favorite subject of his, see this post of mine from 2016. Thank you to Rain for Roots for letting me use their wonderfully playful musical rendition of Isaiah 11 from their family Advent album Waiting Songs.

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Mary Poppins

PODCAST EPISODE: “Mary Poppins,” Technicolor Jesus, episode 49: “If you want a movie that really shows the foolishness of the gospel next to what the world thinks is wise and is turned on its head . . . if you want a movie about the great reversals that are present in the kingdom of God, you don’t need to look any further than Mary Poppins,” says Pastor Becca Messman. The oppressive orderliness booming over people’s lives “is contrasted with something unpredictable and joyful—the wind, dancing chimney sweeps, and this beautiful bird woman giving her crumbs away.” The movie is about what happens when both adults and kids relax into joy.

It’s also about charity. Last year Niles Reddick wrote an article about Mary Poppins as the first female Christ figure in American film, and “Feed the Birds” as a “song-parable” that serves as the linchpin of the movie. While the world would have us pile up our coins in a bank vault, Jesus calls us, against the world’s wisdom, to give them away.

Feeding the Birds (Mary Poppins)

I love this movie. My mom says that from a young age she would play it for me, and I would sit mesmerized for the entire 139 minutes. I remember trying to soothe my baby brother many a time by singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Once we were elementary school–age, we would eagerly await the “Step in Time” scene, at which point we would rush to grab brooms from the garage, using them as props as we danced along with Dick Van Dyke—which sometimes ended in injury . . . Now as an adult, I can appreciate some of the movie’s deeper themes, and pick up on its resonances with the upside-down nature of Christ’s kingdom. Can’t wait to see the new Mary Poppins Returns next month!

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WRITING CONTEST FOR UK TEENS: “Write on Art”: In an effort to get teenagers learning and writing about art, Art UK and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art are co-sponsoring “Write on Art” for the second year in a row. Any kid between the ages of 15 and 18 who is enrolled in a UK school (Years 10–13) is eligible to enter to win up to £500 by submitting a short personal write-up (400–600 words) on any artwork in the UK’s national collection. “With a disturbing decline in the teaching of art and art history in schools, our Write on Art competition . . . is designed to highlight the importance of art as an academic discipline.” The website includes tips on how to write about art, including where to find relevant vocabulary and other resources. All entries must be submitted by January 31, 2019.

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BOOK REVIEW: On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books by Karen Swallow Prior, reviewed by Nick Roark: In September, Brazos Press released Prior’s latest book on reading widely and well, which received a starred review and a Best Book of 2018 in Religion from Publishers Weekly. I’m a big fan of her previous Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, so I’m really looking forward to this one. “Covering authors from Henry Fielding to Cormac McCarthy, Jane Austen to George Saunders, and Flannery O’Connor to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Prior explores some of the most compelling universal themes found in the pages of classic books, helping readers learn to love life, literature, and God through their encounters with great writing. In examining works by these authors and more, Prior shows why virtues such as prudence, temperance, humility, and patience are still necessary for human flourishing and civil society.”

On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior

Purchase the book between now and Christmas, and receive a piece of free downloadable art by Ned Bustard. Instructions are on her website, https://karenswallowprior.com/.

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NEW ADVENT/CHRISTMAS ALBUMS

Watches of the Night; After the Longest Night

Watches of the Night by Matt Searles: “Christian believers are like watchmen, longing to see the first rays of dawn. We long for the darkness of this world to be finally taken away, and the light of Christ to rise in all its splendour. This album is intended to help us as we wait; to lament the brokenness of this world, but to look to the riches of that which is to come. It is an album of longing, but also of profound hope. Light has dawned. Christ has been raised. But we await the full revelation of him in glory. We are still watchmen. Still waiting.

 

“This is not a loud album. It is one I hope you might be able to listen to if you lie awake unable to sleep, as I so often find the case. I pray it is an album that might help you – like David in Ps 63:6 – to meditate on God in the watches of the night. An album that will orient you to the future, and help you increasingly be someone whose mind is set on the city that is to come. Songs to help you fix your eyes on Christ, and long above all else for his return when we see him face to face.”

After the Longest Night: Songs for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany by Steve Thorngate: These fourteen songs are a mix of originals, including settings of the Lukan Canticles (the songs of Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon), and traditionals: “Creator of the Stars of Night,” “What Child Is This,” “Bright Morning Stars,” and “Let the Light of Your Lighthouse Shine on Me.” Best $7 I’ve spent in a while! (Purchase even includes lead sheets.)

 

Book Giveaway: Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations by David Bannon

My friends at Paraclete Press are offering a free copy of this brand-new book to three lucky readers of Art & Theology. Entry rules are below.

Wounded in Spirit by David Bannon

For many, the holiday season is difficult to get through, as it stirs up painful reminders of loss or reveals fractures in present relationships. Author David Bannon knows. Wounded in Spirit: Advent Art and Meditations grew out his grief over the death of his twenty-six-year-old daughter, as well as his brokenness over his criminal past.

The book comprises twenty-five daily readings, each centered on an artist who walked through his own dark valley, groping for the light—and producing extraordinary art in the process. Most of these valleys were ones of death—death of children, parents, siblings, spouse. Some of the featured artists struggled with mental illness, the stigma of illegitimacy, or racial discrimination; others led violent or lascivious lives, and had grave personal sins to overcome. The premise of the book, though, is that Christ meets us in our fallibility and sorrow; he is our hope, our peace. “In their [the artists’] wounds, in our wounds, we may once again encounter ‘God with us.’”

Wounded in Spirit excerpt (Bartolome Murillo)

Wounded in Spirit excerpt (Paul Gauguin)

Illustrated in full color and with a foreword by Philip Yancey, Wounded in Spirit combines painting reproductions, commentaries, Bible verses, and quotes about beauty and suffering that prepare us to welcome the coming Messiah in the fullness of his glory and healing grace. Artists include Caravaggio, Murillo, Dürer, Cranach, Friedrich, Tanner, van Gogh, Gauguin, and more. Most of the artwork subjects are biblical, but not all; there are a few landscapes, self-portraits, allegories, and genre scenes as well.

HOW TO ENTER

Clicking on the entry button below will bring you to the entry form on the Rafflecopter website. You can enter up to three times by: subscribing to Art & Theology (to receive semiweekly posts by email), following @artandtheology on Twitter, and/or visiting Art & Theology’s Facebook page. (If you are already an email subscriber or a Twitter follower, you still qualify.)

The contest ends Sunday, November 25, at 12 a.m. Eastern Time. Three winners will be randomly selected and contacted by email later that day for shipping address information, using the email address provided on the entry form.

Unfortunately, this contest is restricted to US addresses only. My sincerest apologies to my international readers!

Giveaway button

Roundup: Norman Rockwell updated; snow-crystal photography; Good Samaritan icon; and more

Freedom of Worship by Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur
Hank Willis Thomas (American, 1976–) and Emily Shur (American), Freedom of Worship, 2018. While Norman Rockwell’s illustration of the same name contains specific representations of Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism, this reinterpretation goes even further to include Islam, Native American spirituality, and Sikhism.

NEW PHOTOGRAPH SERIES: “The Four Freedoms” by Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur: In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted that people in all nations share Americans’ entitlement to four basic freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. This famous speech became the basis for Norman Rockwell’s set of four illustrations, originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, that have become some of history’s most iconic representations of the American idea.

Artist Hank Willis Thomas and photographer Emily Shur decided to reimagine these scenes with a cast that’s more representative of American diversity. One of the eighty-two final images they created is published on the cover of the current issue of Time magazine. It and others will form the backbone of a national billboard campaign by the nonpartisan organization For Freedoms to encourage civic engagement. “We believe that if artists’ voices replace advertising across the country, public discourse will become more nuanced,” their website says.

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IN CONCERT: Eric and I went to see brother-sister folk duo The Oh Hellos (Tyler Heath and Maggie Heath Chance) in Baltimore earlier this month and had a great time. My favorite song from their set list was “Soldier, Poet, King,” which describes Jesus’s coming in all three roles—perfectly appropriate for the upcoming Advent season! Jesus, the Word of God, comes to tear down Satan’s kingdom and establish his just rule in our lives and world (1 John 3:8bRev. 19:11–16). The final verse affirms Jesus’s status as Messiah, the waited-for “Anointed One,” and celebrates his power marked by humility, even unto death. The blood he wears into battle is his own.

There will come a soldier
Who carries a mighty sword
He will tear your city down
O lei o lai o lord

There will come a poet
Whose weapon is his word
He will slay you with his tongue
O lei o lai o lord

There will come a ruler
Whose brow is laid in thorn
Smeared with oil like David’s boy
O lei o lai o lord

The Oh Hellos’ nationwide tour continues through the end of the year, so visit their website to see if they’ll be stopping near you.

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NEW ALBUM: Crumbs by Liturgical Folk: Liturgical Folk (previously here and here) released its third album this month, which “build[s] on the themes of eucharist and the mission of the church to bring peace and reconciliation to the world.” The title comes from the track “Prayer of Humble Access,” a verbatim setting from the “Holy Eucharist Rite I” in the Book of Common Prayer that alludes to the story of the Syrophoenician woman.


Most of the song texts on the album come from that traditional Anglican prayer-book and were set to music by Ryan Flanigan, though a few texts are contemporary. “Lord, Lord, Lord,” for example, was written in the wake of the August 9, 2014, shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and amid the subsequent escalation of racial tensions in the country. “As a privileged, white, middle class, American man,” Flanigan wrote,

I felt for the first time in my life the systemic injustice against black males in our country. What I found most troubling, besides death itself, was the response of some white, privileged people to the shooting, particularly the response of some Christians on social media and the News. When we should have been mourning with those who mourn, confessing our fears and sins, and seeking reconciliation, many of us turned a blind eye or, worse, assumed a posture of defensiveness and denial. I wrote this song as a corporate confession of sin to God and our fellow men, a plea for God to forgive us and restore our broken trust with him and with those we’ve failed to love.

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WORLD’S FIRST SNOWFLAKE PHOTOS: “The Man Who Revealed the Hidden Structure of Falling Snowflakes”: Maryland saw its first snow of the season this week, as did most of the East Coast, which means Twitter saw a flurry of snowflake images! The Smithsonian posted about Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley (1865–1931), whose perfection of innovative photomicrographic equipment and techniques (which included chilled velvet and a turkey feather) enabled him to photograph thousands of individual snowflakes without their melting, providing valuable scientific records of snow crystals and their many types.

The first person to photograph a single snowflake, . . . Wilson A. Bentley used a microscope with his bellows camera—plus years of trial and error—to get a photo of one flake in 1885. But he didn’t stop there. Bentley went on to take thousands more, . . . which helped support the belief that no two snowflakes are alike. In 1903, he sent 500 prints of his snowflakes to the Smithsonian, hoping they might be of interest to our Secretary. The images are now part of the Smithsonian Archives.

Snowflake photo by Wilson Bentley

Snowflake photo by Wilson Bentley

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BALKAN ICON: “Transforming a Parable: The Good Samaritan”: Run by David, a museum researcher, Icons and Their Interpretations discusses aspects of traditional Russian, Greek, and Balkan iconography, inviting people to submit photos of icons for identification of subject or meaning, and translation of inscriptions. Recently he wrote about a fourteenth-century Serbian Orthodox fresco that, like many of the church fathers, promotes an allegorical reading of the parable of the good Samaritan. In this interpretation, the man en route to Jerusalem is Adam, or Everyman, who is beaten by demons; the priest and the Levite represent the law of Moses and the priesthood of Aaron, which cannot help the wounded man. But the “good Samaritan,” Jesus, stoops down to save, carrying the man not on a beast of burden but on his own back, to an “inn,” the church. He hands two “coins,” the Bible and tradition, to the innkeeper, and promises to return. See further image details and commentary at the web link above.

Good Samaritan fresco (Balkans)
Parable of the Good Samaritan (see bottom register), 14th century. Fresco in the narthex of the Patriarchal of Pech, a Serbian Orthodox monastery in Kosovo.

Good Samaritan fresco (Balkans) (detail)

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OBITUARY: Christian composer Kurt Kaiser dies at 83: On November 12, Kaiser passed away at his home in Waco, Texas, after a six-decade-long career in composing, playing, arranging, and producing Christian music. A Gospel Music Hall of Famer and a progenitor of CCM, he’s best known for his song “Pass It On,” but I know him for “Oh How He Loves You and Me,” two renditions of which are posted below; the first is a solo performance by Vanessa Williams with gospel piano accompaniment by Richard Smallwood, and the second is performed a capella in four-part harmony by Kaoma Chende with the use of overdubbing.