Advent, Day 20: Of Little Lambs and Atomic Bombs

LOOK: Escape by Nicolas V. Sanchez

Sanchez, Nicolas_Escape
Nicolas V. Sanchez (Mexican American, 1983–), Escape, 2017. Oil on canvas, 61 × 76 cm.

LISTEN: “Do You Hear What I Hear” | Words by Noël Regney, 1962 | Music by Gloria Shayne, 1962 | Performed by Foreign Fields, 2016

Said the night wind to the little lamb
Do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky, little lamb
Do you see what I see?
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear?
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy
Do you hear what I hear?
A song, a song high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king
Do you know what I know?
In your palace warm, mighty king
Do you know what I know?
A Child, a Child shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold
Let us bring him silver and gold

Said the king to the people everywhere
Listen to what I say!
Pray for peace, people, everywhere
Listen to what I say!
The Child, the Child sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light
He will bring us goodness and light

Bing Crosby’s recording of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” from 1963 was one of the tracks on the Christmas compilation album that would be played on Christmas mornings in my house growing up. As a kid, I knew nothing of the gravitas of the carol, thinking it was only about a cute little lamb, a shepherd boy, and a humble king who go to see the newborn baby Jesus. While this is the ostensible narrative of the song, embedded in the lyrics is a fear of apocalyptic disaster, as it was written during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which lasted from October 16 to November 20, 1962. Involving the Soviet deployment of ballistic missiles to newly communist Cuba, which could hit much of the eastern United States in minutes (this in response to the US stationing missiles in Turkey, in range of Soviet territory), this thirty-five-day confrontation is the closest the Cold War came to escalating into a full-scale nuclear war. Though this particular crisis was averted, nuclear-related tensions and anxiety would continue to flare up for years to come.

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” is by the songwriting duo Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne, who were married at the time. Regney studied at music conservatories in Strasbourg, Salzburg, and Paris, but World War II interrupted his education. Despite being a Frenchman from Alsace, he was drafted by force into the Nazi army—but he soon deserted and joined a group of French resistance fighters. He survived the war and began his music career. Touring internationally with singer Lucienne Boyer, he eventually settled in Manhattan in 1952, working for television shows as an arranger, composer, and conductor. It was in New York that he met musician Gloria Shayne, who would become his wife.

The two collaborated together on a number of original songs, but “Do You Hear” is by far their most popular. In a reversal of their usual roles, Regney wrote the lyrics and Shayne wrote the music. The song, as the writers have said in interviews, is a plea for peace amid the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation.

Released December 7, 1962, the debut recording with the Harry Simeone Chorale sold over a quarter million copies, and Crosby’s cover the following year made the song an international hit.

The song traces the passing along of the good news of the birth of a savior: the wind tells the lamb, the lamb tells the shepherd, the shepherd tells the king, and the king tells the world. These character types are common in stories about Christ’s nativity, but not all the ones in the song map directly onto the ones mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The king is neither Herod nor one of the magi, but rather an aspirational figure—a world leader who wields his power responsibly, calling all nations to the way of goodness, peace, and light represented by the infant sleeping in the cold, God incarnate. Jesus is never named as the child, but his identity can be inferred from the context.

The song is structured as a series of interrogatives: do you see a star, do you hear a song, do you know the child who shivers? The last stanza, though, is an imperative: pray for peace.

Once we recognize the world events that informed the writing of “Do You Hear,” some of the lines take on a double meaning. For example, the star with “a tail as big a kite” is not just a celestial body leading the way to the Christ child, but also a nuclear missile. The “song” that rings through the sky “with a voice as big as the sea” is, on one level, a hearty angelic choir, but on another, it’s the thunderous clap of a bomb dropping, the blast echoing out in waves. The menace, the terror, is veiled beneath sentimental language and imagery. But it’s there for those with ears to hear, beckoning us to repentance—to turn from our violence, our lust for power and supremacy, our arsenal building, and to instead embrace the peaceable kingdom of Christ.

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” has been covered many, many times over its sixty years of existence. I’m partial to the cover by the electronic folk duo Foreign Fields of Nashville, consisting of Eric Hillman and Brian Holl. It eliminates the marchlike rhythm of the original as well as the choir and orchestra and, with just a guitar and solo vocals, captures well the sense of longing and lament. “He will bring us goodness” is sung six consecutive times, as if the singer is trying to convince himself of the truth of that promise, to bolster his hope through repetition.

“Out of the Ash” by William Everson (poem)

Phoenix (Aberdeen Bestiary)
Phoenix, from the Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen University Library MS 24, fol. 56r), England, ca. 1200

Solstice of the dark, the absolute
Zero of the year. Praise God
Who comes for us again, our lives
Pulled to their fisted knot,
Cinched tight with cold, drawn
To the heart’s constriction; our faces
Seamed like clinkers in the grate,
Hands like tongs—Praise God
That Christ, phoenix immortal,
Springs up again from solstice ash,
Drives his equatorial ray
Into our cloud, emblazons
Our stiff brow, fries
Our chill tears. Come Christ,
Most gentle and throat-pulsing Bird!
O come, sweet Child! Be gladness
In our church! Waken with anthems
Our bare rafters! O phoenix
Forever! Virgin-wombed
And burning in the dark,
Be born! Be born!

From The Veritable Years: Poems 1949–1966 by William Everson (Brother Antoninus). Copyright © 1998 by Jude Everson and the William Everson Literary Estate. Used with the permission of Black Sparrow Books, an imprint of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc., godine.com.

William Everson (1912–1994) was an American poet who gained fame in the San Francisco literary renaissance of the 1950s, being classified as part of the Beat movement. Deeply influenced by the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, he wrote about the California landscape, nonviolence, the biblical narrative, and erotic love. He was married twice before converting to Catholicism in 1948, and in 1951 he entered the Dominican Order as Brother Antoninus. However, to pursue a romantic relationship with the woman who would become his third wife, he renounced his monastic vows in 1969, returning to secular life but maintaining his Christian faith and his poetic vocation. He also wrote literary criticism, taught at university, and founded a small press. His collected poems are published in three volumes.

Advent, Day 19: Healing Wings

LOOK: Ronde au Soleil (Sun Circle) by Pablo Picasso

Picasso, Pablo_Sun Circle
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973), Ronde au Soleil (Sun Circle), 1959. Color lithograph on Arches wove paper, 19 1/2 × 17 1/2 in. (49.5 × 44.5 cm).

In this color lithograph, writes the Masterworks Fine Art gallery in San Francisco,

figures frolic happily in a circle, reminiscent of the sardana, a traditional Catalonian dance that appears in Picasso’s body of work. Some figures clutch flowers in their hands, others hold hands, signifying the strong bonds that can exist between people, and many also throw their hands over their heads with joy. Flowers fill the center of the circle as well, as if those dancing have been tossing them into the middle. None of the people are detailed with any facial features, but Picasso has done an inspiring job of bringing intense feeling through simple lines. The dancers abound with feeling, from their joyfully moving feet, to their hands opened wide towards the sky. Above the circle of youths is a glowing yellow sun, emblazoned with the outline of a white dove . . . [that] encapsulates the feeling of the dancers – both the hope that bursts forth from them, and also the freedom that the hope implies.

LISTEN: “But for You Who Fear My Name” by Lenny Smith, 1975 | Arranged and performed by The Welcome Wagon on Welcome to The Welcome Wagon, 2008

But for you who fear my name
The sun of righteousness will rise
With healing in his wings
And you shall go forth again
And skip about like calves
Coming from their stalls at last

You shall be my very own
On the day that I
Caused you to be my special home
I shall spare you as a man
Has compassion on his son
Who does the best he can

Written in God’s voice by way of the prophet Malachi, this song is by Leonard Earl Smith Jr. of Philadelphia; it appears on his 2000 album Deep Calls to Deep with the title “But For You.” Vito and Monique Aiuto, who comprise the Brooklyn-based duo The Welcome Wagon, recorded their own homespun arrangement, replete with stomps and claps, for their 2008 debut album Welcome to The Welcome Wagon.

The song is based on Malachi 4:2 and 3:17:

But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. . . .

They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them.

“Fear” in the song’s first verse is used in the archaic sense of to give reverence to or to be in awe of. God records the names of those who fear him in a “book of remembrance,” states Malachi 3:16.

I love the image in Malachi of baby cows being released from their pens to frolic freely in the fields, to skip and to play, which are likened in their joy to God’s redeemed on the last day when the “sun of righteousness” arises on them at last—when they are liberated.

The English language makes possible a wordplay on “sun” that is not in the original Hebrew, such that we can identify the bright solar orb with God’s Son, Jesus, who sheds his light upon us. (Get it? Sun/Son.) The “wings” of the sun are its rays.

You may recognize this poetic image from “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”:

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings.

The second verse of “But for You Who Fear My Name” opens by celebrating how God has made his home among us—in the flesh in the person of Jesus, and then by sending his Spirit to reside in those who believe. Malachi is referring specifically to Israel as God’s people, his treasured possession, but the New Testament writers apply those epithets more broadly to the new people God was forming through the work of Christ—that is, the church (e.g., 1 Pet. 2:4–10).

The song then references God’s parental mercy and grace in fully embracing us children who want to please him but who fail so many times.

Advent, Day 18: Will There Really Be a Morning?

LOOK: Cape Cod Morning by Edward Hopper

Hopper, Edward_Cape Cod Morning
Edward Hopper (American, 1882–1967), Cape Cod Morning, 1950. Oil on canvas, 34 1/8 × 40 1/4 in. (86.7 × 102.3 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

LISTEN: “Will There Really Be a Morning” | Words by Emily Dickinson, 1860 | Music by Julie Lee, 2011

Will there really be a “morning”?
Is there such a thing as “Day”?
Could I see it from the mountains
If I were as tall as they?

Has it feet like Water lilies?
Has it feathers like a Bird?
Is it brought from famous countries
Of which I have never heard?

Oh some Scholar! Oh some Sailor!
Oh some Wise Man from the skies!
Please to tell a little Pilgrim
Where the place called “morning” lies!

Advent, Day 17: When Morning Dawns

LOOK: Alpha and Omega by Larain Briggs

Briggs, Larain_Alpha and Omega
Larain Briggs (British, 1960–), Alpha and Omega, 2019. Oil over acrylic underpainting on stretched canvas, 100 × 100 cm.

“Behold, I am coming soon. . . . I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

—Revelation 22:12–13

This apocalyptic landscape painting by British artist Larain Briggs was on display at London’s gallery@oxo as part of the 2021 Chaiya Art Awards exhibition “God Is . . .” Briggs says it’s meant to evoke the book of Revelation.

“Although I perceived the painting to be a vision of the end, it is full of light and hope. The end can equally be viewed as a beginning,” she says. In the center of the composition a faint circular form rests on a heavily textured, curved platform of cloud and smoke (“Behold, he is coming with the clouds . . .” [Rev. 1:7]). At this focal point, turbulence resolves into tranquility and darkness gives way to light. This is the earth being transfigured by the arrival of her King.

The body of water at the bottom may be a reference to the “sea of glass mingled with fire” in Revelation 15:2.

LISTEN: “The King Shall Come” | Words by John Brownlie, based on miscellaneous Greek sources, 1907 | Music: American folk tune from Kentucky Harmony, 1816; arr. Minna Choi, 2020 | Performed by Tiffany Austin, 2020

The King shall come when morning dawns
And light triumphant breaks;
When beauty gilds the eastern hills
And life to joy awakes.

Not as of old, a little child
To bear, and fight, and die,
But crowned with glory like the sun
That lights the morning sky.

O brighter than the rising morn,
When He victorious rose,
And left the lonesome place of death,
Despite the rage of foes;—

O brighter than that glorious morn
Shall this fair morning be,
When Christ, our King, in beauty comes,
And we His face shall see.

The King shall come when morning dawns
And earth’s dark night is past;—
O haste the rising of that morn,
That day that aye shall last.

And let the endless bliss begin,
By weary saints foretold,
When right shall triumph over wrong,
And truth shall be extolled.

The King shall come when morning dawns,
And light and beauty brings;—
Hail! Christ the Lord; Thy people pray
Come quickly, King of kings.

“The King Shall Come” expresses hopeful longing for the return of Christ, which will bring about a new and lasting morn and the final passing of “earth’s dark night.” Stanza 2 contrasts Jesus’s first coming in suffering and struggle and sacrifice, his glory mostly veiled, with his second, when his glory will be unmistakable, his rule uncontested. The victory of that day, the hymnist writes, will be even more exhilarating than that of Christ’s resurrection, because it is total.

This hymn was written in the early twentieth century by the Scottish Presbyterian minister John Brownlie (1859–1925), who cites inspiration from the hymns of the Greek Orthodox Church. It was originally published in 1907 in Hymns from the East. In the introduction Brownlie writes, “The hymns are less translations or renderings, and more centos and suggestions. . . . The Greek has been used as a basis, a theme, a motive.” He differentiates this approach from that used in his previous volumes, which contain “truthfully rendered translations from the originals.”

Though the hymn is often attributed to an anonymous ancient Greek writer, most scholars consider it an original text by Brownlie that reflects his wide knowledge of Greek hymnody, as no Greek original has ever been found. It’s possible that the lines are a composite and expansion of fragments found in the Greek, but really, it’s a pastiche that nods to the centrality of light in Orthodox theology. 

This wistful arrangement by City Church San Francisco worship arts assistant Minna Choi is performed by guest artist Tiffany Austin, a Bay Area jazz vocalist. The other musicians are Adam Shulman on piano, Jeff Marrs on drums, Jason Muscat on bass, and Wil Blades on organ. Their version omits stanzas 5–6, as do several hymnals.

For more Advent songs from City Church, see “Come, Oh Redeemer, Come,” “Come Light Our Hearts,” “I Wait,” and (from the kids in the congregation!) “O Come, Messiah, Come.” For Christmas music, see the church’s past Lessons and Carols services on YouTube; last year I did a write-up on the one from 2020.

Advent, Day 16: Great Day Coming

When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You who are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?”

Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment but the righteous into eternal life.

—Matthew 25:31–46

LOOK: The Last Judgment by Nathaniel Mokgosi

Mokgosi, Nathaniel_Last Judgment
Nathaniel Mokgosi (South African, 1946–2016), The Last Judgment, 1980. Linocut. Source: Christliche Kunst in Afrika, p. 274

LISTEN: “There’s a Great Day Coming” by Will Thompson, 1886 | Arranged for six trumpets by Terry Everson, 2019 | Performed by Snarky Puppy, 2019 [HT: Global Christian Worship]

There’s a great day coming,
A great day coming,
There’s a great day coming by and by,
When the saints and the sinners shall
Be parted right and left—
Are you ready for that day to come?

Refrain:
Are you ready? Are you ready?
Are you ready for the judgment day?
Are you ready? Are you ready?
For the judgment day?

There’s a bright day coming,
A bright day coming,
There’s a bright day coming by and by.
But its brightness shall only come
To them that love the Lord—
Are you ready for that day to come? [Refrain]

There’s a sad day coming,
A sad day coming,
There’s a sad day coming by and by,
When the sinner shall hear his doom,
“Depart, I know ye not!”
Are you ready for that day to come? [Refrain]

Texas-bred and New York–based, Snarky Puppy is a jazz-soul-funk music collective consisting of some twenty-five members in regular rotation. “At its core, the band represents the convergence of both black and white American music culture with various accents from around the world. Japan, Argentina, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Puerto Rico all have representation in the group’s membership.” The trumpeters for this song are Michael “Maz” Maher, Jon Lampley, Justin Stanton, Yay Yennings, Kyla Moscovich, and John Culbreth.

Advent, Day 15: Great Joy River

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God . . .

It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, . . . and the twelve gates are twelve pearls. . . .

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. . . .

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

—Revelation 21:1–2, 12, 21–25; 22:1–5

LOOK: The New Heaven by Leroy Almon

Almon, Leroy_The New Heaven
Leroy Almon (American, 1938–1997), The New Heaven, 1984. Carved wood, light bulbs, artificial pearls, glue, glitter, plastic letters, paint, 36 × 28 in. (91.4 × 71.1 cm). Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. [object record]

This mixed-media depiction of heaven by African American folk artist Leroy Almon draws on imagery from the book of Revelation, showing centrally a crystal-bright river, the water of life, flowing forth from the mouth of God (Rev. 22:1–2). It courses through the paradisal scene, past the tree with its twelve fruits and healing leaves, and is pumped into twelve fountains, from which Black and white people drink together. Across lines of race, the new-city dwellers unite in worship, fellowship, and play. Notice the group of children with the ball in the bottom register!

For a framing device, Almon has used two wooden doors that bow out, as if the scene in all its fullness cannot be contained; as if the borders of the new city must bend to embrace the multitudes and their joy. The shape communicates an expansiveness that is the heart of God.

God is shown as majestic, mountain-like, and yet bearing a tender expression. The plastic beads on his forehead are printed with letters that read, “THE NEW HEAVEN,” and his eyes (not lit in this photo) are battery-powered light bulbs! He is, as John the Revelator tells us, the unending light dispelling all darkness. 

Almon was born in 1938, so for about the first three decades of his life, he lived in a country where racial segregation was enforced legally in many states and socially in others. By and large, Blacks and whites were made to live in separate neighborhoods, attend separate schools, swim in separate pools, eat at separate restaurants, drink from separate water fountains, pass through separate public building entrances, wait in separate waiting rooms, sit in separate sections of the bus and the theater and even (woe is us) the church, and so on. Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, mandating desegregation, racial prejudices and hostilities continued to persist, as they do today. And because sinful human beings create and run systems (criminal legal, economic, educational, medical, etc.), it’s no surprise that the sin of racism can be found there as well.

Almon longed to see racial justice and (re)conciliation, and he knew Jesus has the power to make it happen. Almon’s preaching ministry went hand-in-hand with his art making. Through both, he shared the good news that Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, calls us to a new way of being in the world, which involves repentance of sin and turning to the divine light of love that knows no bounds. His New Heaven envisions a world saved and transformed by Christ’s love, where power is shared equally, forgiveness sought and granted, and friendship is the order of the day, as is a shared rejoicing in the greatness of God. In The New Heaven, Black and white praise Jesus side-by-side, eat at the tree of life together, and put their lips to the same bubbling fount of living water.

And not only are relationships healed and humanity restored to its original harmony in the new heaven, but also personal sorrows and hardships are no more. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, socially, we flourish in the light of God that never dims.

For more on Leroy Almon, see this Art & Theology Lenten devotional post from earlier this year.

LISTEN: “Great Rejoicing” by Thad Cockrell, on To Be Loved (2009) | Performed by Rain for Roots, feat. Sandra McCracken and Skye Peterson, on Waiting Songs (2015)

There’s gonna be a great rejoicing (2×)

The troubles of this world
Will wither up and die
That river of tears made by the lonely
Someday will be dry
There’s gonna be a great rejoicing

There’s gonna be a great joy river (2×)

Questions of this world
Someday will be known
Who’s robbing you of peace
And who’s the giver

There’s gonna be a great joy river

Someday you will find me
Guarded in His fortress
Open heart and wings
That never touch the ground
Someday we will gather
In a grand reunion
Debts of this old world
Are nowhere to be found
Nowhere to be found

There’s gonna be a great rejoicing (5×)

We are now halfway through Advent! Many of the songs featured in this Advent series, including today’s, appear on my Advent Playlist. I also have a companion Christmastide Playlist, which has been revised and expanded since last year to include some choral selections.

Advent, Day 14: Joseph

LOOK: Saint Joseph by Antoine Alexandre Morel

Morel, Antoine Alexandre_Saint Joseph
Antoine Alexandre Morel (French, 1765–1829), Saint Joseph (after Jean Baptiste Joseph Wicar), 1787. Etching and engraving, 12 5/16 × 9 1/4 in. (31.2 × 23.5 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Poor Joseph. His fiancée is pregnant, and the baby’s not his. What else is a man to think, but that she was unfaithful? The news cuts him like a knife. Why is Mary making up this ridiculous story about an angel and an overshadowing and divine seed? I mean, really. A complex stew of emotions simmers within him—anger, frustration, confusion, disappointment, embarrassment, sadness, disgust, fear.

In a rare type of iconography, the eighteenth-century French printmaker Antoine Alexandre Morel, copying a painting by Jean-Baptiste Wicar (which I’ve not been able to locate), shows Joseph in this distressed state of mind, cogitating over next steps. He’s seated at an open window in his woodshop, a cityscape visible in the background, holding a blank scroll. I’m assuming this is the writ of divorce he’s considering drawing up against Mary (Matt. 1:19). Rather than bring her to court on the charge of adultery and subject her to (potentially capital) punishment (Deut. 22:21 prescribes death by stoning for adulterers), the Gospel-writer tells us, Joseph opts to “put [Mary] away privily,” discreetly ending their betrothal with the legal paperwork. Joseph doesn’t want a spectacle, and he doesn’t want retribution. Though Mary hurt him deeply, he still cares for her.

A sprig of lilies lies across Joseph’s lap, alluding to an ancient legend that he was chosen from among other men to wed Mary by the miraculous blossoming of his staff. That the Roman Catholic Church assigns Hosea 14:5—“The just man shall blossom like the lily”—as one of the readings for Joseph’s feast day, March 19, further establishes the lily as his emblem.

This scene takes place shortly before Joseph receives an angelic visit of his own, corroborating Mary’s account.

LISTEN: “Joseph, Who Understood” by The New Pornographers, on The Spirit of Giving (2007)

Rumors are flying
All over Galilee these days
And Mary, I’m trying to be cool
When my friends walk by ’em
They cannot look at me in the eye
Baby, I’m trying

You’re asking me to believe in too many things
You’re asking me to believe in too many things

I know this child
Was sent here to heal our broken time
And some things are bigger than we know
When somehow you find out
That you are stepfather to a god
Well, Mary, that’s life

But you’re asking me to believe in so many things
You’re asking me to believe in so many things

Oh Mary, is he mine?
(Mary, is he mine?)
Mary, is he mine?
(Mary, is he mine?)
Oh Mary, is he mine?
(Mary, is he mine?)
Tell me, is he?

You’re asking me to believe in too many things
You’re asking me to believe in too many things

Now, Mary, he is mine
(Mary, he is mine)
Mary, he is mine
(Mary, is he mine?)
Yeah, Mary, he is mine
(Mary, he is mine)

You’re asking me to believe in so many things
You’re asking me to believe in so many things

This song by the Canadian indie-rock band The New Pornographers (despite their unsavory name, their website is clean!) explores Joseph’s internal conflict in the weeks after learning of Mary’s pregnancy and her wild story of how it happened. The second stanza suggests that the angel has already appeared to him to affirm Mary’s integrity and that he has committed to staying the course with her. Yet still, he wavers between doubt and belief and continues to battle the shame of being publicly perceived as the cuckolded husband.

He asks repeatedly, “Is he [the baby] mine?” He eventually gets to the point where he takes ownership of his role as father, even though he didn’t contribute his genetic material. This isn’t how he wanted to build his family, but like Mary, he accepts the strange and terrifying calling.

The refrain (“You’re asking me to believe in too many things”) is voiced to Mary, but it also extends out to God. Joseph is asked to believe that the child inside his fiancée’s womb was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that the child is the long-awaited Messiah who will deliver Israel, that the child is in fact God enfleshed, that he and Mary are capable of parenting this God-boy, and that through all this newly charted territory, God will guide and sustain them, and everything will work out just fine. The magnitude of these asks is overwhelming! No wonder Joseph is reeling.

But thanks be to God that Joseph stepped forward in faith, bolstered, no doubt, by the faith of his partner and by the work of the Spirit in him. He didn’t understand it all, but he was willing to learn as he went, and to let God direct. What he did understand was that something bigger than his own dreams and life plans was at play here, and that something was worth following.

Advent, Day 13: Magnificat

LOOK: Behold My Miracle by Fred Carter

Carter, Fred_Behold My Miracle
Fred J. Carter (American, 1911–1992), Behold My Miracle, 1980. Walnut, 55 × 20 in. Collection of Mary Carter Owens and Vel-Holly Fleming. Photo: Dan Meyers, courtesy of the American Visionary Art Museum.

Born in 1911 in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, Fred Jerome Carter spent the first few decades of his adulthood as a hardware merchant. In 1938 he married Eloise Davis, and in 1950 they adopted their first and only son, Ross.

In his late forties, Carter began to pursue art making, taking a beginner’s painting class, his only formal artistic training. But wood sculpting is the medium for which he became best known. Writer and documentary filmmaker Jack Wright classifies Carter’s art as “Appalachian art brut,” art brut (“raw art”) being a French term coined by modern artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art made outside the academic tradition.

In 1970 Carter was devastated when his son, having returned as a Marine from Vietnam, hanged himself. He and Eloise divorced shortly after, and Carter opened the Ross Carter Gallery, named in his son’s honor, where he started showing his own work. Below the gallery he established the Cumberland Museum to exhibit a large collection of pioneer tools and artifacts (having to do, for example, with farming, mining, spinning, and moonshining) that provided a window into Appalachian culture and history. It’s there that he met Vickie Hill, whom he later married. Vickie gave birth to Carter’s first biological child, Holly, in 1983, when Carter was seventy-two. Their daughter Mary was born two years later.

Carter created Behold My Miracle two years before Vickie’s first pregnancy, but he retroactively identified the figure with her. In a 1980 interview with Wright for Headwaters Television, he describes how the sculpture came about:

I was back, at Easter [1980], in the mountains, and a fellow was sawing up firewood. Now this was part of a walnut log . . . cut down forty or fifty years ago. . . . There was a limb going up through here about ten feet long. I said, “Don’t cut that up for wood. . . . I see something in this that I want to make. . . . I see a pregnant woman.” . . . So I brought it home and began to look at it. . . . The wood began to talk to me and tell me what it is. . . .

So, I will probably call this Behold My Miracle. That’s what the mother is saying and I am trying to get her to say, in the position of her hand and the look on her face, that this is truly the great miracle. . . . As though she is saying, “Behold me, in my greatest moment of the miracle!”

LISTEN: “The Glory of Jah” by Sinead O’Connor and Ronald Tomlinson, on Theology (2007) – The acoustic version in the video below, which appears on disc 1 of the album, was recorded live at The Sugar Club in Dublin.

There is no Holy One like you
You install kings and take them down
Truly there is no one beside you
You made all of creation with wisdom

Refrain:
May the glory of Jah endure forever
The boughs of the mighty are broken
And the weak are clothed with strength

There is the sea, vast and wide
With all its creatures beyond number
There go the ships, they all look to you
You lift up the poor into a place of honor [Refrain]

Jah makes poor or he makes rich
The pillars of the earth belong to him
And he has set his world upon them
To raise us up from the dunghill [Refrain]

The eighth full-length album by Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor, Theology is a collection of mostly original spiritual songs in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s saturated with scripture. It contains:

O’Connor grew up Catholic and, until converting to Islam in 2018, identified as such, though she has always been unorthodox. Frustrated by the spiritual vapidness of the pop music industry in which she had found fame, in the early 2000s she studied theology at a college in Dublin, looking to connect more deeply with her religious heritage. Her favorite instructor, the Irish Dominican priest Wilfred Harrington, taught a course on the Prophets, reviving her interest in the biblical material that had so fascinated her as a youth. During this time, she was considering leaving her music career, but Fr. Harrington suggested that she set some scripture texts to music and see what happens. She took his advice, and the result is Theology, which she dedicated to Fr. Harrington. Listen to a ten-minute interview with O’Connor about the album, from the limited-edition Theology DVD released in 2008.

When I first heard “The Glory of Jah,” I thought it was a condensation of Mary’s Magnificat, which she voiced upon visiting her cousin Elizabeth following their mutual unexpected pregnancies—Elizabeth with John the Baptist, and Mary with the Christ:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant.
    Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name;
indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his child Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46–55)

But as I listened more closely and flipped through my Bible to match phrases, I realized that O’Connor’s song is actually a pastiche of Old Testament verses from 1 Samuel, Daniel, and the Psalms, the primary source text being Hannah’s song of thanksgiving:

My heart exults in the LORD;
    my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies
    because I rejoice in your victory.

There is no Holy One like the Lord,
    no one besides you;
    there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly;
    let not arrogance come from your mouth,
for the LORD is a God of knowledge,
    and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
    but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
    but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
    but she who has many children is forlorn.
The LORD kills and brings to life;
    he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
    he brings low; he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
    he lifts the needy from the ash heap
to make them sit with princes
    and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s,
    and on them he has set the world.

He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
    but the wicked will perish in darkness,
    for not by might does one prevail.
The LORD! His adversaries will be shattered;
    the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The LORD will judge the ends of the earth;
    he will give strength to his king
    and exalt the power of his anointed. (1 Sam. 2:1–10)

Hannah, an ancient Jew, prayed these words at the tabernacle at Shiloh upon dedicating her firstborn son, Samuel, to God’s service, as he was conceived after many hard years of infertility and anguished prayer. Mary’s song, which came some ten centuries later, picks up themes from Hannah’s, so it’s no wonder I originally misidentified O’Connor’s source. Mary would have known Hannah’s song from having heard it read in synagogue, and, as Mary’s son would also be set apart for divine service, perhaps she found a special kinship with this ancestral sister. Mary was also spiritually formed by the Psalms, another influence on her Magnificat composition; their words were deep in her bones, naturally coming out in effusions of praise.

Both Hannah and Mary praise God’s kindness, authority, and eternal plan, emphasizing his mercy toward the poor and the humble. Both songs are thematically linked to Psalm 113:5–8:

Who is like the LORD our God,
    who is seated on high,
who looks far down
    on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
    with the princes of his people.

Now returning to O’Connor’s song: Line 2 has a corollary in Daniel 2:21, “he . . . deposes kings and sets up kings.” And the second verse seems inspired by Psalm 104:24–26, 31:

O LORD, how manifold are your works!
    In wisdom you have made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, great and wide;
    creeping things innumerable are there,
    living things both small and great.
There go the ships
    and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

May the glory of the LORD endure forever;
    may the LORD rejoice in his works . . .

When referring to God, O’Connor uses the Rastafari name for him, “Jah,” a shortened form of “Jehovah.” She had recorded her previous album, Throw Down Your Arms, in Jamaica, a collection of roots reggae song covers, and her spirituality was impacted by her encounters with the Rastafari there. “They use music to reassure people that God is actually with them and watches them, can be called upon,” she said.

So “The Glory of Jah” is a highly intertextual song, rooted in Hannah’s song but weaving in strands from other biblical books—and the result sounds an awful lot like something Mother Mary would sing!

Advent, Day 12: The New Eve

LOOK: Prado Annunciation by Fra Angelico

Fra Angelico_The Annunciation (Prado)
Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455), The Annunciation, ca. 1426. Tempera and gold on wood panel, 162.3 × 191.5 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The Annunciation was a favorite subject of the Early Renaissance artist Fra Angelico [previously], and he painted it multiple times throughout his career. Once was for an altarpiece for the convent of San Domenico in Fiesole, near Florence, now in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

In this version Mary sits on a draped chair under the portico of a domestic space, reading the scriptures, when suddenly this otherworldly being, dressed in rose and radiating, approaches. It’s the archangel Gabriel. His foot crosses the threshold of paradise into Mary’s space—the divine stepping into the human realm. Will you do it? he asks. Be mother to God?

Mary’s initial fear and perplexity eventually give way to glad acceptance. The artist compresses the episode—the arrival, the ask, the cogitation, the answer—into this singular freeze frame. When Mary says yes to God’s plan to become flesh of her flesh and so work out the salvation of the world, God releases his Spirit, who rides a stream of light from the heavens into her womb. At this miraculous moment, Jesus is conceived.

Gabriel crosses his hands over his chest in humble reverence, a gesture mirrored by Mary. Both are still before the profound mystery of the Incarnation.

Fra Angelico used ultramarine—the finest and most expensive of all pigments, made from lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone imported to Europe from the Middle East—to paint Mary’s mantle as well as the star-studded ceiling above her. Blue represents heaven, and here Mary is clothed with it and overshadowed by it.

Prado Annunciation (detail)

The male figure in the carved roundel above the central column is, I’d say (based on the unambiguous Montecarlo Altarpiece), the prophet Isaiah, who wrote centuries before the event that “the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14).

But Fra Angelico goes even further back than the Old Testament prophets. On the left side of the panel he shows our foreparents, Adam and Eve, being cast out of paradise, having broken God’s trust. They blush in shame—they wince, they cover their face. By including this catalyzing event from salvation history in his painting of the Annunciation, the artist is telling a larger narrative. In particular, he is drawing connections, mainly contrastive, between Adam and Eve and Christ and Mary.

Prado Annunciation (detail)

In his epistles, the apostle Paul talks about Christ as the Second Adam, or the New/Last Adam (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:22–23, 45), who came to restore what was lost with the first Adam. Whereas Adam disobeyed God and caused sin to enter the world, Christ lived a life of perfect obedience to the Father, thereby redeeming humanity. The early church fathers, starting with Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian in the second century, extended this corollary with another: Mary as the Second Eve. Whereas Eve rejected God’s will, Mary embraced it, and her obedient yes, like Eve’s disobedient no, had repercussions for all of humanity. As the arts lecturer John Skillen puts it, our undoing in the Expulsion is undone by the Annunciation.

We see on the left an angel driving humanity out of Eden, but on the right, another angel welcomes humanity back in. And in a glorious reversal of the order of first creation, where Eve was created from Adam, here the Second Adam is created from the Second Eve, knit together from her DNA.

In the first issue of her Medievalish newsletter from last December, Dr. Grace Hamman discusses Fra Angelico’s Prado Annunciation in terms of chronos (ordinary time measured in seconds and hours) and kairos (moments outside of time). “Fra Angelico recognizes something that is easy to forget: because God is outside of time, not bound by chronology like us creatures, this painting offers a ‘God’s-eye view’ of salvation history,” she writes, portraying a simultaneity of “falls” that the fourteenth-century contemplative writer Julian of Norwich expounds on:

When Adam fell, God’s Son fell; because of the true union which was made in heaven, God’s Son could not be separated from Adam, for by Adam I understand all mankind. Adam fell from life to death, into the valley of this wretched world, and after that into hell. God’s Son fell with Adam, into the valley of the womb of the maiden who was the fairest daughter of Adam, and that was to excuse Adam from blame in heaven and on earth; and powerfully he brought him out of hell. (Revelations of Divine Love, chap. 51)

“There was never a moment,” Hamman continues, “even in the expulsion from Eden, that Emmanuel was not with us, if one is given the eyes of kairos.”

This came a few weeks after we discussed the artwork, along with several others on the Annunciation, on Hamman’s podcast, Old Books with Grace. It’s such a generative painting!

And the Annunciation is only the main panel. Along the predella (base) are depicted the Marriage of the Virgin, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and the Dormition (the “falling asleep,” or death, of Mary).

LISTEN: “Cum erubuerint infelices” (While Downcast Parents Blushed) by Hildegard of Bingen, ca. 1175 | Performed by La Reverdie on Sponsa Regis: La victoire de la Vierge dans l’œuvre d’Hildegard, 2003

Cum erubuerint infelices
in progenie sua,
procedentes in peregrinatione casus,
tunc tu clamas clara voce,
hoc modo homines elevans
de isto malicioso
casu.
While downcast parents blushed,
ashamed to see their offspring
wand’ring off into the fallen exile’s pilgrimage,
you cried aloud with crystal voice,
to lift up humankind
from that malicious
fall.

Trans. Nathaniel M. Campbell [source]

The Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) was a visionary theologian, poet, composer, singer, artist, gardener, and physician. She wrote on scientific and medical subjects in addition to theology, which she conveyed not only through prose but also through poetry, music, dramas, and illuminations. She was quite the medieval polymath!

I first learned about Hildegard in a Western music history survey course in college, in a unit centered on her Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues). I couldn’t believe I had never heard about this amazing sister in the faith before. In 2012 she was formally canonized by the Roman Catholic Church—a long time coming!—and Pope Benedict XVI even named her a “doctor of the church,” a title given to saints who have made a significant contribution to theology or doctrine.

The corpus of surviving musical compositions by Hildegard is larger than that of any other medieval composer. More than half of these are antiphons, short free verses sung before and after each set of psalms during monastic prayer.

“Cum erubuerint” is one such antiphon. Hildegard would have sung it with her sisters at her monastery on the Rupertsberg and later the abbey at Eibingen as part of the Divine Office.

The song addresses the Virgin Mary, whose yes to Gabriel set into motion the Incarnation and thus humanity’s deliverance from spiritual exile.

As are many of Hildegard’s compositions, “Cum erubuerint” is highly melismatic—that is, it features long melodic phrases sung to one syllable. For example, I counted thirteen notes on the first syllable, “Cum”! The highest pitch occurs on clara (“clear”), referring to the definitive quality of Mary’s consent, bright and luminous, to this new thing that God is doing. An agent of God’s grace, Mary speaks a word that cuts through the mists of confusion through which we’ve been wandering, lost, uplifting us from the fall (casu), whose depths are underscored by that word’s being pitched the lowest. In her fiat, Mary is essentially saying, “Let there be light.”

Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations) is the title Hildegard gave to her collection of musical compositions, which are preserved in two manuscripts:

  • Dendermonde (D), Belgium, Sint-Pieters-en-Paulusabdij, Cod. 9 (ca. 1175). This one is considered by scholars to be the more authoritative. It was prepared under Hildegard’s supervision as a gift for the monks of Villers and contains fifty-seven songs.
  • Riesenkodex (R), Wiesbaden, Hessische Landesbibliothek, Hs. 2 (ca. 1180–85). This revised and enlarged edition, which includes seventy-five songs, was produced at the Rupertsberg scriptorium not long after Hildegard’s death.

“Cum erubuerint” appears in both.

Cum erubuerint by Hildegard
D 155r
Cum erubuerint (R 467r)
R 467r

Click here for a modern transcription from the International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies.

In her critical edition of Hildegard’s Symphonia, Barbara Newman writes,

Hildegard’s creations, compared with a contemporary hymn by Abelard or a sequence by Adam of St. Victor, will sound either primitive or unnervingly avant-garde. In a sense they are both. As a Benedictine, she was acquainted with a large repertoire of chant, but she lacked formal training and made no attempt to imitate the mainstream poetic and musical achievements of her day. Various scholars have hypothesized that she was influenced by German folksong, yet her compositions lack the two essential traits of a popular tune: it must be easy to remember and easy to sing. The difficult music of the Symphonia is sui generis. In [Sr. Maria Immaculata] Ritscher’s words, it is ‘gregorianizing but not Gregorian’ and impossible to classify in terms of any known contemporary movement. (27–28)

And regarding Hildegard’s lyrical texts:

Until the advent of modern vers libre, scholars were reluctant even to dignify Hildegard’s songs with the title of poetry. In style they are much closer to Kunstprosa, a highly wrought figurative language that resembles poetry in its density and musicality, yet with no semblance of meter or regular form. (32–33)

The above performance of “Cum erubuerint” is by La Reverdie, a medieval and Renaissance vocal ensemble that started in 1986 with two pairs of sisters from Italy.

But in addition, here are a few instrumental versions I particularly like:

>> Tina Chancey of the early music ensemble Hesperus plays the melody on kemenche, a bowed instrument from the Black Sea region of Turkey:

>> Riley Lee on shakuhachi (bamboo flute):

>> Noël Akchoté on electric guitar:

The song also appears, under the title “From This Wicked Fall,” on the Billboard-topping Vision: The Music of Hildegard Von Bingen (1994), a classical-electronic crossover album of seventeen of Hildegard’s works arranged by Richard Souther. In Souther’s version, nonlexical vocables (sung by soprano Emily Van Evera and mezzo-soprano Sister Germaine Fritz, OSB) replace the Latin text.