Behold That Star (Artful Devotion)

Hunter, Clementine_The Annunciation and the Adoration of the Wise Men
Clementine Hunter (American, 1886/87–1988), The Annunciation and the Adoration of the Wise Men, 1957. Oil on board, 48 × 78 in. Photo courtesy of Neal Auction Company.

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

—Isaiah 60:1

May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands
render him tribute;
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
bring gifts!
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations serve him!

—Psalm 72:10–11

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

—Matthew 2:1–12

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SONG: “Behold That Star” or “Behold the Star” | Negro spiritual | Performed by various artists (see below)

I first heard this song years ago on Pete Seeger’s Traditional Christmas Carols (1967; reissued 1989), one of my favorite Christmas albums.

William L. Dawson’s choral arrangement, recorded by the St. Olaf Choir in 1997, has become the standard for choirs all over the country. The recording features, as soloist, African American operatic soprano Marvis Martin:

For a gospel version, check out Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians’ album Christmas Time (1955, reissued 2015), which combines the song with “Carol of the Bells”:

Or the version by James Cleveland with the Angelic Choir and the Cleveland Singers on Merry Christmas (1969, reissued 1987):

One of the most upbeat gospel renditions is by the Patterson Singers from 1963:

There’s also a much slower R&B rendition from Black Nativity: A Gospel Christmas Musical Experience, a musical produced by Dominion Entertainment Group in Atlanta and adapted from the 1961 song play by Langston Hughes. (“Behold That Star” is not in the Hughes original.) I couldn’t find who arranged this version, but the performers are Lawrence Flowers, Benjamin Moore, and Brandin Jay. Oddly (and perhaps under the influence of the song “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow”), this production has the song being sung by shepherds rather than wise men:

You can also find numerous recordings of “Behold That Star” being performed by children’s choirs, its simplicity making it accessible to young ages. It was one of several spirituals and other classics the kiddos at my church sang in our 2018 Christmas play (see video below). I’m at the piano playing from the African American Heritage Hymnal, no. 216, transposed down three half-steps to D; the arrangement is by Nolan Williams Jr. (I’m still woefully lacking in the ability to embellish in a gospel style, I’m afraid!)

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Clementine (pronounced KLEH-mehn-teen) Hunter was a self-taught Afro-Creole artist known for depicting life in the Cane River region of central Louisiana, especially in and around Melrose Plantation, where she worked as a farm laborer for most of her life, even into old age. She didn’t begin painting until she was in her fifties, and she would do it at night on whatever surfaces she could find—window shades, jugs, bottles, gourds, snuff boxes, iron pots.

During her early art career she would sell her paintings at the local drugstore for a dollar or less, but by the time of her death, her paintings were selling to dealers for thousands. She received significant recognition during her lifetime, including from US presidents. Today her work can be found in the collections of the Smithsonian, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and other prestigious institutions.

In the Christmas-/Epiphanytide painting reproduced above, Christ is born on Melrose Plantation in the southern US, surrounded by sheep and chickens and horses and palm trees. On the left a black angel leads a pregnant black Mary down a footpath to a farmhouse, while on the other side Mary sits on a stool with the newborn Jesus in her lap and Joseph behind her, as three men in wide-brimmed hats come bearing gourds as gifts. Above the scene is the giant yellow star that led these men to the spot, and two white-clad angels (with a scattered choir of others) trumpeting the good news of the Savior’s birth.

The magi were a subject Hunter turned to in many of her paintings. Here’s another fine example:

Hunter, Clementine_Magi Bearing Gifts
Clementine Hunter (American, 1886/87–1988), Untitled (Magi Bearing Gifts), ca. 1970–80. Paint on an albany slip whiskey jug, approx. 10 in. (25.4 cm) high. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

Hunter, Clementine_Magi Bearing Gifts

I love how Hunter was able to see the sacred in the everyday—God’s grand story unfolding in her immediate environs. It reminds me of a poem by Wendell Berry from A Timbered Choir that begins,

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe . . .

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For Artful Devotions from previous years’ feast of the Epiphany, see “‘And nations shall come to your light . . .’” (featuring a Mughal miniature and an Arabic hymn) and “Three Kings Day” (featuring a Puerto Rican bulto and aguinaldo).

Also, see Christine Valters Paintner’s spiritual reflections on the story of Epiphany as an archetypal journey we are all invited to make. Her advice?

  1. Follow the star to where it leads.
  2. Embark on the journey, however long or difficult.
  3. Open yourself to wonder along the way.
  4. Bow down at the holy encounters in messy places.
  5. Carry your treasures and give them away freely.
  6. Listen to the wisdom of dreams.
  7. Go home by another way.

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

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Epiphany, cycle A, click here.

Balm in Gilead (Artful Devotion)

Hirsch, Joseph_Lynch Family
Joseph Hirsch (American, 1910–1981), Lynch Family, 1946. Oil on canvas, 35 × 33 in. (88.9 × 83.8 cm). Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. [zoom in]

My joy is gone; grief is upon me;
my heart is sick within me.
Behold, the cry of the daughter of my people
from the length and breadth of the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”
. . .
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.”
For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded;
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold on me.

Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of the daughter of my people
not been restored?

—Jeremiah 8:18–22

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SONG: “There Is a Balm in Gilead” | Negro spiritual | Arranged and performed by Archie Shepp (tenor sax), feat. Jeanne Lee, on Blasé (1969, reissued 2009)

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In this coming Sunday’s lectionary reading from the Prophets, Jeremiah grieves over the suffering of his people. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” he cries. Gilead was a region in ancient Palestine, east of the Jordan River. Now it is known primarily as the fictional locale of two famous contemporary novels, but back then it was known for the soothing, aromatic plant resins produced there, which were used medicinally. In Israel’s desolation, though, they could feel no balm—not even in the place where it was said to abound.

The anonymous writer(s) of the slave song featured above knew communal suffering well. He or she taps into Jeremiah’s poetic grief, extracting the “balm in Gilead” expression but bending it toward hope. There is a balm, the song attests, albeit wearily, through tears. And this balm makes the wounded whole. Archie Shepp’s soulful arrangement, with vocals by Jeanne Lee, express that woundedness and yearning for deliverance so poignantly.

As a visual point of focus, I’ve chosen Joseph Hirsch’s Lynch Family, a forward extension of the history of African American oppression. The gallery label for the painting reads,

Joseph Hirsch painted Lynch Family as a response to racial disturbances in the South in 1946. That year the number of lynchings rose from an all-time low in January to a fevered pitch by August. Citizens across the country urged President Truman and Congress to end the horrors. To capture the tragedy of Lynch Family, Hirsch presented a mother with her baby, presumably survivors of a lynching victim, in abstracted surroundings. The painting focuses on the mother’s intense yet restrained hold on her defiant child while she turns to hide her anguish. The blue background floats around the figures. It both highlights their pain and contrasts with the sheer beauty of Hirsch’s painterly technique.

Though painted in the 1940s, this work bears strong relevance for today. The figures could be any black mother and child left to grieve the loss of husband and father—to prison, or to death by shooting, choking, or other form of brutality.

For another painting by Hirsch from the blog, see “Stations of the Cross at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.”


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 Proper 20, cycle C, click here.

Like a Fountain (Artful Devotion)

Chodakowska, Malgorzata_Primavera III
Małgorzata Chodakowska (Polish, 1965–), Primavera III, 2014. Bronze fountain, 220 cm tall. (In the background are Angel and Woman with Ice.)

The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.

—Isaiah 58:11 NRSV

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SONG: “I’ve Got Peace Like a River” | Negro spiritual | Performed by Wally Macnow, with Lucy Simpson, Peter Amidon, Mary Alice Amidon, Bill Destler, Tom McHenry, and Caroline Paton, on Sharon Mountain Harmony: A Golden Ring of Gospel (1982)

I love Wally Macnow’s ebullient rendition of this Negro spiritual for Folk Legacy Records. It’s a different tune than I’m accustomed to; for the more widely recognized melody, check out, for example, Lynda Randle.

The phrase “peace like a river” appears in Isaiah 48:18 and 66:12, and between those verses is another one, above, in which Isaiah relays God’s promise to water our souls in times of drought and, what’s more, to make us into springs whose water can’t help but bubble up to the surface and spill over.

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Małgorzata Chodakowska is a Polish artist who has lived in Germany since 1991. She is renowned for her “water sculptures,” (usually nude) figures carved in oak wood and then cast in bronze and designed for water. Chodakowska creates unique paths for the water, specific to each sculpture—it might fan out from the waist like a tutu, for example, expand from the back like angels’ wings, or shoot every which way around an orb, suggesting the movement of celestial bodies. Browse her work at http://www.skulptur-chodakowska.de/en/fountains/, or view a sampling in the video below.

Thanks to Tamara Hill Murphy for introducing me to Chodakowska’s work.


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 Proper 16, cycle C, click here.

God, Swing Down Low (Artful Devotion)

Johnson, William H._Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
William H. Johnson (American, 1901–1970), Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, ca. 1944. Oil on paperboard, 28 5/8 × 26 1/2 in. (72.6 × 67.2 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

And as [Elijah and Elisha] still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more.

—2 Kings 2:11–12a

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SONGS: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” attributed to Wallace Willis, ca. 1840; “Swing Down, Chariot,” author unknown, 19th century

Most Negro spirituals are of unknown authorship, but one of the best loved, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” was, according to several accounts, written by Wallace Willis, the black slave of a Choctaw Indian who had been forced out west into what is now Oklahoma. Uncle Wallace, as he was known, was hired out part-time by his master to Spencer Academy, a Choctaw boys’ school, and this is one of the songs he sang to entertain the students. It became popular among them, and during the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ inaugural tour in 1871, the academy’s superintendent, Alexander Reid, shared the song with the all-black group. They had never heard of it but added it to their repertoire, performing it on concert stages throughout the US, along with other slave songs. It was one of twelve songs that their successor, the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet, chose to record for the first time in 1909, further cementing its longevity.

In 2002 the Library of Congress added this historic recording to the United States National Recording Registry, to be preserved for future generations. The accompanying essay by Toni P. Anderson recounts, in addition to Uncle Wallace’s story, an alternate origin account that says “Swing Low” was the creation of Sarah Hannah Sheppard, a southern slave who had set out to drown herself and her daughter in the Cumberland River, until an elderly slave woman intervened, urging her to instead “let de chariot of de Lord swing low”—rescue would come, she prophesied. And for Sarah and her little Ella, it soon did.

In one sense, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is a plea for death: come and carry me over, God. “Home” is heaven, the promised land, just “over Jordan,” and the chariot refers to the divine vehicle that swept down to take Elijah there. In another sense, “home” could signify an earthly place outside the bounds of slavery, a place of relative safety and liberation and reunion with family—such as the North, just over the Ohio River. A clandestine “chariot” was in operation during the antebellum period, run by Harriet Tubman and a network of others (a “band of angels”), who transported slaves up to freedom, and this is the chariot to which the unnamed prophet of Sarah Hannah Sheppard’s story refers.

The song is often performed slowly, solemnly, as a weary surrender to death—as in this bluesy version by contemporary gospel singer Robert Robinson:

But it can also be inflected differently—with joyful anticipation and celebration. Such is the musical interpretation of The Lower Lights:

“In biblical tradition,” writes Old Testament scholar Iain W. Provan,

both chariotry and fire have strong associations with God’s self-disclosure. Both images come together in the most common natural form of divine appearing (“theophany”) in the OT: the thunderstorm—the storm cloud representing the divine chariot or throne (Ezek. 1; Hab. 3:8) and the fiery lightning bolts representing the divine weapons (Ps. 18:14; Hab. 3:11). [ESV Study Bible, p. 648]

Tim Mackie of The Bible Project calls the eccentric theophanic vehicle of Ezekiel 1 the “God mobile.” It’s God’s glory on the move. And it was probably what (or at least similar to what) Elisha witnessed when his predecessor, Elijah, was whisked away into the heavens. It may also be what the prophet Habakkuk had in mind when he wrote about God’s “chariot of salvation” that flashes forth lightning (Hab. 3:8, 11).

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is sometimes sung in medley with “Swing Down, Chariot” (variant title: “Swing Down, Sweet Chariot”), a fast-paced spiritual popularized by the Golden Gate Quartet in the 1940s. See, for example, this clip from the 2003 movie The Fighting Temptations, featuring Beyoncé:

This clip from Elvis’s movie The Trouble with Girls (1969) is also a lot of fun:

“Swing Down, Chariot” references Ezekiel’s vision of the God mobile, humorously nicknaming the prophet Zeke. It has him chancing upon an angel repairing a chariot wheel in the middle of a field. Having never seen such a vehicle, he approaches it, runs his hand over the exterior. The angel offers him a ride, which he gladly accepts. It’s a bumpy one, but Zeke doesn’t mind; “he just wanted to lay down his heavy load.”

Listening to these two spirituals side by side can help us make connections between Bible passages, as we see God’s fiery chariot present not only at Elijah’s ascension but also at Ezekiel’s call to the office of prophet. When mapped onto the context of enslavement, the chariot’s meaning is made real and intensified, a symbol of hope, release, freedom, of God’s wild and transporting glory.

As previously mentioned, the Negro spirituals were multivalent. To some, the chariot was this-worldly, effecting a passage to the northern states where slaveholders held reduced power. To others, to beckon the chariot meant to beckon death, to initiate a departure to the otherworld. The chariot songs held both meanings to their early singers, marking the tension between the slave’s will to live, to survive trauma, and his or her desire to be with God in the flesh, the ultimate freedom.

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William H. Johnson (1901–1970) is one of my favorite artists—I wrote about him in stations 3 and 13 of the Stations of the Cross audio tour at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and in my review of Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art.

In his painting Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, a two-wheeled horse-drawn car sweeps in from the upper left, fiery orange and red and filled with stars. Eleven angels in brightly colored dresses and anklet socks hover above, one of them waving hello to the aged man on the opposite side of the river, who runs to catch his ride. His arms are stretched out wide, ready to embrace his new home.

This is probably the best artistic representation of death in the Christian tradition that I know of. It’s glorious and sweet and evocative. The old man’s body is just on the verge of release from its pains, and I feel it. His heaviness is already giving way to lightness, to nimbleness. I feel the joy that awaits him across the river, which the yellow flowers seem to anticipate (they vibrate!), and I sense the community of friends that the thin, magenta-winged beings will be escorting him to. God’s presence, the sun’s orb, glows intensely, the same deep orange as the chariot’s exterior. That’s the glory into which the man is heading.

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There are so many wonderful renditions of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” What’s your favorite?


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 Proper 8, cycle C, click here.

“Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”: Death, Resurrection, and the New Exodus

Moses and the Sea by Zak Benjamin
Zak Benjamin (South African, 1951–), Moses and the Sea, 1982. Hand-colored etching.

The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, where they had been held in bondage for at least two hundred years, through the miraculously parted waters of the Red Sea is the archetypal salvation event in the Hebrew scriptures. Throughout its books, one of the primary epithets for God is “he who brought us up out of Egypt,” or some variation thereof, for this action defined God’s character, assured the Israelites of his strength and will to save.

In addition to its historical sense, Christians have long understood the Old Testament exodus story as a prefigurement of the “new exodus” led by Christ, whereby we are liberated from the bondage of sin. As the New Moses, Jesus confronts evil—institutional evil, but also the evil inside each of us—and leads us out of its clutches. He stretched out his hands on a cross to create for us a clear path to freedom, then he stretched out his hands again three days later in resurrection victory, burying our former oppressors. Liturgical tradition acknowledges the link between the Exodus and the Resurrection by prescribing the reading of Exodus 14 at Easter Vigil.

In the farm fields of the antebellum South, African American slaves resonated strongly with the story of the Israelites. They looked to the Exodus—that literal, historic flight—in hopes that God would one day accomplish the same feat for them, and they even encoded this hope into the songs they sang. “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” is one such example. The verses vary by performer, but the chorus is this:

Oh Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Oh Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn
Pharaoh’s army got drownded
Oh Mary, don’t you weep

One might be tempted to assume that the Mary referred to here is Moses’s sister, for narrative coherence. (“Miriam” is the Hebrew equivalent of the English “Mary.”) However, the more logical choice, given the weeping detail, is either Mary of Bethany or Mary Magdalene, both of whom the Bible records as weeping in response to death—Mary of Bethany, at the death of her brother, Lazarus (John 11:31–33), and Mary Magdalene, at the death of Jesus (John 20:11–13). In both stories, though, Christ demonstrates power over the grave. He brings Lazarus back to life, and he himself returns to life three days after his Crucifixion.

Melancholy by Odilon Redon
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Melancholy, 1876. Charcoal on paper. Art Institute of Chicago.

The chorus applies equally well to either Mary, and perhaps the dual reference is intentional. Their stories are similar, the one a precursor to the other. Mary of Bethany, however, seems to be the more popular interpretation, as evidenced by adaptations of the song that add Martha’s name to the chorus, such as the Swan Silvertones’ version (“Oh Mary, don’t you weep / Oh Martha, don’t you mourn”). Either way, the song creates a link between God’s victory over the Egyptians in the Old Testament and his victory over death in the New. The chorus is a consolatory reminder that God is mighty to save.

As with most spirituals, “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep” operates on three levels:

  1. as Jewish history;
  2. as spiritual metaphor; and
  3. as an expression of present circumstances and/or anticipations.

Continue reading ““Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”: Death, Resurrection, and the New Exodus”