Every December M’Clelland compiles photos from that year’s news, showing people affected by natural disasters, violence, and injustice, and overlays them with Advent promises. There’s sometimes a disjunction between image and text that’s grievous and challenging, a reminder that our long-looked-for deliverance is not yet fully here, even though we receive foretastes. The twenty-eight photos M’Clelland gathered from 2022 include throngs of people making their way to Aichi cemetery in Saqqez, Iran, to attend a memorial for twenty-two-year-old Mahsa Amini, allegedly beaten to death by the country’s religious morality police for not wearing her hijab properly; a police officer helping a child flee artillery on the outskirts of Kyiv, and a baby being born in a bomb shelter; women carrying pans of granite up the side of a mine in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, for meager wages; a woman comforting a neighbor who lost her home to flooding in Tejerias, Venezuela; children playing in a sandstorm at the Sahlah al-Banat camp for displaced people in the countryside of Raqa in northern Syria; children clearing trash from a river in Tonlé Sap, Cambodia; and more.
The sequence of images is a visual prayer of lament and intercession. I appreciate how M’Clelland—via the work of photojournalists, and her sensitive curation—raises awareness about these places of suffering, putting faces to the headlines, but also spotlights moments of empowerment and joy amid that suffering. We are encouraged to seek God’s coming into these situations of distress and to see the subtle ways he does come—for example, through the consoling embrace of a friend, the nurturance of an elder sibling, the protective aid of an officer, a jug of clean water, a child’s glee, or acts of protest.
For photo credits and descriptions, see the Instagram page @alternative_advent. (Start here and scroll left if you’re on your computer, or up if you’re on your phone.) Follow the page to receive new posts in your feed starting next Advent.
SONGS by Rev Simpkins, an Anglican priest and singer-songwriter from Essex previously featured here:
>> “Hallelu! (Love the Outcast)”: This song was originally released on The Antigen Christmas Album (2014) with the byline “Ordinand Simpkins & Brother De’Ath”; it was reissued in 2016 on Rev Simpkins’s album Love Unknown, “a cornucopia of non-LP tracks, studio experiments, ingenious live re-workings, radio sessions, off-the-wall demos, obscure b-sides, & pissings about.” The music video was recorded on an iPhone 4 in the Edward King Chapel at Ripon College Cuddesdon in Oxford. [Listen on Bandcamp]
NEW PAINTING: Tent City Nativity by Kelly Latimore:Kelly Latimore is an Episcopalian iconographer from St. Louis, Missouri, who “rewonders” traditional iconography, especially with an eye to social justice. This Christmas he painted an icon called Tent City Nativity, which shows the Christ child being born in a homeless encampment. A streetlight shines directly over the Holy Family’s tent, like the star of Bethlehem, and neighbors bring gifts for warmth and sustenance: coffees, a blanket, a cup of chili. View close-ups on Instagram, and read the artist’s statement on his website. Proceeds from print and digital sales of the icon will support organizations serving the unhoused in St. Louis.
SONG MEDLEY: YouTube user African Beats spliced together excerpts from three songs performed at a church in Germany at Christmastime by South African singer Siyabonga Cele and an unnamed woman, including “Akekho ofana Nojesu” (There’s No One like Jesus) and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” I couldn’t find the name of the last song, and attempts to contact the singer for information were unsuccessful, but it’s in Zulu, as is the first one. Lyrics to the first song, sourced from here, are below.
Akekho ofana Nojesu (There’s no one like Jesus) Akekho ofana naye (There’s no one like him) Akekho ofana Nojesu (There’s no one like Jesus) Akekho ofana naye (There’s no one like him)
Siyahamba siyahamba akekho akekho (I have traveled everywhere, no one) Siyajika siyajika akekho akekho (I have looked everywhere, no one) Siyafuna siyafuna akekho akekho (I have searched everywhere, no one) Akekho afana naye (There is no one like him)
SPOTIFY PLAYLISTS by Lara Downes (with commentary!):
>> Songs for Freedom: A Juneteenth Playlist (2021): Award-winning pianist and NPR radio host Lara Downes curated an excellent Spotify playlist for Juneteenth last year—a mix of jazz, classical, and soul. It is full of wonderful surprises, introducing me to the work of several African American composers, new and old, such as Wynton Marsalis’s The Democracy! Suite for jazz ensemble; a symphony by William Grant Still titled “Song of a New Race”; “Adoration” by Florence Price (originally written for organ but arranged here for violin and piano); “Fanfare on Amazing Grace” by Adolphus Hailstork; and “Startin’ Sumthin’” by Jeff Scott, a French hornist who performs “urban classical chamber music.”
There are also several well-known names—Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder—and more recent popular artists like Jon Batiste and Rhiannon Giddens. Batiste’s arrangement of “What a Wonderful World” is gorgeous, and the music video—wow (see below). It features a group of Black nuns having fun around London—picnicking on a park bench, traversing monkey bars, sharing Jesus with passersby, eating cotton candy, riding bumper cars. It captures the tone of the song perfectly.
From Downes’s list I also really like the blues song “I Knew I Could Fly” by Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla, excerpted in the following featurette. It’s from the album Songs of Our Native Daughters, which sheds light on African American women’s stories of struggle, resistance, and hope.
Be sure to read the NPR article that introduces the playlist. Downes calls out nine of the musical selections with blurbs that provide some background, and throughout there is a smattering of historical photographs of Black flourishing in and around Washington, DC, from 1904 onward, taken by the Black-owned Scurlock Studio.
>> Songs to Believe In: A Juneteenth Playlist (2022): As I was formatting this post I realized that Downes just published a brand-new playlist for Juneteenth 2022. I haven’t had time to listen yet, but it looks awesome. “I offer you a collection of music that insists on the promise of freedom, however long in coming,” she writes. “Music that counters the shrieking dissonance of conflict with the radiant warmth of its harmonies, that offers us comfort in our sorrow and sustenance in our struggle. Songs that ground us with the steadiness of their rhythms and embrace us in the lines of their melodies. Music that brings us hope and faith and even joy, urging us to stand and fight another day, reminding us that what we are celebrating on this holiday is our freedom to believe, even in the hardest of times.”
YOUTUBE PLAYLIST: Juneteenth Playlist by Victoria Emily Jones. Nineteen songs of freedom and faith—gospel, pop, funk, R&B, and spirituals. I wanted to choose all live performances or music videos so that there’s a visual element to engage.
One of the songs is “Clap Praise” by Diane White-Clayton, performed by Selah Gospel Choir. It’s a setting of Psalm 47, which opens, “Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy!”
Dr. Diane White-Clayton is a composer, conductor, pianist, and lecturer in ethnomusicology specializing in Black sacred music. I love the exuberance and all the body percussion in this widely performed piece of hers. I learned about Selah Gospel Choir through Bridge Projects, an art gallery in Los Angeles where they recently performed. The choir was founded in 2007 “as a space for people who want to sing gospel music birthed by the spirit of the Black church and the ancestry of Black community but are either unable to find it in their home place of worship or do not identify with being in a church at all.”
DANCE WORK: Revelations, choreographed by Alvin Ailey: This classic thirty-six-minute work choreographed by the pioneering Alvin Ailey premiered in New York in 1960 and since then has been performed continually around the globe. This particular performance at Lincoln Center premiered online on December 6, 2020, as part of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s virtual season during the pandemic. “Using African American spirituals, song-sermons, gospel songs, and holy blues, Revelations fervently explores the places of deepest grief and holiest joy in the soul.” Ailey said it was born of the “blood memories” of his childhood in rural Texas and his affection for the Baptist church that nurtured him.
All the numbers are great, but my favorite is “Wade in the Water” (part of the “Take Me to the Water” sequence that begins at 9:41). Second favorite: “Fix Me” (5:22).
For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.
LOOK: Jesus Rides a White Horse by James B. Janknegt
Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901–1953) was a pioneering American folk music specialist who selected, transcribed, and placed songs from the vast collections of the Lomax family and others into published works for use in primary schools and homes. Her mission was, in her own words, “to give back to the people songs that belong to them.” 
A conservatory-trained musician and budding modernist composer who spent a Guggenheim year in Europe, Ruth shifted her career goals in 1936 when a move to Washington, DC, brought her into proximity of the Archive of American Folk Song and ignited her passion for the homespun music of her own country. Work songs, love songs, prison songs, dance songs, hollers, chants, spirituals, blues, Cajun tunes, ballads with archaic tonal textures—all these and more were preserved on hundreds of aluminum and acetate disks or magnetic tape and wire at the initiative of traveling ethnomusicologists but at the time were mostly unknown outside the small communities of which they were a part.
Ruth’s relocation to the nation’s capital was prompted by her music scholar husband Charles Seeger’s being hired onto the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Music Project, a New Deal program to employ musicians, conductors, and composers during the Great Depression and to promote music appreciation and training. Charles’s job was to set up music recreation programs across the US—to get every American singing, playing an instrument, or both. Ruth absorbed his enthusiasm and through his work came to know the folk song collectors John A. Lomax and his son, Alan, who frequently brought folk singers from their recording sessions at the Library of Congress to evening singing sessions and instrumental jams at the Seegers’s Silver Spring, Maryland, home. 
Ruth began transcribing and arranging some of the music she was hearing from guests and at traditional music festivals, and John Lomax took notice, enlisting her transcription expertise for two publication projects. She spent many hours at an Ansley turntable, notating texts, melodies, and rhythms so that the musical treasures created and sung in various pockets of the country and collected by her colleagues could be available in print for children’s education and home entertainment, deepening American cultural awareness and celebration.
Ruth keenly felt an urgency to save American folk songs from extinction. Toiling deep in the archives of the Library of Congress alongside the famed father, son, and daughter musicologist team of John Avery Lomax, Alan Lomax, and Bess Lomax Hawes, she sifted through their 10,000 field recordings of native singers and transcribed songs. She helped the Lomaxes produce two sweeping surveys of “people’s music,” Our Singing Country (1941) and Best Loved American Folk Songs (1947), creating notated versions for over 300 folk songs (the second anthology with the help of both her husband Charles Seeger and her stepson Pete Seeger). Fluent in both languages of music, formal and primitive, she moved easily from avant-garde elite to New Deal populist and became the bridge between modern urban and rural traditional music. . . .
American Folk Songs for Christmas (1953) was Ruth Crawford Seeger’s third songbook in a trilogy of inspired generosity: American Folk Songs for Children (1948) and Animal Folk Songs for Children (1950), in addition to an earlier book of piano arrangements, Twenty-Two American Folk Tunes (1937). Tragically, her life was cut short when she died of cancer the very same year this Christmas anthology was published. But Ruth raised her children Mike, Peggy, Penny, and stepson Pete with such a powerful passion for and knowledge of traditional musical forms, few would dispute that the American folk revival started on her knee. 
Of all the contributions of Ruth Crawford Seeger, I’m perhaps most grateful for her American Folk Songs for Christmas (Doubleday, 1953; Loomis House, 2013), a book of simple piano arrangements of Christmas or Christmas-adjacent songs from the American folk tradition. Direct expressions from everyday people, these fifty-five songs—and one fiddle tune!—were not widely known until Ruth compiled and arranged them for mass publication. Thirteen of them she transcribed from traditional recordings in the Library of Congress, while the others come from folklore journals and collections, shape-note hymnals, and singers themselves. Ruth hoped this songbook would “supplement the already rich international store of traditional Christmas song,”  expanding schoolkids’ and families’ usual Christmas repertoire to include some of these homegrown gems.
Although at least half the selections will still be unfamiliar to the general public, several have become beloved classics, especially some of the African American spirituals, like “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” and “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow.” While Ruth wasn’t the only one drawing attention to these songs—the lengthy Acknowledgments section cites the publisher, society, institution, and/or individual each song was sourced from—she was certainly an important popularizer.
One of my favorites is “Baby Born Today,” a “shout” song from McIntosh County, Georgia, that was traditionally sung at Watch Night services at Black churches on Christmas Eve, the lyrics traded back and forth from leader to group for a long time.  Folklorist Robert W. Gordon learned it from Mary C. Mann, a deaconess in the Episcopal Church, when doing field recordings in Darien, Georgia, in 1926.
Another African American Christmas spiritual is “Sing Hallelu,” which is from St. Helena Island, South Carolina. It’s sung here by Elizabeth Mitchell and her husband, Daniel Littleton, accompanied on harp by Elizabeth Clark-Jerez.
Found on Port Royal Island, South Carolina, in 1861, where it was in current use, “Heard from Heaven Today” was reported to be sung regularly in church by the entire congregation with a swaying bodily movement, rhythmical tapping of hands and feet, head nodding, and so forth. It was first published in Slave Songs of the United States by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison (1867). It’s on neither the Seeger Sisters’ nor the Mitchell album, but there’s a nice recording by Nowell Sing We Clear:
Ruth Crawford Seeger’s transcription of “January, February (Last Month of the Year),” aka “When Was Jesus Born,” is based on a 1939 field recording of Betty May Bowman and a group of African American women prisoners from the state penitentiary in Parchman, Mississippi. (Other field recordings of the song from the late thirties and early forties are from Alabama and Georgia, so it was relatively common throughout the South.) It has since been widely covered by gospel artists, including the Fairfield Four, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Staples Singers, and Liz McComb. The recording for The Sounding Joy features Amy Helm on lead vocals, as in this video:
Of course the precise date of Jesus’s birth is not known, but dating forward nine months from the feast of the Annunciation, it came to be celebrated in the West on December 25. Out of overconcern for the song’s questionable declaration that Jesus was born “on the last month of the year . . . on the twenty-fifth day of December,” some Christians have chosen to scrap the song, which is a shame, because I see it simply as an acknowledgment of this very special event on our calendars that we commemorate each year at the same time. We need not be so literalistic.
American Folk Songs for Christmas, the songbook, contains eight shape-note, aka Sacred Harp, songs, a distinctively American brand of sacred choral music that originated in New England and was later carried on in the southern United States. These are less improvisatory, more set. The text of “Cradle Hymn” is actually by the great English hymn-writer Isaac Watts, and it appeared in William Walker’s Southern Harmony (1835) with the Kentucky folk tune RESTORATION. It’s a lullaby that gently contrasts the comfort and security of one’s own child with the poverty of the infant Jesus.
Hush, my dear, lie still and slumber; Holy angels guard Thy bed; Heav’nly blessings without number Gently falling on thy head.
How much better thou’rt tended Than the Son of God could be, When from heaven He descended, And became a child like thee.
Soft and easy is thy cradle, Coarse and hard thy Savior lay, When His birthplace was a stable, And His softest bed the hay.
Despite the book’s title, some of the songs have no direct link to Christmas and are more generically about God’s provision or shepherding or about nature (e.g., “Oh, Watch the Stars”). Some seem to me to be about death, like the lovely “In the morning when I rise, (I’m gonna) tell my Jesus howdy-o” and the widely recorded Appalachian spiritual whose first verse is “Bright morning stars are rising . . . day is a-breaking in my soul.” “Shine Like a Star in the Morning,” too, joyfully anticipates heaven.
The songbook—both the original edition and the reissue—is illustrated by two-time Caldecott Medal winner Barbara Cooney. The illustrations are in black-and-white, and unfortunately all the figures, save for a few in a procession of children on one of the page spreads, respectfully drawn, are Anglo American, despite the collection’s strongest songs being from Black America. I don’t think this should detract from the usefulness of the resource, but I mention it for those who are sensitive to issues of representation.
On a related note, I will just add, for clarification, that these songs are from Anglo and African American traditions. There are other ethnic groups and peoples and communities in America who have been making Christmas music for a long time but are not represented in this collection, and that is largely because it is intentionally restricted to English-language songs—a sensible choice, I think, and still an immensely rich store. Keep in mind that the songbook is from 1953, and it does not claim to be comprehensive. But as America continues to become even more multicultural, I find that caveats are in order, as it’s not entirely clear from the book’s marketing.
These traditional American carols from before the commercialization of Christmas are part of a national heritage of folk song. Many have been passed down orally for generations, others had been written out, and each time they’re shared they’re reinterpreted, but they still retain their original integrity. “The most important mission of the Library of Congress is to cultivate and sustain an American Memory,” writes folklorist Carl Lindahl , and thanks in part to Ruth Crawford Seeger, a good number of the folk songs in its archive have been rescued from obscurity and brought back into use. These Christmas songs are still lesser known than those of European origin, but I’ve seen some integrated into playlists, hymnals, caroling excursions, concerts, and children’s pageants and am encouraged!
Ruth Crawford Seeger, American Folk Songs for Christmas (New York: Doubleday, 1953; Northfield, Minnesota: Loomis House, 2013), 7.
Natalie Merchant, from the liner notes to The Sounding Joy: Christmas Songs in and out of the Ruth Crawford Seeger Songbook by Elizabeth Mitchell and friends (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkway Recordings, 2013), 10–11.
Crawford Seeger, 7.
Watch Night is one of several old-time American Christmas traditions Ruth describes in her introduction to the songbook, along with mumming in Boston, fireworks in the South and West, wild-turkey shoots in Texas, and so on.
Carl Lindahl, ed. American Folktales from the Collections of the Library of Congress, 2 vols. (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2004), xxiii.
In anticipation of the liturgical season of Christmas, I’ve created an extensive playlist of hymns, carols, and spirituals—old and new—that celebrate God’s being born in human flesh. Listen to “Christmastide: An Art & Theology Playlist” on Spotify.
The narratives of Jesus’s birth that we find in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke include both bursts of joyful exuberance, as with the angelic choir above a field of sheep, and quieter, more contemplative moments, such as when Mary pondered “all these things” in her heart (Luke 2:19). Jesus was born into darkness, so the story also involves social stigma, deprivation, military occupation, political greed, infanticide, asylum seeking—and the twinge of a future cross. So while the overall tone of this playlist is one of merriment, it does not shy away from some of the decidedly unfestive aspects of the first Christmas. And yet that God, in love, made himself vulnerable to suffering is precisely what makes the incarnation so glorious. He is not distant from human pains and woes but, rather, right in the midst of them, having experienced them firsthand.
The song selections reflect my personal taste for indie folk and newgrass, so they include, for instance, the Oh Hellos, Sufjan Stevens, Wilder Adkins, Branches, Beta Radio, the Brilliance, Lowland Hum, Penny and Sparrow, the Lower Lights, the Walking Roots Band, Folk Hymnal, Steve Thorngate, Sam P. Bush, Found Wandering, Ordinary Time, and Garrett Viggers.
Gospel songs performed by artists like Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Singers, Isaac Cates, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Evelyn Simpson-Curenton, and Liz McComb also make an appearance, as do many African American spirituals, sung by Odetta, Harry Belafonte, Elizabeth Mitchell, and others. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is the most widely known from that repertoire.
Also from America is the eighteenth-century carol “O Sight of Anguish” by Samson Occom, a Presbyterian minister and member of the Mohegan nation. New England roots musician Tim Eriksen sings it a cappella on Every Sound Below, but in this outdoor video he plays it on bajo sexto:
(Oh how I wish Ericksen’s marvelous Star in the East album were on Spotify, which features thirteen more songs in this vein!)
The Carols for a Cure album series, made up of contributions from Broadway casts, adds some theatricality. The cast of Nine, for example, sings “Los Peces en el Río,” a traditional Spanish carol in which Mary goes about her daily tasks—combing her tangled hair, washing Jesus’s diapers—as the fish in the river swim excitedly toward the newborn Savior. It’s sung by Antonio Banderas.
In addition to this and the twelfth-century “Friendly Beasts,” another song that focuses on the animal characters at the nativity is the punchy “A Stick, a Carrot, and a String” by mewithoutYou, which sounds like it belongs on the Juno soundtrack. It’s wonderfully quirky.
Of course the Christmas playlist includes tons of classics—“Joy to the World!,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Silent Night,” and so on—multiple renditions, in fact. (It’s too hard to choose just one!) There’s an upbeat swing arrangement of “O Holy Night,” but there’s also a more subdued, ethereal arrangement by Katie Melua, and several more besides. It’s fun to see how different artists interpret the same song.
The Irish folk rock band Rend Collective gives us a raucous arrangement of “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” retaining some of the archaicisms in the original lyrics but rewriting verse 3. A competing team at One Way UK’s 2017 Puppet and Creative Ministry Festival in Rugby, Warwickshire, used this song as the basis of a super-entertaining puppet performance! This made me smile.
You may be wondering, “Where’s all the choral music?!” While I do enjoy that genre, especially at Christmas, I’ve decided to exclude such songs in this list (1) to prevent it from becoming too unwieldy and (2) because I have to do a lot more searching and comparison to find the best recordings.
(Update, April 2022: I’ve decided to add several dozen choral selections to the playlist! While I considered creating a separate list of Christmas choral music, I’ve decided that I prefer an integrated approach, which is also why I scattered such songs throughout, giving some stylistic variety to those who prefer to listen to the playlist in order. My hope is that those who don’t normally go seeking out this genre will be surprised to find pieces that resonate with them.)
“An Advent Visio Divina” by John Skillen, CIVA blog: John Skillen, author of Putting Art (Back) in Its Place, discusses four works of Advent-themed art from Italy, where he lives for part of each year leading retreats and seminars through the Studio for Art, Faith & History. He starts in Florence with The Adoration of the Shepherds altarpiece by Renaissance artist Domenico Ghirlandaio, which invites worshippers to follow the shepherds’ (and patrons’) example of adoring the Christ child. Then he moves to Orvieto, spotlighting Karin Coonrod’s directing a medieval mystery play in the city’s streets and churches. (For more on this, read Skillen’s excellent essay in Image no. 96, “Fierce Mercy: The Theater Art of Karin Coonrod.”) Advent is also about the second coming, so Luca Signorelli’s apocalyptic frescoes in the Chapel of San Brizio in Orvieto Cathedral are appropriate. Continuous, in some ways, with these late fifteenth-century paintings are the bronze reliefs on the central doors by Emilio Greco from 1962; they depict the seven works of mercy, the criteria, according to Matthew 25, by which humanity will be judged.
“Passion for the Light” by Alexandra Jean Davison, ArtWay: For last Sunday, the first day of Advent, Culture Care RDU Director Alexandra Jean Davison wrote this wonderful meditation on a set of contemporary sculptures by Jaume Plensa at the North Carolina Museum of Art, connecting them to the season we’re in. She begins, “We see three identical nudes filled with light, the face and arms covered with names and Scripture. Each figure sits at rest horizontally on one of the three walls which form a triangle. The closed eyes and mouth are covered with embossed text of the names of the eight gates of the ancient city walls of Jerusalem: New, Herod, Damascus, Golden (two doors: Gate of Repentance and Gate of Mercy), Lions, Jaffa, Zion, and Dung. Tattoo-like passages from the Song of Songs emerge from the heart upon the arms.” Read more at ArtWay.eu.
VIDEO: “Matthew 1:18-23” by SALT Project: The Emmy Award–winning production company SALT Project released a short video this week setting a reading from Matthew’s Gospel (“This is how the birth of Jesus came about . . .”) against evocative time lapses of blooming flowers. They’re generously offering it for free download and use in worship services, online or in-person. It could be used as an opener, as one of the morning’s scripture readings, or in a number of other ways.
SONGS (the latter two released this week!):
“Christ Child’s Coming”: This simple Advent song is based on the African American spiritual “The Train Is a-Coming” (where “train” is a multivalent metaphor having to do with salvation). While a musician at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California, Keith Watts adapted the lyrics to relate more explicitly to Advent: “Christ child’s coming, oh yeah!,” “Light is coming, oh yeah!,” and “Our king’s coming, oh yeah!” The song is sung here by Trinity Majorins, accompanied by her mom, Sarah [previously], on the piano and her dad, Philip [previously], on guitar.
“Weight/Wait” by Mike McMonagle: “Hope . . . flicker[s] underneath the weight of the wait.” Introducing this new demo, Mike McMonagle, a roots rock musician from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, wrote on Facebook about how the pandemic has created an extended season of waiting in the darkness this year, which has helped him to feel both pain and longing more keenly: “For the past couple of months, I’ve found myself processing all the ups & downs of the current life experience in step with what I’d label the deepest dive into the Advent season that I’ve ever done. All my life, Advent was just a church-y word for rat race otherwise known as The Holidays. There were happy hours, shopping trips, family outings – things that made it hard to focus on the Advent season for more than an hour each Sunday. This year has been different.”
“In Distress” by the Pharaoh Sisters: Written by Austin Pfeiffer and Jared Meyer and based on Psalms 120 and 121, this song blends Latin and Appalachian folk music influences and has lyrics in both English and Spanish. “The song’s creation began in the spiritual angst after the 2016 [US presidential] election,” Pfeiffer writes. “Calling on believers to put their hope in Christ as King, the song has broad themes of Kingdom orientation, raises questions about social divisions, but also leans into Advent ideas, specifically Isaiah 9.” It premiered at the 2017 Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) General Assembly but didn’t end up fitting on the Pharaoh Sisters’ 2020 debut album, Civil Dawn. “Now as our nation plunges deeper into distress and unrest, be it political and/or social, the band is eager to release the song for Advent 2020.”
ONLINE PANEL: “Religious Art,”December 9, 6:00–7:15 p.m. London time (1:00–2:15 p.m. ET): “The relationship between religion and art is ancient and complex, varying across religious traditions and cultures. In this event, Mehreen Chida-Razvi, Ben Quash, and Lieke Wijnia consider how these traditions of religious art differ and what role art plays in religion today. How should we display religious art? Might art be a way of opening interfaith dialogue? And has art itself become a kind of religion?” This free Zoom event is organized by the Forum for Philosophy and the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics. I’ll be attending! (Note: The promotional image below is David LaChapelle’s Last Supper.) Update, 12/10/20: The panel discussion has been archived and can be viewed here.
Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
This is the Psalm reading for the last Sunday of the liturgical year, Christ the King Sunday. I’ve paired it with an Ottonian miniature from around 1015, which shows Christ, framed by a mandorla (an almond-shaped aureole), standing in a branched tree of life. The gold-leaf outline of this glory cloud encompasses heaven (Caelus, the top figure) and earth (Terra, aka Terrus, at bottom), two realms connected by Christ himself. (Earth is his footstool! That is, part of his throne.) He holds a globe in his right hand and is surrounded by symbols of the four evangelists (the tetramorph)—each supported by a water nymph representing one of the four rivers of paradise—and Sol (sun) and Luna (moon). I love how this image emphasizes the life-giving nature of Christ’s rule, and how it extends over all of creation.
From our limited human perspective, it can be hard to see the divine reality that this artist is pointing to. It sometimes doesn’t feel like Jesus is on the throne, holding together everyone and everything in love. But I look at that little orb, and I think of all the sin and suffering and love and grace and stress and beauty swirling around in that one small part of the cosmos, and I see that it’s rendered in precious gold, and is gripped firmly by the hand of God, who—zoom out—is “a great King above all,” who made the heights and the depths and who gives us his word and indeed his very self, a tree of life for the healing of the nations. As we head into Advent, may we not lose this vision of the Christ who reigns.
More about the art: In the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Benedictine abbey on the island of Reichenau in Lake Constance in southern Germany was the site of one of Europe’s largest and most influential schools of manuscript illumination, known as the Reichenau school. The painting above is from a Gospel-book produced there, commissioned by Holy Roman Emperor Henry II (r. 1002–24) for the cathedral he founded in Bamberg. The book is now housed at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library) in Munich, along with two other similar illuminated manuscripts from Bamberg Cathedral: the Gospel-book of Otto III (Clm 4453) and the evangeliary of Henry II (Clm 4452). Find out more about this particular manuscript at the World Digital Library. You can also browse the images here by selecting the links in the “Content” sidebar at the left.
Do you know of any good nonliteral images that say to you, “The world is in God’s hands”? That is, a visual artwork that helps you sense God’s sovereignty? I often fall back on traditional visual conceptualizations of theological teachings like this, but I’d like to expand my repertoire!
SONG: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” African American spiritual
There are hundreds of professional recordings and live performance videos of this traditional song. It was first published in the paperbound hymnal Spirituals Triumphant, Old and New in 1927 and became an international pop hit in 1957 when it was recorded by thirteen-year-old English singer Laurie London.
First off, I want to feature a fairly recent two-part video compilation released by TrueExclusives. Back in March, as the first wave of the coronavirus hit the US, Tyler Perry posted a video of himself singing one verse of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” to provide a word of assurance in the face of rising death tolls and social isolation. He called on his fellow musicians and other friends to likewise video-record a verse or two, in whatever key or style they wished—just a simple, unpolished phone recording—tagging it #tylerperrychallenge. These were then collected into two videos, a string of contributions from people like Mariah Carey, Usher, Patti Labelle, Jennifer Hudson, Shirley Caesar, LeAnn Rimes, Aubrey Logan, Israel Houghton, and many more. For a list of all the singers with time stamps, see the comment by YouTube user benzmusiczone for the first video and the comment by The Cherie Amour Show for the second.
(Update, January 2023: The original two YouTube videos from the TrueExclusives channel have been removed—not sure why—but I found the same content in a single video uploaded on another channel, which I’ve embedded below to replace the defunct links. It’s also on Tyler Perry’s Facebook page: part 1 and part 2.)
Some participants sing in other languages—for example, Nicole Bus in Dutch, Jencarlos Canela in Spanish. Others adapt the lyrics to more specifically address the context of our global pandemic. Kelly Rowland, for example, sings, “He’s got the doctors and the nurses in his hands.” Stevie Mackey names specific countries and virus hot spots. And not only does God have the itty bitty babies in his hands, Ptosha Storey reminds us; he also has the elderly. BeBe Winans spans the cosmic to the small in his verse, emphasizing that God’s sovereign care is both expansive and intimate: “He’s got the moon and the stars in his hands / He’s got Pluto and Mars in his hands / And as I’m sitting in this car, I’m in his hands / He’s got the whole world in his hands.”
A lush choral and orchestral arrangement by Mack Wilberg, featuring Alex Boyé [previously] and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, from 2010:
Similarly lush, a duet performed by operatic sopranos Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle, backed by the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, the New York Philharmonic, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. The performance was conducted by James Levine at Carnegie Hall in 1990 and is included on the album Spirituals in Concert (1991). The arrangement is by Robert de Cormier:
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 29 (Reign of Christ), cycle A, click here.
Remember me, O LORD, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation.
—Psalm 106:4 (KJV)
SONG: “Sing Your Song Over Me / Do Lord, Remember” by Tim Coons, on Potomac (2012)
In his Potomac album, Tim Coons combines American folk songs—mostly African American spirituals, blues, and gospel—with originals in the same track. Track 4 is based on “Do Lord,” Roud 11971. I actually learned this spiritual not in church but in Girl Scouts! Notable recordings include those by Mississippi John Hurt [previously] and Johnny Cash.
The Art Institute of Chicago, which owns Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, writes,
Pablo Picasso made The Old Guitarist while working in Barcelona. In the paintings of his Blue Period (1901–04), the artist restricted himself to a cold, monochromatic blue palette, flattened forms, and emotional, psychological themes of human misery and alienation related to the work of such artists as Edvard Munch and Paul Gauguin. The elongated, angular figure of the blind musician also relates to Picasso’s interest in Spanish art and, in particular, the great 16th-century artist El Greco. The image reﬂects the twenty-two-year-old Picasso’s personal struggle and sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden; he knew what it was like to be poor, having been nearly penniless during all of 1902.
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 23, cycle A, click here.
Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. The Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. And in the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic, clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily. And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from before Israel, for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians.”
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared. And as the Egyptians fled into it, the LORD threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained. But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.
Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.
SONG: “Wade in the Water,” African American spiritual
There have been many, many performances of this song over the years. For a nice, concise history of recordings, from gospel and doowop and choral to modern jazz, R&B, heavy rock, and northern soul, see this article by Mike Hobart. Below is a handful I’ve found and enjoy.
A gospel version by Brother John Sellers from 1959, driven by piano:
A choral arrangement by Paul T. Kwami, performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 2019 (the soloist isn’t credited, but she’s amazing!):
Pegasis is a vocal trio of sisters from the Dominican Republic, formerly performing under the name The Peguero Sisters. Here they’re accompanied by guitar and shaker (this is the YouTube version, but the harmonies are cleaner on their 2016 album recording):
The Petersens apply their signature bluegrass stylings in their rendition, performed a few weeks ago in this video but also on their 2019 album Homesick for a Country:
According to oral lore, Harriet Tubman used the song “Wade in the Water” to communicate strategy to slaves traveling the Underground Railroad: its coded language alerted freedom seekers that bounty hunters were on their trail with bloodhounds and that they should jump into the river so that the dogs couldn’t track their scent. This popular myth about the song has not been confirmed, and the National Park Service, which preserves historical sites associated with the Underground Railroad and promotes research on the topic, suggests that it’s probably not true.
It is known, however, that it was sung at river baptisms, and still is, as the Exodus is seen as an archetype of baptism, of redemption through water. Not only that, but the song also draws on the pool of Bethesda passage in John 5, where people gathered to be healed: “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had” (v. 4). (This verse is found in some early New Testament manuscripts but not the earliest and is therefore omitted from several modern translations.)
In the documentary God’s Greatest Hits, pastor and gospel recording artist Wintley Phipps says, “‘Wade in the Water,’ to me, . . . means people who are afraid of moving forward, progressing, taking a step, and facing uncertainty—go ahead, wade in the water. Take that step. As terrifying as it may seem at that very moment, it’s gonna be alright, and the miracle we seek is gonna happen.”
There’s the famous song “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Well, in Exodus, God carves out a bridge through troubled water! Imagine walls of water standing multiple stories high on either side of you, filled with tiger sharks and other marine life. And you have to cross the sandy bottom in faith that those walls will hold up until you reach the other side.
“Wade in the Water” affirms that God is going to stir things up; he’s going to do something big. Just like he did when he brought Israel up out of Egypt.
Maggi Hambling is one of Britain’s most significant painters and sculptors. Her nine “Walls of Water” paintings were made in 2010–11 and were first exhibited in 2014 at the National Gallery in London. Vast, intense, and energetic, they were inspired by her experience of giant waves crashing onto the seawall at Southwold, Suffolk, where she lives. “Through turbulence and exuberant colour, Hambling continues to affirm painting’s immediacy, saying, ‘The crucial thing that only painting can do is to make you feel as if you’re there while it’s being created – as if it’s happening in front of you’” (source).
View other paintings from the series at Artsy.net.
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 19, cycle A, click here.