He Went On Ahead (Artful Devotion)

Jesus Entering Jerusalem by Nathan Simpson
Nathan Simpson, Jesus Entering Jerusalem, 1999. Oil on canvas.

And when he had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem . . .

—Luke 19:28

+++

SONG: “My Lord” by Hiram Ring, on Home (2013)

 

This Sunday marks the start of Passion Week, with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, where he is greeted by palm branches and Hosannas. By Thursday, though, these shouts of praise will devolve into “Is it I?,” “I do not know him,” and “Crucify him!”

In a series of simple verses, Hiram Ring’s blues-inflected song “My Lord” moves from Jesus’s triumphal entry to his agony in the garden (where he drinks heavily the bitter draft of suffering) to his crucifixion. The final two verses shift then to his resurrection and his exaltation in heaven.

+++

Agony in the Garden by Nathan Simpson
Nathan Simpson, Agony in the Garden, 1999. Oil on canvas.
Resurrection by Nathan Simpson
Nathan Simpson, Large Resurrection, 1999. Oil on canvas.

I’m compelled by the Gospel narrative paintings of contemporary Australian artist Nathan Simpson. These are a few I saved from his website a while ago before it went under construction. In Simpson’s Agony in the Garden, Christ’s anguish is palpable. The image combines the Gethsemane narrative with all the suffering that lies ahead, culminating in death. A row of olive trees forms the horizontal beam of a cross, while a rooster (alluding to Peter’s betrayal) forms the vertical; Christ’s head, with swollen eyes and gaping mouth (“My God, my God . . .”), is the point of intersection.

Simpson’s Resurrection painting, by contrast, shows a Christ who’s victorious over death, his face serene. The artist plays with the popular “tree of life” motif, fusing Christ’s body into this flowering, bird-filled plant. An arborescent Christ! See how the nail wound in his left foot is also the tree’s hollow.

+++

In their latest blog post, SALT Project suggests a simple at-home Holy Week ritual for families that I really like: a Tenebrae Wreath (tenebrae means “shadows”).

Imagine . . . a sort of Advent Wreath in reverse: four candles in a circle with a Paschal candle in the middle, extinguished one by one. Sunday night: beginning with only the Paschal candle lit, read Luke’s story of Palm Sunday, and then light all four candles in joy, hope, and thanksgiving. Thursday night: read Luke’s story of the Last Supper, and extinguish one candle; then read Luke’s story of Gethsemane, and extinguish a second. Friday night: read Luke’s story of Peter’s denials and desertion, and extinguish a third candle; then read Luke’s story of Jesus’ suffering, and extinguish the fourth; and then finally, read Luke’s story of Jesus’ death, and extinguish the Paschal candle. Saturday, the wreath remains unlit and bare, perhaps shrouded with cloth. And Sunday morning, the shroud is gone and all candles are lit, with a few more candles added—along with some flowers and Easter sweets! Read Luke’s story of the empty tomb, and sing your favorite Easter hymn (or two).


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 Palm Sunday and the Liturgy of the Passion, cycle C, click here and here.

Album Review: Last Days by the Brothers of Abriem Harp

Released in 2015, the album Last Days by the Brothers of Abriem Harp features twelve original indie-folk songs for Holy Week that tell the story of Christ’s passion, from the thundering voice of the Father affirming the Son but also presaging judgment, to the glorification of Christ in the Resurrection. One of its major draws is its quiet, understated conveyance of the week’s drama through several different voices: Jesus, of course, but also Mary, Peter, Judas, and other unnamed disciples who reflect on the events they witness, especially in light of their past histories with Christ.

Last Days album cover

Approaching Jesus’s last days primarily through the lens of story—plot, character, mood, etc.—rather than the lens of doctrine makes the listening experience more immersive. That’s not to say theology is absent from the album; it’s very much there. But it is not heavy-handed or abstruse, and neither is it reduced to clichés.

The songs are written and sung by Joe Kurtz (pseudonym: Abriem Harp) and Josh Compton (Josh Harp), with Matt Kurtz (Matthew Harp) on percussion and John Finley (Hezekiah Harp) playing many of the other instruments. On the band’s Facebook page they describe themselves as “Gospel-shoutin’ melody makers from the Rust Belt,” and among their musical influences are field recordings, the Sacred Harp tradition, and mountain music.

In the video below, the Brothers have set the entire album to altered footage from Vie et Passion du Christ (Life and Passion of the Christ), a forty-four-minute silent film released in France in 1903. The album is also available for streaming and purchase at https://harpfamilyrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/last-days.

Here’s a rundown of the songs.

1. “Glorify”

 

A voice arose, a voice arose
A voice arose, a voice
It sounded like thunder, pounded like thunder (×4)

It said, “I’ve glorified it, and again I’ll glorify it”
Yeah, “I’ve glorified it, and again I’ll glorify it” (×3)

This is an unconventional starting point for the passion narrative, which typically begins with Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Instead, the Brothers have chosen a lesser-known episode from John’s Gospel, which occurs just after the triumphal entry—and what a beautiful passage to highlight. (I actually was not familiar with the references in the song and had to look them up—a great example of how the arts can stimulate renewed engagement with the Bible!)

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. . . .

“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”

Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”

Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

John 12:23–24, 27–33

“It’s time.” That’s essentially what Jesus is saying. And then in the middle of this discourse with the disciples, Jesus gets real with the Father. “I’m scared! But what can I do? This is my destiny; I can’t avoid it.” And then, his words of acceptance, of surrender: “Father, glorify your name.” It’s unclear whether this prayer was audible to the disciples or was expressed merely internally. Whatever the case, the Father’s response was heard by all—though some attributed it to natural phenomena, or to an angel.

As this passage clarifies, the “it” in the song is the Father’s name: God says that he has glorified it in the past, and he will glorify it again, when Christ is lifted up for the salvation of the world.

John uses the words glory and glorified a lot in his Gospel, especially in relation to Christ’s passion. In John 13:31, after the Last Supper, where Jesus has just identified Judas as his future betrayer, Jesus says, “Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him.” Later that night, in Gethsemane, Jesus prays, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you. . . . I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:1, 4–5).

The opening song on Last Days, therefore, though just three allusive lines, repeated, is packed with meaning, much of it concentrated in that dense word glorify, a word that orients the whole album. Much like the opening sequence of a movie sets the movie’s tone and hints at what you’re in for, so do opening songs on albums, and this one is somewhat portentous, leaving us wondering, “How will God’s name be glorified?”; it also gives the Father a speaking role and thus situates him as a main character in the story.   Continue reading “Album Review: Last Days by the Brothers of Abriem Harp”

The Crushed Christ: An Illustrated Analysis of Herbert’s “The Agony” and Bryant’s “Blood of the Vine”

A staple of English literature curricula, George Herbert (1593–1633) is one of the best religious poets of any era. Born in Wales, he studied rhetoric at Cambridge University, becoming fluent in Latin and Greek and beginning an avocation of writing verse. After a short career in oration and then politics, he shifted courses to become a pastor. He was appointed to a small rural parish near Salisbury, where he served for only three years before contracting tuberculosis at age thirty-nine. On his deathbed he gave his friend Nicholas Ferrar a manuscript of all the poems he had written throughout his life, telling him to publish it if he thought it might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul,” and if not, to “burn it; for I and it are less than the least of God’s mercies.” Thankfully, Ferrar chose the former, and The Temple was published posthumously in 1633. It has been in print continuously ever since.

One of the poems from this volume is “The Agony,” a meditation on the suffering that Christ bore out of love for humanity. Below I will walk through it stanza by stanza, and then I will present a new partial musical setting of it that makes intertextual connections with scripture. I will conclude by sharing a once-popular artistic motif, the mystic winepress, that visualizes one of Herbert’s metaphors (a metaphor developed by early theologians, such as Augustine and Gregory the Great).

Christ in the winepress
Christ in the Winepress, Austria, ca. 1400–1410. ÖNB 3676, fol. 14r. Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Austrian National Library), Vienna.

“The Agony” by George Herbert

Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathomed the depths of seas, of states and kings;
Walked with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove;
Yet few there are that sound them—Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A Man so wrung with pains, that all His hair,
His skin, His garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice which, on the cross, a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like,
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.

In the first stanza of “The Agony,” Herbert comments on man’s dogged pursuit of empirical knowledge. We develop tools for our trades, then use them to “measure,” “fathom,” and “trace”—to explore the heights and depths of our physical environments, the ins and outs of the world’s political systems. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but we ought not to neglect the “two vast, spacious things” that are most worthy of exploration: sin and love. These truths, unlike others, are apprehended not by amassing and analyzing data but by simply beholding. To know sin, Herbert says, look to Gethsemane: see Christ crushed. To know love, look to the cross: see Christ pierced. See, and taste. The Lord is good.   Continue reading “The Crushed Christ: An Illustrated Analysis of Herbert’s “The Agony” and Bryant’s “Blood of the Vine””

Celtic manuscript illumination of Christ in Gethsemane

I wrote today’s visual meditation for ArtWay, on one of the full-page miniatures in the ninth-century Book of Kells from Ireland: http://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=2063&lang=en&action=show.

Christ on the Mount of Olives (Book of Kells)
Christ on the Mount of Olives, from the Book of Kells (fol. 114v), early 9th century.

The framed lunette above Christ’s head contains a Latin inscription of Matthew 26:30: Et hymo dicto exierunt in montem Oliveti (“After a hymn had been said they left for Mount Olivet”). But the artist gives us a very atypical depiction of that scene, one that cross-references the Old Testament story of Israel’s battle against the Amalekites—in particular, the figures Aaron, Moses, and Hur. Click on the link above to learn more.

As I prepared commentary on the painting, meditating on its significance, I thought of Wayne Forte’s Community of Prayer—a beautiful image that, like the one from Kells, invokes an ancient battle story as a metaphor for bearing one another up in prayer.

Community of Prayer by Wayne Forte
Wayne Forte (American, 1950–), Community of Prayer, 2009. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 24 × 30 in.

(This is a subject Forte has turned to often. See on his website, for example, And the Battle Was Won; Arms of Prayer; Exodus 17:12 MedallionMoses [Sun Radiating]; Moses on a Rock; Moses with Staff; Moses, Aaron, and Hur; Succour; and Until the Sun Set.)

Passion prints by Alena Antonova

Alena Antonova was born in Czechoslovakia in 1930. From 1949 to 1955 she studied graphic arts at the College of Applied Arts in Prague under the acclaimed Cubist painter Emil Filla. Since then she has specialized in printmaking. The primary technique she uses is drypoint, which involves incising a picture with a needle onto a metal plate, then inking it and pressing it onto paper, but she has also done etchings, woodcuts, and linocuts. The female figure is a common theme in her work.

In 1997 Antonova created a series of very small drypoints based on New Testament episodes. Here is a selection of Passion-themed ones from the Sacred Art Pilgrim Collection.

Madonna and Child by Alena Antonova
Alena Antonova (Czech, 1930–), Madonna and Child, 1997. Tinted drypoint, 14.5 × 10 cm.

First, a Madonna and Child. This subject—Mary holding the baby Jesus—is obviously not set during Holy Week, but in her interpretation Antonova alludes to the Crucifixion by giving the infant Christ nail prints in his hands and feet. While it’s not uncommon for artists to foreshadow Jesus’s early death in Madonna and Child images by making him appear corpse-like, the overt display of wounds is something I’ve never seen before. I’ve also never seen Mary kissing baby Jesus on the lips—such a tender expression of mother love; she closes her eyes, as if to shut out the formidable omen Simeon had spoken to her at the temple. I’m not sure whether the cat playing with a ball of yarn in the background has a symbolic significance or serves only to domesticate the scene. I guess you could see it as an allusion to Jesus’s future unraveling in Gethsemane, his coming undone.

Last Supper by Alena Antonova
Alena Antonova (Czech, 1930–), The Last Supper, 1997. Tinted drypoint, 14 × 10 cm.

Fast-forward to that day, and we’re at the Last Supper. In traditional fashion, Antonova’s print shows Jesus at the head of the table, with John leaning on his shoulder. Judas is on the other end with his head in hand, stressing out about whether to go through with the betrayal; a moneybag is tied to his waist. I’m not sure where the twelfth disciple is in the picture. Maybe he’s getting drink refills.   Continue reading “Passion prints by Alena Antonova”