25 Poems for Christmas

Hawkins, William L._Nativity Scene
William L. Hawkins (American, 1895–1990), Nativity Scene, 1987. Oil on canvas, 48 × 48 in. Newark Museum of Art, Newark, New Jersey.

1. “Remembering that it happened once” by Wendell Berry: For the last forty-plus years, Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry has been writing what he calls “Sabbath poems,” which emerge from his spiritual practice of walking outdoors on Sundays without any to-do’s. “I go free from the tasks and intentions of my workdays,” he says, “and so my mind becomes hospitable to unintended thoughts: to what I am very willing to call inspiration.” This Sabbath poem from 1986 explores how the sacred permeates the mundane and how Christ is, in a sense, always being born. For an SATB choral setting by Doug Brandt, see here.

Source: A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979–1997 (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1998); compiled in This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2014)

2. “BC:AD” by U. A. Fanthorpe: Ursula Askham Fanthorpe (1929–2009), CBE, FRSL, was an English poet who is well loved by both critics and the general public. She was also a practicing Quaker. Each year she wrote a new Christmas poem to send to friends, of which “BC:AD” is the best known. It considers Jesus’s birth as the pivotal point in history, dividing time into epochs, into “before” and “after.” At this nativity, kairos invaded chronos—and we’re still singing about it millennia later.

Source: Christmas Poems (London: Enitharmon, 2002)

3. “Making the House Ready for the Lord” by Mary Oliver: For many of us who succumb to cultural pressures, December is a time of rushing around, making sure the house is decorated like a magazine, the Christmas cards sent out, the cookies baked to perfection, the gifts individually selected and bought and wrapped. But in all this flurry of activity, are we missing “the better part” (Luke 10:42)? The speaker of this poem, Martha-like, is busy making preparations for Jesus, who’s coming to visit, but as she’s cleaning, outdoor critters keep popping in. At first she bemoans their presence—they’re not on the guest list!—but eventually she comes to accept, even welcome, them, surrendering her fussy desire for orderliness to a charitable embrace of whatever is. And on another level, this poem is about how all of creation longs for Christ (Rom. 8:19–22); the animals, too, want to see him, want to join the party.

Source: Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006)

4. [It’s all so messy] by Kelly Belmonte: A haiku for Advent.

Source: https://allninemuses.wordpress.com/

5. “Second Advent” by Anya Krugovoy Silver: Memorializing a friend (Ishiuan Hargrove) who died of metastatic brain tumors, “Second Advent” unsettlingly combines stark hospital-room and anatomical language with language that is soft, gentle, lyrical. Recounting one of Ishiuan’s several neurosurgeries, the poet remarks how her head was nimbed by surgical lights and then swaddled in gauze. The title refers to Ishiuan’s waking up on the second Sunday of Advent, but also to the hope of Christ’s second coming, when pain, disease, and sorrow will be done away with. Anya Silver was herself a cancer patient, an experience she wrote much about in her four volumes of poetry, before dying of breast cancer in 2018.

Source: Second Bloom (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017)

6. “The Nativity” by Henry Vaughan: “Peace!” rang the angels’ song the night of Christ’s birth—and yet what irony, that he who came to bring peace was himself no beneficiary of it in this life, being born among animals in a borrowed stable, then made a refugee, then later disbelieved, betrayed, mocked, tortured, and crucified. The darkness that bred such unwelcome of the Son of God still persists—violence, ignorance. Referencing the Genesis 1 creation narrative as well as the journey of the magi, the poem ends with an invocation for God’s light to manifest once again, leading us to Christ.

Source: Thalia Redivina: The Pass-Times and Diversions of a Countrey-Muse (London: Robert Pawlet, 1678). Public Domain.

7. [little tree] by E. E. Cummings: One of E. E. Cummings’s earliest published poems (it came out in the January 1920 issue of The Dial), “little tree” was intended to appear as one of five “chansons innocentes” in Cummings’s first book of verse, Tulips and Chimneys, but his editor, Thomas Seltzer, cut it (along with sixty-five others!). In it a young child consoles a recently felled evergreen tree—enlisted for the holiday festivities—with promises of glory and love. Though it runs the danger of being read as twee, Cummings remained fond of the poem and even had it printed and sent it as his family Christmas card in 1960, two years before he died.

Source: XLI Poems (New York: The Dial Press, 1925); compiled in E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems, 1904–1962 (New York: Liveright, 2016). Public Domain.

8. “Messiah (Christmas Portions)” by Mark Doty: The speaker of this poem is unexpectedly transported by a local community choir performance of Handel’s Messiah. He marvels at how these ordinary, flawed neighbors of his can produce such beauty with their collective voices. The last line is probably a reference to the accompagnato and air sung by the bass toward the end of the oratorio, taken from 1 Corinthians 15:51–54—about how we will all be changed in a moment at the last trump, and the corruptible will put on incorruption.

Source: Sweet Machine (New York: HarperFlamingo, 1998); compiled in Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008)

9. “What the Body Knows” by Jean Janzen: The anonymous scribes and illuminators of the Book of Kells spent countless hours copying and beautifying God’s word amid Viking raids. In this ekphrastic poem, Jean Janzen reflects on the Gospel-book’s five whimsically painted folios of Luke’s genealogy of Christ, commenting on the continual inbreaking of God into our world and the “wild safety” of God’s love.

Source: What the Body Knows (Telford, PA: DreamSeeker Books, 2015)

10. “Confession” by Leila Chatti: The Tunisian American poet Leila Chatti was raised by a Muslim father and a Roman Catholic mother, and both religious traditions have shaped her faith and her writing. Islam and Christianity hold many sacred figures in common, including Mary (Maryam), whose conception and delivery of Jesus (Isa) are narrated in the Quran 19:16–34. Chatti confesses to being more compelled by the Islamic characterization of Mary as grunting and sweating in the pangs of labor (in contrast to Catholic teaching, which says her birthing experience was effortless, her contractions painless, though the Bible itself doesn’t specify). Chatti finds comfort in picturing Mary not as someone exempt from the effects of the fall and set apart on a pedestal of supreme virtue, but as one who suffered the same physical and emotional toll as other childbearing women—and who probably did have the occasional selfish thought, which, in moments of intensity and vulnerability, she deigned to vocalize!

Source: Deluge (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2020) | https://www.leilachatti.com/

11. “Two Carols” by Evelyn Underhill: An English Anglo-Catholic writer and mystic, Evelyn Underhill meditates in this double poem on how Christ set foot on the long, hard road we travel to be a balm for our wounds and those of the earth. The epigraph to part 1 is from the Latin Vulgate of Song of Solomon 2:12: “The flowers appear on the earth.” What follows are several Catholic titles for Mary: rose without thorn, queen, generatrix. The epigraph to part 2 is a quotation of Romans 8:22: “The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” The refrain, Dominus tecum!, translates to “The Lord is with you!,” words spoken by the angel Gabriel to Mary and, by virtue of the Incarnation, to all humanity. The other Latin phrases translate to “He who is in the heavens,” “A King is born,” and “Let the kingdom come!” Adveniat regnum!

Source: Immanence: A Book of Verses (London: J. M. Dent, 1912). Public Domain.

12. “The Christmas Babe” by Fr. John Banister Tabb: Written by a Catholic priest from Virginia, this simple quatrain marvels at the paradox of God’s simultaneous largeness and smallness.

Source: Poems (London: John Lane, 1894). Public Domain.

13. “Snowflakes” by Jennifer Grotz: When the world is viewed through a sacramental lens, we recognize God in commonplace wonders like falling snow, and such things can be a sort of wordless prayer that we offer back to God through our enjoyment of them.

Source: Window Left Open (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2016) | https://www.jennifergrotz.com/

14. [The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman] by Emily Dickinson: In these two compact stanzas, Dickinson reflects on how kind Jesus was (an understatement!) to have made the far journey to Bethlehem, “a rugged billion Miles” from heaven, especially in the cold month of December, all “for little Fellowmen.” She refers to him as “docile”—obedient, submissive—harking to Philippians 2, to his bowing to the eternal will of the Father, submitting to human limitations, suffering, and death for the life of the world.

Source: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1976)

15. [Wilt thou love God, as he thee? Then digest] (Holy Sonnet No. 15) by John Donne: A self-address to the soul, this poem by the English poet-priest John Donne, first published in 1633, two years after this death, celebrates the Triune God’s salvific workings: we’re adopted by the Father, redeemed by the Son, indwelt and regenerated by the Spirit. The closing couplet, referencing the imago Dei, packs a wallop: “’Twas much, that man was made like God before, / But, that God should be made like man, much more.”

Source: Poems (London: M.F. [Miles Fletcher], 1633). Public Domain.

16. “The Little Towns of Bethlehem” by John Terpstra: All over Canada, Christ is being reborn this Christmas, in the sense that the Story has taken root, is retold, and continues to have impact. The speaker imagines the Christ child “wrapped in cast-off flannel” in a boxcar stopped on the tracks in Esther, Alberta, or feeding at his mother’s breast in a broken-down car on the shoulder of a road in Englehart, Ontario—actual sights that one might encounter today. Localizing the Story can help us to see it afresh, and to see the sacred humanity of families experiencing homelessness or other hardships.

Source: Two or Three Guitars (Kentville, Nova Scotia: Gaspereau Press, 2006) | http://johnterpstra.com/

17. “Song of the Shepherds” by Richard Bauckham: Richard Bauckham, FRSE, FBA, is best known as a biblical scholar—he’s one of today’s tops, in fact—but he also writes poetry! (I featured one of his poems last year.) In this poem, the shepherds on Bethlehem’s hillsides recall an ancient tale about the stars singing at the creation of the universe, which they thought merely a poetic embellishment, until they experienced something of the like for themselves: “a song of solar glory” eclipsing the lesser lights and exorcising the dark, creating the world anew. Unforgettable.

Source: Tumbling into Light: Collected Poems (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2022) | https://richardbauckham.co.uk/

18. “Those Magi” by Kathleen O’Toole: What exactly were the magi seeking? What compelled them to leave their treasure behind in that cattle shed? Whence their strength to defy Herod? Besides musing on these questions, the poem also contains a passing metaphor that I found striking and new: cow breath as incense.

Source: Christian Century, January 18, 2019 | https://kathleenotoolepoetry.com/

19. “Carol of the Brown King” by Langston Hughes: Tradition names one of the wise men who visited the Christ child “Balthazar” and says he’s from Africa. Langston Hughes, a preeminent poet of the Harlem Renaissance, exults that there was “one dark like me—part of His Nativity.” This poem is included in Hughes’s musical play Black Nativity and is one of six Nativity poems by Hughes that make up a children’s book illustrated by Ashley Bryan.

Source: Crisis (Dec. 1958), p. 615; compiled in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Knopf, 1994)

20. “Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter, 1993” by Jane Kenyon: I couldn’t find the particular church mosaic program that Kenyon is writing about, but here’s my interpretation. Set inside a Serbian Orthodox church during the Bosnian War, this poem imagines a mosaic of Christ Pantocrator hovering in the dome, lamenting the violence that goes on beneath. Under the gaze of the I AM is another mosaic, portraying Jesus’s birth, but also, in a way, Mary’s, as she herself is being reborn in Christ, her mind increasingly shaped in accordance to his. Nativity icons often show Mary framed by a red blanket that she’s reclining on at the mouth of a cave, which Kenyon reads as embryonic.

Source: Otherwise (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 1996); compiled in Collected Poems (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005)

21. “Breath” by Luci Shaw: This poem reflects on the contraction of the infinite God who breathed the universe into existence into a finite human being needing oxygen, who, as is foreshadowed at his birth, will finally ex-pire (“breathe out” his last) on a cross before entering his “next dark cave,” a prelude to resurrection.

Source: Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006) | https://lucishaw.com/

22. “Mary’s Vision” from medieval Ireland: Mary foresees the future suffering of her infant son and dialogues with him about it in this poem translated from Middle Irish by Eleanor Hull (the same woman who, through her translation and versification, gave us the hymn “Be Thou My Vision”!).

Source: The Poem-Book of the Gael (London: Chatto & Windus, 1912). Public Domain.

23. “Joseph at the Nativity” by Tania Runyan: Staring at the “shriveled pod” that Mary just birthed, Joseph grapples with his complicated feelings—doubt, embarrassment, jealousy, helplessness, confusion, pride—and with figuring out what role he should play in the life of this child going forward.

Source: Simple Weight (Lexington, KY: FutureCycle, 2010) | https://taniarunyan.com/

24. “Waiting in Line After Christmas” by Sharron Singleton: (Scroll down to fourth poem) Rather than exchanges of refunded money for unwanted items, Singleton ponders what a mutually life-giving exchange of intangibles might look like.

Source: Our Hands a Hollow Bowl (Hartford, CT: Grayson Books, 2018)

25. “Burning the Old Year” by Naomi Shihab Nye: Through the act of forgetting, we must destroy the worthless trivialities of the year, and we must let that which is solid, that which matters—the “stones”—be revealed and remain.

Source: Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Portland, OR: Far Corner Books, 1995)

Roundup: Philippians set to music, poetry of joy, what Jesus looked like, and more

ALBUM REVIEW: “Let’s Go Down: Joy and Humility in Psallos’s Philippians Album” by Victoria Emily Jones: Psallos’s latest album, a musical adaptation of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, released on Thursday, and, as I’ve come to expect from the collective, it’s a brilliant work of art, with much to discover! In this review I wrote for the Gospel Coalition, I of course couldn’t address all the album’s intricacies, but I trace a few main themes and motifs. This is the New Testament epistle that gives us such memorable lines, phrases, and passages as “Rejoice in the Lord always!,” “Be anxious for nothing,” “the peace of God that passes all understanding,” “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” and the glorious Christ Hymn (“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God . . .”). It’s delightful to hear what Psallos does with these oft-quoted verses and, even more, to be guided in understanding the larger context in which they appear.

It’s near impossible to choose favorite tracks, as they gain impact from being heard all together and in order, but if I had to choose, I’d say “Complete My Joy,” “Hymnos Christou,” “I Am Better Than You” (feat. Shai Linne), and “Will You Go Down?” (feat. Taylor Leonhardt).

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POETS’ PANEL: “Surprised by Joy: Poetry about Happiness,” recorded at the Festival of Faith and Writing, April 2018: In Rewrite Radio Episode 29 (a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing), poets Anya Silver, Tania Runyan, Barbara Crooker, and Julie Moore “discuss the landscape of joy amidst suffering in their personal and public lives. Joy, distinct from happiness, can be a form of religious practice. They explore questions regarding what cheapens joy, how Christians view joy, and how to ‘balance the scale’ of joy and pain in writing.” Zora Neale Hurston, Ælfric of Eynsham, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Christian Wiman, Jane Kenyon, John Milton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thornton Wilder, and the apostle Paul are just some of the additional voices they draw into their conversation. They each read three to four of their own poems, and there is an audience Q&A starting at 57:54. A transcript is provided.

Silver and Runyan are two of my favorite poets, and this is such a rich hour spent with them and two of their colleagues.

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INTERVIEW: “It’s Not a Poem Until You Discover Something: An Interview with Scott Cairns” by Andy Patton: In this conversation, poet Scott Cairns talks about writing as a discipline, the writer as reader (“The writing life is primarily the reading life”), staying conversant with tradition, the fallacy of originality, the one quality shared most between prayer and poetry, and writing not as giving, serving, but as getting, receiving.

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LECTURE: “What Did Jesus Look Like?” by Joan E. Taylor, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, June 2, 2019: Historian Joan E. Taylor, a professor of Christian origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London, discusses the influences on early depictions of Jesus in art and what they tell us about what he did, or definitely didn’t, look like. This talk is a great intro to her research on the topic, but if you want to learn more, I recommend her full-color book What Did Jesus Look Like? (T&T Clark, 2018), which goes into much more detail, examining artistic, literary, and archaeological evidence, including first- and second-century coins, textiles, skulls, and Egyptian mummy portraits. She also dedicates two chapters to the three most famous acheropitae (images “made without [human] hands”): the Veil of Veronica, the Mandylion, and the Shroud of Turin.

In her talk, Taylor shows how most of the visual representations of Jesus in the Early Christian era were based on Greco-Roman imagery of Zeus Olympus or Zeus Serapis (strong, powerful, seated on a throne; this image came after Constantine), Dionysus (young, curly-haired, beardless), or philosophers. These images aim to show us the meaning of Jesus but not necessarily his physical reality.

Interestingly, Taylor points out that while it’s common to picture Jesus in a long robe (stolē, plural stolai) with baggy sleeves, such clothing indicated social privilege in Jesus’s time, and in Mark 12:38, Jesus explicitly denounces those who parade around in such dress! Jesus would have worn a short, simple tunic, probably undyed—which is how he is depicted in the frescoes from the ancient Dura-Europos house church in present-day Syria.

She also identifies a common strain in early Christian and non-Christian writings that describe Jesus as “little and ugly and undistinguished” (Celsus), probably owing largely to the messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53:2: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” However, there were some claims to the contrary—for example, from Origen—that stated that Jesus was the epitome of physical beauty; after all, divinity must be beautiful, right? We often find throughout art history an attempt to backfill the earthly life of Jesus with his resurrected, ascended, glorified form.

Taylor is not suggesting, as far as I can tell, that all artistic representations of Jesus must be historically authentic to have validity. Rather, she says that if we are going to imagine Jesus humanly doing things—healing the paralytic, for example, or preaching the Sermon on the Mount—we will inevitably have to picture him in our mind, and we might as well have as accurate a picture as possible. She reminds us that if we imagine Jesus as supremely beautiful and well kept and richly arrayed instead of as the poor, bedraggled itinerant that he was, there’s a dissonance with his message; he becomes no longer one of the people but apart from them.

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ARTICLE: “Are Images of Jesus a Violation of the Commandments?” by Chad Bird: “Different groups within Christianity disagree as to whether Jesus should be depicted in icons, crucifixes, paintings, or other visual media. In this article, Chad Bird [scholar in residence at 1517] approaches the question from the angle of both the commandments and the incarnation.”

The most pushback I receive on my blogging ministry comes from those who believe it is inherently wrong, even “idolatrous,” to represent Jesus visually. Bird addresses this concern in much the same way I do when asked, and in such a succinct way!

Ten Poems of Gratitude

One of the reasons I love poetry is because it brings me into more intimate contact with the world. It slows me down and asks me to give my attention to things that, in my constant, often self-inflicted busyness, I fail to notice. And it shepherds me into a deeper sense of gratitude and awe. It’s really easy for me to see the world’s ugliness—sin, suffering—and to be scared, angry, disgusted, horrified, or overwhelmed. My inclination is to see what’s wrong instead of what’s right. While poetry can perform many different functions, one of them is to attune us to the daily gifts and graces that come to us from, I believe, the hand of God.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, here are ten contemporary poems of gratitude that can be read online. A popular tradition for this holiday is, when gathered round the feasting table, to take turns sharing what you’re thankful for. The three most typical answers for adults are: my family, my health, my job. These are perfectly fine answers. But poets can show us what it feels like to be blessed with family, for example, and can teach us how to offer praise even when our health is declining or we’re unemployed. Moreover, poets help us expand our repertoire of thanksgivings, naming things with specificity: “the incense of butter on toast” (Siegel), “the honey-colored toes of mice” (Singleton), “two daughters and one cloud, an old oak / and a great love” (Wiman), the moon that “shakes a dress of light onto my body” (Silver) and “shuffl[es] its soft, blind slippers over the floor” (Hirshfield).

Lichtman, Susan_Orchard Bag and Bouquet
Susan Lichtman (American, 1952–), Orchard Bag and Bouquet, 2015. Oil on linen, 24 × 22 in.

(Related post: “A prayer of thanksgiving”)

I’ve listed the volume that each poem is published in—I’ve read all but the Browning one, and they’re all excellent. I hope this tiny sampling from the trove of contemporary poetry enlarges your thankfulness and inspires you to read more! Happy Thanksgiving, friends.

  1. “When the sun returns” by Sarah Browning, in Killing Summer (2017): Jesus said to consider the birds. Browning does. “it is hallelujah time, / the swallows tracing an arc / of praise just off our balcony, / the mountains snow-sparkling / in gratitude . . .”

  2. “A Song of Praises” by Robert Siegel (scroll to bottom of page), in Within This Tree of Bones (2013): In this very textural, sensory poem, a humdrum morning routine becomes a litany of more than two dozen in-the-moment gratitudes, for everything from warm washcloths to the snap of elastic to grapefruit flesh to a beautiful face at the breakfast table.

  3. “I Praise Unsalted Butter” by Sharron Singleton, in Our Hands a Hollow Bowl (2018): Another litany of thanksgivings for the mundane, like pearl buttons, babies’ fingernail parings, freckles, delphinium’s cobalt, unseen dendrites, the word “rhubarb,” and so on. In spite of great evil (the poet references the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph), there is still much to wonder at.

  4. “Fifty” by Christian Wiman, in Survival Is a Style (2020): “I never thought I’d live to the age of fifty, so my inclination these days is to praise,” says Wiman, who was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer in 2006 during his first year of marriage. “I wasn’t able to write about joy until I got sick. It wasn’t that sickness brought joy. It’s made me much more conscious of how much joy was in my life and gave me some impetus to articulate it.”

  5. “Morning” by Yahia Lababidi, in Barely There: Short Poems (2013): This six-liner celebrates the newness and invitation of each day. (For a bonus poem by the same author, see “Breath.”)

  6. “Psalm” by Marilyn Nelson, in The Fields of Praise (1997): Reflecting on the inherently dangerous act of driving, Nelson is thankful for (God’s) ongoing protection in the car. The poem ends with a classic line from the biblical book of Psalms.

  7. “How Rarely I Have Stopped to Thank the Steady Effort” by Jane Hirshfield (scroll down to fourth poem), in The Beauty: Poems (2015): I would have never thought to be thankful for walls that stand up! But yes, the basic architecture of my little suburban home is a marvel—how it all holds together. In a pause in conversation, the speaker of this poem ponders all that’s going on in the silence: tree bark absorbing the scent of crow feathers, honey dissolving into tea, DNA replicating. The poem then turns into an expansive reflection on all the invisible phenomena of bodies and lives, of emotions and desires that ebb and flow as their building blocks get rearranged.

  8. “A Handful of Berakhot” by Anya Krugovoy Silver, in The Ninety-Third Name of God (2010): Silver [previously] is one of the consummate poets of gratitude, particularly gratitude amid illness. She was pregnant with her first and only son, Noah, when she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in 2004. She died in 2018. Her body of work is characterized by a stubborn holding on to joy even as she wrestles honestly with God through many painful years of chemo and a mastectomy.
       Silver, a Christian, married a Jewish man, whose faith tradition inspired this poem. “In Judaism, a berakhah (pl. berakhot) is a formula of blessing or thanksgiving, recited in public or private, usually before the performance of a commandment, or the enjoyment of food or fragrance, and in praise on various occasions. The function of a berakhah is to acknowledge God as the source of all blessing” [source]. Silver’s nineteen custom berakhot are for such occasions as “buckling my son’s shoes,” “slipping my prosthetic breast into my bra,” “riding the ferris wheel,” and “going to the post office.”

  9. “Gratitude” by Anna Kamieńska, in Astonishments: Selected Poems (2007): “I was full of thanks / like a Sunday alms-box,” Kamieńska writes in this rapturous poem, which bursts with love for everyone and everything.

  10. [O Thou who by Thy touch give form] by Wendell Berry, in This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (2013): A short prayer by one of today’s most popular writers, whose other vocation is farming.

Roundup: Obits; breast cancer saint; exhibitions; gospel jam

ARTIST DEATHS:

This August saw the homegoing of two beloved Christian art-makers.

>> “Making meaning out of suffering and loss is one of poetry’s most fundamental aims,” wrote poet Anya Silver, who passed away from inflammatory breast cancer on August 6 at age forty-nine. Since her diagnosis in 2004, she published four volumes of poetry that wrap up faith with deep, honest questioning of God. Many of her poems contain imagery related to cancer and its treatment and describe with unswerving candor what it’s like to live under the threat of imminent death. When she received a Guggenheim Fellowship this year, the foundation described her work as “engag[ing] with the trauma of chronic and terminal illness, and with religious faith and mystery, storytelling, memory, and the risks and rewards of being human.” One of her best-known poems is “Psalm 137 for Noah,” written for her only child, whom she gave birth to during her illness.

“I have a tremendous amount of joy in my life, and my joy exists with pain,” Silver said in an interview with Georgia Public Radio in January. “I don’t see those two things as completely separate. All of life is woven together, and separating the strands is impossible.” Read her obituary in the New York Times, and a sweet tribute by Elizabeth Palmer in the Christian Century.

Anya Silver

Anya Silver books

>> A giant of contemporary French sacred art, Jean-Marie Pirot, known professionally as Arcabas, died August 23 at age ninety-one. He is best known for his paintings, which feature biblical characters and scenes, but he also worked in sculpture, engraving, tapestry, mosaic, and cabinetry, as well as in the theater making scenery and costumes. His magnum opus is the interior decoration of Saint-Hugues-de-Chartreuse in the Isère region of France, which comprises over a hundred works by the artist created over a span of thirty-five years.

There has been much published about Arcabas in French (e.g.) but unfortunately very little in English—though for starters, I recommend this ArtWay article. A YouTube search of his name yields several video interviews and feature news segments—again, in French. I’ve embedded a recent video homage below, which shows you inside Saint-Hugues as well as his designs for the stained-glass windows inside the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Grenoble, a project he was working on when he died. I’d love to help bring out some of these books, or even a brand-new catalogue raisonné, in English, so if any of you have connections to Arcabas’s French publishers or people close to him, or have experience translating from French to English, let me know!

Arcabas

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SAINT AGATHA’S GRIEF BY MELISSA WEINMAN: October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so what better time to get acquainted with Agatha of Sicily, patron saint of breast cancer patients. Agatha was a third-century Christian from a noble family whose martyrdom has been authenticated, although its details have not. According to legend, fifteen-year-old Agatha made a vow of virginity and rejected the amorous advances of the Roman prefect Quintianus. After consistently being spurned, Quintianus had her arrested for her faith (this was during the persecutions of Decius) and tortured. Among the tortures she underwent was the tearing off of her breasts with pincers. She died in prison, probably in the year 251.

St. Agatha's Grief by Melissa Weinman
Melissa Weinman (American), Saint Agatha’s Grief, 1996. Oil on canvas, 42 × 42 in.

In traditional portraiture, Agatha is shown holding her severed breasts on a platter (see, e.g., Francisco de Zurbarán). More recently, though, American artist Melissa Weinman painted a double portrait of Agatha as a modern-day woman in a white tank top enduring the tortuous experience of breast cancer. The two women stand back to back, the left figure having presumably just received the diagnosis, and the right figure bearing blood stains on the chest that indicate a mastectomy. There is an immediate sense of violation in the image, but also a sense that God’s glory is at work. While the one figure is cast in darkness, the other leans toward the light, suggesting hope and faith in the purposes of God, even in the groaning.

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RECENT EXHIBITION: “Creença”: This summer fifty artists from a variety of disciplines participated in a two-month residency at Konvent, a nineteenth-century convent (now an art center) in Cal Rosal, Catalonia, Spain. Organized by Void Projects, the residency culminated in a three-day pop-up exhibition from August 30 to September 2, titled “Creença” (Belief), which included not just visual art but live theater, talks, and music.

Jofre Oliveras and Stefan Krische installation
Site-specific installation by Jofre Oliveras and Stefan Krische, 2018, in Konvent, Cal Rosal, Catalonia, Spain.

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CURRENT EXHIBITION: “Wrestling the Angel: A Century of Artists Reckoning with Religion,” Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Charlotte, North Carolina: Through October 28, the Bechtler is showing 219 pieces of religious-themed art spread out across its large fourth floor, including works by Dalí, Rouault, Chagall, Warhol, Manessier, Bearden, and other modern greats. I visited last weekend, and while I feel that the theme was treated too loosely and therefore the exhibition lacked the full impact it could have had, I thoroughly enjoyed individual portions, and I appreciate the Bechtler, and in particular curator Jen Edwards, for bringing together these diverse works that speak in some way to religion, spirituality, or morality.

This was the first time I’ve seen Rouault’s entire Miserere (“Have Mercy”) series—all fifty-eight aquatints!—in one space, and it was stunning. Its display alongside Charlotte artist Gina Gilmour’s Break Your Guns and Stacy Lynn Waddell’s Untitled (Mike Brown’s Battle at Normandy) reinforces the theme of lament for violence and suffering inherent in all three. In the same room the set of small bronze crucifixes by Elizabeth Turk, which in their original gallery installation in 2002–03 contained lit candles in the hollows of the heads, invite further reflection on death, subtly connecting (through strategic placement) Christ’s crucifixion with the “crucifixions” of those slain in the past century through acts of war, gun violence, and police brutality.

Wrestling the Angel installation view
Installation view: “Wrestling the Angel,” Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Charlotte, North Carolina, 2018. Left: Prints from Georges Rouault’s Miserere series, 1927. Right: Break Your Guns by Gina Gilmour, 1980. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Poppyfields (detail) by Elizabeth Turk
Elizabeth R. Turk (American, 1961–), untitled bronzes from Poppyfields, 2002–03. Installation view: “Wrestling the Angel,” Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, Charlotte, North Carolina, 2018. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

The Annunciation by Romare Bearden
Romare Bearden (American, 1911–1988), The Annunciation, ca. 1967. Collograph, 11 3/4 × 15 1/2 in. (29.6 × 39.4 cm). Courtesy of Jerald and Mary Melberg. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

For other reviews of this exhibition, see those by Andy Smith and Barbara Schreiber. And word to the wise: avoid the last day, because it’s a Carolina Panthers NFL home game, and the stadium is right across the street from the museum. (I wish I had thought to check the schedule before I made the cumbersome trek last Sunday!)

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JAM SESSION: I love this impromptu gospel music performance by Karen R. Harding (right), Steve Brock, and Sharon Walker. They sing “Give Up (And Let Jesus Take Over)” by Howard Goodman and “Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus” by Andraé Crouch. [HT: Global Christian Worship]