Lent, Day 33

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
    and by his bruises we are healed.

—Isaiah 53:5

LOOK: Cuts by Johannes Phokela

Phokela, Johannes_Cuts
Johannes Phokela (South African, 1966–), Cuts, 1990. Acrylic and string on canvas, 83 1/16 × 83 1/16 in. (211 × 211 cm). Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC.

For this gruesome artwork, Johannes Phokela slashed a canvas in many spots with a razor, then stitched up the gashes with heavy string. He then painted over the gashes from the back with crimson paint until it bled through, forming a deep red along the seams and a flesh-pink further out, evocative of scar tissue. Then, as if to memorialize the wounds, he painted twenty gold frames over them in rows of five across and four down.

Phokela often uses painted frames or grids as a compositional device in his work. “The grid gives another dimension to the work; it is a device to challenge the viewer’s perception of the image and form beneath,” he said in a 2002 interview with Bruce Haines. “It is intended to have an effect like an ornamental frame surrounding a mirror, or a glass pane mounting a picture. . . . You have to regard it as part of the work, just like the traditional frame of a painting. . . . It gives the work a sort of focal point that can stimulate the viewer’s reaction.”

I was simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by this painting when I saw it exhibited as part of Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue at the Smithsonian in 2014. It is large—almost seven square feet. From a distance the image looks rather rose-like, a concentric arrangement of short red lines slightly curled like petals. It wasn’t until I got closer that I saw it portrays the vulnerability of human flesh, savagely torn.

When I’m at an art museum I like to look at each artwork before reading its label so that I can register my initial impressions and begin to form an interpretation before I receive the curator’s. (I hope you do the same when you encounter artworks on this website!) When I saw this one, I thought of how Christ was wounded for our transgressions, but those wounds became his glory—and ours. In art history Jesus is sometimes shown with light emanating from the holes in his hands, especially in images where he is exalted in heaven. For me, the gold in Cuts suggests a redemptive framework—like it’s asking us to view the horrors of the cross through the lens of glory. In addition, the gold frames within the picture plane seem to emphasize that these wounds are something worthy of being looked at, even meditated upon, as frames show us what’s important, directing our gaze.

Well, here’s what the label said:

On a trip home to South Africa in 1989, Phokela was distressed to see the state of violence that existed as a result of political rivalry and unrest. Disturbed by the bandaged and scarred faces and bodies of his fellow citizens and by the fact that everyone seemed to accept the situation as normal, the artist created a canvas of cuts overlaid with gold frames to distance himself from the violence.

So, Phokela, a Black South African who was born and raised in Soweto but had been living in London since 1987, painted this as a response to the violence of apartheid in his home country. Whomever wrote this text sees the frames as putting us at further remove from the cuts that are represented, as they form an intervening layer between us and them. A legitimate reading, though I haven’t found any statements from Phokela that express this intent. What I did find from him regarding his use of frames in general, I quoted above.

Having learned the particular context out of which this painting arose, I then considered what Jesus’s crucifixion has to say to human suffering today. What relevance has a Galilean man’s torture and execution two thousand years ago to present-day men and women who are beaten and abused?—in this case, because of their race.

Jesus’s death exposed and put to shame the powers of evil, those which assault God and God’s image-bearers. Surely there was much more going on with his death than just that (whole volumes, whole series of volumes, have been written to articulate a theology of the cross). But bringing to light the crimes of humanity—and at the same time, God’s supreme love—is one aspect. Opening up pathways of transformation, healing, reconciliation, and liberation is another.

LISTEN: “By His Wounds” by Bifrost Arts, feat. DM Stith, on He Will Not Cry Out, 2013 | Words by Isaac Wardell, 2011 | Music by Philip Hayes, 1786

By his wounds, his wounds, will we be healed
And for our transgressions, his passion has made us well
Let us come again and feed on him, our Lord Emmanuel

This melody was originally written in the eighteenth century by English composer, organist, singer, and conductor Philip Hayes (1738–1797), who published it in The Muses’ Delight: Catches, Glees, Canzonets, and Canons as a round setting of Psalm 137:1–2 (“By the waters of Babylon . . .”). The song became widely popular after Don McLean recorded it on his 1971 album American Pie and even more so in 2007, when it was used in a memorable montage in the TV series Mad Men.

Isaac Wardell, cofounder of the Bifrost Arts music collective and now director of The Porter’s Gate, put different words to Hayes’s melody in 2011, retaining the canon form. The first two lines reference the well-known Suffering Servant passage from Isaiah 53, and the last is an invitation to come to the Lord’s table—to take in unto ourselves the body and blood of Christ.

Roundup: Alternative Advent, Fuller Studio videos, Desmond Tutu and Jeff Chu interviews, Psalm 121 in Arabic

“Lift Up Your Eyes” (Advent 2021): Kezia M’Clelland’s annual “Alternative Advent” video is here—a compilation of news photos from the year, from various photojournalists, matched with promises/declarations from scripture and a song. (I’ve described this project in years past; see here.) Migrant caravans, refugee camps, hospitals overwhelmed with COVID patients, a protest against a military coup, wildfires, volcanic aftermath . . . the global suffering we hear about in headlines and statistics is made personal in these intimate photographs of people who are experiencing it firsthand. M’Clelland bears tender witness to this suffering, but she also takes care to include signs of hope. Alongside images of devastation and misery are images of love, joy, and fortitude. The overall tone is one of somberness but not despair. As I do with each year’s “Alternative Advent,” I spent an afternoon interceding with God for each person in the photos and for others enduring the same harrowing journeys or disasters. I realize how my privilege as a white, middle-class US American insulates me from a lot of these realities, and I know that prayer must be accompanied by action.

Find out more context for the photos and their sources on Instagram @alternative_advent.

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VIDEO ROUNDUP FROM FULLER STUDIO: The Arts for the Life of the Church: In these six, five-minute videos shot by Fuller Studio, artists and creatives (most of them participants in the Brehm Residency) reflect on the diverse ways that the arts enliven, shape, and define their faith, their theology, and their work. Here’s one from the series, in which interdisciplinary artist Dea Jenkins discusses the ways the Spirit’s leading can be intertwined with the process of art-making, and how art has the capacity to be both prophetic and healing.

The other videos feature . . .

  • Young-Ly Hong Chandra on how she sees her creative work participating in God’s work of creation
  • Michelle Lang-Raymond on how theater and the arts can create opportunities for us to safely yet deeply engage with today’s polarizing issues
  • Rachel Morris on how incorporating the arts into worship services and pastoral care can contribute to the church’s healing work in the lives of its members
  • Jin Cho on the holistic, social, and communal dimensions of preaching and the liturgy
  • John Van Deusen on the significance of creating art in community and on the ways we are shaped by inviting both God and others into our creative processes

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ON BEING INTERVIEWS:

>> “Remembering Desmond Tutu”: The South African Anglican bishop, theologian, and human rights activist Desmond Tutu died December 26, 2021, and the On Being podcast re-released this 2010 interview Krista Tippett conducted with him. It’s a great introduction to his story, which includes especially his faith. He discusses the Bible as “dynamite,” our identity as “God-carriers,” the interfaith makeup of the anti-apartheid movement, God’s sense of humor, reconciliation as a process, his experience voting for the first time at age sixty-three (after decades of disenfranchisement), how entrenched racism had become in his own thinking, the beating heart of love at the center of existence, and more. And oh, his laughter is so sweet!

>> “A Life of Holy Curiosity: In Friendship with Rachel Held Evans” with Jeff Chu: Jeff Chu is a journalist, preacher, and co-leader of the Evolving Faith community. When his friend Rachel Held Evans, the famous Christian writer, died unexpectedly in 2019, he took it upon himself to bring to fruition the unfinished book she was working on, Wholehearted Faith (HarperOne, 2021). I enjoyed learning more about Evans through this conversation, and about Chu. They read several excerpts from the book and discuss Chu’s Chinese Baptist upbringing, the recent phenomenon of “religious-but-in-exile,” the enormity of God’s love, the Incarnation, the Psalms, doubt, grief, and the lesson of the compost pile.

(As a side note: I recently came across Evans’s other posthumously published book, for children, titled What Is God Like?, in Target and bought it on a whim. It’s fabulous.)

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SONG: “I Lift My Eyes” by Christopher Tin: A setting of Psalm 121 in Arabic, performed by Abeer Nehme with Christopher Tin and the Angel City Chorale. Nehme is a Lebanese singer and musicologist, one of whose specializations is sacred music from the Syriac Maronite, Syriac Orthodox, and Byzantine traditions. [HT: Joy Clarkson]

Advent, Day 15

Jesus began his public teaching ministry by reading the following passage from an Isaiah scroll at his local synagogue:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19)

Some theologians call this the Nazareth Manifesto. It’s Jesus’s inauguration speech, if you will, where he lays out his platform, his values, his mission.

The freedom that Jesus came to bring is not just spiritual, although it is at least that. It is also physical. He came to liberate us body and soul—from sin and its many ugly manifestations, both personal and systemic, that prevent us and others from thriving. 

As we await Christ’s second advent, we can look forward to this promise: freedom is coming.

[Related post: “Jubilee (Artful Devotion)”]

LOOK: Freedom Quilt by Jessie B. Telfair

Telfair, Jessie B._Freedom Quilt
Jessie B. Telfair (American, 1913–1986), Freedom Quilt, Parrott, Georgia, United States, 1983. Cotton, with pencil, 74 × 68 in. American Folk Art Museum, New York.

Curator Stacy C. Hollander writes,

When Jessie Telfair invoked the power of a single word repeated over and over in this quilt, she knew the word would reverberate through the history of the United States, back to the “peculiar institution” of slavery and the freedom that she was still struggling to attain in the 1960s at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. The making of the quilt was incited by an incident she suffered in those years, when registering to vote was enough to cost this African American woman her job in a school kitchen. The bitterness of that experience still burned years later, and fellow quiltmakers urged her to express the pain through her art. Worked in the colors of the American flag, the quilt cries freedom. In a subtle metaphor, Telfair has set each repeated letter in its own block; all are visually related, but no two are alike.

LISTEN: “Freedom Is Coming” from South Africa, third quarter of 20th century | Performed by Kate Marks and friends on Circle of Song: Chants and Songs for Ritual and Celebration, 1999

Freedom is coming
Freedom is coming
Freedom is coming
Oh yes, I know!

Jesus is coming
Jesus is coming
Jesus is coming
Oh yes, I know!

This South African freedom song originated during the apartheid era (1948–1994). It’s one of the many songs collected by Swedish musician Anders Nyberg when he traveled with his choir Fjedur to South Africa in 1978 at the invitation of the South African Lutheran Church. Upon his return, “Freedom Is Coming” and other South African freedom songs and hymns were published in Sweden and soon after in the United States in the collection Freedom Is Coming: Songs of Protest and Praise from South Africa (Utryck, 1984), which is still in print. Fjedur’s performance of “Freedom Is Coming” at the Budapest Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation in 1984 was instrumental in disseminating the song around the world, and afterward it started appearing in more hymnals.

Victory Is Ours (Artful Devotion)

Alston, Charles_Walking
Charles Alston (American, 1907–1977), Walking, 1958. Oil on canvas, 48 3/8 × 64 3/4 in. (122.9 × 164.5 cm). Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

If God is for us, who can be against us? . . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

—Romans 8:31b, 35, 37

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SONG: “Victory Is Ours,” a setting of a prayer by Desmond Tutu

Goodness is stronger than evil
Love is stronger than hate
Light is stronger than darkness
Life is stronger than death
Victory is ours through Him who loves us

First published in An African Prayer Book (Doubleday, 2006), this text is by Desmond Tutu, the famous South African Anglican cleric and theologian known for his work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist. It has been set to music by several composers, most popularly John Bell but also James Whitbourn, David Schwoebel, Thomas Keesecker, and others. My favorite setting is the one in the video above, sung by an ecumenical choir from churches in and around Ridgewood, New Jersey, at the 2012 Hymn Festival at West Side Presbyterian Church. A few weeks ago I emailed the church’s music minister asking who the composer is but haven’t heard back, and extensive online searching has yielded no results. If you know who wrote the music, please do share! I’d also love to get my hands on some sheet music.

In the epistle reading from Sunday’s lectionary, the apostle Paul is writing to the church in Rome regarding religious persecution, assuring them that in Christ they have the power to face and overcome tribulations, distresses, and attacks of the enemy. Tutu extends that idea into the context of racial persecution, state-sponsored or otherwise. We must actively resist such injustice in the name of him who is Goodness, Love, Light, and Life. When we walk together in the Spirit on the side of these virtues, we will ultimately prevail against all counterforces.

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“A pivotal figure within the Harlem Renaissance, Charles Henry Alston was passionately dedicated to empowering African Americans through cultural enrichment and artistic advancement. Throughout his distinguished career as an artist and an educator, he continually sought to reclaim and explore racial identity with its complicated implications. Inspired by the modern idiom of Modigliani and Picasso, as well as African art, Alston’s work addresses both the personal and communal aspects of the black experience.” (Read more)

Alston’s Walking was inspired by the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–56, a massive protest campaign against racial segregation in public transit, organized by black women’s political groups and facilitated through churches. The boycott was a seminal event in the civil rights movement in the US, coming years before the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama in 1965. “The idea of a march was growing,” Alston recalled of the time of the painting, 1958. “It was in the air . . . and this painting just came. I called it Walking on purpose. It wasn’t the militancy that you saw later. It was a very definite walk—not going back, no hesitation.”

Walking is part of the Smithsonian’s “Oh Freedom! Teaching African American Civil Rights Through Art” curriculum.

Alston, Charles_Walking (detail)

Alston, Charles_Walking (detail)


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 12, cycle A, click here.