After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
Sunday’s lectionary reading from Genesis is a difficult one—about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. Christians have traditionally understood it as a prefiguration of the sacrifice of Jesus, the beloved and faithful Son who, like Isaac, carried the wood for his own sacrifice to the top of a mountain and laid down on it to die. He is also the lamb who takes our place, saving us from the flames of death.
Jamaican artist Greg Bailey casts two young black men as Abraham and Isaac. Isaac lies down on a floral-printed sheet, his open palms facing upward in surrender, as Abraham, whose face is hidden from our view, raises his machete. Scattered around them are Polaroids that allude to other elements of the story: the “angel of the Lord” who stops the killing, the ram that’s sacrificed instead, and, anticipating the New Testament fulfillment, crosses. Two of the Polaroids are of Baroque paintings of the sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio and Titian.
This painting was exhibited at St. Stephen Walbrook in London in July 2017 as part of the Jamaican Spiritual exhibition.
This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.
To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 8, cycle A, click here.
Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying out;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.
. . .
My prayer is to you, O LORD.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness.
from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies
and from the deep waters.
Let not the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up,
or the pit close its mouth over me.
Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good;
according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.
Hide not your face from your servant,
for I am in distress; make haste to answer me.
God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
SONG: “When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart” by Cleavant Derricks, 1945
The Rev. Cleavant Derricks (1909–1977) was a gospel songwriter who pastored and directed the choir of a number of black Baptist churches throughout the South. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1984. His song “When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart” (sometimes shortened to “When God Dips His Love in My Heart”) was first recorded by the Blackwood Brothers Quartet in 1946. Hank Williams followed that up with his own recording in December 1950—though it wasn’t released until 1985.
The Million Dollar Quartet (Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash) also covered the song during their famous impromptu jam session of 1956, though only in excerpt: they sing it as a lead-in to another Derricks song, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus.” (Listen to the full track here.)
For a great gospel-style rendition, here’s a 1984 recording by Albertina Walker and the Christ Universal Temple Ensemble:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
—2 Corinthians 13:14
SONG: “Om Bhagwan” | Song from the Saccidananda Ashram songbook, composer unknown | Arranged by Chris Hale and Miranda Stone | Performed by Yeshu Satsang Toronto, on Bhakti Geet, vol. 4 (2019)
This Trinitarian song in Hindi comes from a Benedictine monastery in Tamil Nadu. It is performed here by married couple Chris Hale (who grew up in Nepal and India) and Miranda Stone and others from Yeshu Satsang Toronto, a community whose expression of Yeshu Bhakti (Jesus devotion) is “distinctly urban and Canadian, yet informed by the simplicity of the village, honouring what is handmade, humble, and real . . . , navigating . . . between what is traditional and what is progressive.” A transliteration, with English translation, follows. The sacred syllable Om, or Aum, isn’t really translatable.
Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Pita Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Father God
Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Putra Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Son God
Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Aatma Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Spirit God
Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Om Bhagawan, Prabhu Yeshu Bhagawan
Om God, Om God, Om God, Lord Jesus God
Painted by the Jesuit artist-priest Father A. J. Thamburaj, The Holy Trinity expresses a complex theological doctrine through mudras (Indian hand gestures) and color. I scanned the image from the excellent book Christian Art in India by Herbert E. Hoefer (Chennai: Gurukul Lutheran Theological College and Research Institute, 1982), which features art by thirty-five artists and essay contributions by Jyoti Sahi. Hoefer describes the painting:
Green is the colour of creativity and fertility. Red is the colour of activity. Blue is the colour of the sea and sky, symbols of mystery and eternity. Yellow [saffron] is an auspicious and joyful colour in Indian custom.
The upraised hand [abaya mudra] is a symbol of protection in Indian art and dance. It represents the Father. Its message is ‘Fear not’. The fish denotes the ever-watching eye of God, for the eyelids of the fish never close.
The downward hand [varada mudra] represents Christ. This gesture is common in Indian sculpture and dance. God is said to point his devotees to hide under the arch of his foot for refuge. The red wound reminds us that the risen Lord bears the redemptive marks of the crucifixion.
The red hand symbolizes the purifying fire, the Holy Spirit. The spiral line indicates the wind, connecting all three Persons in unity. Fire and wind are power.
Our life is in the ever-present protecting, redeeming, purifying and empowering hands of the Triune God.
In the church’s year, Trinity Sunday is the day when we stand back from the extraordinary sequence of events that we’ve been celebrating for the previous five months—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost—and when we rub the sleep from our eyes and discover what the word “god” might actually mean. These events function as a sequence of well-aimed hammer-blows which knock at the clay jars of the gods we want, the gods who reinforce our own pride or prejudice, until they fall away and reveal instead a very different god, a dangerous god, a subversive god, a god who comes to us like a blind beggar with wounds in his hands, a god who comes to us in wind and fire, in bread and wine, in flesh and blood: a god who says to us, “You did not choose me; I chose you.”
You see, the doctrine of the Trinity, properly understood, is as much a way of saying “we don’t know” as of saying “we do know.” To say that the true God is Three and One is to recognize that if there is a God then of course we shouldn’t expect him to fit neatly into our little categories. If he did, he wouldn’t be God at all, merely a god, a god we might perhaps have wanted. The Trinity is not something that the clever theologian comes up with as a result of hours spent in the theological laboratory, after which he or she can return to announce that they’ve got God worked out now, the analysis is complete, and here is God neatly laid out on a slab. The only time they laid God out on a slab he rose again three days afterwards.
On the contrary: the doctrine of the Trinity is, if you like, a signpost pointing ahead into the dark, saying: “Trust me; follow me; my love will keep you safe.” Or, perhaps better, the doctrine of the Trinity is a signpost pointing into a light which gets brighter and brighter until we are dazzled and blinded, but which says: “Come, and I will make you children of light.” The doctrine of the Trinity affirms the rightness, the propriety, of speaking intelligently that the true God must always transcend our grasp of him, even our most intelligent grasp of him.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:
“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”
Mary didn’t waste a minute. She got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,
You’re so blessed among women,
and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
And why am I so blessed that
the mother of my Lord visits me?
The moment the sound of your
greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb
skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
Blessed woman, who believed what God said,
believed every word would come true!
And Mary said,
I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
Cast your burden on the LORD,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved.
Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.
—1 Peter 5:7
Whatever form our anxiety takes, it’s a burden that Sunday’s lectionary reading calls us to relinquish at the feet of God. (Note: To the assigned reading from 1 Peter, I’ve added a similar verse from Psalm 55.)
SONG: “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There” by Charles A. Tindley, 1916 | Recorded by Washington Phillips on December 2, 1927, and released January 1928; reissued by Dust-to-Digital on Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams, 2017
One of the founding fathers of American gospel music, Charles A. Tindley [previously] wrote “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There” in 1916. It started making the rounds in black churches, and gospel-blues artists and guitar evangelists began recording it for big-city record labels, who would send representatives around the country to collect and record “race music” to then press into 78s to market to African Americans.
One of the earliest recordings of “Burden” is by Washington Phillips (1880–1954), a singing farmer-preacher from Simsboro, East Texas; it’s one of eighteen sides he recorded for Columbia Records from 1927 to 1929. He sings it to his own “novelty accompaniment,” as Columbia credited it—a custom instrument he built by reconfiguring two fretless zithers, restringing them and giving them a unique tuning pattern. He played it with both hands and called it a Manzarene, according to a recently discovered Teague Chronicle article from 1907. Musicologists have marveled at the flowing, harp-like sounds his invention enabled and have been unable to reproduce it with any kind of exactness.
Phillips’ “Burden” has since been reissued by several labels, but the best-quality reissue is Dust-to-Digital’s from 2016. The sixteen-track CD comes with a small seventy-six-page hardcover containing photographs, news clippings, ads, recording contracts and other documents, lyrics, and biographical and instrumentation information by the world’s premier Phillips researcher, Michael Corcoran. The extensive liner notes open thus:
The mystery of Washington Phillips begins the first time you hear his sweetly-sung Christian blues, bathed in a celestial haze of notes from an instrument that sounds like a child’s music box. His music is a simple prayer, with the blessing in the asking, the singing, the playing. But his ethereal sound is also highly developed to the point of being almost psychedelic. Where did this strange and moving music come from?
Having interviewed former neighbors and living relatives in Freestone County and combed through archives, Corcoran corrects a lot of misinformation about Wash Phillips, some based on his being confused with his cousin of the same name, who died in a mental institution in 1938, and one persistent myth—that his instrument was a dolceola (a keyboard-activated board zither)—stemming from a misidentification in the liner notes of the Dutch label Agram’s 1984 compilation. I’m constantly impressed by what Dust-to-Digital puts out, and I can’t recommend this product enough.
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
Coelos ascendit hodie Jesus Christus Rex gloriae Sedet ad Patris dexteram Gubernat coelum et terram
Jam finem habent omnia Patris Davidis carmina Jam Dominus cum Domino Sedet in Dei solio
In hoc triumpho maximo Benedicamus Domino Laudatur Sancta Trinitas Deo dicamus gratias
Jesus Christ, the King of Glory,
has ascended today into the heavens.
He sits at the right hand of the Father
and rules heaven and earth.
Now all the psalms of David,
our father, are fulfilled.
Now the Lord sits with the
Lord on the seat of God.
In this greatest of triumphs
let us bless the Lord.
The Holy Trinity be glorified.
Let us give thanks to God.
Stanford’s “Coelos ascendit hodie,” op. 38, no. 2, is a double-choir motet setting of a medieval Ascension hymn, the second piece in his Three Latin Motets set [previously].
Consisting of “frenetic spirals of color and swirling sinuous lines” (source), The Risen Lord by Georgiana Houghton was produced in Victorian England some eighty years before abstract expressionism came onto the scene. Houghton renounced authorship of her artworks, believing herself to be a medium who channeled saints, archangels, Renaissance painters, and dead relatives to produce what she called “spirit drawings.” She was a Spiritualist, which means she believed in the possibility of contact with a spirit realm and that such communication could bring one closer to God. Ink and watercolors were, for her, a way of unveiling an invisible reality, of conveying God’s “wondrous attributes,” she said.
“On the back of most of her works, Houghton included a handwritten explanation, with illustrated annotations of the abstract forms,” Jessica Freeman-Attwood said. “In The Risen Lord Houghton writes that the lower part corresponds to the virtues and sufferings of Christ’s life on earth, whereas the upper part, dominated by arabesque white threads, represents his ascension into heaven.”
Ascension Day is May 21 this year. For previous years’ devotions for the occasion, see “God Ascended” (featuring a German Renaissance painting and a clever repurposing and retuning of an eighteenth-century verse) and “Carried Up” (featuring a balletic Christ image by the late Javanese artist, dancer, and choreographer Bagong Kussudiardja, and a Romantic piano composition).
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 the Ascension of the Lord, cycle A, click here.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”