Lent, Day 31

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. . . . Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

—John 6:35, 49–51

LOOK: Painting by Pablo Sanaguano

Painting by Pablo Sanaguano
Painting by Pablo Sanaguano (Ecuadorian, 1964–), 2021

LISTEN: “Jesus, Bread of Life” by Audrey Assad and Fernando Ortega, feat. Diana Gameros, on Neighbor Songs by The Porter’s Gate, 2019

This song was written for the Porter’s Gate album Neighbor Songs, which released in 2019. Diana Gameros, a member of the collective, sings on the recording and plays guitar. Here she is a year later, singing the song with Minna Choi for a City Church San Francisco [previously] virtual worship service.

Jesus, bread of life
Manna from heaven
Broken for the world
Offered up for every man

The feast of angels becomes food for the weary
And hungry hearts are filled
When you open up your hand
When you open up your hand

O Lord, come fill us with your love
This table laid for us
There is more than enough
Jesus, bread of life

Sister, take what you need
Anything I own
There is no famine here
Jesus’ love will multiply

Brother, what’s mine is yours
You are not alone
There is no shortage here
Jesus’ love satisfies
Jesus’ love satisfies

O Lord, come fill us with your love
This table laid for us
There is more than enough
Jesus, bread of life

[Related post: “Open Your Mouth (Artful Devotion)”]

Lent, Day 14

LOOK: Christ with Pomegranates (ancient Christian mosaic)

Christ with Pomegranates
Mosaic from Hinton St. Mary, Dorset, England, early 4th century, preserved at the British Museum, London.

One of the earliest surviving portraits of Christ is in the central roundel of a stone mosaic pavement excavated in the English village of Hinton St. Mary in Dorset, from what was either a Roman villa or a church. It’s part of a larger program of images that covered the floor, which you can see and read about in this Instagram post of mine, and on the British Museum website.

Clean-shaven and wearing a pallium, Christ is crowned with his personal monogram, the chi-rho—the first two letters of the Greek title ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, Christos. He is flanked by pomegranates, a symbol of life, fertility, and abundance. In Jewish tradition the pomegranate symbolizes righteousness because it is said to have 613 seeds, corresponding to the 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah. The fruit was woven onto the hems of the robes of the Jewish high priests (Exod. 28:33–34) and is customarily eaten on Rosh Hashanah.

To these symbolic associations, I would add another: sweetness!

[Related post: “So Sweet (Artful Devotion)”]

LISTEN: “Iesu, dulcis memoria” | Words attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, 12th century (but see notes on authorship) | Music: Medieval chant, harmonized | Performed by Tenth Avenue North, feat. Audrey Assad, on Cathedrals, 2014

On this track Assad sings the first and last stanzas of the traditional five—which are themselves extracted from a poem that was originally forty-two stanzas! The ending sounds abrupt because on the album it moves seamlessly into the next track, “Cathedrals.” For the full song (same tune but without the harmonies), see Angels and Saints at Ephesus by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles.

Latin: 

Jesu, dulcis memoria
dans vera cordis gaudia:
sed super mel et omnia
ejus dulcis praesentia.

Nil canitur suavius,
nil auditur jucundius,
nil cogitatur dulcius,
quam Jesus Dei Filius.

Jesu, spes paenitentibus,
quam pius es petentibus!
quam bonus te quaerentibus!
sed quid invenientibus?

Nec lingua valet dicere,
nec littera exprimere:
expertus potest credere,
quid sit Jesum diligere.

Sis, Jesu, nostrum gaudium,
qui es futurus praemium:
sit nostra in te gloria,
per cuncta semper saecula.
Amen.
Literal (nonmetrical) English translation:

Jesus, sweet remembrance,
Granting the heart its true joys,
But above honey and all things
Is His sweet presence.

Nothing more pleasing can be sung,
Nothing gladder can be heard,
Nothing sweeter can be thought
Than Jesus, Son of God.

Jesus, hope of the penitent,
How merciful you are to those who ask,
How good to those who seek;
But O, what you are to those who find!

Tongue has no power to describe
Nor writings to express,
But only belief can know by experience
What it is to love Jesus.

Be our joy, O Jesus,
Who will be the prize we win.
May all our glory be in you, always
And through all ages.
Amen.

Trans. Mick Swithinbank and Jamie Reid Baxter

Does this sound vaguely familiar? Edward Caswall translated it into metrical English in 1849 as “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee,” a staple of modern American hymnals:

Jesus, the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills the breast!
Yet sweeter far Thy face to see
And in Thy Presence rest.

No voice can sing, no heart can frame,
Nor can the memory find,
A sweeter sound than Jesus’ Name,
The Savior of mankind.

O hope of every contrite heart!
O joy of all the meek!
To those who fall, how kind Thou art!
How good to those who seek!

But what to those who find? Ah! this
Nor tongue nor pen can show
The love of Jesus, what it is,
None but His loved ones know.

Jesus! our only hope be Thou,
As Thou our prize shalt be;
In Thee be all our glory now,
And through eternity.
Amen.

I commend to you the recording on A Hymn Revival, Volume 3 by The Lower Lights. The tune, from 1866, is by John B. Dykes.

Roundup: Advent art, songs, poems

So much to share today! Be sure not to miss “Psalm 126” by Drew Miller (a new favorite Advent song) and Matthew Milliner’s excellent presentation on the Virgin Mary in art, which opened an exhibition that’s running in Southern California—both below. (If you only have time to take in a few items from this post, those are the ones I’d recommend.)

PODCAST EPISODE: “A Time for Wanting and Waiting: An Advent Conversation with W. David O. Taylor”: In this recent episode of The Road to Now, hosts Bob Crawford and Chris Breslin interview liturgical theologian David Taylor [previously] about the season of Advent: what it is, its history and how it fits into the wider church year (see especially 43:29ff.), the canon of Advent and Christmas songs, and the gift the Psalms offers us during this season. Referencing his 2015 Washington Post article, Taylor says our picture of Christ’s coming, especially as expressed through our hymnody, tends to be unidimensional and far too sanitized:

We should permit the Nativity stories to remain as strange and bizarre and fantastical and difficult as they in fact are, rather than taming and distilling them down to this one nugget or theme of effusive joy. There is effusive joy in that—it’s simply that that’s not the only thing that characterizes these stories. Unfortunately, most of our canon of Christmas carols or hymns tends to focus on what I would argue is only 50 percent of the Nativity stories. Everything that begins with Elizabeth and Zechariah and goes all the way to, say, Anna and Simeon and the visit of the Magi and the flight to Egypt . . . it really is one whole story that is being told with these subplots.

I would love to see us create . . . new music that either retells portions that we are already telling but not the whole of it, or we need to tell parts that have not yet been told. . . . Let’s ask ourselves how God is at work in all the minor-key or difficult or dissonant parts of the Nativity stories, not absent from—those are not extraneous to God incarnating himself in Jesus Christ. Those are essential parts of it. And so how can our hymns become ways of praying ourselves into these stories so they can sink deeply into the fibers of our hearts and minds and bodies, and for us to say, “Oh, all the weird and difficult and dissonant parts of our lives are part and parcel of God’s good work,” not, again, on the margins of it, or things we should eschew.

To help deepen and expand the church’s repertoire of Christmas music, Taylor founded, along with a few others, the Christmas Songwriters Project. The Psalms are an inspiration in this task, as they express a joy that is at times quiet and at others raucous, as in the Nativity narratives, and that exists as part of a dynamic constellation of emotions and postures that praise can encompass. Most of us don’t recognize the pure, undistilled happiness that is marketed to us throughout December, Taylor says, and we shouldn’t force ourselves to try to feel it but rather should take a cue from the Psalms and also see the same emotional complexity at work at the beginning of the Gospels:

The Psalms, and I think Christian faith at its heart, can make space for joy and sorrow to exist alongside each other in a way that happiness, as we commonly understand it, cannot, or only with great difficulty. . . . What the psalms of praise do . . . is that in one movement, there’s this effusive joy or a shouting joy or a convivial joy, and then it segues to a quieter joy or a contemplative joy or a yearning, painful kind of joy. . . .

So in the season of Advent, when we look at the characters in scripture—you know, Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth and the shepherds and Anna and Simeon—every one of them has this moment, perhaps, of which we could say, “That sounds like joy.” . . . But immediately before or immediately after, it transitions to something else. So does that mean that joy is negated? Is joy squashed? Is joy extinguished? Or is joy able to continue to exist side by side, to subsist, with a continued experience of longing or a sudden moment of sadness?

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ART BY SCOTT ERICKSON: This month Portland-based artist Scott Erickson has been posting on Instagram Advent-themed images he has made, along with thoughtful meditations. Some emphasize the bodiliness of the Incarnation, which often gets overlooked, presumably out of a sense of propriety. But “grace comes to us floating in embryonic fluid . . . embedded in the uterine wall of a Middle Eastern teenage woman,” Erickson writes about With Us – With Child, to which one Instagrammer responded, “This is trajectory changing. Thank you for this. Nipples, vaginas, and Jesus CAN coexist!” Another mentioned how she had never seen Mary with a belly button and a linea nigra before. The image reminds us that Jesus was indeed “born of woman” (Gal. 4:4).

Erickson, Scott_With Us, With Child
Scott Erickson (American, 1977–), With Us – With Child, 2016 [purchase as poster]
Another imaginative image suggests that Christ came to set the world on fire, so to speak. God, who is of old, gives himself to earth as a Jewish babe (“Love has always been FOR GIVENESS,” Erickson writes), sparking a revolution.

Erickson, Scott_Advent
Art by Scott Erickson

View more art by Scott Erickson @scottthepainter.

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LECTIONARY POEMS FOR ADVENT: This year Englewood Review of Books launched a new feature on their website: a weekly post of four to six poems that resonate with the Revised Common Lectionary readings for that week. “We will offer here a broad selection of classic and contemporary poems from diverse poets that stir our imaginations with thoughts of how the biblical text speaks to us in the twenty-first century. We hope that these poems will be fruitful not only for preachers who will be preaching these texts on the coming Sunday, but also for church members in the pews, as a way to prime our minds for encountering the biblical texts.” I’m really enjoying these stellar selections, several of which are new to me.

Continue reading “Roundup: Advent art, songs, poems”