Advent, Day 22: Bus Stop Nativity

LOOK: Bus Stop Nativity by Andrew Gadd

Gadd, Andrew_Bus Stop Nativity
Andrew Gadd (British, 1968–), Bus Stop Nativity, 2008. Oil on canvas, 188 × 122 cm.

Painted by Royal Academy gold medal winner Andrew Gadd, Bus Stop Nativity depicts the Holy Family huddled together at night under a bus shelter, trying to stay warm. Some passersby look on with curiosity—two even kneel down on the snowy sidewalk—while others go about their business with total indifference.

This painting was commissioned by the Church Advertising Network in the UK, now ChurchAds.net, and displayed on posters at over one thousand bus stops in December 2008, printed with the text “Be Part of the Action. Church, 25-12.” (A gentle provocation to attend a Christmas service on December 25.)

Francis Goodwin, the chair of the Church Advertising Network, said, “We are very used to the Renaissance image of the Nativity. But what would it look like if it happened today? Where would it take place? We want to challenge people to make them reassess what the birth of Jesus means to them.”

Bus Stop Nativity identifies Jesus with today’s urban poor. He was born not in a comfortable palace with fine clothes and other material wealth and security, but in vulnerability and need, to working-class parents who were inconveniently out of town at the time of delivery, forced to make do with less-than-ideal accommodations. When it came time for Mary to present a purification offering in the temple forty days after giving birth, she couldn’t afford the requisite lamb, so she brought two turtledoves instead (a provision made in Lev. 12:8). Not only was Jesus not monied; he also spent his early years as a refugee in Egypt, a flight prompted by Herod’s direct threat on his life. With limited resources, his parents had to make a home for him away from home, not knowing for some time when it would be safe to return to Galilee.

That this was Jesus’s family background and experience—that he lived on the margins of society, not at its center—has always been a significant facet of the Incarnation, because it means that God knows bodily what it is to feel want and uncertainty and to be overlooked. When in his adulthood Jesus preached “Blessed are the poor,” he was affirming that God is with those of lower socioeconomic means. He is one of them.

LISTEN: “Hush Child (Get You Through This Silent Night)” from the movie Black Nativity (2013) | Written by Taura Latrice Stinson, Kasi Lemmons, and Taylor Gordon | Performed by Jennifer Hudson, Jacob Latimore, Luke James, and Grace Gibson

Silent night
Holy night
Poverty on the rise
Wealthy reverend in designer clothes
Homeless children with frostbitten toes
Sleeping in the street
Sleeping in the street

I ain’t tryna be philosophical
But it’s not logical
Some folks out here freezing, others chilling like it’s tropical

The indifference is mad crazy
Like poverty’s contagious
My hands are dirty, but I’m still worthy
Step in my shoes and walk in some mercy

They say this is your punishment for such poor judgment
But you must’ve lost your mind
How you gon’ feed it when you barely eating?
Get ready for the welfare line
I ain’t tryna hear it
You make the bed, lay in it
But I’m way too strong for you to break my spirit

Is it me?
Am I the cause of all my mother’s misery?
This cloud of secrecy on my paternity
Did my very birth destroy my whole family?

I’m just a sinner, I know who I am
Just a beginner, I’m not yet a man
Send me a signal, I’ll follow your light
Just help me through this silent night

Hush child, it’ll be alright
I’ll get you through this silent night
Hush child, it’ll be alright
I’ll get you through this silent night

This ain’t living
I got a mouth to feed
But I can’t make these ends meet
Got an eviction notice
But my Lord don’t hear my prayers
I never been this scared
The silence is too loud for me
Life just ain’t fair

Is anyone out there?
Does anyone care?
Is anyone listening?
Is anyone there?
Just let me know that I’m a part of your plan
That you’re watching over and know who I am

From where we are now
How do we find our way?
Alone in the darkness, scared
With no place to stay

Hush child, it’ll be alright
I’ll get you through this silent night
Hush child, it’ll be alright
I’ll get you through this silent night

Hush child, it’ll be alright
We’ll do this together

Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

This song is a dream sequence from the 2013 film Black Nativity, directed by Kasi Lemmons (good soundtrack, cheesy movie). The two characters who initiate the song are Maria (Grace Gibson) and Jo-Jo (Luke James), a homeless couple in New York City expecting their first child, who are caroling door-to-door. Fifteen-year-old Langston (Jacob Latimore), who has been sent to live temporarily with his estranged grandfather while his mom, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), figures out how to make ends meet for the two of them back in Baltimore, interjects with a rap expressing his frustration with economic inequality and the struggle he has seen and lived.  

The pregnant couple sings the refrain, “Hush child . . . ,” to each other and to their unborn child, and Naima sings it to Langston. But in between, all four address God in lament: God, are you there? God, why don’t you fix these inequities? I’m exhausted. Tired of being a have-not and always having to hustle, to no avail. When are you going to provide like you said you would? The night is “silent” because God is not answering, it seems. Still, the characters continue to pray their pain and grasp after hope.

Though Lemmons’s Black Nativity was marketed as being based on Langston Hughes’s 1961 musical of the same name, its only resemblance is that it is a Christmas-themed drama with Black sacred music (only two songs are held in common; most in the movie are contemporary gospel or original hip-hop/R&B). To listen to the original Broadway cast recording of *Hughes’s* Black Nativity on Spotify, click here.

Behold That Star (Artful Devotion)

Hunter, Clementine_The Annunciation and the Adoration of the Wise Men
Clementine Hunter (American, 1886/87–1988), The Annunciation and the Adoration of the Wise Men, 1957. Oil on board, 48 × 78 in. Photo courtesy of Neal Auction Company.

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

—Isaiah 60:1

May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands
render him tribute;
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
bring gifts!
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations serve him!

—Psalm 72:10–11

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

—Matthew 2:1–12

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SONG: “Behold That Star” or “Behold the Star” | Negro spiritual | Performed by various artists (see below)

I first heard this song years ago on Pete Seeger’s Traditional Christmas Carols (1967; reissued 1989), one of my favorite Christmas albums.

William L. Dawson’s choral arrangement, recorded by the St. Olaf Choir in 1997, has become the standard for choirs all over the country. The recording features, as soloist, African American operatic soprano Marvis Martin:

For a gospel version, check out Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians’ album Christmas Time (1955, reissued 2015), which combines the song with “Carol of the Bells”:

Or the version by James Cleveland with the Angelic Choir and the Cleveland Singers on Merry Christmas (1969, reissued 1987):

One of the most upbeat gospel renditions is by the Patterson Singers from 1963:

There’s also a much slower R&B rendition from Black Nativity: A Gospel Christmas Musical Experience, a musical produced by Dominion Entertainment Group in Atlanta and adapted from the 1961 song play by Langston Hughes. (“Behold That Star” is not in the Hughes original.) I couldn’t find who arranged this version, but the performers are Lawrence Flowers, Benjamin Moore, and Brandin Jay. Oddly (and perhaps under the influence of the song “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow”), this production has the song being sung by shepherds rather than wise men:

You can also find numerous recordings of “Behold That Star” being performed by children’s choirs, its simplicity making it accessible to young ages. It was one of several spirituals and other classics the kiddos at my church sang in our 2018 Christmas play (see video below). I’m at the piano playing from the African American Heritage Hymnal, no. 216, transposed down three half-steps to D; the arrangement is by Nolan Williams Jr. (I’m still woefully lacking in the ability to embellish in a gospel style, I’m afraid!)

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Clementine (pronounced KLEH-mehn-teen) Hunter was a self-taught Afro-Creole artist known for depicting life in the Cane River region of central Louisiana, especially in and around Melrose Plantation, where she worked as a farm laborer for most of her life, even into old age. She didn’t begin painting until she was in her fifties, and she would do it at night on whatever surfaces she could find—window shades, jugs, bottles, gourds, snuff boxes, iron pots.

During her early art career she would sell her paintings at the local drugstore for a dollar or less, but by the time of her death, her paintings were selling to dealers for thousands. She received significant recognition during her lifetime, including from US presidents. Today her work can be found in the collections of the Smithsonian, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and other prestigious institutions.

In the Christmas-/Epiphanytide painting reproduced above, Christ is born on Melrose Plantation in the southern US, surrounded by sheep and chickens and horses and palm trees. On the left a black angel leads a pregnant black Mary down a footpath to a farmhouse, while on the other side Mary sits on a stool with the newborn Jesus in her lap and Joseph behind her, as three men in wide-brimmed hats come bearing gourds as gifts. Above the scene is the giant yellow star that led these men to the spot, and two white-clad angels (with a scattered choir of others) trumpeting the good news of the Savior’s birth.

The magi were a subject Hunter turned to in many of her paintings. Here’s another fine example:

Hunter, Clementine_Magi Bearing Gifts
Clementine Hunter (American, 1886/87–1988), Untitled (Magi Bearing Gifts), ca. 1970–80. Paint on an albany slip whiskey jug, approx. 10 in. (25.4 cm) high. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

Hunter, Clementine_Magi Bearing Gifts

I love how Hunter was able to see the sacred in the everyday—God’s grand story unfolding in her immediate environs. It reminds me of a poem by Wendell Berry from A Timbered Choir that begins,

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe . . .

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For Artful Devotions from previous years’ feast of the Epiphany, see “‘And nations shall come to your light . . .’” (featuring a Mughal miniature and an Arabic hymn) and “Three Kings Day” (featuring a Puerto Rican bulto and aguinaldo).

Also, see Christine Valters Paintner’s spiritual reflections on the story of Epiphany as an archetypal journey we are all invited to make. Her advice?

  1. Follow the star to where it leads.
  2. Embark on the journey, however long or difficult.
  3. Open yourself to wonder along the way.
  4. Bow down at the holy encounters in messy places.
  5. Carry your treasures and give them away freely.
  6. Listen to the wisdom of dreams.
  7. Go home by another way.

This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music players in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Epiphany, cycle A, click here.