Epiphany: Glory

And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory.

—Colossians 3:4

Epiphany, meaning “revelation,” is the capstone of the Christmas season. In this final post of this year’s Christmas series, I leave you with a striking, light-flecked painting from Japan and a slow-tempo Black gospel song from the US. What marvel, that God’s glory fills such places as ours, and that he invites us not only to behold his glory but also to participate in it.

May God’s light continue to guide and enfold you throughout the year, and may you never stop seeking his face.

To view a compilation of this season’s numbered Christmas posts, click here; for Advent, here.

LOOK: Morning Star by Hiroshi Tabata

Tabata, Hiroshi_Morning Star
Hiroshi Tabata (田畑弘) (Japanese, 1929–2014), Morning Star, 1998. Oil on canvas, 90.9 × 72.7 cm. Private collection. Photo courtesy of the Estate of Hiroshi Tabata.

Born in Takaoka City, Hiroshi Tabata (1929–2014) studied art at the University of Toyama, later moving to France for two years for further art education. He exhibited his work throughout Japan and at Parisian salons. From 1966 to 1972 he lived intermittently in Brazil among the Xingu people, which led to his conversion to Christianity. From then on until his death, he painted biblical subjects. “The Bible is the ultimate theme for me,” he said; its world is “infinitely deeper” than we can comprehend.

In Tabata’s expressionistic Morning Star, starlight falls in a luminescent sheen over the face of the Christ child, whom Mary looks upon in tender adoration as Joseph wonders at the angelic activity above. The tight cropping around the Holy Family heightens the sense of intimacy. A sheep, donkey, and Amazon parrot (the latter a callback to his time in Brazil) crowd into the foreground, while on distant hills shepherds behold the glorious light display, hear the announcement that will propel them to their newborn Messiah. The wise men, too, are on their way. Epiphany is at hand. Heaven’s raining down (Isa. 45:8).

This visual reflection (by me) originally appeared in the Christmas/Epiphany 2022–23 edition of the Daily Prayer Project. Tabata’s art appears on the cover, by kind permission of his son-in-law. To view more biblical art by Tabata, see the beautifully produced, full-color book 田畑弘作品集 一つの星 (Hiroshi Tabata Works: One Star); the text is all Japanese.

LISTEN: “A Star Stood Still (Song of the Nativity)” | Words and music by Barbara Ruth Broderick and Johnny Broderick, 1956 | Performed by Mahalia Jackson with the Falls-Jones Ensemble, conducted by Johnny Williams, on Silent Night: Songs for Christmas, 1962

And we shall share
In the glorious light

In Bethlehem
The wind had ceased
The Lamb lay sleeping
On the hill

When all the earth
Was stilled with peace
Then lo, a star stood still

A star stood still
On yonder hill
Praise God that star still
Shining still

And we shall share
In the glory of love
Because a star stood still
That night a star stood still

A star stood still
On yonder hill
Praise God that star still
Shining still

And we shall share
In the glory of love
Because a star stood still
That night a star stood still

Note to readers: Art & Theology is noncommercial, but I do accept donations (monetary, or in-kind books!) to help keep it running. Learn more here.

Christmas, Day 12: Bright and Glorious

LOOK: Epiphany by John August Swanson

Swanson, John August_Epiphany
John August Swanson (American, 1938–2021), Epiphany, 1988. Serigraph, 38 × 12 in. Edition of 210. [for sale]

Tomorrow, January 6, is the feast of Epiphany, commemorating the visit of the magi to the infant Christ, an episode that represents God’s manifestation to the nations beyond Israel. Printmaker John August Swanson visualizes their journey in a starkly vertical composition that was conceived as the right wing of a triptych (three-paneled artwork), the other two panels depicting the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Nativity. In subsequent years he added A Visit (depicting the Annunciation to Mary), Flight into Egypt, and Presentation in the Temple to the set.

Here’s what Swanson says about the piece:

Epiphany depicts the journey of the three Magi as they travel up a serpentine trail. One of the Wise Men is seated as he looks at a map of the constellations with his magnifying glass; his servant holds a lamp so that he can see. Another Magi searches with his telescope into the sky. They look up in search of their beautiful guiding star as angels surround and point to it. They have exotic birds, peacocks, and dogs among their animals. I have tried to capture the details of the many plants, bushes, and trees and to create a variety of colors of green.

I used many symbols within the tapestries draping the animals. These patterns depict the Lion of Judah, the lamp in the darkness, the rain falling on the parched ground, the key to the locked door, the crown and the heart, and the gates to the city.

This is part of a series of three images (triptych). They were inspired by the Mexican tradition that I am familiar with for Christmas. Families will each create a beautiful crèche (nacimiento) with many figures and animals, creating a whole environment with landscaping in miniature around the Nativity figurines.

His other inspirations for this set include the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti and the medieval stained glass windows in Chartres Cathedral.

Swanson, John August_Advent Triptych
John August Swanson, Advent Triptych, 1985–88 [for sale as poster or card]

John August Swanson (1938–2021) [previously] was born in Los Angeles of a Mexican mother and Swedish father. His father died when he was young, and he was raised in a multigenerational Mexican Catholic home. He studied serigraphy under Corita Kent [previously], and it became his primary medium. A serigraph is a type of print in which each color is individually layered by applying ink through a silkscreen onto paper. Epiphany has forty-eight individual colors.  

LISTEN: “Bright and Glorious” | Original Danish text (“Deilig Er Den Himmel Blaa”) by Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig, 1810 | English translation by Jens Christian Aaberg, 1927; first stanza adapted by the editors of the Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal, 1958 | Music by Seth Thomas Crissman and Greg J. Yoder, 2017 | Performed by the Walking Roots Band on Hark! A Walking Roots Band Christmas, 2017

[Watch the group sing the first stanza.]

Bright and glorious is the sky
Radiant are the heavens high
Where the golden star is shining
All its rays to earth inclining
Leading to the newborn king
Leading to the newborn king

Him they found in Bethlehem
Yet he wore no diadem
They but saw a maiden lowly
With an infant pure and holy
Resting in her loving arms
Resting in her loving arms

Guided by the star, they found
Him whose praise the ages sound
We, too, have a star to guide us
That forever will provide us
With the light to find our Lord
With the light to find our Lord

As a star, God’s holy word
Leads us to our King and Lord
Brightly from its sacred pages
Shall this light throughout the ages
Shine upon our path of life
Shine upon our path of life

The Walking Roots Band (TWRB) is an acoustic folk/bluegrass-ish music group steeped in Anabaptist hymn-singing traditions and based in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Several of its members are the creative forces behind The Soil and The Seed Project, a liturgy and arts initiative launched in 2021.

Here they’ve retuned an Epiphany hymn from Denmark, which compares the star that led the magi to Jesus to the Bible, God’s word, which serves as a guiding light for spiritual seekers, leading us to Christ himself. Its pages offer countless epiphanies—revelations of God’s glory, opportunities for divine encounter. Its wisdom and truth can illuminate our paths if we let it.

Christmas, Day 11: Hodie

LOOK: Virgin and Child from Chora Church

Chora dome
The Virgin and Child surrounded by angels, 14th century, frescoed dome of the parecclesion (side chapel) of the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, Istanbul.

Virgin and Child (Chora Church)
Chora dome, detail

LISTEN: “Hodie,” early monastic chant from the Celtic Church in Ireland | Performed by Mary McLaughlin on Sacred Days, Mythic Ways: Ancient Irish Sacred Songs from Mythology to Monasteries (2012)

Refrain:
Hodie Christus natus est
hodie Salvator apparuit:
hodie in terra canunt angeli,
laetantur archangeli:
hodie exsultant justi, dicentes:
Gloria in excelsis Deo. Alleluia!

Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Deus dominus, et illuxit nobis. [Refrain]

Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto:
sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper,
et in sæcula sæculorum. Amen. [Refrain]

English translation:

Today Christ is born;
today the Savior has appeared;
today the angels sing,
the archangels rejoice;
today the righteous rejoice, saying:
Glory to God in the highest. Alleluia!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
The Lord is God, and he has made his light to shine upon us.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.
Amen.

The texts that make up this Christmas chant are from the Latin Mass. The verses are the parts known as the Benedictus (Psalm 118[117]:26a, 27a) and the Gloria, which are sung at every Mass, and the refrain is the antiphon to the Magnificat that is sung at Vespers on Christmas Day.

The plainchant melody is from early medieval Ireland.

Christmas, Day 10: Great Mystery

LOOK: O Magnum Mysterium by Joel Sheesley

Sheesley, Joel_O Magnum Mysterium
Joel Sheesley (American, 1950–), O Magnum Mysterium (O Great Mystery), 2012. Oil on canvas, 72 × 44 in.

Hear the artist discuss the painting here:

LISTEN: “O Magnum Mysterium” | Words: Traditional | Music by Morten Lauridsen, 1994 | Performed by S:t Jacobs Ungdomskör (Saint Jacob’s Youth Choir), 2015

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
iacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Iesum Christum.
Alleluia!

English translation:

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the newborn Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
the Lord, Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!

This text, a responsorial chant from the Matins of Christmas, has been set by many composers over the centuries, including Palestrina, Poulenc, Victoria, Morales, and La Rocca. Morten Lauridsen’s setting—a motet for a cappella choir—is the most popular.

Note the discordant G# sung by the altos on the first syllable of “Virgo” (3:20 in the video), which alludes to the future suffering of Jesus and, by extension, his mother. This vulnerability, this self-giving, of God that results in death on a cross is a key aspect of the Incarnation.

In the second half of the piece, “the chords, the melody, and the range of voices broaden into an open and exhilarating space,” writes Amy Baik Lee, building up to the climax: “alleluia.” The release of that final word of praise “is sheer joy; it is the sound of creation made well and reveling in its freedom from the fathoms-deep trenches of sin, finally awestruck by the intricacy of its long rescue. . . . It is as a cup of cold water that sparkles with the air of a distant, beloved country.”

Christmas, Day 9: Begotten ere the worlds began

LOOK: The Word Made Flesh by Julius Shumpert

Shumpert, Julius_The Word Made Flesh
Julius Shumpert (American, 1997–), The Word Made Flesh, 2017. Digital artwork.

This digital artwork by Julius Shumpert shows a silhouette of Christ Pantocrator that’s filled in with stars and planets, emphasizing his eternal preexistence. This is the cosmic Christ. With his left hand he holds a Gospel-book, and with his right he gestures blessing. His halo bears the roman letters A and O for “Alpha” and “Omega” (Rev. 1:8; 21:6; 22:13), as well as the Greek letter X, chi, which is the first letter in ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos) and thus ancient shorthand for Jesus the Messiah.

Shumpert writes,

This icon means a lot to me. During Christmas 2016, I dove into the true meaning of Christmas. Past all of the traditional “baby Jesus” storytelling to the bare symbolism of what happened. God, who created everything, and is bigger than infinity, the expanding universe, and all that there is to be, saw us struggling along and squeezed down into the form of precious ordinary baby just to be with us. . . . This icon presents who Jesus is: simply the Word made flesh.

Follow the artist on Instagram @saintjuliusart.

LISTEN: “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” | Original Latin words by Aurelius C. Prudentius, late 4th century; trans. John M. Neale, 1851, and Henry W. Baker, 1861 | Plainchant melody, 13th century | Arranged and performed by Sam P. Bush and Kathryn Caine on A Very Love and Mercy Christmas by Christ Episcopal Church, Charlottesville, Virginia, 2014

I’ve provided the full nine stanzas from the 1861 English version of the hymn by Henry Baker. Christ Episcopal Church sings his stanzas 1, 2, 5, and 9 (in boldface)—wise to omit 7 and 8, as these translations are icky (Roby Furley Davis’s are better), but I quite like the others!

Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega;
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see
Evermore and evermore!

O that birth forever blessèd,
When the Virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bore the Savior of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed his sacred face,
Evermore and evermore!

At His word the worlds were framèd;
He commanded; it was done:
Heav’n and earth and depths of ocean
In their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun,
Evermore and evermore!

He is found in human fashion,
Death and sorrow here to know,
That the race of Adam’s children,
Doomed by law to endless woe,
May not henceforth die and perish
In the dreadful gulf below,
Evermore and evermore!

O ye heights of heaven, adore Him,
Angel hosts, His praises sing,
Pow’rs, dominions, bow before Him,
And extol our God and King;
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Ev’ry voice in concert ring
Evermore and evermore!

This is He whom seers in old time
Chanted of with one accord;
Whom the voices of the prophets
Promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,
Let creation praise its Lord,
Evermore and evermore!

Righteous Judge of souls departed,
Righteous King of them that live,
On the Father’s throne exalted
None in might with Thee may strive,
Who at last in vengeance coming
Sinners from Thy face shalt drive,
Evermore and evermore!

Thee let old men, Thee let young men,
Thee let boys in chorus sing;
Matrons, virgins, little maidens,
With glad voices answering:
Let their guileless songs re-echo,
And the heart its music bring,
Evermore and evermore!

Christ, to Thee with God the Father
And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee,
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
And unwearied praises be:
Honor, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory
Evermore and evermore!

“Of the Father’s Love Begotten” (Lat. Corde natus ex parentis) is one of the oldest Christmas hymns, and it has gone through many translations, additions, revisions, fusions, arrangements, and abridgements to reach the form that’s in our hymnals today.

Its source is a thirty-eight-stanza Latin poem by Prudentius titled “Hymnus Omnis Horae” (Hymn for All Hours), published around 405 CE in his Liber Cathemerinon (Book of Daily Hymns) but written earlier. The poem traces Christ’s ministry from birth to death to resurrection and ascension, with a heavy focus on his miracles. It’s a remarkable poem, and worthy of study, especially as an example of early Christian theology. You can read the original Latin, presented beside a fine English translation by Roby Furley Davis from 1905, here.

Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (ca. 348–ca. 413) was a Roman Christian poet born in what is today northern Spain. After spending decades in law and government, he retired from public life to dedicate himself fully to God’s service, mainly through writing. He was the most significant hymn-writer of the early church.

Prudentius continued to be highly read throughout the Middle Ages, and “Hymnus Omnis Horae” circulated throughout Europe in multiple manuscripts. An eleventh-century manuscript added the refrain “saeculorum saeculi” (evermore and evermore) and a doxology, the Trinitarian final stanza.

The abbreviated form of the hymn (“Corde natus ex parentis,” etc.) entered English hymnody through the six-stanza translation by John Mason Neale, first published in the 1851 edition of Hymnal Noted; Neale renders the first line “Of the Father sole begotten.” Music editor Thomas Helmore presented Neale’s text with the thirteenth-century plainchant melody DIVINUM MYSTERIUM, which he sourced from the 1582 Finnish songbook Piae Cantiones. The pairing has since proven inseparable. Here’s Helmore’s arrangement from the 1852 edition of Hymnal Noted:

An extensive revision of Neale’s translation by Henry W. Baker, which includes three additional, newly translated stanzas, was published in the best-selling Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861 under the title “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” This is the version reproduced above, and that has had the most staying power.

The hymn is a praise-filled meditation on how Christ, the second person of the Godhead, who is before all things, entered human time in the person of Jesus. It’s a fairly difficult hymn to sing congregationally—the meter is a bear—but here’s a modern arrangement that I think works well: https://gracemusic.us/sheet_music/of-the-fathers-love-begotten/.

For more about the history, content, meter, transmission, and significance of “Hymnus Omnis Horae,” see the scholarly article by Chris Fenner from the Hymnology Archive: https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/hymnus-omnis-horae.

Christmas, Day 8: All the Way

LOOK: Avatharana by Solomon Raj

Raj, Solomon_Avatharana
Solomon Raj (Indian, 1921–2019), Avatharana (Incarnation), late 1980s, batik. Source: Living Flame and Springing Fountain (Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1993).

Avataraṇa (अवतरण), from which we get the word “avatar,” is a Sanskrit word that means stepping down from a higher position. It’s the word used in Hinduism to refer to the incarnation of a deity, to his or her descending to earth. The late Indian Lutheran pastor, artist, and theologian Solomon Raj, from Andhra Pradesh, used the word, with nuance, to refer to the incarnation of Christ.

In this batik—a type of dyed cloth artwork made using a wax-resist method—Raj shows Jesus diving through the ether, surrounded by angels. He hurtles headfirst from heaven to earth to be with humanity. Reproduced in the book Living Flame and Springing Fountain (1993), the image is accompanied by this verse-style reflection by Raj:

When God became man and came to us,
the heavens donned a new robe of light.
When the son of man came to this earth,
the whole creation became renewed.
The universe now is redeemed and kept
for a glory yet greater than the first
because the unknown and the unknowable One
became man to live with mankind.

For more on the concept of Jesus as avatar from Christian perspectives, see:

LISTEN: “All the Way from Heaven Down” by Thomas Whitfield | Performed by the Thomas Whitfield Company, on The Annual Christmas Services (1988)

All the way from heaven down
Just to save me
All the way from heaven down
Just to love me

Christmas, Day 7: All Glory Be to Christ

LOOK: The Burning Bush by Sassandra

Sassandra_The Burning Bush
Jacques Richard Sassandra (French, 1932–), Le buisson ardent (The Burning Bush), late 1980s. Oil on canvas, 110 × 272 cm. Collection of the artist.

Last year when I was corresponding with the artist Sassandra about the New Jerusalem collage from his Apocalypse series, he sent me some photos of this painted triptych on the same subject. It’s called The Burning Bush. When open, it’s about nine feet across, and it shows Christ as the Good Shepherd standing in the river of life, which waters the roots of the tree of life, whose leafy branches extend all around. This is a depiction of the new heaven and new earth described in the book of Revelation, with angels posted at its twelve gates. (See Advent, Day 15.)

The image references other biblical passages as well. The lion and the lamb lying down together in peace—the lion having given up its carnivorous diet to eat straw instead of fellow creatures—is an allusion to the messianic kingdom prophesied in Isaiah 11. And the French inscription on the arch above Jesus and the bottom gatepost is the text of John 10:9: Je suis la porte. Si quelqu’un entre par moi il sera sauvé. (“I am the gate. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved.”) Jesus is the doorway through which we enter this glorious future.

Sassandra_The Burning Bush
Sassandra, Le buisson ardent (central panel)

It’s worth quoting the John passage in full, which rings loudly with the theme of sacrifice:

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me, and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

Two of the seven I AM statements that Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John are present here: “I AM the gate of the sheepfold,” “I AM the good shepherd.” The others are “I AM the bread of life,” “I AM the light of the world,” “I AM the resurrection and the life,” “I AM the way, the truth, and the life,” and “I AM the true vine.” Biblical scholars say that with these statements, Jesus was ascribing to himself the divine, if somewhat cryptic name that God disclosed to Moses in Exodus 3:14–15: I AM THAT I AM.

Sassandra_The Burning Bush (closed)
Sassandra, Le buisson ardent (closed)

Sassandra makes that connection in this triptych. When the wings are closed, the outer scene shows Moses before the burning bush, his shoes reverently removed, his arms raised in worship before the fiery Voice that calls him. Inscribed along the sides of these two exterior panels is Saint, saint, saint est le seigneur de l’univers! Toute la terre est pleine de sa gloire! (“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of the universe! All the earth is full of his glory!”) (Isa. 6:3).

The artwork thus links Yahweh’s revelation to Moses as the great I AM with Christ’s apocalyptic appearing at the end of time. The wispy leaves on the tree of life on the interior panels appear as little flames, and Christ stands among them, the full revelation of God, who beckons us.

“Adonai” is one of the seven traditional O Antiphons, titles for Christ taken from the Old Testament and turned into short Advent refrains. It’s a Hebrew word that translates to “my Lord,” and it was used by the ancient Israelites to refer to God, as they regarded the divine name, I AM, as too sacred to be uttered. The “O Adonai” antiphon of Christian tradition recognizes that the God who spoke to Moses in the burning bush is the same God who speaks through Christ, and it entreats God to come deliver us from bondage, as he did the Israelites from Egypt:

O Adonai and ruler of the house of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the burning bush and gave him the Law on Sinai:
come with an outstretched arm and redeem us.

Sassandra’s Burning Bush shows that deliverance—a landscape of liberation, where Christ, having given himself, holds us at rest in his arms and we are refreshed unceasingly by living water, and all creation sings God’s glory.

LISTEN: “All Glory Be to Christ” | Words by Dustin Kensrue, 2012 | Scottish folk melody, probably 17th century | Arranged and performed by The Petersens on Christmas with the Petersens, 2020

Should nothing of our efforts stand
No legacy survive
Unless the Lord does raise the house
In vain its builders strive [Ps. 127:1]
To you who boast tomorrow’s gain
Tell me, what is your life?
A mist that vanishes at dawn [James 4:13–14]
All glory be to Christ!

Refrain:
All glory be to Christ our king!
All glory be to Christ!
His rule and reign we’ll ever sing,
All glory be to Christ!

His will be done, his kingdom come
On earth as is above
Who is himself our daily bread [Matt. 6:10–11]
Praise him, the Lord of love
Let living water satisfy
The thirsty without price [Isa. 55:1; John 4:10; 7:37; Rev. 21:6]
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet
All glory be to Christ! [Refrain]

When on the day the great I Am [Exod. 3:14]
The faithful and the true [Rev. 19:11]
The Lamb who was for sinners slain [Rev. 5:6]
Is making all things new [Rev. 21:5]
Behold our God shall live with us
And be our steadfast light [Rev. 22:5]
And we shall e’er his people be
All glory be to Christ! [Refrain]

This traditional folk melody from Scotland is one of the most recognizable in the world. It is most associated with Robert Burns’s Scots poem “Auld Lang Syne,” a staple of New Year’s Eve parties. As the old year passes, it’s common to pause and consider what passes away with it and what will last, and to cast a renewed vision for the new year.

In December 2011 the American singer-songwriter Dustin Kensrue [previously] was inspired to write new lyrics for the tune AULD LANG SYNE. “The idea is that—especially at the beginning of the new year—we would dedicate all our efforts to bringing glory to Jesus Christ,” he said, “to acknowledge that anything else would be of no value, and to celebrate our redemption in him.” Kensrue’s lyrics are full of biblical allusions, whose chapter-verse references I’ve cited in brackets above.

Kings Kaleidoscope recorded “All Glory Be to Christ,” sung by Chad Gardner, on their Christmas EP Joy Has Dawned (2012). The music video was filmed on a carousel at a fair, a metaphor for the passage of time. The years go round and round as our world revolves around the sun. When the ride stops, will we have ridden wisely and well?

Rather than feature the original recording, I’ve chosen to feature a more recent version by The Petersens, a family bluegrass band from Branson, Missouri, because I absolutely love how they have reharmonized it, including starting it in a minor key. Ellen Petersen Haygood sings lead, and harmonizing vocals are supplied by her siblings Matt Petersen and Katie Petersen and her mom, Karen Petersen.

Christmas, Day 6: Black-Haired Boy

LOOK: Madonna and Child by Gracie Morbitzer

Morbitzer, Gracie_Madonna and Child
Gracie Morbitzer (American, 1997–), Madonna and Child, 2018. Acrylic on repurposed wood, 14 × 12 in. Private collection.

Gracie Morbitzer is a Catholic artist from Columbus, Ohio, who paints biblical and extrabiblical saints as modern, everyday people in a range of skin tones, forgoing the hieratic style of traditional icons in favor of a more relatable, this-worldly look that enables the individuals’ distinctive personalities to shine through. She uses discarded or thrifted pieces of wood as her substrate, welcoming cracks and imperfections as only further reiterating how the extraordinary shines through the ordinary.

In her Madonna and Child, Mary props up her newborn on her knees, basking in her new role as mother. She wears frayed jeans, a loose blouse, gold hoop earrings, and a nose stud. On her wrist is a henna tattoo of her Immaculate Heart—a burning, bloodied heart pierced with a sword and banded with roses, representing the intensity and purity of her love and the suffering that Simeon prophesies.

Jesus, wrapped in a starry blanket and donning a cruciform halo, playfully touches Mom’s nose, crinkling his face as he giggles with delight.

The yellow acrylic background recalls the gold leafing of icons, used to suggest the transfiguring light of God. Morbitzer also uses the traditional Greek shorthand names for the Mother of God (MP OY) and Jesus Christ (IC XC).

This image can be purchased as a 5 × 7-inch print at The Modern Saints Etsy shop.

LISTEN: “Mary’s Lullaby (Black Haired Boy)” | Words by Kate Bluett | Music by Paul Zach | Sung by Liz Vice on Advent Songs by The Porter’s Gate (2021)

Oh, black-haired boy, your eyes are dark
as midnight lit by shining stars
and bright as love that filled my heart
when first I looked at you.
Your skin is brown as pilgrim roads,
laid straight through fragrant olive woods,
as brown as mine, and I’m in awe
each time I look at you.

You made the ox and lamb, my love,
and shaped the wings of turtledoves.
You wrote the hidden secrets of
the world I’ll show to you.
Within my body you took form
and wailed aloud when you were born—
the moment that my heart was torn
with love I’ll show to you.

You wove these wonders through the earth;
you made them all and gave them worth,
and now you join them in your birth,
and I’ll give them to you.
I’ll show you skies filled up with stars
and teach you words for light and dark,
for all the wondrous things there are:
I’ll give them all to you.

I’ll hold you closely as I can
and watch you grow into a man.
As long as I can hold your hand,
I’ll walk the world with you.
And you’ll lead me to God’s own heart,
where all these wonders have their start.
But here within the stable dark,
I’ll be the world for you.

Since the Middle Ages, Christians have written lullabies in the voice of Mary, imagining her rocking her infant son to sleep, sharing with him her most tender feelings and wishes. This contemporary one by frequent songwriting collaborators Kate Bluett and Paul Zach—so poignantly sung by Liz Vice—is among my favorites.

In the first stanza Mary dotes poetically on Jesus’s features—his eyes dark and bright as star-studded midnight skies, his skin brown as the footpaths to Zion. In the remaining stanzas she marvels at how the Creator of the universe lies as a babe in her arms, and how she will get to experience its many wonders with him at her side, discover its secrets together. Jesus made the world in which she lives and moves and has her being, but now, while he is small, vulnerable, and dependent, she’ll be a whole world to him, as mothers are to their children.

Christmas, Day 5: Unto Us

LOOK: Nativity by Azaria Mbatha

Mbatha, Azaria_Nativity
Azaria Mbatha (South African, 1941–2018), Nativity, 1964. Linocut, 33.5 × 57.5 cm. Edition of 10.

One of South Africa’s most important printmakers, Azaria Mbatha was a student and later teacher at the Evangelical Lutheran Art and Craft Centre at Rorke’s Drift. In his Nativity linocut he shows a Nguni bull, two bushpigs, an elephant, and an antelope calf paying homage to the Christ child, whom a bald, long-bearded Joseph gestures toward. Three wise men approach on elephant-back from the left, and further to the left, King Herod lurks with lion and spear, waiting to pounce on this perceived threat to his power. The top two registers fast-forward to the beginnings of Jesus’s public ministry, with John the Baptist preaching repentance and baptizing Jesus.

I’m not sure who the figure at the bottom right is supposed to be. Any guesses? It’s possible he’s just a generic worshipper, or someone of local or national significance.

LISTEN: “Sizalelwe Indodana” (Unto Us a Child Is Born) | Traditional South African Christmas song in Zulu | Arranged and performed by Concord Nkabinde, 2019 [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Sizalelwe Indodana
Igama layo nguJesu
Iyo yodwa Umsindisi

English translation:

Unto us a child is born
His name is Jesus
Only he is the Savior

Musical artist Concord Nkabinde writes,

This time of the year always reminds me of my childhood & my years of growing up in Dube, Soweto. The one song that became a soundtrack for the Christmas season at that time was this simple Traditional song that really takes me back there. This is my interpretation of it.

He has overdubbed six vocal parts and multiple percussion parts.

Christmas, Day 4: Ancient Tears

The fourth day of Christmas is set apart in Christian calendars to commemorate the massacre of innocents in Bethlehem shortly after the birth of Jesus. Herod, a Roman client king of Judea, felt threatened by the news that the “Anointed One” of God had been born and would rule the people. In an attempt to secure his political power, Herod ordered that all the male babies in Bethlehem be killed, thinking that surely the Messiah would be among them.

Applying the prophet Jeremiah’s words about the grief of exile (Jer. 31:15) to the present bloodshed, Matthew tells us in his Gospel that the night of the Bethlehem massacre,

A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more. (Matt. 2:18)

Rachel, a matriarch of Israel, was buried near Bethlehem, so the implication is that she was crying out from her grave in grief over her murdered descendants, joining the chorus of wailing Jewish mothers whose loss is unfathomable.

LOOK: Antiquarum Lacrimae (The Tears of Ancient Women) by Joan Snyder

Snyder, Joan_Antiquarum Lacrimae
Joan Snyder (American, 1940–), Antiquarum Lacrimae (The Tears of Ancient Women), 2004. Acrylic and dried flowers on linen, 78 × 120 in. Grand Rapids Art Museum, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Painted in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attack on the New York World Trade Center and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the elegiac Antiquarum Lacrimae by Joan Snyder evokes the suffering of women in times of war and violence. Broad, lateral strokes of green in varying shades form a backdrop for the scrawled repetition of the Latin words of the title, which translate to “The Tears of Ancient Women”—women who weep in personal anguish, lamenting their own losses, but also more broadly for the state of the world. Dried flowers, pressed upside down onto the canvas, suggest a ravaged field, or gravesides, and the thick, round, deep red splotches of dripping paint suggest open wounds.

LISTEN: “Neharót Neharót” by Betty Olivero, 2006–8 | Performed by violist Kim Kashkashian on Neharót, 2009, and live on October 20, 2019 (see video below)

A chamber piece for solo viola, accordion, percussion, two string ensembles, and tape, “Neharót Neharót” is by contemporary Israeli composer Betty Olivero. Its Hebrew title translates to “Rivers Rivers,” referring to the rivers of tears shed by women—though Olivero also points out the word’s resemblance to nehara, meaning “ray of light,” thus identifying a faint hope that shines through floods of suffering. The composition is a textured lament led by viola, which plays lyrically over the top of an ensemble accompaniment and engages with recordings of women’s singing voices.

In 2006 Olivero was working on a commission from 92NY, a Jewish community center in Manhattan, when war broke out at the Israel-Lebanon border between the Israeli military and the militias of Hezbollah, an Islamist group. “Deeply touched and marked by the shocking television images of victims, corpses and mourning people on both sides of the border, [Olivero] chose elegies by mothers, widows and sisters who had lost their loved ones as a point of reference for her composition.”

Olivero taped women in mourning, as well as elegies and love songs of Kurdish and North African origin or derivation performed by professional Israeli singers Lea Avraham and Ilana Elia. One such song is “Fermana” (Destruction), which laments Saddam Hussein’s slaughter of the Kurds. Excerpts from these recordings are played back as part of the fabric of the live performance of “Neharót Neharót.” The piece also quotes Orpheus’s lament from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo.

“‘Neharót Neharót’ is a dedication to all those women and children living in areas of war,” Olivero says. Though it was catalyzed by and references particular conflicts, it is intended as a universal cry of sorrow on behalf of women everywhere who carry the wounds of war—especially the unremitting grief of having lost children to violence.

Snyder, Joan_Antiquarum Lacrimae
Joan Snyder, Antiquarum Lacrimae (detail). Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.