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.

“The Little Drummer Boy”: Four Versions (Nigeria, India, Cuba, Norway)

Written in 1941 by Katherine Kennicott Davis, “Carol of the Drum,” later retitled “The Little Drummer Boy,” tells the story of a poor boy who cannot afford to bring any material gifts to the newborn Christ child, so instead he brings a heartfelt drum song.

Come, they told me
Pa rum pum pum pum
A newborn king to see
Pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring
Pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the king
Pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
So to honor him
Pa rum pum pum pum
When we come

Little baby
Pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too
Pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring
Pa rum pum pum pum
That’s fit to give a king
Pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
Shall I play for you
Pa rum pum pum pum
On my drum

Mary nodded
Pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time
Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for him
Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for him
Pa rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
Rum pum pum pum
Then he smiled at me
Pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum

The song has been recorded hundreds of times, even serving as the basis of an animated children’s movie, and yet it often makes the top of “most hated Christmas carols” lists. It’s far too sentimental, people say, or just plain annoying. Some Christians get in a huff about the invented drummer boy character; “there was no such boy at the birth!” they insist.

But I must admit, I rather like the song. Like the story of the widow’s mite, “The Little Drummer Boy” affirms that no gift offered in love is insignificant. The child has no gold, frankincense, or myrrh to offer to God, but he offers his very self, which is no meager thing. He brings his love and devotion. This idea of bringing a sacrifice of praise for the Savior’s birthday is found in other carols too, such as “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “What Can I Give” (Mahalia Jackson).

Little Drummer Boy
From top to bottom: Alex Boyé, Cassius Khan [source], unidentified bongo player [source], Henriette Kolset
Here I’d like to call out four global renditions of “The Little Drummer Boy.” I know the song has been performed in many languages and countries, but these four have distinct cultural flavors that make them unique among the many covers of the carol over the years.

Nigeria: Alex Boyé, feat. Genesis Choir, 2015

Alex Boyé is a British-born singer, dancer, and actor of Nigerian descent. He became a Mormon in 1986 at age sixteen, moved to Salt Lake City in 2000, and became a US citizen in 2012. He is known for his uplifting African-infused pop music, much of it of a religious nature.

(Related post: “Yoruba Christmas Carol and Art [Nigeria]”)

In 2015 Boyé created a music video for an “African tribal version” of “The Little Drummer Boy,” which starts with a mother and her two daughters being evicted from their home. A neighbor lets them stay in his RV, but they are obviously dejected. Over this introductory narrative, Boyé sings “Nearer, My God, to Thee”:

Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer to thee!
E’en though it be a cross
That raiseth me.

Then a knock comes at the door of the camper. It’s a bright-eyed little African drummer boy, come to cheer up the family. The mom dismisses him, but another knock brings her to the door once more. This time it’s the whole neighborhood, bearing a song, a dance, and gifts.

Oluwa! Olodumare! Olorun! Boyé exclaims before he and his troupe break out into their syncopated number. These are Yoruba names for God, so this is a way, I’d imagine, of marking the song as one of worship, suggesting that the love of neighbor expressed through the characters’ gift giving is an extension of their love of God.

[Purchase on Bandcamp]

India: Terry McDade and the McDades, feat. Cassius Khan, 2004

The McDades are siblings Shannon Johnson (fiddle, vocals), Solon McDade (upright bass, vocals), and Jeremiah McDade (woodwinds, vocals, etc.), hailing from Canada. Their music is multicultural to begin with, blending Celtic, jazz, Canadian folk, and worldbeat influences. It’s hard to categorize, and that’s one of the things I like about it.

They sometimes perform with their dad, harpist Terry McDade, as on the album Noël. For their mostly instrumental rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy,” they also collaborated with classical Indian musician Cassius Khan, who plays the tabla (drum) and tanpura (drone) on the track, as well as sings the opening vocals.

Shannon plays the violin and Jeremiah plays the bansuri (Indian bamboo flute).

Because of the group’s improvisatory approach to music making (and a change in guest percussionist), the studio recording sounds quite different from the live stage performance from 2016, which features Eric Breton on frame drum (in place of Khan on tabla), Andrew Hillhouse on acoustic guitar, Solon McDade on upright bass, Terry McDade on harp, and a chamber orchestra:

There are no Indian musicians in this performance, so it doesn’t have as strong of an Indian feel, and in fact the drum has a smaller role overall, giving way in parts to a full orchestral sound. Also, Khan’s classical Indian singing at the beginning of the song on the album is replaced here by Jeremiah McDade’s Tuvan throat singing!

[Purchase on Amazon, iTunes, or from your preferred digital music retailer]

Cuba: Luis Ríos (arr.) and Tania, 2009(?)

By googling “Cuban drummer boy,” I arrived at a YouTube video of the song “El Pequeño Cantor (Little Drummer Boy).” This appears on the 2009 compilation album Natale a Cuba [Spotify], whose metadata credits “Tania Tania” as the singer and Luis Ríos (born 1963) as the arranger. I wasn’t able to find any information about the singer, whom I suspect goes by just the first name Tania, or when the song was originally recorded. And I don’t know enough about Cuban music to identify the genre. But I really like this fun, danceable arrangement.

[Purchase on Amazon]

Norway: Eva Holm Foosnæs (arr.) and the NTNU Department of Music, 2016

OK, so Norway is not known for its drumming as are Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, so this arrangement, by Eva Holm Foosnæs, is not as rhythmic as the others, nor is there anything particularly “Norwegian” about the music that I can tell, other than it’s performed by singers and instrumentalists from Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim. But the gorgeous regional landscapes in which the music video was shot—over snowy mountain paths, through evergreen forests—give the song a magical, wintry, dark, folklorish feel that I associate with Scandinavia.

This feel comes across too in the dramatic swells and minor chords of the music.

The cinematography is by Terje Trobe.

The singers are Magnus Fremstad, Sivert Jullumstrø, Thale Jørstad, Torunn Kroknes, Eline Kolstad, Trygve Misvær, Fredrick Skjeldal, and Frida Skotte. The strings players are Björn Guo, Astri C. Hoffman, Anders Holmås, Anders H. Rove, and Carl N. Wika. And the percussionist is Henriette Kolset (a drummer girl—nice!).

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Are there any culturally specific renditions of “The Little Drummer Boy” that you know of and enjoy? I was hoping to find one from Japan, as I love listening to taiko drumming, but had no luck.

Noel (Artful Devotion)

Mulamba-Mandangi, Joseph_Nativity
Joseph Mulamba-Mandangi (Congolese, 1964–), Nativity, 1997. Peinture grattée. © missio Aachen.

. . . And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger . . .

—Luke 2:7

Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns!
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved . . .”

—Psalm 96:10

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . .

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

—John 1:1, 14

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SONG: “Noel” by Todd Smith | Performed by Selah on the album Rose of Bethlehem (2002)

Noel, Noel
Yesu me kwisa ku zinga ti beto
Noel, noel
Yesu me kwisa ku zinga ti beto

Kana nge zola ku zaba mwana
Nge fwiti kwisa ku fukama
Kana nge zola ku zaba mwana
Nge fwiti kwisa ku fukama

English translation:

Noel, Noel
Jesus has come to live with us
Noel, Noel
Jesus has come to live with us

If you want to know the Child
You have to come kneel
If you want to know the Child
You have to come kneel

Kituba is the official language of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where singer-songwriter Todd Smith grew up, from 1978 to 1986, as a missionary kid. (It was then known as Zaire.) Smith is one of three members of the award-winning band Selah, which helped initiate a hymn revival in Christian music that is still thriving today.

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See the Artful Devotions for the last two Christmases:

See also two of the most-visited posts from my former blog, The Jesus Question: “Nativity Paintings from around the World” (+ part 2).


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 Christmas Day, cycle A, click here.

Amalfi Nativity Fountain

When Eric and I were in Amalfi on the southern coast of Italy this August, we chanced upon a charming little fountain just off the town’s main street in Piazza dello Spirito Santo. Built during the eighteenth century in stone, with two marble faces that spout water, it is known, in local dialect, as the Fontana de Cape ’e Ciucci (Donkey’s Head Fountain), since the donkeys arriving from the nearby mountain village of Pogerola with heavy loads would stop here for water.

What makes the fountain unique, though, is the elaborate presepe (nativity scene) sited inside, an addition made in 1974 by Giuseppe Buonocore, Vincenzo Livano, and Nicola Pepe, who placed various small figurines on and around the rocky outcrop. Over the years, several of these figurines have become submerged by the flowing water. But a local family, the Infantes, takes care of maintaining the presepe, keeping it in decent condition.

Amalfi Nativity Fountain (ArtandTheology.org)

Handmade presepi are a living tradition in and around Naples, and they are notable for their blending of the sacred and profane: biblical figures like the Holy Family, the shepherds, and the magi are set alongside vignettes of Neapolitan life in the eighteenth century (when the making of presepi was at its peak). Shoemakers and innkeepers, bakers and pizzaioli (pizza makers), fishmongers and butchers, carpenters and blacksmiths, bricklayers and fruit vendors and tailors—just ordinary people going about their everyday lives, with Jesus right in their midst (though in this case, it appears that he is missing from the manger!). And in addition to the traditional ox and ass, there are geese, rabbits, ducks, chickens, and other native animal life present.

Amalfi Nativity Fountain (ArtandTheology.org)

Amalfi Nativity Fountain (ArtandTheology.org)

Amalfi Nativity Fountain (ArtandTheology.org)

Amalfi Nativity Fountain (ArtandTheology.org)

Amalfi Nativity Fountain (ArtandTheology.org)

Photos by Victoria Emily Jones/ArtandTheology.org.

Three Kings Day (Artful Devotion)

Christmas isn’t over yet, so I hope you’re still celebrating! As has been the case for centuries, many Christians spread their holiday festivities over twelve days, from December 25 to January 5, followed by the culminating feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Epiphany commemorates the visit of the magi to the Christ child and thus God’s physical manifestation to the Gentiles. In Spanish-speaking countries and communities, it’s commonly known as Three Kings Day. This year it just so happens to fall on a Sunday.

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Three Kings by Juan Cartagena
Juan Cartagena, Los Tres Reyes Magos (The Three Kings), Puerto Rico, 19th century. Painted wooden bulto. Vidal Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

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.” . . .

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.

—Matthew 2:1–2, 9–11

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SONG: “Décimas De Nacimiento” (Décimas of the Nativity) by Pedro Flores | Recorded by Los Jíbaros, 1935, with vocals by Vilar and Pedro Dávila (aka Davilita) | Reissued on Where Will You Be Christmas Day?, 2004

 

Los Jíbaros, also known as the Cuarteto Flores, were a popular and influential Puerto Rican group founded in New York in 1930 by Pedro Flores. Their name refers to the peasant farmers of Puerto Rico, who developed a style of mountain music, jibaro music, that’s rooted in music brought to the island by early settlers from Andalusia and Extremadura in southern and western Spain during the seventeenth century.

The jibaro song “Décimas De Nacimiento” is an aguinaldo (Christmas carol; literally “gift”) that comprises four décimas (ten-line stanzas) performed in dialogue. In this traditional poetic form, each line contains eight syllables and follows a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBAAB—but here the poet has adapted the scheme to ABBAACCDDC. The two singers perform to an accompaniment of three guitars and a guiro (scratch gourd).

En un pesebre nacio
A eso de la medianoche
Un niño que sin reproche
Clamaron hijo de Dios
Una estrella iluminó
El sitio donde María
Tenía en brazos al Mesías
Que acaba de nacer
Al que empezaban a ver
Al amanecer del día

Los tres magos soberanos
De los reinos del Oriente
Vinieron muy diligentes
A ofrendar su Dios cristiano
Y todo el mundo pagano
Recuerda las profecías
Pues sabian que nacería
Pronto el hijo de Israel
Y que lo iban a ver
Al amanecer del día

Todas las aves cantaban
Olian todas las flores
Bonita luz y colores
Las astros del cielo daban
Los buenos sabios oraban
Los réprobos se escondian
En las pajas ya había
Nacido el niño sonriente
Se postró un mundo creyente
Al amanecer del día

Y a través de las edades
Recordando al soberano
El universo cristiano
Celebra las navidades
Dice así, felicidades
El humano se extasía
Y aún pedimos al Mesías
Hijo de María y José
Que algo de su gracia nos dé
Al amenecer del día

He was born in a manger
About midnight
An innocent child
Proclaimed the Son of God
A star shone upon
The place where Mary
Held our Savior in her arms
Who had just been born
They beheld him
At daybreak

The three wise men
From the Orient
Promptly came
To offer gifts to the Son of God
And all the pagan world
Remembered the prophecies
That foretold the birth
Of the Son of Israel
And they came to see Him
At daybreak

All the birds were singing
All the flowers were perfumed
Stars in the sky were shedding
Beautiful light and colors
The wise men were praying
The scoundrels were hiding
Already, in the straw
The smiling child had been born
Everyone fell to their knees
At daybreak

Throughout the ages
In memory of our Sovereign
The Christian universe
Celebrates His birth
With good wishes
Humanity is ecstatic
And we still pray for the Messiah
Son of Mary and Joseph
To shed His grace upon us
At daybreak

This is one of many songs that might be heard at a parranda, a Puerto Rican caroling party that moves from house to house, lasting from around 10 p.m. to dawn on any given night of Christmas. The repertoire is a mix of sacred and secular songs, but unlike in the continental US, they are all festive and upbeat. As the carolers progress to each new stop, the head of that house invites them in for food and beverages. Parrandas are one of the leading social activities of the Christmas season on the island.

“Décimas De Nacimiento” was originally released by Columbia Records on vinyl in the 1930s. In 2004 it was reissued by Dust-to-Digital on a compilation Christmas album produced by folk music preservationist Lance Ledbetter and musicologist Dick Spottswood; there it appears alongside other rare recordings of American gospel, blues, and hillbilly music from the twenties and thirties.

Another vintage recording of the song, by Trio Armonico, can be found on The Music of Puerto Rico: Recordings 1929–1947, released in 2009 by Black Round Records. [Listen on Spotify]

(Related posts: “Flamenco-style devotional singing in southern Spain”; “Religious art highlights from New Mexico”)

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Celebrated annually on January 6, El Día de Los Tres Reyes Magos, or simply Three Kings Day, is one of the most important holidays on the Puerto Rican calendar—so much so that Puerto Ricans invented a verb, reyar, that means “to celebrate Three Kings Day.” On the eve of the holiday, children put a shoebox filled with straw under their beds for the animal transports, be they camels or horses, of the Three Kings, who visit their homes with presents between midnight and dawn. Children awake not only to gifts but also to a day of parades and feasting with family and friends. Old San Juan throws an annual festival at the Luis Muñoz Marín Park with live music, food and drink, and free gifts, but the highlight of the day occurs when the Three Kings come walking into town. They start from their unofficial hometown of Juana Díaz in the south and travel around the island, stopping to celebrate in various localities—but no celebration is larger than that in Old San Juan.

(Listen to composer, playwright, and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda describe how he grew up celebrating Three Kings Day in New York City in this video from 2017.)

Three Kings bulto
Los Tres Reyes Magos (The Three Kings), Puerto Rico, late 19th century. Painted wooden bulto by a member of the Rivera family. Vidal Collection, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Not surprisingly, the Three Kings are among the most popular santos (handmade images of saints and other religious figures) in Puerto Rico. Since camels were unknown to earlier local santeros (makers of religious images), the Three Kings are typically shown riding Paso Fino horses. The gifts they bear may be the three traditional ones—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—or typical Puerto Rican gifts, such as musical instruments. In Puerto Rico, Melchior is shown with dark skin, and he is often given special prominence, especially by santeros of African descent.

The two bultos (small religious carvings) pictured above were gifted to the Smithsonian, along with 3,200-plus other objects, by Puerto Rican folk art collector Teodoro Vidal. Learn more about the Vidal Collection at https://amhistory.si.edu/vidal/. (You may remember me speaking about another bulto donated by Vidal, Señor de la Humildad y la Paciencia, in my Stations of the Cross audio guide.)


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 Epiphany, cycle C, click here.

The Christmas Truce of 1914

This article was originally published on the centenary of the truce at theJesusQuestion.org. Because 2018 marks a hundred years since the end of World War I and two hundred years since the composition of the carol “Silent Night,” I thought it appropriate to bring it out of the vault. 

On Christmas Eve 1914, along the four-hundred-mile Western Front of World War I, a famous ceasefire took place, as enemy soldiers spontaneously emerged from their trenches, arms laid aside, to celebrate Christ’s birth together. They sang carols, exchanged gifts (jams and candies, cigarettes, newspapers), kicked around a soccer ball, and shared photos of loved ones. They also buried each other’s dead and prayed communally over the bodies, led by chaplains. Some even exchanged home addresses and promised to visit after the war.

One soldier described it in a letter home as “the Wonderful Day.” Another soldier, Pvt. Karl Muhlegg, wrote, “Never was I as keenly aware of the insanity of war.”

Though temporary truces are not unique in military history (they have been recorded since as far back as the Trojan War), never have they been carried out on such a large scale, and accompanied by such fraternization, as that of the Christmas Truce of 1914. Remarkably, this truce grew out of no single initiative but sprang up independently in many of the camps, against the orders of higher-ups. In most places it lasted from Christmas Eve through Boxing Day (December 26), though in some it lasted into January. It is estimated that some 100,000 men took part.

Inspired by this event, French filmmaker Christian Carion wrote and directed a dramatized film version of it, called Joyeux Nöel, which was nominated in 2006 for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The film focuses on three different regiments—one Scottish, one French, and one German—and their interactions with one another during that first Christmas on the front.

The pivotal scene, in which the truce is initiated, shows a conscripted German opera singer singing “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) in his trench. The Scottish, stationed downfield, hear the distant song and start playing an accompaniment on bagpipes, which piques the attention of the French. Throughout the song, the German becomes more and more engaged: aware now of a listening audience across the void, he turns around, performing toward them. After the song, all three sides applaud, giving the opera singer the courage to step out of his trench and into No Man’s Land, singing “Adeste Fideles” (O Come, All Ye Faithful)—in Latin, the universal language of the church—and holding up a mini lit Christmas tree as a sign of peace.  Continue reading “The Christmas Truce of 1914”

Salvation Is Created (Artful Devotion)

Nativity by Wisnu Sasongko
Wisnu Sasongko (Indonesian, 1975–), Nativity, 2005. Acrylic on canvas, 48 × 34 in.

The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

—Isaiah 52:10

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.

—Titus 2:11

To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

—Luke 2:11

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SONG: “Salvation Is Created” (Op. 25, no. 5) by Pavel Tchesnokov, 1912 | Performed by St. Olaf Choral Ensembles, on What Child Is This? The St. Olaf Christmas Festival (2010)

Salvation is created in the midst of the earth, O God, O our God. Alleluia!

A Russian composer, choral conductor, and teacher, Pavel Tchesnokov (1877–1944) wrote over four hundred sacred choral works up until 1912, when he was forced by the Soviets to focus exclusively on secular compositions; “Salvation Is Created” was his last one. It’s a communion hymn based on a synodal Kievan chant melody and Psalm 74:12: “For God is my King of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth.”

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Wisnu Sasongko is an artist from the Indonesian island of Java. In 2004–05 he served as artist in residence at the Overseas Ministries Studies Center in New Haven, Connecticut, out of which came a monograph on Sasongko, Think on These Things: Harmony and Diversity, published in 2007. He was also one of five artists featured in the 2007 exhibition The Christian Story: Five Asian Artists Today at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City.


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 Christmas Day, cycle C, click here.

The Christmas Songwriters Project

This week Christianity Today published an article by theology and culture professor W. David O. Taylor, titled “Why Putting Christ Back in Christmas Is Not Enough.” I highly recommend it. In it Taylor discusses four fundamental influences on the way Christmas is celebrated in America, beginning with its illegalization by Puritans in the seventeenth century. One public notice warned citizens:

The observation of Christmas having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings, dressing in Fine Clothing, Feasting and similar Satanical Practices are hereby FORBIDDEN, with the Offender liable to a Fine of Five Shillings.

“So what happens,” muses Taylor,

when the Protestant church in the 17th century evacuates its worship of the celebration of Christ’s birth? A liturgical vacuum is created that non-ecclesial entities willingly fill. The government determines the legal shape of Christmas, the market shapes a society’s emotional desires and financial expectations about the holy day, the ideal family replaces the holy family, and the work of visual artists shape its imagination, while musicians and writers fill the empty space with their own stories about the “magic” of Christmas.

Taylor is not saying we can’t enjoy any of the secular trappings of Christmas (“the grace and goodness of God are not absent from these things”), only that we should recognize that the Christmas story told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke is far more fantastical, more difficult and dangerous, more multicultural and multigenerational, and more relevant than the Christmas story America tells—including American civil religion.

This article was adapted from a lecture Taylor gave, as part of the Fuller Texas Lecture Series, to a gathering of scholars and artists at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Houston on October 20, which can be streamed via Facebook. (Starts at about 22:40.) The focus is on the critical role songwriters can play in reorienting our imaginations back toward the scriptural accounts of Christ’s birth, going beyond the sentimental and nostalgic into a more thorough habitation of the story in all its shades.

What if the narrative of Matthew and Luke were more determinative of our Christmas holidays than the narrative of Wall Street and primetime television? What if our Christmas songs gave our congregations a chance to sing to God from the depths of their hearts—of their heart’s longings and wonderings, hopes and fears, certainties and doubtings, joys and melancholy yearnings? What if our Christmas songs gave our congregations a chance to encounter the good news afresh—in a way that exceeded their sense of how deeply good, richly mysterious, and wonderfully paradoxical that news could in fact be? What if our Christmas songs offered an opportunity for our congregations to be attuned to each other—across the aisle as well as across denominational and cultural and geographic and linguistic lines—in a way that we never imagined possible?

This lecture was the capstone of the second workshop of the Christmas Songwriters Project, a new initiative sponsored by the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts, the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW), and Duke Divinity School. Co-directing the project along with Taylor are Noel Snyder, a program manager at the CICW with a background in musicology, and Lester Ruth, a historian of Christian worship at Duke. The first workshop, held in March in Grand Rapids, Michigan, brought together twenty-four Christian songwriters from across the US who were specially invited to participate. Following its success, a second one took place October 18–19 in Houston with a new set of eighteen select songwriters, all local. The hope is to conduct future workshops, as soon as next fall, in Nashville, and later in New York City and Los Angeles. A website for the Christmas Songwriters Project is under development and is likely to launch this coming spring.

Christmas Songwriters Project
Professor Lester Ruth leads a Christmas Songwriters Project session on October 18 in which participants are tasked with reworking Mary’s Magnificat into a congregational hymn that highlights the upside-down kingdom of God.

Over the course of two days, the Houston songwriters performed a close reading of the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke; studied Charles Wesley’s Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord, a collection of eighteen of his hymns, published in 1745; and sought to get a sense of the musical aesthetics of today’s top fifteen Christmas carols. They asked themselves a double question: What does Christmas sound like? And what should Christmas sound like? (What new sounds are needed to re-sound the stories in Matthew and Luke?)

During these workshops, there was a heavy emphasis on collaboration. Several fine songs have resulted, which are in various phases of production. Six premiered in their earliest forms in the above video, interspersed with Taylor’s lecture.

One of the highlights is a reprise of the saccharine “Away in a Manger” that takes into account the Massacre of the Innocents and the resultant flight to Egypt of the Holy Family, thereby giving a broader view of the Christmas story, one that coheres better with the Matthean narrative, which ends with Rachel weeping. The clever twists on the original lyrics and the grayer tonality give a sense of the darkness into which Jesus came and also resonate with the experiences, hopes, and fears of many contemporary refugees.

“Away from the Manger: The Refugee King” – Words and music by Liz Vice, Wen Reagan, Bruce Benedict, Greg Scheer, and Lester Ruth | Performed by Liz Vice (lead vocals) and Hannah Glavor (guitar and backing vocals)

[Update, November 8, 2019: Liz Vice has just released “Refugee King” as a single!]

Away from the manger they ran for their lives
The tiny boy Jesus a son they must hide
A dream came to Joseph, they fled in the night
And they ran and they ran and they ran

No stars in the sky but the Spirit of God
Led down into Egypt from Herod to hide
No place for his parents, no country or tribe
And they ran and they ran and they ran

Stay near me, Lord Jesus, when danger is nigh
And keep us from Herods and all of their lies
I love thee, Lord Jesus, the Refugee King
And we sing and we sing and we sing
And we sing and we sing and we sing

Alleluia (×5)

(Related post: “Songs about the Flight to Egypt”)

Another highlight is the song “Savior of Mankind,” an original setting of a hymn text by Charles Wesley, performed at around 51:00 in the lecture video. It captures a sense of the cosmic import of the Nativity, and of the overlap of heaven and earth that is the Christ. The line “’Tis all your heav’n on him to gaze”—wow.

“Savior of Mankind”Words by Charles Wesley, 1745 | Music by Luke Brawner, Joe Deegan, Rebekah Maddux El-Hakam, and Paul Yoon, 2018

Let angels and archangels sing
The Son of God, Immanuel’s Name
Adore with us our newborn king
And still the joyful news proclaim

All heav’n and earth be ever joined
To praise the Savior of mankind (
×2)

The everlasting God comes down
To walk with the sons of men
Without his majesty or crown
The great Invisible is seen

Of all his dazzling glories shorn
The everlasting God is born (×2)

Angels, see the infant’s face
With rapt’rous awe the Godhead own
’Tis all your heav’n on him to gaze
And cast your crowns before his throne

Now he on his footstool lies
For he built both earth and skies (×2)

By him into existence brought
You sang the all-creating Word
You heard him call our world from naught
Again, in honor of your Lord

You morning stars, your hymns employ
And shout, you sons of God, for joy (×2)

Born a Child and Yet a King (Artful Devotion)

The Infant Savior by Andrea Mantegna
Andrea Mantegna (Italian, ca. 1431–1506), The Infant Savior, ca. 1460. Tempera on canvas, 70.2 × 34.3 cm (27 5/8 × 13 1/2 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace.

—Micah 5:2–5

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SONG: “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus / Joy to the World,” adapted and arranged by Folk Angel, on Live at Green Lux: Christmas Songs, vol. 6, 2014 | Words by Charles Wesley, 1744, with refrain and bridge by Isaac Watts, 1719 | Music by Rowland Hugh Prichard, 1830, and Folk Angel

The backbone of this Folk Angel song is the Advent classic “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” but into this the band has integrated lines from “Joy to the World,” traditionally sung at Christmastime. While the verses plead, “Come!,” the chorus declares, “He has come,” holding together the cries of both seasons. He whom the nations desire is here, “born to reign in us forever.” May earth receive him.

Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Joy to the world!
The Lord has come;
Let earth receive her king.
Let earth receive her king.

Born thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a king,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By thine all-sufficient merit,
Raise us to thy glorious throne.

Joy to the world!
The Lord has come;
Let earth receive her king.
Let earth receive her king.

Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing!

Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free.
We are free.
We are free.
We are free.
We are free.

The verse melody is, of course, that well-loved Welsh tune HYFRYDOL, composed by Rowland Hugh Prichard. The chorus and bridge, however, employ an original tune by Folk Angel, resetting key excerpts from Isaac Watts’s carol that emphasize the kingly nature of the infant Christ. This crescendos into a triumphant repeat of the song’s first two lines, and a grateful acknowledgment of God’s fulfilled purposes: a people set free from their fears and sins, granted eternal rest under the loving rule of Christ. Even so, Lord, thy kingdom come.

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The Infant Savior by the great Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna brings me such delight—that little rosy, chubby-cheeked baby blessing me, blessing the world, this Christmas. You might call the painting a Christ Pantocrator, but it doesn’t fit the standard iconography, because instead of a half-length adult it shows a full-length child of about one year. Still, this is Jesus, “born a child and yet a king”: he wears a velvet robe with a golden clasp and lining, but underneath, his humble swaddling cloths are revealed, and he’s barefoot. His right hand is raised in a gesture of blessing, and in his left hand he holds, instead of a book (as is traditional in Pantocrator images), a cross-shaped scepter. A cross shape also comprises his “crown”—the three streams of light emitted from his bald little head.

Mantegna’s painting suggests that Christ’s kingship was established at his birth, and that it would be furthered by way of the cross.


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 Fourth Sunday of Advent, cycle C, click here.

Roundup: Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Hanukkah lamps, building walls, and more

NEW MUSICAL ARRANGEMENTS FOR ADVENT/CHRISTMAS

For cello and piano: “In the Bleak Midwinter,” arr. Sheku Kanneh-Mason: Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a multi-award-winning cellist from England who, since being named 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year, has gone on to release, this January with Decca, his first full-length album (a chart topper), to perform as a soloist at the marriage ceremony of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and to serve, for the 2018–19 season, as a Young Artist in Residence at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. Time magazine recently listed him as one of 25 Most Influential Teens of 2018. He’s nineteen years old.

Stream on Spotify | Purchase on iTunes

In a recent recording session at Abbey Road Studios, Sheku performed one of his own arrangements with his sister Isata Kanneh-Mason, a pianist who, like him, is on scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. Sheku is the third of seven siblings, and all of them are musical. They competed together in 2015 on Britain’s Got Talent and regularly perform together. See the CBS Sunday Morning featurette “The family that plays together.”

This piece is, in the truest sense of the word, awesome. Gustav Holst’s melody, which the duo plays straightforwardly for the first verse, is already beautiful; Sheku’s creative coloring of each subsequent verse, utilizing different playing techniques, elevates the song’s beauty even more. I could listen to this on repeat all day long. Oh wait. I have.

For jazz trio and voice: “Love Came Down” and “Comfort Ye,” arr. Deanna Witkowski: This fall, jazz pianist and composer Deanna Witkowski released recordings of two of her arrangements of Advent/Christmas classics: Christina Rosetti’s “Love Came Down at Christmas” and, just last month, “Comfort Ye,” whose seventeenth-century text (based on Isaiah 40:1–8) is by Johann Olearius, with a later English translation by Catherine Winkworth. Witkowski is on piano, Daniel Foose is on bass, and Scott Latzky is on drums, making up the Deanna Witkowski Trio. Sarah Kervin is the vocalist.

“Love Came Down” (gospel/funk) – Purchase track on Bandcamp | Purchase piano/vocal score

“Comfort Ye” (gospel/R&B) – Purchase track on Bandcamp | Purchase choral (SAT) / piano score

 

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ART EXHIBITION: “Accumulations: Hanukkah Lamps,” Jewish Museum, New York City, October 12, 2018–February 9, 2020: This year’s Hanukkah celebrations have just passed (December 2–10), but the Jewish Museum in New York is still running, for quite a while, its exhibition of eighty-one Hanukkah lamps from its collection of nearly 1,050—the largest collection of Hanukkah lamps in the world. The lamps in the current show represent four continents, six centuries, and a range of materials. I’m most drawn to the modern ones, which rethink traditional ideas about the ritual object.

Hanukkah Lamp by Moshe Mann
Hanukkah lamp from Russia, mid-19th century. Cast lead, each 2 × 13/16 × 13/16 in. (5.1 × 15.2 × 2.1 cm). Jewish Museum, New York.
Menorah Memories by Larry Kagan
Larry Kagan (American, 1946–), Menorah Memories, 1981–82. Welded steel scraps, 21 1/4 × 19 × 4 1/2 in. (54 × 48.3 × 11.4 cm). Jewish Museum, New York.
Tree of Life by Erte
Erté (Romain De Tirtoff) (French, 1892–1990), Tree of Life, 1987. Polished bronze, 15 1/2 × 12 1/2 × 7 9/16 in. (39.4 × 31.8 × 19.2 cm). Jewish Museum, New York.

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ART ACQUISITION: Christ as the Man of Sorrows by Quentin Metsys: On November 27 the J. Paul Getty Museum announced its acquisition of Christ as the Man of Sorrows by Quentin Metsys (alternatively spelled Massys), one of the leading painters in sixteenth-century Antwerp, known for his delicate modeling and crisp details. For centuries, the painting has been in a private collection, previously unknown to art historians; the Getty purchased it in a private sale. Its discovery and attribution expands Metsys’s oeuvre and is already attracting much attention from scholars. After a short period of conservation and technical study, it will go on view in spring 2019, exhibited to the public for the first time in modern history. It is the first work by Metsys in the Getty’s collection.

Christ as the Man of Sorrows by Quentin Metsys
Quentin Metsys (Netherlandish, 1466–1530), Christ as the Man of Sorrows, ca. 1520–30. Oil on panel, 19 1/2 × 14 1/2 in. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. [pre-conservation]

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SONG: “Why We Build the Wall” by Anaïs Mitchell: Hadestown is a 2016 stage-musical adaptation of a 2010 folk-opera concept album of the same name, both by singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell. It invites audiences on an epic journey to the underworld and back, following two intertwining love stories—that of Orpheus and Eurydice and of Hades and Persephone. I was struck by the current US political resonances of the song “Why We Build the Wall,” which Mitchell says she wrote in 2006. In this A Prairie Home Companion broadcast, Mitchell sings as Hades, king of the underworld, leading her minions in an anthem that celebrates the importance of a nonporous border. She is joined by Chris Thile on mandolin and vocals and by the First-Call Radio Players. The song starts at 1:07.

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VISUAL MEDITATION: Mother and Child by Gilly Szego: In a recent contribution to ArtWay, Anglican vicar Jonathan Evens reflects on a work by UK artist Gilly Szego, the wife of a Hungarian refugee. Szego painted Mother and Child in response to the expulsion of South Asians from Uganda in 1972 following a wave of Indophobia. St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, one of London’s most prominent churches, displayed the painting that year, helping to raise awareness of these refugees’ plight and that of others around the world. The figures could easily be read as the Virgin Mary and Jesus, who were themselves displaced from their homeland.

Mother and Child by Gilly Szego
Gilly Szego (British, 1932–), Mother and Child, 1972. Oil on canvas with wood frame and barbed wire, 52 × 48 in.

Evens shares some words from Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, St. Martin’s current vicar:

Jesus is a displaced person in three senses. Fundamentally, he is the heavenly one who sojourned on earth. And it didn’t go well: as John’s Gospel puts it, ‘He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (John 1:11). Then he finds himself a refugee in Egypt, his parents fleeing Herod’s persecution. Third, he spends his ministry as an itinerant preacher and healer, with nowhere to lay his head.

Meanwhile the story of Israel is one of migration from beginning to end. Adam and Eve leave the Garden; Noah and family sail away from destruction; Abraham follows God’s call; Joseph and family head down to Egypt; Moses leads the people back; Judah is taken into exile in Babylon; Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the return. None of these people were going on a package holiday: they were refugees, asylum seekers or trafficked persons. There is precisely one verse commanding the children of Israel, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’; there are no less than 36 verses saying ‘love the stranger.’ Care of the alien is how Israel remembers its history with gratitude.