Roundup: Peaceable Kingdom; Mary Poppins; art writing contest; “On Reading Well”; new Advent/Christmas albums

Congrats to the three winners of the Wounded in Spirit book giveaway. Thank you all for entering. I will be giving away another free book, from Eerdmans, sometime in the next month or two, so stay tuned!

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The Peaceable Kingdom (detail) by Edward Hicks
A bear and a cow share a snack of grass, and a child pets a leopard without consequence, in this charming little detail from Edward Hicks’s 1834 Peaceable Kingdom in the National Gallery of Art.

ADVENT ART VIDEO: The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks: This year I was invited to make a guest contribution to art historian James Romaine’s annual Art for Advent video series on YouTube. For 2018, he is spotlighting paintings from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, my neck of the woods. I chose to write about The Peaceable Kingdom by the nineteenth-century Quaker preacher-artist Edward Hicks, which visualizes the prophecy of Isaiah 11 about predators and prey lying down together in friendship, and a little child leading them. But Hicks’s image of “peace on earth” is not as simplistic as it may seem at first; there is tension. See the video below, and be sure to check back on the Seeing Art History YouTube channel next week for subsequent videos. For more on Hicks and this favorite subject of his, see this post of mine from 2016. Thank you to Rain for Roots for letting me use their wonderfully playful musical rendition of Isaiah 11 from their family Advent album Waiting Songs.

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Mary Poppins

PODCAST EPISODE: “Mary Poppins,” Technicolor Jesus, episode 49: “If you want a movie that really shows the foolishness of the gospel next to what the world thinks is wise and is turned on its head . . . if you want a movie about the great reversals that are present in the kingdom of God, you don’t need to look any further than Mary Poppins,” says Pastor Becca Messman. The oppressive orderliness booming over people’s lives “is contrasted with something unpredictable and joyful—the wind, dancing chimney sweeps, and this beautiful bird woman giving her crumbs away.” The movie is about what happens when both adults and kids relax into joy.

It’s also about charity. Last year Niles Reddick wrote an article about Mary Poppins as the first female Christ figure in American film, and “Feed the Birds” as a “song-parable” that serves as the linchpin of the movie. While the world would have us pile up our coins in a bank vault, Jesus calls us, against the world’s wisdom, to give them away.

Feeding the Birds (Mary Poppins)

I love this movie. My mom says that from a young age she would play it for me, and I would sit mesmerized for the entire 139 minutes. I remember trying to soothe my baby brother many a time by singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Once we were elementary school–age, we would eagerly await the “Step in Time” scene, at which point we would rush to grab brooms from the garage, using them as props as we danced along with Dick Van Dyke—which sometimes ended in injury . . . Now as an adult, I can appreciate some of the movie’s deeper themes, and pick up on its resonances with the upside-down nature of Christ’s kingdom. Can’t wait to see the new Mary Poppins Returns next month!

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WRITING CONTEST FOR UK TEENS: “Write on Art”: In an effort to get teenagers learning and writing about art, Art UK and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art are co-sponsoring “Write on Art” for the second year in a row. Any kid between the ages of 15 and 18 who is enrolled in a UK school (Years 10–13) is eligible to enter to win up to £500 by submitting a short personal write-up (400–600 words) on any artwork in the UK’s national collection. “With a disturbing decline in the teaching of art and art history in schools, our Write on Art competition . . . is designed to highlight the importance of art as an academic discipline.” The website includes tips on how to write about art, including where to find relevant vocabulary and other resources. All entries must be submitted by January 31, 2019.

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BOOK REVIEW: On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books by Karen Swallow Prior, reviewed by Nick Roark: In September, Brazos Press released Prior’s latest book on reading widely and well, which received a starred review and a Best Book of 2018 in Religion from Publishers Weekly. I’m a big fan of her previous Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, so I’m really looking forward to this one. “Covering authors from Henry Fielding to Cormac McCarthy, Jane Austen to George Saunders, and Flannery O’Connor to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Prior explores some of the most compelling universal themes found in the pages of classic books, helping readers learn to love life, literature, and God through their encounters with great writing. In examining works by these authors and more, Prior shows why virtues such as prudence, temperance, humility, and patience are still necessary for human flourishing and civil society.”

On Reading Well by Karen Swallow Prior

Purchase the book between now and Christmas, and receive a piece of free downloadable art by Ned Bustard. Instructions are on her website, https://karenswallowprior.com/.

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NEW ADVENT/CHRISTMAS ALBUMS

Watches of the Night; After the Longest Night

Watches of the Night by Matt Searles: “Christian believers are like watchmen, longing to see the first rays of dawn. We long for the darkness of this world to be finally taken away, and the light of Christ to rise in all its splendour. This album is intended to help us as we wait; to lament the brokenness of this world, but to look to the riches of that which is to come. It is an album of longing, but also of profound hope. Light has dawned. Christ has been raised. But we await the full revelation of him in glory. We are still watchmen. Still waiting.

 

“This is not a loud album. It is one I hope you might be able to listen to if you lie awake unable to sleep, as I so often find the case. I pray it is an album that might help you – like David in Ps 63:6 – to meditate on God in the watches of the night. An album that will orient you to the future, and help you increasingly be someone whose mind is set on the city that is to come. Songs to help you fix your eyes on Christ, and long above all else for his return when we see him face to face.”

After the Longest Night: Songs for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany by Steve Thorngate: These fourteen songs are a mix of originals, including settings of the Lukan Canticles (the songs of Zechariah, Mary, and Simeon), and traditionals: “Creator of the Stars of Night,” “What Child Is This,” “Bright Morning Stars,” and “Let the Light of Your Lighthouse Shine on Me.” Best $7 I’ve spent in a while! (Purchase even includes lead sheets.)

 

Roundup: Book list, Piano Guys, Mongolian Jingle Bells, call for papers, sacred landscapes, art installation in cave

ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY: “Art and theology” books published in 2017: I had fun compiling this book list for ArtWay, which spans the disciplines of art history, theological aesthetics, visual theology, philosophy, museum studies, liturgical studies, and Christian ministry. Let me know if I’m missing any titles. (For books published on art and theology between 2014 and 2016, click here.)

Art and theology books 2017

Among those geared toward popular audiences are In the Beauty of Holiness, a lavishly illustrated hardcover survey of eighteen hundred years of Christian fine art; Imaging the Story, structured as a small-group study with a “make” component; and a how-to manual for church leaders written by the director of Sojourn Arts, a flourishing church ministry in Louisville, Kentucky. There are books centered on biblical art from non-Western countries, like New Zealand, Tonga, and Australia, and on art by racial minorities, as in Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, as well as books that focus on a single biblical symbol (e.g., the cross) or group of narratives (such as those unique to John’s Gospel).

But there are also books that focus on the contemporary art world, encouraging Christians to engage works beyond just those with explicitly Christian content or just those made by Christians.

Several books published this year engage with the ideas of leading early Protestant theologians, like Luther, Calvin, and (later) Kuyper, as they relate to visual art, and one even examines Reformational influences on Michelangelo’s late work. A smorgasbord indeed!

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SONGS:

Today is the seventh day of Christmas—the celebration continues! Here are two fun songs for your listening pleasure.

^^ “Angels We Have Heard on High,” arranged and performed by the Piano Guys: In this unique piano arrangement for eight hands, Jon Schmidt, Al van der Beek, Steven Sharp Nelson, and Paul Anderson strike, pluck, bow, and percuss the instrument, creating a more complex texture than you would expect. All the sounds you hear (except for the voices) are produced by the piano.

^^ “Mongolian Jingle Bells” by Altai Kai: This video shows a Mongolian musical ensemble performing their own rendition of “Jingle Bells” using local instruments—including a yatga (plucked zither), shanz (plucked lute), and morin khuur (bowed horsehead fiddle)—and overtone singing. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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CALL FOR PAPERS: “Art as a Voice for the Church,” Princeton Theological Review: I regret not finding out about this opportunity earlier, as the due date is just a week away, but I’m posting it so that you can be sure to look out for this art and theology–themed issue in the spring!

Graduate students and early-career scholars are invited to submit papers to the spring 2018 edition of the Princeton Theological Review. We welcome papers from various disciplinary perspectives (theology, philosophy, church history, biblical studies, social sciences, etc.) as they relate to the theme of art and the church. How does theology manifest in all different forms of art (painting, poetry, photography, sculpture, music, theater, film, literature, dance, or any other creative endeavors)? How does artistic expression give voice to piety, critique, worship, or spiritual struggle? How has art influenced and been influenced by biblical interpretations, theological movements, historical context, or cultural conditions? Why is art such a powerful medium for Christian expression? All submissions are due January 8, 2018.

The current issue of PTR, released this fall, is on the same topic and is available for free download. Subtitled “A Festschrift for Gordon Graham,” it includes reflections by three leading thinkers on Professor Graham’s latest book, Philosophy, Art, and Religion: Understanding Faith and Creativity, as well as three essays: “Visual Images and Reformed Anxieties: Some Scottish Reflections” by David Ferguson; “The Scandal of the Evangelical Eye” by Matthew J. Milliner; and “God, One and Three—Artistic Struggles with the Trinity” by Gesa E. Thiessen. [HT: millinerd.com]

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COMPANION EXHIBITIONS
October 10, 2017–January 14, 2018
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

“Sacred Landscapes: Nature in Renaissance Manuscripts”: “In Renaissance Europe, many people looked to nature for spiritual inspiration and to guide their contemplation of the divine. In manuscripts created for personal or communal devotion, elements of nature—such as rocks, trees, flowers, waterways, mountains, and even the atmosphere—add layers of meaning to the illuminations, which were painted with careful observation of every minute detail. These landscapes remind readers to appreciate, and respect, the wonder of creation.” Read more at The Iris, the blog maintained by Getty curators, educators, conservators, and other staff.

“Giovanni Bellini: Landscapes of Faith in Renaissance Venice”: “Giovanni Bellini’s evocative landscapes are as much the protagonists of his paintings as are the religious subjects that dominated 15th-century Italian art. One of the most influential painters of the Renaissance, he worked in and around Venice, and while his landscapes are highly metaphorical, they also accurately reflect the region’s topography and natural light. Created for sophisticated patrons, Bellini’s works present characters and symbols from familiar sacred stories, set in a dimension of reality and lived experience to a degree unprecedented in the history of Italian painting.”

Crucifixion (detail) by Giovanni Bellini
Giovanni Bellini (Italian, ca. 1430–1516), Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist (detail), ca. 1459. Oil and tempera on wood panel. Museo Correr, Venice.

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TEMPORARY INSTALLATION: Yesterday was the last day to see “Nativity Scenes of the World” by Ejti Štih, an installation of thirty culturally diverse, life-size cut-out figures inside the concert hall of Slovenia’s famous Postojna Cave. What a location! Click here for a quick video tour of all the figures.

Nativity by Ejti Stih

Nativity by Ejti Stih

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I’m excited to dig into the new books I got for Christmas! Thanks, family—you’re the best. (And no, Mom, the book-length bibliography of ekphrastic poetry was not a mistake on my wishlist. Yes, really.)

Christmas books

Io, io, io! (Artful Devotion)

Mystic Nativity by Sandro Botticelli
Sandro Botticelli (Italian, ca. 1445–1510), Mystic Nativity, 1500. Oil on canvas, 108.6 × 74.9 cm. National Gallery, London.

Messenger: Don’t be afraid! Listen! I bring good news, news of great joy, news that will affect all people everywhere. Today, in the city of David, a Liberator has been born for you! He is the promised Anointed One, the Supreme Authority! You will know you have found Him when you see a baby, wrapped in a blanket, lying in a feeding trough. . . .

Heavenly Choir: To the highest heights of the universe, glory to God! And on earth, peace among all people who bring pleasure to God! . . .

Shepherds: Let’s rush down to Bethlehem right now! Let’s see what’s happening! Let’s experience what the Lord has told us about!

—Luke 2:10–12, 14, 16 (The Voice)

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SONG: “Ding Dong Merrily on High” | Music: French dance tune, 16th century | Words: George Ratcliffe Woodward, 1924 | Adapted and performed by Rend Collective, from Campfire Christmas, 2014

Ding dong! merrily on high,
In heav’n the bells are ringing:
Ding dong! verily the sky
Is riv’n with angel singing.

Gloria!
Hosanna in excelsis!

E’en so here below, below,
Let steeple bells be swungen,
And “Io, io, io!”
By priest and people sungen.

Gloria!
Hosanna in excelsis!

Ding dong! merrily on high,
The curse of sin is broken:
Ding dong! open up your eyes,
The celebration’s starting.

Gloria!
Hosanna in excelsis!

[The third verse above, by Rend Collective, replaces the original:
Pray you, dutifully prime
Your matin chime, ye ringers;
May you beautifully rhyme
Your evetime song, ye singers.]

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At the birth of God’s Son, heaven and earth danced. For heaven and earth embrace. All things are filled with divine music, and we too are invited to move our lives with grace, in harmony with divine love.

—Richard Harries, from A Gallery of Reflections: The Nativity of Christ—Devotional reflections on the Christmas story in art

Do you blame me that I sit hours before this picture?
But if I walked all over the world in the time
I should hardly see anything worth seeing that is not in this picture.

—G. K. Chesterton on Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity, from his notebooks (mid-1890s)

The dance of the Mystery of Christ is always going on: the band playing the music of forgiveness never takes a break. . . . The real job of Christians as far as the world is concerned is simply to dance to the hidden music—and to try, by the joy of their dancing, to wake the world up to the party it is already at.

—Robert Farrar Capon, from The Mystery of Christ . . . And Why We Don’t Get It


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 Nativity of the Lord, cycle B, click here.

Roundup: Animated Nativity short; Bethlehem speaks; “Glory in the Darkest Place”; Norwegian jazz; gilding goldfinch

SHORT FILMS:

Rozhdestvo (The Nativity) (1996), written and directed by Mikhail Aldashin: I am blown away by this wordless animated short from Russia. Using a naive art style washed in sepia tones and set to a soundtrack of Bach and Beethoven, it tells the story of how angels, humans, and animals came together on the first Christmas to worship the newborn Christ. It opens with Gabriel peeking out from behind a tree at Mary hanging laundry, then chasing her down a footpath to tell her what God is up to. For every person and critter he encounters, Gabriel flashes open the book of God’s word, pointing them to the shalom it prophesies and inviting them to enter in. By the end, shepherds, fishermen, kings, rabbits, lambs, and lion are participating in a round dance outside the stable, while an angel orchestra (which includes violins and timpani!) plays from the rooftop.

An emphasis on the sweet humanity of the holy couple—scared, tired, joyful, loving—makes this film especially endearing, and the roles given to animals reminds us that under Christ, all creation will be redeemed. I’m adding this to my annual Christmas watchlist! [HT: ArtWay]

Note: For a more pleasurable viewing experience, click on “vimeo” in the bottom right corner, then click the fullscreen icon on the new video page that pops up.

O Little Town of Bethlehem (2012), directed and edited by Tim Parsons: Commissioned by St. Paul’s Arts and Media (SPAM) in Auckland, New Zealand, this film tells the story of Christ’s Nativity through the voices of those who currently live in and around his birthplace of Bethlehem. A Palestinian shepherd, taxi driver, street vendor, midwife, peace activist, and antiquities dealer are among those interviewed, each reflecting on the significance of Christ’s story and providing a window into Middle Eastern culture. Some are Christian, others are Muslim (the Koran has its own account of the virginal conception and birth of Jesus—or Isa, as he is known in that tradition).

Though filmed five years ago, the living conditions captured in this video still exist. The West Bank’s 440-mile wall, built by Israel on seized land, plows through front yards, farms, and university campuses and restricts the movement of Palestinians—to water, work, prayer, and hospitals. Since the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948, many Palestinians have been displaced from their homes and live in refugee camps. The director said he didn’t want to make the film political but that he couldn’t avoid filming these realities. The hopes and prayers expressed by the film’s subjects we should adopt as our own this Christmas as we reflect on the birth of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love two thousand years ago in this little Palestinian town.

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SONGS:

“Glory in the Darkest Place” by Brittany Hope: Last December Brittany Hope Kauflin (whose professional name drops the “Kauflin”) wrote “a song for those in darkness this Christmas season,” video-recording it at home with her sister McKenzie and her dad Bob. The outpouring of appreciation she received made her recognize the demand for soft and somber Christmas songs that probe for the light—as for many people, the holidays are characterized more by sadness than by celebration. Now the song is available, along with seven others in the same vein, on the album Glory in the Darkest Place. To read an introduction to the song by Bob Kauflin and/or to download the chord chart, piano score, and lyrics, click here. [HT: Bruce Benedict]

“Hellige Natt” (O Holy Night), arr. Eirik Hegdal, feat. Kirsti Huke: This innovative Norwegian jazz arrangement of the Christmas classic “O Holy Night” is performed inside the medieval Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Jazz Ensemble and the NTNU Chamber Orchestra. An impressive space whose grandeur is matched by this rich, expressive performance. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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ILLUMINATED POEM:

“Goldfinch” by Robert Macfarlane, illuminated by Jackie Morris: Nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s critically acclaimed book The Lost Words: A Spell Book, illustrated by Jackie Morris and published this October, is a joyful celebration of the nature words that were dropped from the 2008 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Aiming to “enchant nearby nature again” for both kids and adults, it comprises a series of acrostic poems whose main letters are gilded in gold leaf.

Goldfinch poem
Poem by Robert Macfarlane. Art by Jackie Morris.

I’m pleased to see that Macfarlane’s collaboration with Morris has continued with his latest “Goldfinch”—a “‘charm’ about hope, harm, gift & darkness.” Handwritten over a painting by Morris, the poem begins

God knows the world needs all the good it can get right now—and
out in the gardens, the woods, goldfinches are gilding the land for free,
leaving little gifts of light . . .

The piece is reproduced in the latest issue of Elementum Journal, and the original has sold. Hear Morris read the poem in the SoundCloud player above.

Click here to read an interview with Macfarlane and Morris on the making of The Lost Words, and here to read Macfarlane’s response to a 2002 study that found that four- to eleven-year-old Brits are better at identifying Pokémon characters than native species of plants and animals, like oak tree and badger. Also, check out his other books, like Landscape, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, The Wild Places, and Mountains of the Mind.


Many of the artworks and resources I share on these roundup posts I discover through the individuals, organizations, or publications I follow on social media or via RSS. If I’m not introduced to the content directly by its maker, I will try to indicate an “HT” credit, shorthand for “hat tip,” meaning thank you, X, for bringing this to my attention! All descriptions and commentary, however, are my own, unless set in quote marks.

Roundup: “O Children, Come”; the Christmas story through news photos; Messiaen and the Incarnation; art from Bethlehem; nativity musical soundtrack

SONG: “O Children, Come” by Keith and Kristyn Getty: The Gettys are an Irish married couple who are major contributors to the modern Christian hymn-writing movement. I really enjoyed singing this song of theirs at church last week (CCLI 7036340); it was my first time hearing it. The acoustic performance below is from the Gettys’ 2015 Christmas concert. They’ve also recorded it with Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

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PHOTO ESSAY: “Alternative Nativity”: Kezia M’Clelland works with children affected by conflict in the Middle East and raises public awareness through her blog, Kezia Here and There. In 2015 she compiled news photos that document the refugee crisis and set them to excerpts from St. Matthew’s account of Christ’s birth and the prologue to St. John’s Gospel—a very powerful pairing that gives impetus to our Advent cry, “Come, Lord Jesus!” This is not a generic mashup; each photo was carefully selected to amplify a corresponding scripture text.

Alternative nativity1
“About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for.” (Photo via Reuters. Displaced Yazidis escape across the Syrian border by foot, fleeing violence from the Islamic State militants who have taken over their home town of Sinjar.)
Alternative nativity2
“So Joseph went to Bethlehem. He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was obviously pregnant by this time.” (Photo via Al Jazeera. A refugee father with his pregnant wife and daughter asks for permission to enter into Hungary near Roszke as the border fence with Serbia is closed by Hungarian police.)

For each subsequent Advent, M’Clelland has released something in a similar vein: the video “Hope Is on the Way” in 2016 (embedded below), and this year, daily scripture verses, mainly from the Old Testament prophets, emblazoned across photos from today’s Middle East (to go to the next entry, scroll to the bottom of the link and click “Advent Day 2”). “This year again these Advent pictures and words will speak of a hope that is now and not yet,” she writes. “I am grateful that Advent gives us the freedom to weep and to hope, to rejoice and to grieve, to wait for and to recognise the Christ who is already here among us.”

Marrying the Christmas story with contemporary photojournalism can teach us to “pray with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other,” as the popular adage goes. As we see the world’s brokenness, it should intensify our fervor for Christ’s shalom and impel us to action.

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UPCOMING MUSIC & ART EVENT: “Messiaen and the Incarnation,” December 20, 8 p.m., St. Mary’s Addington, London: Next Wednesday evening, Dr. Edward Forman will be performing three movements each from the French avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen’s organ suite La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord) and piano suite Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus). Messiaen was a committed Christian who sought to express theological truths in a fresh, modern idiom. Like much of his output, these two works reject the Western conventions of forward motion, development, and diatonic harmonic resolution, so they can be difficult for first-time hearers. But this complexity, this sense of the unexpected, is appropriate for the mystical content they seek to convey.

Inspired by the unique palette of sounds, textures, and rhythms of Nativité, British artist Sophie Hacker translated these into visual form. After deeply studying the music, in 2007 she created nine mixed-media panels in response—one for each movement—using slats of wood, nails, lead, wire, tree bark, and other found objects; you can see some of her process in the video below. These premiered at Winchester Cathedral in 2008. Then again in 2015 Hacker participated in another Messiaen-inspired artistic collaboration, under the direction of pianist Cordelia Williams, with poets Michael Symmons Roberts and Rowan Williams. This project is called “Between Heaven and the Clouds: Messiaen 2015.”

La Nativité du Seigneur by Sophie Hacker
Sophie Hacker (British), La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord), 2007. Mixed media on nine canvases, 60 × 60 cm each. Photo: Mike J. Davis.

To guide us through the listening experience, St. Mary’s will be projecting Hacker’s artworks onto a screen during the playing, and interspersing it with poetic reflections on the theological themes—from the Bible, Messiaen, Roland Riem (Icons of the Incarnation), and other sources. “We think it is equally pointless to try to explain Messiaen’s music in words as to attempt a sensible account of what it means for God to become human,” writes Forman in the booklet that will be provided to attendees. “We hope that the visual effects, words and music will enhance each other in ways that are inspiring and provoking.”

Messiaen’s compositions are definitely more challenging than the standard Christmas music fare, so I am grateful that St. Mary’s has the boldness, vision, and talent to offer them to the public, and in the meaningful context (which you likely won’t get in the concert hall) of meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation.

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ARTIST PROFILE: Zaki Baboun: Zaki Baboun is a Palestinian Christian artist living in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem. He paints religious scenes in oils on olive wood, which you can browse and purchase here—either the originals or reproductions on Christmas cards.

The first video below contains a short, two-minute interview with Zaki and shows him painting The Journey of the Magi; the second shows him painting The Good Shepherd.

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ALBUM: The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby by Waterdeep: I saw the world premiere of this nativity musical last summer in New York (read my review here), and it really helped shepherd my imagination into a deeper understanding of Mary and Joseph’s social and emotional realities. Now the album is out! The songs express the many ups and downs the Holy Couple likely underwent in their faith journeys to bring the Messiah into the world, with the theme of deliverance standing in highest relief. (Mary’s opening song, “I Want to Be Delivered,” is what spurs, much to her shock, the Annunciation, and the finale, “Walk Through the Sea on Dry Land,” draws everyone into a joyful reminiscence of God’s mighty hand in ages past, manifest in the present through the birth of the Christ child.) Comedy is provided through invented characters like Joseph’s friend Benjamin, the innkeeper and his wife, and a shepherd named Naphtali.

The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph's Baby album cover

The most poignant scene, for me—and hence probably my favorite song—is the “Magnificat.” The biblical account doesn’t tell us much about Mary’s state of mind at this point, so the writers imagine her coming to Elizabeth filled with fear, and Elizabeth building her up, preaching truth to her (and sharing her own story of shame), helping her move from doubt to confidence. Elizabeth’s song is what emboldens Mary to sing. Their “Magnificat” is later reprised by the full cast immediately following Christ’s birth, concluding part 1.

The new album is not an original cast recording; instead the songs were recorded by their writer, Don Chaffer, and his wife, Lori, and released under the Waterdeep moniker. Stream on Spotify; sample and purchase at Amazon or iTunes.