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.”

Easter, Day 8

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

—Ephesians 3:16–19

For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness . . .

“Sleeper, awake!
    Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

—Ephesians 5:8–11a, 14b

LOOK: Resurrection by Lu Lan

Lu Lan_Resurrection
Lu Lan (Chinese, 1972–), Resurrection, 1996. Tempera on cardboard, 50 × 50 cm.

LISTEN: “Easter Light” | Words by Angier Brock and music by Cecilia McDowall, 2016 | Performed by the Oxford Choir, on Oxford Choral Highlights 2017

In Easter light, the risen Christ is moving among us.
     How brightly the meadowlark sings its song of the season.
          Alleluia.
     How gently the Easter light lifts the face of the lily.
         Christ is risen.
With illumed heart and radiant faces,
     we too sing in that light.
          Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia. Alleluia.

Let Christ be rising now in our lives and in our prayers,
     as we open our hands to both friend and stranger.
Let Christ be rising now in our words and in our work
     as we strive to repair the earth
     and free all its creatures from danger.

Risen Christ of limitless love,
     Risen Christ of compassion and peace,
          Risen Christ of gracious surprising—
You move among us in Easter light.
Be now in us, rising.

I so love Angier Brock’s collaborations with Cecilia McDowall. I featured another of their choral anthems, “Advent Moon,” two Advents ago.

“Easter Light” is quieter and more reflective than most other Easter anthems. It muses on how, as the natural world awakens to the fullness of spring, our hearts are beckoned to come awake also. Christ rose from his grave in first-century Palestine and he rises in his followers, moving us to love, compassion, peace, generosity, and works of repair and liberation. This anthem is a blessing and a prayer—that we would be reanimated, reastonished, by the “risen Christ of gracious surprising”; that we would be Easter people, people of life and light, practicing resurrection.

The text above is as Brock wrote it. She gave McDowall the leeway to rearrange the order of lines, to repeat and layer words, and so on. Brock told me how pleased she is by how McDowall set the alleluias. “I think of them as ‘falling alleluias’ or ‘waterfalls of alleluias,’” she said.

In addition to being a sacred lyricist, Brock is also a poet. I asked her if she approaches differently the task of writing a poem that she knows will be set to music for church contexts versus writing a poem that does not have that objective. Here’s what she said:

For me, the biggest difference between writing a hymn or anthem text, as opposed to a freestanding poem, is that with the hymn or anthem, I know I will quite literally be putting words into other peoples’ mouths. And not just any words—words about faith, about the Holy, the Divine. Theology figures in—not my personal or private theology, but something larger. That adds a layer of—I’m not sure what the word is. Complexity? Responsibility? Gravitas? Something like one of those things, or some combination thereof.

The above recording is of a performance by the collegiate Oxford Choir, but for examples of church choirs singing “Easter Light” for Easter Day worship services, see the following timestamped video links:

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This concludes my *daily* posts in this format—but there are still another forty-two days of Easter, and I hope you’re continuing to celebrate! I’ll still be sharing content throughout the remainder of the season, just at a lesser frequency. In the meantime, I hope you’re enjoying the Art & Theology Eastertide Playlist, which includes today’s featured song.

If you would like to leave me a “tip” for the Lent-Easter posts or playlists, you can do so through PayPal. I appreciate your support, which gives me the freedom to step away from paid freelancing projects to devote time here, and to keep all the blog content free and available to everyone instead of moving to a Patreon model. If you don’t have a PayPal account but still wish to contribute to my work (as some of you have indicated to me), you could buy me a book from my Amazon wish list. Books feed my research and shape my spiritual development and can impact what I cover on the blog. Please note that wish list items do not equal endorsements.

I wish you all a very happy Eastertide! Thanks for journeying with me through Lent and Bright Week.

Roundup: “God is…” exhibition, new song cycle inspired by turn-of-the-century photographs, healing the imagination, and more

EXHIBITION: “God is . . . ,” May 14–23, gallery@oxo, London: The winning entry from the second Chaiya Art Awards competition, along with forty-nine shortlisted others, are being exhibited in London’s South Bank starting tomorrow. The exhibition also has a virtual option, which I received an advance preview of, along with the catalog. Read my review at ArtWay.eu. There is a diverse range of responses to the theme of “God is . . . ,” in a range of media!

Chaiya Art Awards 2021

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VIRTUAL CONCERT: “I Should Be Glad”: On May 2 the Choral Society of Durham and the Duke University Chorale put on a virtual concert, performing songs of lament and hope. They sing of “hours that go on broken wings” and “the unchanging ache of things”; of “this long, hard climb, carr[ying] ancestral sorrow”; of violence and murder; of God’s seeming absence; of feeling like a “moanin’ dove.” But they also sing invitations to be glad, to lay down one’s burden, to see beauty, to soar. Click here for a copy of the program, which contains credits, texts, and translations. I really enjoyed the selection of pieces—most were new to me—and the execution (technical and artistic) is excellent. An hour very well spent. Note that in lieu of a ticket charge, a $10 donation is recommended.

Among the songs are contemporary choral settings of traditional prayers, a civil rights hymn, and the world premiere of the five-movement Where We Find Ourselves by Michael Bussewitz-Quarm (she/her), inspired by the photographs of Hugh Magnum. Magnum, who was white, ran an integrated portrait studio in the Jim Crow South from 1897 until his death in 1922, photographing white and Black clients with equal dignity. The glass plate negatives and contact prints languished in his family’s moldering tobacco barn in Durham, North Carolina, until the 1970s, when they were discovered prior to the property’s slated demolition. They were transferred (many of them damaged) to the Duke University archives, where they again lay mostly dormant until being recently dug out by photographer-writers Margaret Sartor and Alex Harris, who compiled and presented them as an exhibition and accompanying book. Bussewitz-Quarm’s composition is a moving meditation on these timeworn photographs, and the lyrics by Shantel Sellers are pure poetry.

Hugh Magnum photographs
Photographs by Hugh Magnum, courtesy of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University, Durham, NC

Hugh Magnum photographs
Hugh Magnum photographs
In some of the negatives the panels have fused, causing the subjects to extend past their frames and thus giving the illusion that they were sitting together.

Hugh Magnum photograph
“The portraits are often accidentally double-exposed,” writes Sarah Blackwood for the New Yorker, “and many of the double exposures overlay images of white and black sitters, who suddenly seem to sit alongside or even atop one another. Such ghostly interactions produce from two Mangum portraits an entirely new image altogether, one in which the pride and pleasure of self-presentation is shadowed by the racial realities of the time.”

Set list:

  • “I Should Be Glad” by Susan LaBarr (composer) and Sara Teasdale (lyricist)
  • “Sometimes I Feel,” traditional African American spiritual, arr. Alice Parker and Robert Shaw
  • “Meet Me Here” (from Considering Matthew Shepard) by Craig Hella Johnson
  • “Wanting Memories” by Ysaye M. Barnwell
  • “Hymn for These Times” by Jay Rogers (composer) and Meggan Moorhead (lyricist)
  • “Ave Maria” by Robert Nathaniel Dett (composer)
  • “Our Father” by Paul D. Weber (composer)
  • “Where We Find Ourselves” by Michael Bussewitz-Quarm (composer) and Shantel Sellers (lyricist)
  • “Hymn to Freedom” by Oscar Peterson (composer) (arr. Paul W. Read) and Harriette Hamilton (lyrics)

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POEM COMMENTARY: “The Night” by Henry Vaughan, commentary by Dr. Grace Hamman (blog post | podcast episode): I’ve featured poems by Henry Vaughan several times on this blog but not the one that just might be his most famous: “The Night,” about the Pharisee Nicodemus’s midnight rendezvous with Jesus (see John 3). It contains the beautiful and much-lauded line “There is in God, some say, / A deep but dazzling darkness . . .” Medieval literature scholar Grace Hamman [previously], podcaster and blogger at Old Books with Grace, reads and unpacks the poem, first giving some historical and biographical context. Vaughan was an Anglican Welshman living during the English Civil War when the Puritans were in power, which means he was cut off from the forms of worship through which he was used to encountering Christ. This, Hamman says, influenced his writing of the poem and of the larger collection, Silex Scintillians, it’s a part of.

She has made the commentary available in both written and audio form.

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EDITORIALS by JAMES K.A. SMITH:

When I see a James K.A. Smith [previously] byline, I know what follows is going to be good. He’s a fantastic thinker, writer, and speaker—and he’s the editor in chief of my favorite arts journal, Image. Below is a link to the opening editorial he wrote for each of the last two issues. (The whole journal is full of rich content. Subscribe!)

>> “Healing the Imagination: Art Lessons from James Baldwin,” Image no. 107 (Winter 2020): Here Smith engages with James Baldwin’s 1964 essay “The Uses of the Blues,” in which Baldwin discusses how we “project onto the Negro face, because it is so visible, all of our guilts and aggressions and desires”; white America invents stories and images of Black Americans that reflect our disfigured imaginations. “The imagination is a form of habit, a learned, bodily disposition to the world. . . . It’s the imagination—well- or malformed—that determines what I see before I look,” Smith writes.

He connects Baldwin’s essay to Jesus’s parable of the good Samaritan, showing how the priest and the Levite had different habits of perception than the protagonist. “To see the person before me as an enemy or animal”—or, I would add, a burden—“is a failure of imagination; to see a neighbor instead is a feat of the imagination. Our society is grappling with a soul-sickness that is ultimately an infection of our imagination.” We reflexively imagine others as threats, competitors, adversaries.

The arts can play a huge role in reshaping our imaginations, in retraining us to see people rightly. “I dream of a third Great Awakening,” he says, “in which our imaginations would be reborn, a sanctification of sight baptized by stories and images such that even our first glance is holy. The tents for this revival would be galleries and cinemas; we’ll sing from poems and novels; the altar call will invite us to attend plays and contemplate sculpture.” He’s not saying art should replace church or religion but that art is a powerful agent of spiritual and perceptual formation; “the arts pluck the strings of our imagination uniquely.”

In their March 3 episode, “Healing the Imagination, with James K.A. Smith,” The Weight podcast had Smith on to expound on some of the points in the editorial, to unpack this musing: “Could it be that the arts are more likely to move the needle on our collective perception of one another?” He discusses definitions of “culture” and “art,” both creational goods (God has deputized human beings to unfurl the tacit possibilities he has folded into creation!); the influence of Augustine and Kuyper on his thought; the “transcending, opening, decentering” potential of artistic encounters; his experience of becoming an American citizen; and why he believes national healing will come not primarily through politics but through the arts. He mentions a few commendable recent examples of churches’ hospitality toward artists, citing Pope John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists, written “to all who are passionately dedicated to the search for new ‘epiphanies’ of beauty so that through their creative work as artists they may offer these as gifts to the world,” and Redeemer Church of Knoxville, who converted the unused rooms of their building into artist studios for the larger community to use.

“Christian communities, if they actually really care about healing the soul of a nation, could do no better than to invest in the arts,” Smith says. “Not so we can go make Thomas Kinkade paintings or Kirk Cameron movies or whatever, but so that we have artists who are actually speaking to our neighbors in ways that meet them as human.”

>> “How to Visit a Museum: Disciplines of Availability,” Image no. 108 (Spring 2021): “Aesthetic experiences I didn’t go looking for that burrow their way most deeply into my psyche . . . are only possible if I am cultivating a way of life that puts me in front of artworks that don’t conform to my preferences. That might mean signing up for the disciplines of an aesthetic way of life in which I am puzzled or frustrated or decentered by the feeling of ‘not getting it.’ It means approaching paintings and poems without expecting immediate returns. In my experience, the way of surprise lies in listening to a community of friends bear witness to what has captivated them and letting my puzzlement be an impetus to explore new territory. When Shane McCrae gushes about a poet who has felt inaccessible to me, I assume I have something to learn. And so I taste and see. A life hungry for aesthetic surprise does not settle for daily doses of predictably poignant comfort; instead, I need to expose my palate to strange, maybe even unsavory tastes as a way of making myself available for the sublime. While we can’t manufacture the surprise, we can learn to make ourselves available.” Read more at the link.

Reminds me of a creative prompt given last November by Corey Frey of The Well Collaborative in Frederick, Maryland: “Find a challenging poem or work of art or piece of music that doesn’t trigger your appreciative mechanism quite so easily. Sit with it. Let it confuse you. Allow its toe to creep in the crack of the door of your respect (re-spect: look a second time).”

Roundup: Black church–inspired art exhibition; new albums; visual Easter Vigil liturgy; and more

EXHIBITION: Otherwise/Revival, Bridge Projects, Los Angeles, April 9–June 26, 2021: Curated by Jasmine McNeal and Cara Megan Lewis, this group exhibition visualizes the impact of the historic Black church—specifically the Black Pentecostal movement—on contemporary artists. Included are several artists I’ve featured on the blog before—Lava Thomas [here], Kehinde Wiley [here], Clementine Hunter [here], Letitia and Sedrick Huckaby [here]—plus twenty-six others.

Phyllis Stephens (American, 1955–), High and Lifted Up, 2020. Cotton fabric, 57 × 33 in. Private collection. Courtesy of the artist and Richard Beavers Gallery, New York.

Davis, Kenturah_Namesake I
Kenturah Davis (American, 1984–), Namesake I, 2014. Incense ink on rice paper, applied with rubber stamp letters, 39 × 36 in. Courtesy of the artist and the Petrucci Family Foundation, New Jersey.

I regret that I won’t be able to see the exhibition in person, but there’s a wealth of relevant content available on the gallery’s website, including photos, artist bios and statements, and commentaries. I haven’t fully delved in yet, but some of the artist names are new to me, and I look forward to jumping over to their websites to learn more. There’s also a series of free events that have been scheduled. The premiere of the virtual music performance yes! lord by Ashton T. Crawley and a symposium on the Azusa Street Revival have already passed (both are archived online for on-demand viewing), but here are some upcoming opportunities you can reserve a spot for:

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ARTICLE: “5 Films About the Beauty of Resurrection” by Brett McCracken: “Resurrection’ tropes are so familiar in certain genres that they can numb us to the jarring beauty and bracing surprise of resurrection. But other films capture the magic and shock of resurrection by situating it within more mundane realities and contexts. Here are five of my favorite examples of this kind—movies that capture resurrection in all of its miraculous, unsettling, hope-giving glory.” One of his selections is Happy as Lazzaro, which I saw last year and enjoyed:

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NEW ALBUMS:

>> Hymns I by Lovkn: Steven Lufkin is a singer-songwriter from Phoenix, Arizona, recording under the name Lovkn. His latest EP, a collection of eight acoustic hymn covers, was released April 2. (Also, he’s currently raising funds to record an album of original songs, to be released later this year: kickstarter.com/projects/lovkn/new-album-2021.)

>> Prayers for the Time of Trial by Joel Clarkson: Released April 7, this EP comprises five original SATB choral compositions by Joel Clarkson, which he recorded with his sister Joy Clarkson. My favorite is the first, “Lighten Our Darkness,” a setting of the Book of Common Prayer’s Collect for Aid Against Perils: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.”

The other four are “Sub Tuum Praesidium” (Beneath Thy Protection), a third-century hymn to the Virgin Mary as Theotokos; “Hail King,” a poem by Joel’s other sister, Sarah Clarkson, that marvels how rocky cliffs and sea waves and herring gulls sing God’s praises in their own way; “Ubi Caritas,” an ancient hymn centered on the theme of Christian charity; and the simple benediction “May the peace of the Lord be with you now and always.”

In addition to composing music, Joel is also a professional audiobook narrator and the author of Sensing God: Experiencing the Divine in Nature, Food, Music, and Beauty.

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ORTHODOX CHANT: Russian Kontakion of the Departed: At Prince Philip’s funeral service at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle on April 17, a choir of four sang, among other pieces, the Russian Kontakion of the Departed, translated into English by William John Birkbeck and arranged by Sir Walter Parratt. “The Russian Kontakion of the Departed is an ancient Kiev chant with its origins in the Russian Orthodox liturgy. This moving chant expresses the sorrow of grief but reminds us of the Christian hope of everlasting life; in the face of sadness, we sing Hallelujahs.” [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy saints:
where sorrow and pain are no more;
neither sighing but life everlasting.
Thou only art immortal, the creator and maker of man:
and we are mortal formed from the dust of the earth,
and unto earth shall we return:
for so thou didst ordain,
when thou created me saying:
Dust thou art und unto dust shalt thou return.
All we go down to the dust;
and weeping o’er the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

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VISUAL LITURGY: “After Ezekiel” by Madeleine Jubilee Saito: Remember those flip books you probably encountered as a kid—the ones with a series of images that gradually change from one page to the next, giving the illusion of animation when viewed in quick succession? Well, this is a digital version of that. In 2019 cartoonist and illustrator Madeleine Jubilee Saito created an image sequence intended to be swiftly clicked through as part of the Easter Vigil at a church in Boston. It was inspired by the story of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37). Very compelling!