And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory.
Epiphany, meaning “revelation,” is the capstone of the Christmas season. In this final post of this year’s Christmas series, I leave you with a striking, light-flecked painting from Japan and a slow-tempo Black gospel song from the US. What marvel, that God’s glory fills such places as ours, and that he invites us not only to behold his glory but also to participate in it.
May God’s light continue to guide and enfold you throughout the year, and may you never stop seeking his face.
To view a compilation of this season’s numbered Christmas posts, click here; for Advent, here.
LOOK: Morning Star by Hiroshi Tabata
Born in Takaoka City, Hiroshi Tabata (1929–2014) studied art at the University of Toyama, later moving to France for two years for further art education. He exhibited his work throughout Japan and at Parisian salons. From 1966 to 1972 he lived intermittently in Brazil among the Xingu people, which led to his conversion to Christianity. From then on until his death, he painted biblical subjects. “The Bible is the ultimate theme for me,” he said; its world is “infinitely deeper” than we can comprehend.
In Tabata’s expressionistic Morning Star, starlight falls in a luminescent sheen over the face of the Christ child, whom Mary looks upon in tender adoration as Joseph wonders at the angelic activity above. The tight cropping around the Holy Family heightens the sense of intimacy. A sheep, donkey, and Amazon parrot (the latter a callback to his time in Brazil) crowd into the foreground, while on distant hills shepherds behold the glorious light display, hear the announcement that will propel them to their newborn Messiah. The wise men, too, are on their way. Epiphany is at hand. Heaven’s raining down (Isa. 45:8).
This visual reflection (by me) originally appeared in the Christmas/Epiphany 2022–23 edition of the Daily Prayer Project. Tabata’s art appears on the cover, by kind permission of his son-in-law. To view more biblical art by Tabata, see the beautifully produced, full-color book 田畑弘作品集 一つの星 (Hiroshi Tabata Works: One Star); the text is all Japanese.
LISTEN: “A Star Stood Still (Song of the Nativity)” | Words and music by Barbara Ruth Broderick and Johnny Broderick, 1956 | Performed by Mahalia Jackson with the Falls-Jones Ensemble, conducted by Johnny Williams, on Silent Night: Songs for Christmas, 1962
And we shall share In the glorious light
In Bethlehem The wind had ceased The Lamb lay sleeping On the hill
When all the earth Was stilled with peace Then lo, a star stood still
A star stood still On yonder hill Praise God that star still Shining still
And we shall share In the glory of love Because a star stood still That night a star stood still
A star stood still On yonder hill Praise God that star still Shining still
And we shall share In the glory of love Because a star stood still That night a star stood still
Note to readers: Art & Theology is noncommercial, but I do accept donations (monetary, or in-kind books!) to help keep it running.Learn more here.
Tomorrow, January 6, is the feast of Epiphany, commemorating the visit of the magi to the infant Christ, an episode that represents God’s manifestation to the nations beyond Israel. Printmaker John August Swanson visualizes their journey in a starkly vertical composition that was conceived as the right wing of a triptych (three-paneled artwork), the other two panels depicting the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Nativity. In subsequent years he addedA Visit (depicting the Annunciation to Mary), Flight into Egypt, and Presentation in the Temple to the set.
Epiphany depicts the journey of the three Magi as they travel up a serpentine trail. One of the Wise Men is seated as he looks at a map of the constellations with his magnifying glass; his servant holds a lamp so that he can see. Another Magi searches with his telescope into the sky. They look up in search of their beautiful guiding star as angels surround and point to it. They have exotic birds, peacocks, and dogs among their animals. I have tried to capture the details of the many plants, bushes, and trees and to create a variety of colors of green.
I used many symbols within the tapestries draping the animals. These patterns depict the Lion of Judah, the lamp in the darkness, the rain falling on the parched ground, the key to the locked door, the crown and the heart, and the gates to the city.
This is part of a series of three images (triptych). They were inspired by the Mexican tradition that I am familiar with for Christmas. Families will each create a beautiful crèche (nacimiento) with many figures and animals, creating a whole environment with landscaping in miniature around the Nativity figurines.
His other inspirations for this set include the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti and the medieval stained glass windows in Chartres Cathedral.
John August Swanson (1938–2021) [previously] was born in Los Angeles of a Mexican mother and Swedish father. His father died when he was young, and he was raised in a multigenerational Mexican Catholic home. He studied serigraphy under Corita Kent [previously], and it became his primary medium. A serigraph is a type of print in which each color is individually layered by applying ink through a silkscreen onto paper. Epiphany has forty-eight individual colors.
LISTEN:“Bright and Glorious” | Original Danish text (“Deilig Er Den Himmel Blaa”) by Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig, 1810 | English translation by Jens Christian Aaberg, 1927; first stanza adapted by the editors of the Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal, 1958 | Music by Seth Thomas Crissman and Greg J. Yoder, 2017 | Performed by the Walking Roots Band on Hark! A Walking Roots Band Christmas, 2017
Bright and glorious is the sky Radiant are the heavens high Where the golden star is shining All its rays to earth inclining Leading to the newborn king Leading to the newborn king
Him they found in Bethlehem Yet he wore no diadem They but saw a maiden lowly With an infant pure and holy Resting in her loving arms Resting in her loving arms
Guided by the star, they found Him whose praise the ages sound We, too, have a star to guide us That forever will provide us With the light to find our Lord With the light to find our Lord
As a star, God’s holy word Leads us to our King and Lord Brightly from its sacred pages Shall this light throughout the ages Shine upon our path of life Shine upon our path of life
The Walking Roots Band (TWRB) is an acoustic folk/bluegrass-ish music group steeped in Anabaptist hymn-singing traditions and based in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Several of its members are the creative forces behind The Soil and The Seed Project, a liturgy and arts initiative launched in 2021.
Here they’ve retuned an Epiphany hymn from Denmark, which compares the star that led the magi to Jesus to the Bible, God’s word, which serves as a guiding light for spiritual seekers, leading us to Christ himself. Its pages offer countless epiphanies—revelations of God’s glory, opportunities for divine encounter. Its wisdom and truth can illuminate our paths if we let it.
Sessions are free and open to the public and will not be livestreamed (and the conversations require advance registration):
June 4, 7–9pm: Live Concert (Seattle, WA)
June 5, 9:45–11am: Worship Service (Normandy Park, WA)
June 5, 7–9:30pm: A Conversation on: Faith and the Arts (Seattle, WA)
June 6, 6:30–8:30pm: A Conversation on: Faith and Technology (Bellevue, WA)
June 7, 7–9pm: A Conversation on: Faith and Work (Seattle, WA)
Guite and Bell have been collaborating for years. Below are two snippets of them performing together. In the first video Guite comedically performs (to rhythmic accompaniment!) a villanelle he wrote in response to something a woman who worked at the venue of one of his poetry talks exasperatedly said to him when his hurried photocopying caused a paper jam. The second video showcases a sonnet by Guite on the baptism of Christ, from his collection Sounding theSeasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year, and the song that Bell adapted it into, released on Keening for the Dawn.
ESSAY: “The Listening Heart: Corita Kent’s Reforming Vision” by Michael Wright:Corita Kent (1918–1986) [previously] was an American pop artist who was also, for over three decades, a nun. Michael Wright writes about how “she became interested not just in depicting scenes from the Bible but answering this: what might happen if a Christian imagination engaged the world around us through the arts? That art might look less like an illustration from a children’s Bible and more like exploring seeing the stuff of life—even a bread bag—as dialogue partners with mysteries of faith.” wonderbread is one of four works he discusses—“a playful meditation on sacred time, wonder, and communion.”
While I do think even Kent’s biblical artworks push the genre of religious art forward, I appreciate how Wright challenges Christians to give a chance to her works that are less straightforwardly religious, as these are often the most imaginative and profound. And they, too, are “deeply Christian work.” Let’s not think so narrowly about what “Christian art” must look like!
LIVING PRAYER PERIODICAL: Pentecost 2022: One of the organizations I work for is the Daily Prayer Project [previously], which publishes seven ecumenical Christian prayer periodicals a year, structured around the liturgical calendar. I do the curation for the Gallery section, which comprises three art images with written reflections, and the editing. Our latest edition covers June 5 (the feast of Pentecost) through August 6, and it includes prayers from India, Japan, Korea, Algeria, Italy, the Choctow Nation, and more. I’m excited to feature on the cover Corita Kent’s word picture: gift of tongues! As many of her screenprints do, it integrates image and text—in this case Acts 2:1–2a, which sprawls out through the sky and onto a billowing banner, like a sail, over a crowd of people aflame with the fire of the newly descended Spirit of God.
On the website there are options for one-time purchase or group subscription, and for digital only or print and digital.
PRAYER: “The Lord’s Prayer, Extended Dance Mix” by Nadia Bolz-Weber: In March, actor Jennifer Garner asked Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz-Weber if she could offer a prayer and a benediction on her InstaLive. Bolz-Weber vamped on the traditional words of the Lord’s Prayer, the text of which you can read at the boldface link.
I haven’t always agreed with Bolz-Weber, but this prayer is beautiful. One of the things I appreciate about her spiritual teaching is her avoidance of clichés. She gives fresh language to the experiences of faith and life in general and to theology, which often reawakens me to the beauty of God and of Christ’s gospel. Describing why she regularly turns to prayer, she says in the Instagram video:
When I don’t have enough—like if I don’t have enough patience, if I don’t have enough compassion for myself or other people, when I don’t have enough resources—prayer is this way in which I can remind myself that there is enough. That I have a connection to my own divine source. I have a connection to God. And in the heart of God there’s enough forgiveness when I don’t have enough. In the heart of God there’s enough compassion when I don’t have enough. And so for me, it’s about reminding myself of that connection.
SONG: “Dry Bones” by Gregory Porter: From Gregory Porter’s 2021 album Still Rising, this song was inspired by Ezekiel 37. The official music video features dancing skeletons in yellow cowboy boots(!), animated by L’Incroyable Studio. The song’s bridge quotes the African American spiritual “Dem Bones.”
The first verse goes,
I won’t die, won’t bury, won’t sink ’Cause love is the spirit I drink I’ll be free in the morning light ’Cause your touch is the medicine of life There’s a dance to this beat, let’s shake Every move—feel my body awake There’s a sound—you and me are one And your hope is the rhythm I drum
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
LOOK: Comet by Antonello Silverini
LISTEN: “May It Be” | Words by Roma Ryan, 2001 | Music by Enya, 2001 | Performed by Voces8, 2018
May it be an evening star Shines down upon you May it be when darkness falls Your heart will be true You walk a lonely road Oh, how far you are from home
Mornië utúlië Believe and you will find your way Mornië alantië A promise lives within you now
May it be the shadow’s call Will fly away May it be you journey on To light the day When the night is overcome You may rise to find the sun
Mornië utúlië Believe and you will find your way Mornië alantië A promise lives within you now A promise lives within you now
At the behest of composer Howard Shore, film director Peter Jackson approached Enya to write a song for his 2001 epic fantasy adventure The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the first in a trilogy. Enya brought her lyricist Roma Ryan on board, and together they wrote “May It Be.” The song, which plays during the movie’s end credits, contains two lines in the fictional Elvish language Quenya that J. R. R. Tolkien invented: “Mornië utúlië” and “Mornië alantië,” which translate to “Darkness has come” and “Darkness has fallen.”
Why am I sharing this “secular” song (inspired by a tale of hobbits, elves, and wizards) on today’s feast of Epiphany, the grand finale of the Christmas season? I could have chosen one of the church’s many beautiful works of music written explicitly for this day (and I have in previous years, such as here, here, and here, not to mention yesterday’s festive feature)—perhaps something louder, brighter, more triumphant—but instead I wanted to cap off the Twelve Days of Christmas with a benediction. It’s from an unlikely source, sure, but it speaks well, I think, to where we’re at in the liturgical year.
According to Christianity, darkness entered the world with humanity’s rebellion against their Creator in the garden of Eden. Sin and death became a reality that, millennia later, we still grapple with. But a promise was spoken in the beginning, was born in a manger at Christmas, walked the dusty streets of Israel-Palestine teaching the Way and performing wonders, was nailed to a cross and buried but then rose from the grave and now lives in the hearts of millions. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God’s promise of salvation and holistic restoration—shalom, the world set right again.
The light of Christ shone on the small Jewish town of Bethlehem at the Nativity and on the wider Gentile world at Epiphany (when the magi traveled from afar to receive personal revelation, an experience they brought back with them to their homelands), and it continues to shine, often in unexpected places.
Advent is a journey through the dark into the light that breaks at Christmas/Epiphany. Although in one sense morning has broken, in another sense this earth is still very much in darkness. Even the “children of light” (1 Thess. 5:5), those who have been reborn in Christ, experience (and sometimes, sadly, inflict) ache and horror as much as anyone else.
But hope has come. The Word has been spoken, redemption won, even if it’s not yet been consummated. We walk in the valley of shadows, but eventually the night will be vanquished, as Enya’s song says, and we will rise and greet the sun—or, to put a Christian inflection on it, the Son!
May we walk forward into 2022 true to our calling as sons and daughters of God. May we welcome God’s light and bear it to others, and trust the Promise that indwells us.
This is the final post in the 2021–22 Advent/Christmas series. Thanks for following! You can find a collation here (Advent) and here (Christmas). I will now return to my regular publication schedule of roughly one post a week.
LISTEN: “We Three Cool Kings” | Words and music by John H. Hopkins, 1857 | Arranged by Eugene Gwozdz, 2015 | Sung by Alan H. Green, Mykal Kilgore, Dennis Stowe, Nili Bassman, Josh Davis, Kevin Smith Kirkwood, Linda Mugleston, Brian O’Brien, Mary Michael Patterson, Mike Schwitter, and Rashidra Scoti on Broadway’s Carols for a Cure, vol. 17, 2015
We three kings of Orient are; bearing gifts, we traverse afar, field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star.
O star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright, westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.
Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown him again, King forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign.
Frankincense to offer have I; incense owns a Deity nigh; prayer and praising, voices raising, worshipping God most high.
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Glorious now behold him arise, King and God and Sacrifice: Alleluia, Alleluia, sounds through the earth and skies.
This jazzified version of the Christmas classic “We Three Kings” is performed by the Broadway cast of At This Performance… Written in the voices of the magi (whose traditional names are Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar), it propounds the symbolic significance of the three gifts they give to the Christ child. I love how the arranger has layered those middle three verses!
Launched in 1999, Carols for a Cure is an annual collection of seasonal songs sung by members of the Broadway and Off-Broadway theater community to raise money for the charity Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS. Its latest volume, number 21, was released in 2019.
“The Christmas Story: Images from Ethiopic Manuscripts” by Eyob Derillo: The British Library has a fantastic collection of Christian manuscripts from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Ethiopia. This blog post by curator Eyob Derillo shows Christmas-related illuminations from four different ones. Follow the links in the captions to explore each manuscript further.
You can follow Derillo on Twitter @DerilloEyob. He’s always posting fascinating things about Ethiopian art and its intersection with the country’s history, culture, politics, and Christianity, including lots of Ethiopian saints’ stories!
If you enjoyed the blog post, I recommend the highly accessible book The Road to Bethlehem: An Ethiopian Nativity, an interweaving of ancient (apocryphal) tales surrounding Jesus’s birth that flourished in Ethiopia, compiled and told by Elizabeth Laird, with the biblical narrative. It’s illustrated in full color with images from the British Library’s collection and is perfectly appropriate for children (and adults!). I’ve perused the Ethiopian manuscripts on the BL website but am not able to decode several of the images because I’m unfamiliar with the tales and cannot read Ge’ez, and Laird’s book helped me out in that respect, at least in part. For a deeper dive into Ethiopian art—which is inextricable from its patrons’ and makers’ Christian spirituality—see the informative and beautifully produced Ethiopian Art: The Walters Art Museum, a catalog from another museum that houses a fine collection of Ethiopian art.
The Angel of the Lord in icons of the Magi: In this recent post from Icons and Their Interpretation [previously], icons consultant David Coomler spotlights a fresco from Decani Monastery in Serbia that shows an angel on horseback leading the magi to the Christ child, emphasizing supernatural direction. He identifies the same, idiosyncratic figure in a 1548 painting by Frangos Katelanos at Varlaam Monastery in Meteora, Greece, comparing it to two more common appearances of an angel with the magi in Eastern iconography: on foot beside the newborn king’s “throne,” presenting the magi to him.
SONG MEDLEY:“Christmas Around the World” by Acapals: “Acapals is a collaboration of four friends and a penguin who share a love for making a cappella music (despite not sharing much in the way of geography, culture or language).” They are Nick Hogben, tenor, from England; Leif Tse, baritone, from Hong Kong; Jacky Höger, alto, from Germany; and Prayer Weerakitti, soprano, from Thailand. In this video each of them arranged a holiday song in their native language, which they sing together: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (English), “Silent Night” (Cantonese), “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” (German), and “New Year Greeting” (Thai). [HT: Global Christian Worship]
“The Cloister and the Cradle” by Shannon Reed: Some medieval nuns and lay religious women cared for baby Jesus dolls (ceramic or wooden) as a devotional practice—dressing them, playing with them, “feeding” them, singing to them, rocking them in cradles. Full of wit and tenderness, this Vela magazine essay by Shannon Reed explores that practice. “It is difficult to separate my modern reaction to the sight of a grown woman (in a habit!) acting in such bizarre ways, carrying a doll around and pretending it’s real,” Reed writes. “But I try to remember that for these women, this was an empowering opportunity to be Mary, most holy, most blessed.”
Reed considers women’s agency in the Middle Ages, mystical visions made tangible, and the desire for maternal intimacy, incorporating personal stories and reflections, as a single woman without children, about attending baby showers, nannying through grad school, shopping for godchildren, and teetering between enjoyment of her non-mom status and an inclination to mother. As a thirty-two-year-old woman who also does not have kids (though I am married) and is content but constantly surrounded by reminders of what I’m missing, I can relate to a lot of the feelings and experiences Reed articulates here. I chanced upon this essay when trying to find more information about a Beguine cradle I saw at the Met, pictured below (spurred, too, by the description of a Virgin and Child ivory). I found myself unexpectedly moved by the author’s vulnerability and by the connections she draws between modern-day longings for and expressions of motherhood and those played out in medieval Christian convents.
The Sanctuary Between Us: A Retreat for Women’s Christmas by Jan Richardson: Every year artist, writer, and Methodist minister Jan Richardson provides a new compilation of her art, blessings, and spiritual reflections as a free PDF download. The subtitle references the Irish custom of Nollaig na mBan, or Women’s Christmas, observed particularly in County Cork and County Kerry. “Women’s Christmas originated as a day when the women, who often carried the domestic responsibilities all year, took Epiphany [January 6] as an occasion to celebrate together at the end of the holidays, leaving hearth and home to the men for a few hours.” In this spirit Richardson offers an opportunity “to pause and step back from whatever has kept you busy and hurried in the past weeks or months, . . . spend[ing] time in reflection before diving into what this new year will hold.”
“Blessing to Summon Rejoicing,” “Blessing of Memory,” “Blessing the Body,” and “Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light” are among the several benedictions, thoughtfully introduced and many accompanied by collages, paintings, or encaustics. Some sections also include questions for personal reflection. For example: “How do you experience—or desire to experience—remembering in community? Who are the people who hold your memories with you? Are there ways you experience memory as a sacrament, a space where you know the presence and grace of God at work in your life? For whom might you be (or become) a sanctuary of memory as you help them hold their stories and their lives?”
The poem “Wise Women Also Came,” printed as an interlude, is especially compelling, describing how, in addition to the wise men mentioned in the biblical narrative, wise women also came to Jesus’s birth bearing gifts—“water for labor’s washing, / fire for warm illumination, / a blanket for swaddling.”
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.
May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands
render him tribute;
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations serve him!
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.
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!)
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:
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 . . .
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.
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.
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
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
The three wise men
From the Orient
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Today, January 6, is the feast of Epiphany (“manifestation,” “revelation,” “shining forth”)—also referred to as Theophany (“revelation of God”), or the Feast of Lights. While the Western church commemorates the visit of the Magi on this day, focusing on God’s revelation to the world through the birth of Christ, the Eastern church commemorates Jesus’s baptism, focusing on the Father and Spirit’s affirmation of the Son’s divinity at the beginning of his public ministry. Matthew 3:13–17 gives us the account:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Below is a selection of contemporary Theophany icons from Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Greece, and Romania. All but one of them bear a semicircle at the top, which signifies the “opening of the heavens” and the voice of God reaching down; in Ioan and Camelia Popa’s, God’s hand is even visible. (Representation of the Father is forbidden by tradition, though a hand is generally acceptable because the Bible itself uses anthropomorphic expressions like “God’s hand” and “God’s mighty arm.”) A dove descends from this aperture, a literalization of the Gospel writers’ simile.
On the shores of the Jordan stand one or more angels at the service of their Lord. Their hands are covered by their own cloaks as a sign of reverence—or in some representations, they hold garments to drape over Christ when he emerges from the water. (Early icons of Jesus’s baptism show him completely naked, emphasizing his self-emptying; now, however, it’s more common to see him in a loincloth.)
In Lyuba Yatskiv’s and the Popas’ icons—the most traditional of this bunch—there is an allegorical figure in the river by Christ’s feet, pouring out water from a jug. This man is a personification of the Jordan River, which miraculously dried up, temporarily, to allow the ancient Israelites to cross over into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:15–17). Some icons, though none pictured here, include a second allegorical figure, (Red) Sea, who is turning away, parting (see Psalm 114:3).
In George Kordis’s icon, instead of Jordan at Christ’s feet, there’s a serpent being crushed, a reference to Psalm 74:13: “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters.” Visually, this recalls the Eastern church’s Resurrection icon, which depicts Christ breaking down the doors of hell, flattening Satan.
Back to Yatskiv and Popa. In these two there is an axe lying next to a tree, alluding to the sermon by John the Baptist that immediately preceded this episode, in which he proclaimed, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).
Epiphany calls us to worshipfully behold the shining forth of Jesus as messiah and as the second person of the Trinity. To orient yourself to the Orthodox celebration of today’s feast, here are two liturgical hymns, the Troparion and the Kontakion, that will be sung congregationally:
When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, worship of the Trinity wast made manifest; for the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son. And the Spirit in the form of a dove confirmed the truth of His word. O Christ our God, Who hath appeared and enlightened the world, glory to Thee.
. . .
On this day Thou hast appeared unto the whole world, and Thy light, O Sovereign Lord, is signed on us who sing Thy praise and chant with knowledge: Thou hast now come, Thou hast appeared, O Thou Light unappproachable.
They offer a perfect lens through which to view the following icons.