When, in the cavern darkness, Jesus
opened his small, bleating mouth (even before
his eyes widened to the supple world his
lungs had sighed into being), did he intuit
how hungrily the lungs gasp? Did he begin, then,
to love the way air sighs as it brushes in and out
through the portals of tissue to sustain
the tiny heart’s iambic beating? And how,
fueled by air, the dazzling blood tramps
the crossroads of the brain like donkey tracks,
corpuscles skittering to the earlobes and toenails?
Bottle of the breath of God, speaking in stories,
shouting across wild, obedient water, his voice
was stoppered only by inquisition, unfaith
and anguish. Did he know that he would,
in the end, leak all his blood, heave a final
groan and throw his breath,
oxygen for the world, back to its Source
before the next dark cave?
As the liturgical calendar was turning over into a new year this week, my husband Eric and I were at the tail end of a visit to India, staying with new friends Jyoti and Jane Sahi. Jyoti’s an artist, and Jane is a children’s educator, and together they live in the Christian village of Silvepura, north of Bangalore, where for years they ran, respectively, an art ashram and a school. It was a lot of fun getting to know them and their work, and discussing art, culture, theology, politics.
Before our flight departed in the wee hours of Sunday morning, the first day of Advent, Jane had set an oil lamp on the dinner table, decorated with flowers from the garden, and selected two poems for us to read aloud: an excerpt from the Gitanjali(Song Offerings) by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore [previously], and “Advent Calendar” by Rowan Williams. It was a meaningful welcoming in of the new season, and a beautiful blend of our hosts’ mixed cultural heritage: Indian and British.
Gitanjali XLVby Rabindranath Tagore:
Have you not heard his silent steps? He comes, comes, ever comes.
Every moment and every age, every day and every night he comes, comes, ever comes.
Many a song have I sung in many a mood of mind, but all their notes have always proclaimed, “He comes, comes, ever comes.”
In the fragrant days of sunny April through the forest path he comes, comes, ever comes.
In the rainy gloom of July nights on the thundering chariot of clouds he comes, comes, ever comes.
In sorrow after sorrow it is his steps that press upon my heart, and it is the golden touch of his feet that makes my joy to shine.
“Advent Calendar”by Rowan Williams, published in After Silent Centuries (The Perpetua Press, 1994) and The Poems of Rowan Williams (The Perpetua Press, 2002; Carcanet Press, 2014):
He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.
He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.
He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.
While I was at Jyoti’s, I bought three paintings of his. One of them is an Annunciation image that shows Mary in a termite mound, which are considered sacred in India—microcosms of the temple, sources of fertility, and containers of treasure. I saw these tall, hard-clay, insect-built structures in many areas around Bangalore where I was traveling, including a few on Jyoti’s property. (Note that locals refer to termites misleadingly as “white ants,” so these are “anthills.”)
According to Indian folklore, anthills are the ears of the earth, and Jyoti plays on that belief in his visualization of the moment of the Incarnation, of God’s becoming human in the person of Jesus. Mary’s womb is in the shape of an ear, which receives the Word of God. This Word is shown first at the top of the composition in the form of two hamsas (Sanskrit for “I am he,” or “I am that I am”), a mythical swan-like bird whose body resembles an AUM, the ancient threefold syllable, “the Sound that is believed to reverberate creatively through eternity,” Jyoti said. (“In the beginning was the Word . . .”)
Mary listens to the Word, becomes pregnant with the Word, which takes on flesh inside her. Christ, the primordial One, is implanted in the womb of the earth, of humanity—and a tree of life grows forth.
There’s a sixth-century hymn, known as the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos (Mother of God), that celebrates Mary’s role as container of the Divine: “Hail! tabernacle of God and the Word. Hail! greater than the holy of holies. Hail! ark gilded by the Spirit. Hail! unfailing treasure-house of life.” Mary as temple, as holy of holies, as ark of the covenant, contains the world’s greatest Treasure: Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
You can hear Jyoti introduce the painting in the short video above, which is just a snippet of the footage Eric and I took while we were there. (More to come!)
As I traveled back home to the US with this rolled-up canvas last Sunday, I kept thinking about the words of the two poets I had just read—Tagore and Williams. I thought about how Christ came once “like child” but also how he “comes, comes, ever comes” even still today, “in sorrow after sorrow . . . press[ing] upon my heart . . . mak[ing] my joy to shine.”
Through the needle’s eye
the rich man came
squeezing through stars of razor light
that pared his body down to thread.
Gravity crushed his heart’s chime
and his breath that breathed out worlds
now flattened as fire between walls,
the impossible slit stripped him
to stitch the human breach.
My research interests have to do mainly with art’s theological potential and its ability to, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, “disclose” truths that are “closed” by prose. I love how it often surprises, and how it can make connections I would have never thought to make myself.
Suzanne Underwood Rhodes’s poem “Advent” demonstrates these values magnificently. Its topic is the Incarnation. But her mooring point is not John 1 or Luke 1–2 or Philippians 2 or any other scripture text traditionally associated with the doctrine. Instead she draws on the famous aphorism of Jesus that’s recorded in Matthew 19:24: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
In this Gospel interaction, Jesus is explaining how terribly difficult it is for wealthy people to enter heaven because they tend to cling tightly to their earthly wealth rather than to God; they let it make claims on them, and they trust in its promises, to the neglect of the claims and promises of God. While the needle saying, in context, pertains to man passing from earth to heaven, Rhodes turns it on its head to suggest the movement of God from heaven to earth. A seeming impossibility—infinity becoming finite, God becoming man. But “with God, all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). To save us, he would give up all the riches of heaven, assuming the role of a servant and ultimately giving up his very life.
Rhodes uses harsh, uncomfortable words—“squeezing,” “razor,” “pared,” “crushed,” “flattened,” “stripped”—to convey a sense of compression into human flesh. God’s breath, once so powerful and expansive that it brought the universe into existence, is now, in the person of the Son, walled in by a rib cage and dependent on oxygen. His heart pumps actual blood. Thus pared down to thread, he slips through the needle “to stitch the human breach,” to repair what we have torn through our disobedience. Severed from God no longer, we are held together with him by Christ himself.
Musical composition: “As by Fire between Walls” by Joshua Stamper
The evocative imagery of this poem has inspired artists in other media to respond in kind. One of them is composer Joshua Stamper, who, commissioned in 2014 by City Church Philadelphia, wrote a four-and-a-half-minute experimental jazz piece for chamber orchestra titled “As by Fire between Walls.”
It starts with minor chords on the piano, floating around ethereally. Then a violin tremolo kicks in (suggestive of the “razor light”), and other sharp bowing techniques (“par[ing] his body down”). Then soulful, wordless vocals. Then a staccato rhythm played on the mellotron, and percussion. Brass too. It’s a wonderfully wrought piece of music, a soundscape of the Incarnation, inclining the ear back toward Rhodes’s words and the heart to the grand story of scripture.
Painting: Through the Needle’s Eye the Rich Man Came by Grace Carol Bomer
Suzanne Rhodes is a friend of visual artist Grace Carol Bomer’s, who has a studio practice in Asheville, North Carolina. In 1993, Bomer was invited by the Asheville Art Museum to exhibit eight of her paintings for a Christmas show. Through the Needle’s Eye the Rich Man Came, inspired by Rhodes’s “Advent,” is one of those eight.
About it, Bomer says,
The Christ of Christmas is God incarnate, the focal point or fulcrum of history. To show this glorious Incarnation, I chose to paint a piercing V (fulcrum) of light rending cloth (canvas on wood). The torn canvas symbolizes the veil of the temple. . . .
It was my personal challenge to show in painting that Christ is God, Spirit and flesh, in a way that would not be trite and sentimental. The Renaissance nativities are infected with beautiful Platonic realism, suited for Christmas card sentimentality. I feel they do not adequately exalt the “mystery hidden for ages,” the Christ of power and glory. Jesus Christ is Spirit and flesh, Son of God and Son of Man. Reality is both “abstract” and “realistic.” So too, art must seek to find this mysterious balance in order to proclaim the gospel. Art totally divested of realism, like Abstract Expressionism, becomes meaningless. Art must proclaim creation, fall, and redemption. I would like the poetic nuances in my work to stimulate the imagination to “see” in the abstract painting the spiritual truths that cannot be painted realistically.
In this piece there are suggestions of blood on doorways, symbolizing a Passover fulfilled, as Christ pushes open the door separating God and man.
So this painting integrates the coming down with the at-one-ing that happens at the cross, the physical tear of the canvas alluding simultaneously to the “human breach” of Rhodes’s poem and the tearing of the temple veil, which symbolizes humanity’s reconciliation to God. Birth and death are wrapped up in a single image, as both are key to Christ’s salvation project.
See how a poet’s imagination and craft can unfold the beauty and wonder of a heady doctrine with such concision? In Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, Laurence Perrine defines poetry as “a kind of language that says more and says it more intensely than does ordinary language” (509). That’s just what Suzanne Underwood Rhodes does in “Advent.” And that intense language of hers has inspired works of musical and visual art that explore even further what it means that the Son of God, the “Rich Man” from heaven, constricted himself for our sakes, becoming impossibly small, taking up residence in a virgin’s dark womb, in humanity’s dark world, so that he could stitch back together our ruptured relationships with the Father and with one another.
COMMUNITY ART PROJECT + INSTALLATION: Light the Well by Anna Sikorska: Last month artist Anna Sikorska led the congregation of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in creating a constellation of cracked, translucent porcelain globes, lit from within like lanterns and linked together—a visualization of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:6–12, about our hearts being clay jars whose fragility and brokenness enable the light of Christ to shine through all the more. Light the Well was installed at St. Martin’s on November 11, and since November 19 the individual lanterns have been selling for £10 a piece to benefit New Art Studio and Art Refuge UK, charities working with art therapy in the context of migration and displacement. Associate vicar Jonathan Evens delivered a beautiful reflection on this artwork and the scripture that inspired it, as well as a prayer and benediction, which you can read in full here.
I love it when churches use art not merely to decorate or prettify the building but to further the congregation’s engagement with scripture and to foster shared doing and seeing.
“City of David” by the Gray Havens: The Gray Havens, a “narrative pop folk duo” from Nashville made up of married couple David and Licia Radford, released a new Christmas single on November 17—recorded on an iPhone! Listen to the song and watch some of their “making of” process in the video below. God the Father often gets overlooked during this season, so I like that the refrain reminds us that “the Father sent him [the Son] down.” [Purchase here]
“Human for Me” by Katy Kinard: Released last year on the album God of Fireflies, this song praises God for assuming full humanity—for not circumventing any frustrating or painful aspect of it. [Purchase here]
“The Christmas Story in Art” at the National Gallery, Washington, DC: Gallery lecturer David Gariff will lead a 75-minute discussion about paintings in the collection that depict the birth of Jesus, including one of my favorites, Duccio’s Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. (Click on the link to see a full list of works.) The event is free and geared to an adult audience. To participate, meet in the West Building Rotunda at 1 p.m. on December 9 or 10, or 2 p.m. on December 14, 18, 20, 21, or 22.
“Adoration of the Kings” Facebook Live tour at the National Gallery, London: Friday, December 15 at 9 a.m. GMT, director Gabriele Finaldi will be exploring Jan Gossaert and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings of the Adoration of the Magi. This “tour,” offered exclusively online, will be broadcast live on the Gallery’s Facebook page, and a replay version will be available on the channel afterward.
POEM: “Scale” by Chelsea Wagenaar: Chelsea and I went to the same small North Carolina church as kids, back when she was a Henderson and I a Hartz, so we share a heritage of learning Bible lessons from Butch the Dragon and competing annually in the Bean Bag Relay at the AWANA Olympics. Now she is an award-winning poet, a Lilly Fellow, a lecturer in Valparaiso University’s English department, and a mom!
Inspired by her pregnancy, the poem “Scale” is full of metaphors that revel in the wonders of prenatal life—the womb is a “winterplum sky,” the cluster of baby cells “untufted cotton,” the belly a “Lenten moon.” The central theme, which Chelsea cleverly plays around, is Psalm 139:16, a praise verse by King David: “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”
Chelsea’s poem is especially appropriate for Advent, a season of pregnancy in which we position ourselves retrospectively with Mary, letting our hearts expand as we wait expectantly for that marvelous deliverance, the coming of the Christ child.
This year for Advent, my church has built into its liturgy a time for guided reflection on an art image—one per week—corresponding to one or more of the season’s themes. Today I led the congregation in looking at a seventeenth-century German engraving based on John 1. Here’s what I said (adapted from the Advent devotional I published this month):
This copperplate engraving is from a picture Bible by Christoph Weigel published in Augsburg in the late 1600s. The Bible consists entirely of engraved images—839 in all—with key scripture texts inscribed above and below, from Genesis to Revelation.
Looking at this one, you might think of the creation story—God speaking, “Let there be light.” You wouldn’t be wrong to make that association, but actually this engraving illustrates the first chapter of John’s Gospel: the eternal Word of God taking on flesh and entering human history, a doctrine we call the Incarnation. This is the big bang of the new creation. This is God once again hovering over the chaos and proclaiming, “Let there be light.” And there was Light. Because the Savior came, and is still coming.
The top inscription says in Latin, “In the beginning was the Word” (v. 1). And the German one below says, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not comprehended it” (v. 5).
In Weigel’s illustration, the name YHWH is surrounded by a blast of light that showers down to our dark earth in this magnificent glory-stream. Before this, Israel’s covenant God was mostly invisible and unapproachable, but now he reveals himself as man and Son, the second person of the Trinity, Jesus. He’s still Yahweh, but now he’s Yahweh brought low, to be seen and touched and engaged face-to-face.
This image emphasizes the cosmic nature of the Incarnation and reinforces the meaning of the Greek word for Jesus that John uses in his prologue: Logos, which our English Bibles translate as “Word” with a capital W. This term is a loaded one, used in most schools of Greek philosophy to designate the underlying principle of the universe, one that is rational, intelligent, and vivifying; other translations include “Mind,” “Power,” “Cause,” “Act,” “Ground,” “Reason,” “Structure,” or “Universal Bond.” Philosophers had been reinterpreting the concept of Logos for centuries, but John was the first to link it to the person of Christ.
Advent is a time for us to consider what it means for the Word of God, the Logos, to have a body and be among us.