Roundup: Global Christian music; Christologies from the margins; race, gender, and photography

Today’s roundup brings together a theologian (Anderson Jeremiah), an art historian (Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt), and a musician (Eric Lige and friends) who I think complement one another really well!

SONGS:

Eric Lige [previously] is “a music-maker who promotes Jesus, Justice, Faith, and Community.” He is the worship director at Ethnos Community Church in San Diego and the co-executive producer of The Ethnos Project, which creates a platform for new and emerging global voices in musical worship to be heard worldwide. Especially since COVID hit in 2019, he has been assembling multinational teams of musicians to produce YouTube videos, many of which are livestreamed as part of Ethnos worship services. Here are three examples (view more on Lige’s YouTube channel):

>> “Ξεδιψασμένος (No Longer Thirsty)” by Kostas Nikolaou: A contemporary Christian worship song in Greek, about how Christ, the living water, quenches our thirst for love and purpose. The lead vocalist is Nefeli Papanagi—and wow, do I love her voice!

>> “Ua Mau (Hosanna)” by Moses W. Kaaneikawahaale Keale (aka Keale Ta Kaula): Reyn and Joy Nishii perform this nineteenth-century Hawaiian hymn by Keale “the Prophet,” who converted to Christianity after calling on God during a hunting accident and finding rescue. The first verse translates to “Perpetual is the righteousness / That comes from the Father above / Let us gather together / In his goodness and grace.”

>> “Love’s in Need of Love Today” by Stevie Wonder: Edward Chen and friends—from Canada, the United States, Armenia, Venezuela, and Mexico—perform the opening track from Stevie Wonder’s Grammy-winning album Songs in the Key of Life. “God gave me this gift, and this particular song was a message I was supposed to deliver,” Wonder has said. “The concept I had in mind was that for love to be effective, it has to be fed.” See the full list of credits in the description on the video page. Eric Lige is the one in the maroon shirt.

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LECTURES:

>> “Many Faces of Jesus: Christologies from the Margins” by the Revd. Canon Dr. Anderson H. M. Jeremiah, October 12, 2021: Anderson Jeremiah is a senior lecturer in the politics, philosophy, and religion department at Lancaster University in the UK, whose areas of expertise include Christian theology in Asia, postcolonial approaches to theology, Dalit studies, liberation theology, modern missionary movements, and inculturation and faith. Ordained in the Church of South India (part of the Anglican Communion), he was installed as Canon Theologian of Blackburn Cathedral in September 2021, making him the first Dalit to be appointed to that role in any English cathedral.

In this half-hour online talk given last fall for the Diocese of Manchester, Jeremiah discusses the Incarnation as a continuous event—Christ being born into human cultures—as expressed through a selection of visual artworks from Ghana, Bolivia, China, Japan, and India. These images subvert the predominant Western image of Christ and sometimes provide critique. New to me was the black marble crucifix from the Anglican chapel inside Cape Coast Castle, a former trading post (now a museum) where enslaved Africans were held before being loaded onto ships and sold in the Americas. I’m not sure who commissioned the sculpture or when it was placed at this site, but it definitely looks modern.

The Q&A that followed on the original Zoom event is not included in the video, but here’s one of Jeremiah’s comments from it that I transcribed: “Jesus is not foreign to my own experience; this Jesus is part and parcel of my own existential reality. It [the image] enables people who are seeking peace and emancipation; [they are] emboldened in that process of seeing themselves reflected in the image of Jesus. The normative image the church has been holding on to has not created that space.” When one attendee asked if images of white Jesus are always “wrong” or to be discouraged, Jeremiah replied that there’s nothing wrong with such an image in itself, but the problem is when it is imposed on the entire world as the only way of looking at Jesus. “When we hold up one image as normative, we lose the diverse ways God intends to manifest himself in diverse contexts,” he said. (I couldn’t agree more!)

Bolivian crucifix
In July 2015 Bolivian president Evo Morales (who is Aymara) presented to Pope Francis a crucifix sculpted in the shape of a hammer and sickle. The crucifix is based on a design by Luís Espinal (1932–1980), a Jesuit priest assassinated in 1980 by right-wing militia. Bolivia’s communications minister, Marianela Paco, told Bolivian radio that “the sickle evokes the peasant, the hammer the carpenter, representing humble workers, God’s people.” Photo: AP.

Raj, Solomon_The Lord Remembers the Hungry
Solomon Raj (Indian, 1921–2019), The Lord Remembers the Hungry: Liberation from Hunger, 2006 (based on the 1988 original). Woodcut, from the series “Liberation in Luke’s Gospel.”

To hear more from the Rev. Dr. Anderson Jeremiah, see “Dalit Theology in the Context of World Christianity: Subversion and Transgression,” another excellent online talk that he gave in June 2021 at the invitation of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture. And this Grace Podcast episode from October, where he briefly discusses the From Lament to Action report of the Church of England’s Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce (published April 22, 2021), the contextual nature of all theology (contra the view that white Euro-American theology is somehow universal, whereas theologies that come from Africa, for example, need to be qualified), and cultural appreciation versus appropriation. “I’m trying to capture the experiences of communities through the stories they tell about Jesus,” Jeremiah says. Follow him on Twitter @TheOutsider40.

>> “The Loving Look: Or, How Art History Taught Me About the Difference Between Structure and Direction When Looking at Images of Race and Gender” by Dr. Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt, October 12, 2017: Art historian Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt, a professor at Covenant College who researches representations of race and gender in art and visual culture from the nineteenth century to the present, is one of my favorite people to follow on Instagram (@elissabrodt). I love how she helps people understand and use the tools of the discipline of art history. She teaches us how images work and how to interrogate them.

In this undergraduate lecture (starts at 4:06), Weichbrodt discusses how photography has been used to shape racial bias and even construct race, as well as gender, focusing on a famous 1957 photograph of school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. She shows how this single photo is part of a larger web of meaning that contemporary news photos also play into. We’re always interpreting and categorizing images in relationship to things we’ve already seen, Weichbrodt says, creating a mental archive—for example, a file for “blackness,” a file for “womanhood.” And “as Christians called to recognize the dignity of God’s image in all people, we have to do actual work to acknowledge how our own archives may have hampered or distorted our love for our neighbors.” To look more faithfully, we need to look more; we need to build a broader archive.

For related content from Weichbrodt, see her 2018 series of articles for The Witness BCC: “Representing Race: Why Do Images Matter?,” “Representing Race: Lenses for Interpretation,” and “Restorative Looking.” You can also view a longer and more recent version of this lecture, “Looking Justly,” given October 30, 2019, at Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, which includes a Q&A.

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NEW PLAYLIST: February 2021 (Art & Theology): Continuing my initiative to share good music from the Judeo-Christian tradition . . . here’s a new (nonthematic) playlist I put together, which includes a fifteenth-century Jewish hymn (with a contemporary melody by Ugandan rabbi Gershom Sizomu), a country one-hit wonder from the sixties (thanks to my dad, a regular ’60s Gold listener, for introducing me to this one!), a virtuoso guitar composition by Bruce Cockburn inspired by Jesus’s first miracle, an original gospel song by Freedom Singer Bernice Johnson Reagon, the opening theme song of an antebellum television drama, and more.

Christmas, Day 8

LOOK: Presence by Ventzislav Piriankov

Piriankov, Ventzislav_Presence
Ventzislav Piriankov (Bulgarian, 1971–), Presence, 2000. Mixed media on canvas, 100 × 70 cm.

LISTEN: “Incarnation Hymn” by Carl-Eric Tangen, on Incarnation Hymns (2008)

Love comes down
Love tears the shroud

Love becomes a man
And Love takes my hand

Love bears the scars of time

Love has dirty hands
Love, Love will understand

And Love
Love makes me a man
Love

For another devotion featuring a song from this album, see “Now I’ve Seen It All,” centered on Simeon’s encounter with the Christ child. And for one featuring a different painting by Piriankov, see “Radiant.”

Evelyn Underhill on the Incarnation

El Greco_Nativity
El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos) (Greek Spanish, 1541–1614), The Nativity, 1603–5. Oil on canvas, diameter 128 cm. Church vestry, Hospital de la Caridad de Illescas, Villarrobledo, Spain.

We are being shown here [in the Incarnation] something profoundly significant about human life—“God speaks in a Son,” a baby son, and reverses all our pet values. He speaks in our language and shows us his secret beauty on our scale. We have got to begin not by an arrogant other-worldliness, but by a humble recognition that human things can be holy, very full of God, and that high-minded speculations about his nature need not be holy at all; that all life is engulfed in him and he can reach out to us anywhere at any level.

As the Christmas Day gospel takes us back to the mystery of the divine nature—In the beginning was the Word . . .—so let us begin by thinking of what St. Catherine called the “Ocean Pacific of the Godhead” enveloping all life. The depth and richness of his being are entirely unknown to us, poor little scraps as we are! And yet the unlimited life who is Love right through—who loves and is wholly present where he loves, on every plane and at every point—so loved the world as to desire to give his essential thought, the deepest secrets of his heart to this small, fugitive, imperfect creation—to us. That seems immense.

And then the heavens open and what is disclosed? A baby, God manifest in the flesh. The stable, the manger, the straw; poverty, cold, darkness—these form the setting of the divine gift. In this child God gives his supreme message to the soul—Spirit to spirit—but in a human way. Outside in the fields the heavens open and the shepherds look up astonished to find the music and radiance of reality all around them. But inside, our closest contact with that same reality is being offered to us in the very simplest, homeliest way—emerging right into our ordinary life. A baby—just that. We are not told that the Blessed Virgin Mary saw the angels or heard the Gloria in the air. Her initiation had been quite different, like the quiet voice speaking in our deepest prayer—“The Lord is with thee!” “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” Humble self-abandonment is quite enough to give us God.

—Evelyn Underhill, from an address given at the Chelmsford Diocesan Retreat House at Pleshey in May 1932 (published in Light of Christ by Evelyn Underhill, 1945, 2004)

Christmas, Day 3

No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us.

—John 1:18 (NLT)

LOOK: The Word by Nicholas Mynheer

Mynheer, Nicholas_Incarnation
Nicholas Mynheer (British, 1958–), The Word, 2000. English limestone and cast glass, height 102 cm. South aisle, Birmingham Cathedral, UK.

This sculpture on the theme of the Incarnation of the Word was commissioned by the Cathedral Church of Saint Philip in Birmingham, England, for the new millennium. The sun shines on the work through the south window, casting light from the colored glass pieces over and across the stone and the surrounding wall.

“The changing light and shadows represent for me the ongoing Incarnation and not merely an historical event,” says artist Nicholas Mynheer. He notes the combination of heaven (glass) and earth (stone).

This is a Trinitarian image: the Father, anthropomorphized but nongendered, presents his glory, the Son, spoken, breathed, coming as infant, and both are embraced by the arcing sweep of the Holy Spirit.

To learn more about the artist, visit his website and check out this feature I wrote about him for Transpositions a few years ago.

LISTEN: “The Glory of the Father” | Words adapted from John 1 | Music by Egil Hovland, 1957; edited by Frank Pooler, 1974 | Performed by the National Lutheran Choir (US), dir. David Cherwien, 2018

The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.
We beheld the glory of the Father,
Full of grace and truth.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.
In Him was life, and the life was the light of all.
He came to his own, and his own, received him not.

The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.
We beheld the glory of the Father,
Full of grace and truth.

Roundup: Giotto projections, global Christmas music playlist, Sakhnini Brothers concert, sacred lettering, deep incarnation

PROJECTION MAPPING INSTALLATION: Il Natale di Francesco (The Christmas of Francis): Last year the Sacro Convento in Assisi, a Franciscan friary, initiated an architectural lighting project called Il Natale di Francesco that featured projections of Christmas-themed frescoes by Giotto from the Lower Basilica of St. Francis onto several of the city’s landmark churches. Architect Mario Cucinella served as artistic director, and the company Enel X realized the installation, which ran throughout Advent and Christmastide, from December 8, 2020, to January 6, 2021 (and I hear it’s been reprised this year!). The pièce de résistance was the projection of Giotto’s Nativity onto the facade of the Upper Basilica of St. Francis. Other projections included the Annunciation on the Cathedral of San Rufino, the Visitation on the Basilica of Saint Clare, and the Adoration of the Magi on the abbey church of San Pietro in Valle—all images adapted using advanced technology to suit the spaces they illuminated.

Annunciation projection

Other components of the installation included frescoed stars from the main basilica’s vaults projected onto the streets; a re-creation of Giotto’s scenes with dozens of sculpted figures, including the addition of a masked nurse at the crèche in honor of all the frontline healthcare workers serving during the COVID-19 crisis; and every thirty minutes a video-mapping show that offered views of the basilica’s interior. I so love the creativity of bringing the sacred art treasures of the church out into the town squares when the pandemic necessitated church closures.

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VIRTUAL CONCERT: Christmas with the Sakhnini Brothers: The Sakhnini Brothers are Adeeb, Elia, and Yazeed, three Arabic-speaking brothers from Nazareth who are followers of Jesus. They play about twenty instruments collectively but specialize in piano, oud, and violin, respectively, and love to blend modern Western and ancient Middle Eastern musical styles.

In this half-hour living room concert that premiered December 13, they are joined by vocalist Nareen Farran, pianist Sireen Elias, and percussionist Firas Haddad. They perform an instrumental rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”; “Amano Morio” (With Us the Lord), a traditional hymn from the Syriac Maronite liturgy, whose lyrics translate to “The Lord is with us day and night”; “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in Arabic; “Sobhan Al Kalima” (Glory to the Word), another traditional hymn in Syriac (see YouTube video description for full English translation); “Mary, Did You Know”; and “Laylet Eid” (Christmas Eve), a song by Fairuz to the tune of “Jingle Bells.” Their arrangements are fantastic! (You especially have to hear what they do with that closing number; I can’t stop smiling.)

You can support the Sakhnini Brothers on Patreon and follow them on Facebook.

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PLAYLIST: Global Christmas Music YouTube Playlist: At the request of Inspiro Arts Alliance, my friend Paul Neeley, an ethnodoxologist blogging at Global Christian Worship, has curated a playlist of twenty-eight Christmas songs from around the world. Languages include French, Yoruba, English, Arabic, Gaelic, Huron, Norwegian, Nepali, German, Hindi, Thai, Italian, Urdu, Spanish, Pangasinan (Philippines), Zulu, Korean, and Swahili. Here are just two videos from the list: “The Greatest Gift,” an original rock song by Sinn Patchai from Thailand, and “Don Oíche Úd i mBeithil” (That Night in Bethlehem), a traditional Irish carol performed by Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh.

Neeley also put together a listening guide so that you can follow along with the lyrics.

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VIRTUAL EXHIBITION: Visual Music: Calligraphy and Sacred Texts, Henry Luce III Center for the Arts & Religion: “‘Form,’ wrote Jewish-American artist Ben Shahn, ‘is the very shape of content.’ Shahn’s statement serves as the guiding principle for this exhibit. Each of these fifteen pieces, all by living artists, is a calligraphic interpretation of a text sacred to Jews, Christians, or both. Each artist has pondered their chosen text, explored it inside and outside, and provided their own rendition of it—their own ‘translation’ into visual form.”

Jonathan Homrighausen, a doctoral student in Hebrew Bible at Duke University who writes and researches at the intersection of Hebrew Bible, calligraphic art, and scribal craft, has curated this wonderful online art exhibition for the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts & Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. I spent hours viewing all the rich content on the website, including Homrighausen’s illuminating commentaries (which take us beyond a simplistic “ooh, pretty” response), and following links to learn more. From the exhibition homepage you can click on any of the images for a detailed description, detail photos, embedded videos and music, and suggested articles for further reading.

Also check out the video presentation Homrighausen gave on December 12 for the Jewish Art Salon in New York City in which he discusses five of the Hebrew Bible–based pieces on display, plus two that render rabbinic quotes. The Q&A that follows is moderated by Jewish calligrapher Judith Joseph.

Since many of my blog readers will have just read Mary’s Magnificat from Luke 1 this past Sunday (it’s one of the assigned lections for Advent 4) and we’re just a few days away from the feast of Christmas, let me share these two timely images from the exhibition:

Wenham, Martin_Magnificat (front and back)
Martin Wenham (British, 1941–), Magnificat (front and back), 2008. Paint on found pinewood, 84 × 8 1/2 in.

Ling, Manny_In the beginning was the word
Manny Ling (Chinese, 1966–), ‘In the beginning was the word’ (John 1:1), 2018. Chinese ink on paper, 11 11/16 × 16 1/2 in.

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VISUAL MEDITATION: “An Icon of Deep Incarnation” by John A. Kohan: Art collector John A. Kohan reflects on the painting Madonna of the Woods by Cypriot artist Charalambos Epaminonda, a variation on the Virgin Hodegetria type. “God took on human flesh and entered creation not just to bring you and me personal salvation or rescue the human race from sin and death, but to restore and renew the entire earth and all that is therein. Contemporary theologians in our age of ecological awareness call this concept ‘deep incarnation’ . . .”

Epaminonda, Charalambos_Madonna of the Woods
Charalambos Epaminonda (Cypriot, 1962–), Madonna of the Woods, 2011. Acrylic on canvas, 46 × 29 cm. Sacred Art Pilgrim Collection.

“At Christmas” by Frank O’Malley

Ernst, Max_Thirty-Three Little Girls Set Out for the White Butterfly Hunt
Max Ernst (German French, 1891–1976), Thirty-Three Little Girls Set Out for the White Butterfly Hunt, 1958. Oil on canvas, 137 × 107 cm. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Let the Christbrand burst!
Let the Christbrand blazon!
Dartle whitely under the hearth-fire,
Unwind the wind, turn the thunderer,
And never, never thinning,
Forfend fear.
Flare up smartly, fix, flex, bless, inspire,
Instar the time, sear the sorcerer,
And never, never sparing,
Save all year.
Let the Christbrand burst!
Let the Christbrand blazon!

This poem appears in Scholastic 115, no. 10 (March 1, 1974), a publication of the University of Notre Dame. It is also kept in the Francis J. O’Malley Papers in the university’s archives (see CFOM 7/26), though they do not own the copyright and do not know who does. I post it under Fair Use.

Born in Massachusetts in 1909, Francis (Frank) J. O’Malley studied at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana as an undergraduate from 1928 to 1932 and earned his master’s in history there the following year. He wanted to pursue further studies in literature, but there were no UND doctoral programs in that field at the time. Even without a PhD, he was hired by Notre Dame to teach in the English department, which he did for forty-one years, until his death in 1974. For the entire duration of his career, he lived on campus in Lyons Hall, and he is buried in the university’s Holy Cross Community Cemetery.

O’Malley had a huge influence on students—not just literary but also moral and religious. His “Modern Catholic Writers” and “Philosophy of English Literature” courses are legendary, and he served as a mentor to hundreds. He also dabbled in writing poetry, his style influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and he maintained correspondence with writers like Willa Cather and Jacques Maritain.

I don’t know what year O’Malley wrote his Hopkins-esque poem “At Christmas,” but it was sometime before 1966. Using the metaphor of a firebrand, it anticipates the kindling and flaring up of Christ’s kingdom in the world. I read it as an Advent prayer. I love not only its central image of the Incarnation as an ongoing blaze, but also its clever play with language and its rhythmic quality, formed in part by consonance (the repetition of consonant sounds).

To dartle means to shoot forth repeatedly, so the image in that line is of a crackling hearth fire, something homey and welcoming. The image then shifts to a piece of burning wood held aloft for light and protection—casting out shadows, thwarting attackers. (To forfend is to ward off something evil.)

An “instar” is a stage in the life of an insect between two successive molts. O’Malley uses the word as a verb, suggesting that Christ’s birth means the old is gone and the new is come. It’s a turning point in world history.

The sorcerer in line 8 likely refers to Satan, a reference reinforced by the alliteration of the letter s, which hisses like a serpent.

“Sparing” can have multiple meanings, but I think of Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all . . .” The speaker asks God to not withhold himself, to come again for his people, bringing redemption.

The word “firebrand” is commonly used to describe a person who is divisive, someone who creates trouble, who instigates. Jesus definitely fits that description! He rattled the powers and authorities of his day and initiated a new covenant through his blood, through the scandal of the cross. His coming lit a fire that has never thinned or tapered off but, on the contrary, gained intensity as it spread from Judea and Samaria into the uttermost parts of the earth. And that fire continues to burn brightly in communities from east to west, north to south, where the gospel is lived out and proclaimed.

Advent, Day 21

LOOK: gloria by Corita Kent

Kent, Corita_gloria
Corita Kent (American, 1918–1986), gloria, 1960. Serigraph.

From the Corita Art Center:

Corita Kent (1918–1986) was an artist, educator, and advocate for social justice. At age 18 she entered the religious order Immaculate Heart of Mary, eventually teaching in and then heading up the art department at Immaculate Heart College. Her work evolved from figurative and religious to incorporating advertising images and slogans, popular song lyrics, biblical verses, and literature. Throughout the ’60s, her work became increasingly political, urging viewers to consider poverty, racism, and injustice. In 1968 she left the order and moved to Boston. After 1970, her work evolved into a sparser, introspective style, influenced by living in a new environment, a secular life, and her battles with cancer. She remained active in social causes until her death in 1986. At the time of her death, she had created almost 800 serigraph editions, thousands of watercolors, and innumerable public and private commissions.

LISTEN: “God in Flesh, Our Hope Divine” by The Brilliance (David Gungor and John Arndt), on Advent, vol. 2 (2012; reissued 2021)

God of heaven, Lord of earth
We beseech thee
Born of Mary, virgin birth
Lord, we greet thee
God in flesh, our hope divine
Alleluia
Babe of heaven, God’s own son
Alleluia

Star of David, Son of Man
God be with us
Suff’ring servant, wounded lamb
Bring peace to us
Broken flesh, our hope divine
Alleluia
Lifted up for all mankind
Alleluia

Gloria, gloria, gloria in excelsis Deo! (×2)

Root of Jesse which shall stand
Lord, we need thee
Banner o’er the nations
We receive thee
Glorious resting place for all
Alleluia
Jew and Gentile, welcome home
Alleluia

Gloria, gloria, gloria in excelsis Deo! (×2)

“Come, Lord Jesus,” people sing
We are yearning
Give us back the garden
We are longing
On that day we’ll see thy face
Alleluia
This whole realm in your embrace
Alleluia

Gloria, gloria, gloria in excelsis Deo! (×6)

“What Love Is This” by Edward Taylor

Adams, Susan_Waiting for Something
Susan Adams (British, 1966–), Waiting for Something, 2002. Oil on panel, 36 × 58 cm. Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery, Bangor, Wales.

What love is this of thine, that cannot be
In thine infinity, O Lord, confined,
Unless it in thy very person see
Infinity and finity conjoin’d?
What! hath thy Godhead, as not satisfied,
Married our manhood, making it its bride?

Oh matchless love! filling heaven to the brim!
O’errunning it: all running o’er beside
This world! Nay, overflowing hell, wherein,
For thine elect, there rose a mighty tide!
That there our veins might through thy person bleed,
To quench those flames that else would on us feed.

Oh! that thy love might overflow my heart!
To fire the same with love: for love I would.
But oh! my straight’ned breast! my lifeless spark!
My fireless flame! What chilly love, and cold?
In measure small! In manner chilly! See.
Lord, blow the coal: thy love enflame in me.

Edward Taylor (1642–1729) was an American Puritan poet and minister of the Congregational church in Westfield, Massachusetts, for over fifty years. This is Meditation 1 in his Preparatory Meditations, a collection of over two hundred poems divided into two series. A private spiritual diary written from 1682 to 1725, the collection was unpublished until the twentieth century.

“Gloria in Profundis” by G. K. Chesterton

Movchan, Danylo_Nativity2
Danylo Movchan (Ukrainian, 1979–), Nativity, 2015. Egg tempera and gilding on board, 32 × 24 cm.

There has fallen on earth for a token
A god too great for the sky.
He has burst out of all things and broken
The bounds of eternity:
Into time and the terminal land
He has strayed like a thief or a lover,
For the wine of the world brims over,
Its splendor is spilt on the sand.

Who is proud when the heavens are humble,
Who mounts if the mountains fall,
If the fixed stars topple and tumble
And a deluge of love drowns all—
Who rears up his head for a crown,
Who holds up his will for a warrant,
Who strives with the starry torrent,
When all that is good goes down?

For in dread of such falling and failing
The fallen angels fell
Inverted in insolence, scaling
The hanging mountain of hell:
But unmeasured of plummet and rod
Too deep for their sight to scan,
Outrushing the fall of man
Is the height of the fall of God.

Glory to God in the Lowest
The spout of the stars in spate—
Where the thunderbolt thinks to be slowest
And the lightning fears to be late:
As men dive for a sunken gem
Pursuing, we hunt and hound it,
The fallen star that has found it
In the cavern of Bethlehem.

“Gloria in Profundis” (Latin for “Glory in the Depths”) by G. K. Chesterton is the fifth poem in the Ariel Poems series of pamphlets, published by Faber and Gwyer for the Christmas gift market from 1927 to 1931. It was reprinted in the posthumous Chesterton compilation The Spirit of Christmas: Stories, Poems, Essays (Dodd, Mead, 1985).

Christmas Playlist

In anticipation of the liturgical season of Christmas, I’ve created an extensive playlist of hymns, carols, and spirituals—old and new—that celebrate God’s being born in human flesh. Listen to “Christmastide: An Art & Theology Playlist” on Spotify.

The narratives of Jesus’s birth that we find in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke include both bursts of joyful exuberance, as with the angelic choir above a field of sheep, and quieter, more contemplative moments, such as when Mary pondered “all these things” in her heart (Luke 2:19). Jesus was born into darkness, so the story also involves social stigma, deprivation, military occupation, political greed, infanticide, asylum seeking—and the twinge of a future cross. So while the overall tone of this playlist is one of merriment, it does not shy away from some of the decidedly unfestive aspects of the first Christmas. And yet that God, in love, made himself vulnerable to suffering is precisely what makes the incarnation so glorious. He is not distant from human pains and woes but, rather, right in the midst of them, having experienced them firsthand.

The song selections reflect my personal taste for indie folk and newgrass, so they include, for instance, the Oh Hellos, Sufjan Stevens, Wilder Adkins, Branches, Beta Radio, the Brilliance, Lowland Hum, Penny and Sparrow, the Lower Lights, the Walking Roots Band, Folk Hymnal, Steve Thorngate, Sam P. Bush, Found Wandering, Ordinary Time, and Garrett Viggers.

Gospel songs performed by artists like Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Singers, Isaac Cates, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Evelyn Simpson-Curenton, and Liz McComb also make an appearance, as do many African American spirituals, sung by Odetta, Harry Belafonte, Elizabeth Mitchell, and others. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is the most widely known from that repertoire.

Also from America is the eighteenth-century carol “O Sight of Anguish” by Samson Occom, a Presbyterian minister and member of the Mohegan nation. New England roots musician Tim Eriksen sings it a cappella on Every Sound Below, but in this outdoor video he plays it on bajo sexto:

(Oh how I wish Ericksen’s marvelous Star in the East album were on Spotify, which features thirteen more songs in this vein!)

The Carols for a Cure album series, made up of contributions from Broadway casts, adds some theatricality. The cast of Nine, for example, sings “Los Peces en el Río,” a traditional Spanish carol in which Mary goes about her daily tasks—combing her tangled hair, washing Jesus’s diapers—as the fish in the river swim excitedly toward the newborn Savior. It’s sung by Antonio Banderas.

(Related post: “The Christmas Songwriters Project”)

In addition to this and the twelfth-century “Friendly Beasts,” another song that focuses on the animal characters at the nativity is the punchy “A Stick, a Carrot, and a String” by mewithoutYou, which sounds like it belongs on the Juno soundtrack. It’s wonderfully quirky.

Of course the Christmas playlist includes tons of classics—“Joy to the World!,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “Silent Night,” and so on—multiple renditions, in fact. (It’s too hard to choose just one!) There’s an upbeat swing arrangement of “O Holy Night,” but there’s also a more subdued, ethereal arrangement by Katie Melua, and several more besides. It’s fun to see how different artists interpret the same song.

The Irish folk rock band Rend Collective gives us a raucous arrangement of “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” retaining some of the archaicisms in the original lyrics but rewriting verse 3. A competing team at One Way UK’s 2017 Puppet and Creative Ministry Festival in Rugby, Warwickshire, used this song as the basis of a super-entertaining puppet performance! This made me smile.

You may be wondering, “Where’s all the choral music?!” While I do enjoy that genre, especially at Christmas, I’ve decided to exclude such songs in this list (1) to prevent it from becoming too unwieldy and (2) because I have to do a lot more searching and comparison to find the best recordings.

(Update, April 2022: I’ve decided to add several dozen choral selections to the playlist! While I considered creating a separate list of Christmas choral music, I’ve decided that I prefer an integrated approach, which is also why I scattered such songs throughout, giving some stylistic variety to those who prefer to listen to the playlist in order. My hope is that those who don’t normally go seeking out this genre will be surprised to find pieces that resonate with them.)

If you’re looking for Advent music, see “Advent: An Art & Theology Playlist.” For the Christmas playlist, click on the image below.

Christmas Playlist (art by Yasuo Ueno)

Merry Christmas, friends! May you rejoice in Christ with exceeding great joy, he who “comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” Amen.

Cover art: Yasuo Ueno (Japanese, 1926–2005), A Multitude of Heavenly Hosts, 1986, natural pigments on silk