“He comes, comes, ever comes”

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.

Indian Advent lamp
All photos by Victoria Emily Jones

Gitanjali XLV by 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.”)

Sahi, Jyoti_Incarnation in the Anthill
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Incarnation within the Anthill, 2019. Mixed media on canvas, 28 × 10 1/2 in. (71.1 × 26.7 cm). Collection of Victoria Emily Jones.
Sacred anthill
Anthill at Vishram in Silvepura with a Mary figure at the base, made of leaves and bark

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!)

Jyoti Sahi at work

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.”

“When the heart is hard and parched up . . .”

Thy Kingdom Come by Jyoti Sahi
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Thy Kingdom Come. Oil on canvas.

When the heart is hard and parched up, come upon me with a shower of mercy.

When grace is lost from life, come with a burst of song.

When tumultuous work raises its din on all sides, shutting me out from beyond, come to me, my lord of silence, with thy peace and rest.

When my beggarly heart sits crouched, shut up in a corner, break open the door, my king, and come with the ceremony of a king.

When desire blinds the mind with delusion and dust, O thou holy one, thou wakeful one, come with thy light and thy thunder.

This untitled poem is no. 39 from the collection Gitanjali (Song Offerings) by Rabindranath Tagore. Originally written and published in Bengali in 1910, it was translated into English by Tagore himself in 1912, along with other poems of his from various sources, and published by the India Society of London with an introduction by W. B. Yeats. For this volume he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature—the first non-European to receive such a distinction.

Here the speaker entreats God to break into his life, bestowing divine gifts: mercy, like rainwater, to moisten his dry heart; grace, like a song, to lift his spirit; and peace and rest to counteract the overwhelm of daily work. He asks God to come like a king and lavish his riches on all us spiritually impoverished, and like thunder and lightning, to jolt us awake from our sin and delusion. Each line of the poem works by contrast: man in his neediness, and the need-meeting God.

Tagore’s poetry bears Hindu influence but has wide cross-religious appeal and has inspired numerous musical settings in his native India and abroad. The composition below (a setting of “When the heart is hard and parched up”) is by the famous Indian classical singer and composer Jagjit Singh.

In 2010 American composer Joan Szymko wrote A Burst of Song, a short three-movement choral cycle that sets three poems from the English Gitanjali. Movement 1, “A Shower of Mercy,” excerpts our familiar text. Listen to a performance below (the first movement goes through 1:56) by Portland University’s Man Choir and its female choir, Vox Femina:

(To follow along with the words or to purchase scores, go to http://www.joanszymko.com/works/ind/burst-song-3-mvts.)

Pentecost art from Asia

Ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven (and fifty days after his resurrection), his Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, manifesting as “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3). This miraculous gift enabled the apostles to speak in languages foreign to them but native to the many Jews from abroad who were gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot (called “Pentecost” by Hellenized Jews), a festival of giving thanks for the harvest and for God’s provision of the Torah. For the first time the gospel of Jesus Christ was proclaimed to a global audience. Three thousand people came to faith that day, and the Christian church was born.

The Spirit is still at work in the dissemination of the good news today, breathing life into cultures all over the world and thereby building up an incredibly diverse body of Christ.

The arts are one expression of this diversity.

In the introduction to his groundbreaking book Each with His Own Brush: Contemporary Christian Art in Asia and Africa (New York: Friendship Press, 1938), Daniel Johnson Fleming writes,

As at Pentecost, Parthians, Medes and Elamites heard the message, “every man in his own tongue wherein he was born,” so we see Chinese and Japanese and Indians expressing Christianity’s universal language, each with his own brush. For when the spirit of God descends upon any people, new forms of beauty appear, new artistic gifts are revealed, adding another testimony to the universality of the Christian faith.

Since the publication of this book almost seventy years ago, Christianity has grown exponentially in Asia, as have indigenous artistic expressions of the faith. In 1975 Japanese theologian and arts advocate Masao Takenaka published the heavily illustrated book Christian Art in Asia, highlighting the robust variety being produced on the continent. Three years later the Asian Christian Art Association was founded to encourage the exchange of ideas between Asian artists and theologians. Their magazine, Image (not to be confused with the Seattle-based quarterly), has showcased local talents even further. Dozens more books have been published in English on individual Asian artists, countries, and the Asian Christian art movement in general. For the latter, see the beautifully designed The Christian Story: Five Asian Artists Today, plus The Bible Through Asian Eyes.

Below is a sampling of Asian art on the theme of Pentecost. Some works were made using traditional art forms or techniques—Chinese papercutting, Japanese flower arranging (ikebana) or stencil printing (kappazuri), Indian cloth dyeing (batik)—while other artists have chosen to work in oils and acrylics, collage, or glass. Some depict native people and settings—for example, Thai dancers wrapped in sabai, or a group sitting under a thatched roof in Indonesia—while others prefer ethnic and geographic ambiguity. There’s no single style that epitomizes the art of any country.

Pentecost by Sadao Watanabe
Sadao Watanabe (Japanese, 1913–1996), Pentecost, 1975. Hand-colored kappazuri-dyed stencil print on washi paper, 25.5 × 22.75 in. Source: Printing the Word: The Art of Watanabe Sadao (Philadelphia: American Bible Society, 2003)
Pentecost by Sadao Watanabe
Sadao Watanabe (Japanese, 1913–1996), Pentecost, 1965. Hand-colored kappazuri-dyed stencil print on washi paper.
The Coming of the Holy Spirit by Soichi Watanabe
Soichi Watanabe (Japanese, 1949–), The Coming of the Holy Spirit, 1996. Oil on canvas, 18 × 13.25 in.
Pentecost by Tadao Tanaka
Tadao Tanaka (Japanese, 1903–1995), Pentecost, 1963. Oil on canvas. Source: Christian Art in Asia by Masao Takenaka (Tokyo: Kyo Bun Kwan, 1975)
Pentecost by Gako Ota
Gako Ota (Japanese, ?–1972), Pentecost. Belvedere, pampas grass, paper bush, lilies, and rib of fan. Source: Consider the Flowers: Meditations in Ikebana, ed. Masao Takenaka (Tokyo: Kyo Bun Kwan, 1990)
Pentecost by Keiko Miura
Keiko Miura (Japanese, 1935–), Pentecost, 2004. Stained glass window, All Pilgrims Christian Church, Seattle, Washington, USA.
Holy Spirit Coming by He Qi
He Qi (Chinese, 1950–), Holy Spirit Coming, 1998. Oil on canvas.

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