Advent, Day 7: Behold!

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
    and all flesh shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

—Isaiah 40:3–5

LOOK: Caiphas Nxumalo (South African, 1940–2002), John the Baptist, 1970. Linocut. Source: Christliche Kunst in Afrika, p. 278.

Nxumalo, Caiphas_John the Baptist

Caiphas Nxumalo was a printmaker and wood sculptor who studied at the Rorke’s Drift Art School from around 1968 to 1971 (sources vary on the precise years). He was associated with the African-initiated amaNazaretha Church in South Africa.

In this linoleum cut Nxumalo shows John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, preaching repentance (bottom; Matt. 3:1–3), baptizing (Matt. 3:5–6), and eating wild honey (Matt. 3:4). The eye of God, which sees secret sins, burns bright and glorious. I’m not sure whether the people at the bottom are running away from John’s message of wrath or “turning around” from their wickedness to follow the true way. In Matthew’s account there are people from both categories of response.

The triangular frame rising from the base line was a common compositional device Nxumalo used to tell multiple components of a story, and in this context it’s especially appropriate, as it seems to me to allude to the valleys being lifted and the mountains being brought down low—a leveling of the landscape so that God’s glory can be plainly seen from any vantage point. (On another level, this Isaianic prophecy probably also refers to the proud being overthrown and the humble being exalted, as Mary sings about in her Magnificat.)

Advent is about the coming consummation of the kingdom of God in the day of the Lord. In Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge, who calls on the church to restore Advent’s focus on apocalyptic theology, describes John the Baptist as the central figure of Advent. She half-jokes that behind one of those cute little Advent calendar windows should be a coarse, fiery John shouting, “You brood of vipers!” (Matt. 3:7). “Irreducibly strange, gaunt and unruly, lonely and refractory, utterly out of sync with his age or our age or any age,” John the Baptist “arrives announcing the opening event of the end-time” (277, 13). As prophesied by Malachi at the end of the Old Testament and confirmed by Jesus in Matthew 11, “John the Baptist is the new Elijah, standing at the edge of the universe, at the dawn of a new world, the turn of the ages. That is his location as the sentinel, the premier personage of this incomparable Advent season—the season of the coming of the once and future Messiah” (277).

Like John, the church, Rutledge says, is also located on the frontier of the new age, between Jesus’s first and second advents, and we, too, are called to herald the Messiah, announcing, “Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand.”

[Related posts: “Prepare the Way (Artful Devotion)”; “Turn and Live (Artful Devotion)”; “John the Baptist at the National Gallery, London”]

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 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.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

—Matthew 3:1–12

LISTEN: “His Kingdom Now Is Come (Behold! Behold!)” by Paul Zach, Isaac Wardell, Leslie Jordan, Lorenzo Baylor, and Brian Nhira, on Justice Songs by the Porter’s Gate (2020) | CCLI #7158500

In my review of Justice Songs (and its companion album, Lament Songs), I wrote,

Justice Songs opens with a rousing call-and-response song, “His Kingdom Now Is Come (Behold! Behold!),” that combines material from the mystical prologue of John’s Gospel with an Isaianic prophecy commonly read during Advent [Isaiah 40:3–5]. . . . Verse 4, syncopated with hand claps, lists divine epithets like “God of justice” (Isa. 30:18). “Father of the fatherless” (Ps. 68:5), “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). “He’s troubling the water, and we’re marching through”—an oblique reference to the African American spiritual “Wade in the Water,” about the liberation of the Israelites through the miraculously parted Red Sea, the paradigmatic “day of the Lord.”

The refrain, “Behold!,” is a word used hundreds of times throughout scripture, and it means “to fix the eyes upon; to see with attention; to observe with care.” Jesus says in Luke 7:21, “Behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” May we behold with humility and excitement the age to come and respond with fruits of repentance.

Here’s a socially distanced performance of “His Kingdom Now Is Come” by the musicians of Whitworth Campus Worship for the Center for Congregational Song’s Election Day 2020 broadcast.

(Update, 12/9/20: Watch the Porter’s Gate perform this song in the studio on this Instagram video.)

This post marks the end of the first week of Advent. For many more Advent songs, see “Advent: An Art & Theology Playlist” on Spotify.

Dawning Light (Artful Devotion)

Tutin, Judith_Breaking
Judith Tutin (Irish, 1979–), Breaking, 2011. Diptych, St. Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland.

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.

—Isaiah 9:1–5

Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

—Matthew 4:12–17

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SONG: “The Dawning Light” by James Ward, 1998 (CCLI 4200451)

 

This song was recorded live in 1998 at the Resurrection Youth Convention in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The MP3 can be downloaded for free, along with sheet music, at http://ncfmusic.com/resource/dawning-light/.

For a previously featured James Ward song, see the Artful Devotion “Death Is Ended.”

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The Jewish prophet Isaiah was active during the Assyrian captivity in the second half of the eighth century B.C. The Israelite lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were, along with Gilead in Transjordan, the first to fall to Assyria; the people were deported, and their lands became Assyrian provinces. But these three areas, according to Isaiah 9:1, would also be the first to see the dawning of a glorious new era, where the people step out of darkness and desolation into the fruits of God’s victory, and all military equipment is cast once and for all into an enormous bonfire, for war is over, and oppression is no more.

In The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, biblical scholar J. Alec Motyer emphasizes how Isaiah 9:2–5 is couched in past tenses, even though what it describes has not yet occurred:

The future is written as something which has already happened, for it belonged to the prophetic consciousness of men like Isaiah to cast themselves forward in time and then look back on the mighty acts of God, saying to us: ‘Look forward to it, it is certain, he has already done it!’ Because of this confidence, Isaiah can place the light of 9:1ff. in immediate proximity to the darkness of 8:22, not because it will immediately happen but because it is immediately evident to the eye of faith; those walking in the darkness can see the light ahead and are sustained by hope. . . .

Isaiah insists here that hope is a present reality, part of the constitution of the ‘now’. The darkness is true but it is not the whole truth and certainly not the fundamental truth. (98–99)


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 the Third Sunday after Epiphany, cycle A, click here.

Everlasting Joy Shall Be (Artful Devotion)

Wyeth, Andrew_Snow Hill
Andrew Wyeth (American, 1917–2009), Snow Hill, 1989. Tempera on hardboard panel, 48 × 72 in. (121.9 × 182.9 cm). Andrew and Betsy Wyeth Collection. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones (at the Brandywine River Museum of Art 2017 retrospective).

. . .

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.

. . .

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

—Isaiah 35:5–6a, 10

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SONG: “Therefore the Redeemed” by Ruth Lake, 1972 | Performed by Kim McLean, on Soul Solace, 2008

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Snow Hill by Andrew Wyeth [previously] is “a conscious summary of his artistic life that is both somber memoir and playful recalibration” (John Wilmerding). It shows six of his friends and neighbors, who modeled for him many times throughout his career, dancing around a beribboned Maypole in winter in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Their coats, earflaps, and braids fly in the wind, as does one untouched white ribbon, which, it has been posited, could represent Christina Olson (who had a degenerative muscle disorder and could not walk), the artist’s wife Betsy, or the artist himself.

This painting, one of Wyeth’s last, was the finale of a major retrospective at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in 2017, which has been one of the most memorable art exhibitions I’ve ever attended. The wall text there read,

Painted over a two-year period, Snow Hill is both fantasy and memorial, a visual summation of the iconic places and people of Chadds Ford that occupied [Wyeth] for the previous fifty years. Wyeth looks backward and inward, bringing together many of these subjects from his past, a number of them now deceased. Depicted are Karl Kuerner (dressed in his German uniform), holding the hand of Anna Kuerner, who is in turn linked to William Loper, whose prosthetic hook is held by Helga Testorf, rounding the circle to Allan Lynch (of Winter 1946) and Adam Johnson (partially obscured). They are surrounded by a landscape that shows, left to right: the railroad tracks where Wyeth’s father, N. C. Wyeth, was killed in 1945; the Kuerner farmhouse and barn; the remains of Mother Archie’s octagonal church; the Ring family home in the distance; and Adam Johnson’s shed and haystack.

Wyeth’s models are shown holding ribbons—although one white ribbon is symbolically floating free—and dancing atop Kuerner Hill—a site at once iconic for its recurrence in Wyeth’s work and for its proximity to the site of his father’s death. . . .

I love how the dead and the living join together in this Yuletide circle dance, in which suffering is taken up into joy. Wyeth had lived through Karl Kuerner, a World War I veteran, succumbing to cancer, Allan Lynch to suicide, and Bill Loper to mental illness, as well as the early death of his father and nephew in a car accident. And while such darkness is not fully dissipated in this gray-day scene, a mood of celebration and hope and friendship does take over.

Wyeth, Andrew_Snow Hill (detail)


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 the Third Sunday of Advent, cycle A, click here.

Jubilee (Artful Devotion)

Jubilee by Steve Prince
Steve A. Prince, Jubilee. Linocut, 36 × 24 in.
Click on image to purchase.

And he [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

—Luke 4:16–21

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In this passage from Sunday’s Gospel lectionary reading, Jesus enters his hometown synagogue in Nazareth and gives what is essentially his inaugural address, having recently been installed to public office by God (at his baptism) and now informing the people of his intentions as their new leader. His agenda is taken straight from Isaiah 61:1–2, and boils down to this: FREEDOM. That is his rallying cry.

“The year of the Lord’s favor,” or “the acceptable year of the Lord,” in Luke 4:19 refers to the Jubilee legislation God gave Israel, mandating that every fiftieth year, slaves were to be set free, debts canceled, and land wealth redistributed (see Leviticus 25). This ushering in of economic justice was most definitely “good news to the poor.” In his reading from the Isaiah scroll and his statement that “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled,” Jesus was calling for the celebration of the Year of Jubilee. And as we know from what follows in the Gospels, this Jubilee would be far more expansive than the one prescribed in Levitical law. Release from bondage, forgiveness of debts, restoration of what had been lost—there is, of course, still a material significance to these provisions, but there’s also a spiritual significance, in that through Christ, we are liberated from sin and ultimately brought back to the Garden in which we originally dwelt.

In ancient Israel, the semicentennial Jubilee Year was announced by the blowing of a shofar (ram’s horn) on the Day of Atonement. The Hebrew word for jubilee, yovel, actually means “ram’s horn”; in the Septuagint, yovel is translated multiple times as apheseos semasia (“trumpet blast of liberty”). The Latin form, jubilaeus, is influenced by the Latin jubilare, “to shout for joy.”

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Typically I make one music selection for the week’s Artful Devotion, but I couldn’t decide between these two—so you’re getting a twofer! I’d encourage you also to revisit “Jubilee” by the McIntosh County Shouters (which pairs splendidly with the Steve Prince linocut), featured in a previous roundup.

JAZZ INSTRUMENTAL: “Jubilee Stomp” by Duke Ellington, 1928

This track was recorded at Okeh studios in New York City on January 19, 1928. It features Duke Ellington on piano, Bubber Miley and Louis Metcalf on trumpet, Joe Nanton on trombone, Barney Bigard on clarinet and tenor sax, Harry Carney on alto sax and baritone sax, Fred Guy on banjo, Otto Hardwick on alto sax and bass sax, Wellman Braud on string bass, and Sonny Greer on drums.

GOSPEL-ROCK: “The Year of Jubilee” | Words by Charles Wesley, 1750 | Music by Kirk Ward, 2010

Blow ye the trumpet, blow! The gladly solemn sound
Let all the nations know, to earth’s remotest bound:
Jesus, our great high priest, has full atonement made;
You weary spirits, rest; you mournful souls, be glad.

Freedom! The year of jubilee is come;
Freedom! The year of jubilee is come;
Freedom! The year of jubilee is come;
Freedom! The year of jubilee is come;
You ransomed sinners, return, return home.

Extol the Lamb of God, the sacrificial Lamb;
Redemption through his blood throughout the world proclaim:
You slaves of sin and hell, your liberty receive;
And safe in Jesus dwell, and blessed in Jesus live.

You who have sold for naught your heritage above,
Receive it back unbought, the gift of Jesus’ love:
The gospel trumpet hear, the news of heavenly grace;
And, saved from earth, appear before your Savior’s face.

Hymnic poetry doesn’t get much better than that of Charles Wesley, and “Blow ye the trumpet, blow!” is no exception. I discovered this text through Kirk Ward, who wrote new music for it—a tune that is, in my opinion, far superior to the ca. 1782 tune by Lewis Edson that’s used in the hymnals of the United Methodist Church, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and others. Ward’s gospel-rock version of the hymn, which includes the addition of a chorus, is a congregational favorite at my little church in Maryland.

Describing his stylistic influences and aspirations, Ward writes:

I was thinking that the song would work well in a more 1960s style, civil rights era gospel-rock. I was thinking Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings or Aloe Blacc, but the over-driven guitar sounds and my white boy vocals push it more toward something like Neil Young. Maybe one day, I’ll record it with horns and soul-power guitar riffs to get the sound I heard in my head. Regardless of the groove, my main goal was to get everyone shouting “FREEDOM!” at the top of their range.

As with all the songs posted on the New City Fellowship Music website, congregations are encouraged to freely use “The Year of Jubilee” in worship; an MP3 demo, lead sheet, and lyrics are provided for that purpose. I’d love to hear some full-band performances of this song online—if any exist, please post them in the comment field below. If you’re interested in making a commercial recording, contact Kirk Ward for permission.

(Related post: “And the Walls Came a-Tumblin’ Down,” commentary on a Steve Prince linocut from my collection)


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 the Third Sunday after Epiphany, cycle C, click here.