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.
TGC ARTICLE:“18 Paintings Christians Should See”: The Gospel Coalition Arts & Culture editor Brett McCracken has rounded up fourteen arts professionals to each choose an artistically and theologically significant painting and write about it in 200 words or less—and I’m one of them! I chose Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, which shows that famous encounter between the “doubting” disciple and the risen Christ. Here Thomas literally puts his finger on the flesh-and-blood reality of the resurrection, and you can see the marvel in his face.
Other selections in the article range from medieval manuscript illuminations and Dutch Golden Age portraits to pop art and abstract minimalism. You might recognize the names of some of the contributors whom I’ve featured before on Art & Theology, like Jonathan A. Anderson, Matthew J. Milliner, W. David O. Taylor, and Terry Glaspey—they have all been influential to me. I’m very encouraged to see this major evangelical website engaging with visual art.
POEMS: “Featured Poet: Laurie Klein”: In this post from Abbey of the Arts, poet Laurie Klein introduces herself, discussing the sacred themes in her work and her approach to writing poetry, as well as sharing three of her poems: “How to Live Like a Backyard Psalmist,” “I Dream You Ask, But Where Do I Start,” and “Poem for Epiphany.” All three are wonderfully evocative, and I’m definitely going to check out her collection, Where the Sky Opens. The first poem references St. Kevin of Glendalough, a sixth-century Celtic monk whose hand outstretched in prayer once became a nesting place for a blackbird. The poem is about how to live a life of joy, wonder, and praise, and it begins,
Wear shoes with soles like meringue
and pale blue stitching so that
every day you feel ten years old.
Befriend what crawls.
Drink rain, hatless, laughing.
Sit on your heels before anything plush
or vaguely kinetic:
hazel-green kneelers of moss
waving their little parcels
of spores, on hair-trigger stems.
ARTISTS GROUP AT BIRCHWOOD: The Birchwood Painters, founded in 2009, is a group of painters with disabilities who live at Birchwood care home in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, in England, exhibiting locally and in an annual art show at Birchwood. One of the members is Mark Urwin, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Mark loves studying art history, especially the impressionists. Landscapes are his favorite genre to paint, but he also interprets religious works by the Old Masters—like Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi’s Annunciation, or Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper—in his own semiabstract style, using bright swaths of color. In 2016 Mark gave a lecture on his work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Mark uses an easel that was specially designed for him by DEMAND (Design and Manufacture for Disability) to enable greater freedom and control in his creations. Whereas before, an art class volunteer had to hold Mark’s canvas, making certain angles to paint more awkward, the DEMAND easel improves canvas access, as the canvas can be positioned in any orientation to Mark, with the bulk of his electric wheelchair no longer posing a problem. Furthermore, he can keep his talk board on his lap so that he doesn’t lose his voice while painting.
“Delving into the Getty’s collections, we are at work on the exhibition Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art (November 19, 2019–February 17, 2020). We are examining how Balthazar’s depiction coincided with and was furthered by the rise of the slave trade—and we invite your input to inform the exhibition. What questions or ideas do you have about this topic? What stories or themes would you like to see explored? We are eager to incorporate your views into our process.”
In this post from the Getty’s blog, The Iris, in addition to finding out how to relay feedback, learn about who the Magi were, what tradition says about them, and the development of Balthazar’s image over time.
TED TALK / LIVE PAINTING: “Can Art Amend History?” by Titus Kaphar: American artist Titus Kaphar reconfigures historical artworks—through cutting, bending, overpainting, stitching, tarring, and tearing—to include African American subjects. In this thirteen-minute presentation before a live audience, Kaphar opens by sharing the words his young son spoke upon seeing the famous equestrian statue outside the Natural History Museum in Manhattan, which has Teddy Roosevelt up high on a horse, flanked by a Native American and an African lower down, on foot—which can easily be read as establishing a racial hierarchy.
Kaphar goes on to discuss some of his own encounters with Western art history and his mission to bring black figures out of the shadows of that tradition. He demonstrates this with a reproduction of Family Group in a Landscapeby the Dutch master Frans Hals, which shows a wealthy white family of four with their young black servant.* More has been written, Kaphar laments, about the lace the wife is wearing and the dog at the right of the picture than about the black youth who stares straight out at us. This claim did surprise me somewhat—and then I visited the museum website, only to find that their six-paragraph description of the painting doesn’t mention the boy at all! By strategically applying white paint across this canvas, Kaphar forces us to “shift our gaze” and to notice the one who has typically gone unnoticed.
IN THEATERS: Currently showing in theaters are two historical drama films featuring main characters whose work (in art and in activism) was famously inspired by their Christian faith: Tolkien, about the author of Lord of the Rings, and The Best of Enemies, about civil rights leader Ann Atwater from Durham, North Carolina. Both movies have received lukewarm to not-so-great critical reviews but fairly high audience ratings, and I intend to see them. I found out about the latter one through Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, one of the mentees of “Grandma Ann,” who prepared a group study guide to accompany the film.
Also in theaters, with rave reviews all around, is Amazing Grace, a documentary about the creation of Aretha Franklin’s best-selling gospel album of the same title, recorded over two nights in 1972 at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The footage was recently unearthed and reassembled after almost fifty years. The resultant film has been called “wonderfully intimate,” “a raw, sensory, reverent experience,” “a transcendent joy,” “the new gold standard of filmed music concerts,” and “one of the finest music documentaries ever.”
It’s been interesting to hear secular reviewers expressing how moved they were by the film, a film that is prayer (e.g., “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”), proclamation and praise (“God Will Take Care of You”), testimony (“Amazing Grace,” “How I Got Over”), and invitation (“Give Yourself to Jesus”).