Advent, Day 8: Prepare Ye the Way

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

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

—Matthew 3:1–3

LOOK: Painted staircases by Xomatok

Xomatok stairway
Painted staircase by Xomatok (b. 1985), Lima, Peru, 2021. All photos by Jeremy Flores.

Xomatok stairway
Xomatok stairway

From Colossal:

Artist Xomatok translates the vibrant, geometric motifs of handwoven Andean blankets, or llicllas, into large-scale works that mark the pathways through the hilly Alisos de Amauta neighborhood in Lima, Peru. Painted during the course of two months as part of the Municipality of Lima’s Pinta Lima Bicentenario, the 13 interventions were a collaborative undertaking by the artist and local residents, who transformed the public staircases that wind through the district into multi-level canvases. The resulting patterns are kaleidoscopic and highlight a spectrum of bright colors and symmetries often associated with the traditional textiles.

View more photos.

LISTEN: “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” by Stephen Schwartz, from the musical Godspell (1971)

The following video clip is the opening sequence of the 1973 film adaptation of the stage musical Godspell, which stars David Haskell as John the Baptist:

So. much. joy!

The ram’s horn issues its call. Ballet dancer, student, struggling actress, waitress, cab driver, businessman, businesswoman, parking attendant—they all leave their jobs, casting off their workplace trappings to accept John’s invitation to new and abundant life. They meet him at The Angel of the Waters, a sculpted fountain in New York City’s Central Park. They throw themselves into the fountain like children, receiving their baptism, their initiation into the upside-down kingdom of God.

But John notices Jesus standing at a distance, stripped down and ready for his own baptism. John’s lighthearted visage turns heavy for a moment in recognition that Jesus’s baptism is into suffering and death.

I wrote about Godspell two years ago when I featured one of its songs, “Turn Back, O Man,” to go along with a lectionary reading from Ezekiel. The musical is wacky, with the ragtag disciples forming a comic troupe to act out Jesus’s parables and teachings from the Gospel of Matthew. Some Christians find it all too silly and irreverent. Others, like me, see it as capturing an important element of the Good News, which is joy. This is what Godspell’s creator, John-Michael Tebelak, wanted to get across.

Perhaps the festive tone of the opening number seems disjunctive with what we know of John from the Gospels—a desert ascetic who preached about vipers and axes and fire and winnowing forks, warning his hearers of the wrath to come. Point taken.

However, while his message is a sobering one, repentance need not be a dour affair. We must take honest stock of our sins, yes, laying them out in confession before God, but scripture assures us many times over of God’s pardon, and that’s something to rejoice in! There is a joy to repentance and to following the way of Christ. Turning off the death-road, onto the road of life. As we unload the burdens that have accrued on our backs, we are freed to walk upright once again.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” John cries out on the riverbank.

I’d encourage you to read that not as a threat but as an invitation. The kingdom of heaven is marked by grace and possibility. It’s a pearl, it’s a seed, it’s a feast. When we embrace the gospel, our cities become a playground where we enact the values of Christ, childlike as they be, preparing the world to receive her coming King.

Advent, Day 25

You shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you . . .

—Leviticus 25:9–10

The LORD has proclaimed
    to the end of the earth:
Say to daughter Zion,
    “See, your salvation comes . . .”

—Isaiah 62:11

Immediately after the suffering of those days

the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
    and the powers of heaven will be shaken.

Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

—Matthew 24:29–31

“Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.”

—John 4:35

LOOK: Middle Eastern manuscript illumination of a trumpeting angel

Trumpeting angel (Islamic)
Angel from a detached page of the Arabic manuscript Aja’ib al-Makhluqat wa Ghara’ib al-Mawjudat, painted in Syria, Iraq, or Egypt, 1375–1425. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 38.9 × 24.6 cm (full sheet). British Museum, London.

Written around 1270, Aja’ib al-Makhluqat wa Ghara’ib al-Mawjudat (The Wonders of Creation and the Oddities of Existence) by the Persian cosmographer Zakriya ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini was one of the best known and most copied texts in the medieval Islamic world. This leaf from a fourteenth-century illuminated version shows an angel blowing a long trumpet that resembles a karnay, an ancient brass instrument still used throughout Central Asia, especially Uzbekistan, to herald celebrations.

The British Museum website identifies the angel in this painting as Gabriel; however, according to the hadith (records of the traditions and sayings of the prophet Muhammad) and the verso of this page, it is the angel Israfil who will blow the horn on the Day of Resurrection. Similar representations can be found here, here, here, and here. I sent a query to the museum asking why they’ve titled the painting “The Angel Gabriel” and whether it might be a mistake, and they told me they are looking into it.

Even though the Bible never specifies Gabriel as the trumpeter of the last days, he has come to be associated with that role in Christian tradition. The Armenian church was the first to assign it to him beginning in the twelfth century, and John Milton did likewise in his seventeenth-century epic, Paradise Lost. Gabriel’s trumpet is also a familiar trope in African American spirituals.

Israfil is not mentioned in the Bible. However, because whole hosts of angels exist and so few are named in scripture, all three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have naturally taken to supplying some names of their own.

The unknown artist of this image has creatively imagined an angel’s wing that tapers off into what looks like an animal head!

I chose the image for its ability to evoke Christ’s return—which, FYI, Muslims are also waiting for.

LISTEN: “Days of Elijah” by Robin Mark, 1996 | Arranged by Keith Lancaster and performed by the Acappella Company on Glorious God: A Cappella Worship, 2007

These are the days of Elijah
Declaring the Word of the Lord
And these are the days of your servant Moses
Righteousness being restored
And though these are days of great trials
Of famine and darkness and sword
Still we are the voice in the desert crying
Prepare ye the way of the Lord

Behold he comes
Riding on the clouds
Shining like the sun
At the trumpet call
So lift your voice
It’s the year of Jubilee
And out of Zion’s hill
Salvation comes

And these are the days of Ezekiel
The dry bones becoming as flesh
And these are the days of your servant David
Rebuilding a temple of praise
And these are the days of the harvest
The fields are as white in the world
And we are the laborers in your vineyard
Declaring the Word of the Lord

Behold he comes
Riding on the clouds
Shining like the sun
At the trumpet call
So lift your voice
It’s the year of Jubilee
And out of Zion’s hill
Salvation comes

There’s no god like Jehovah
There’s no god like Jehovah
There’s no god like Jehovah
There’s no god like Jehovah

In the fifth century BCE God told Israel through his prophet Malachi, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me. . . . Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes” (Mal. 3:1a; 4:5; cf. Isa. 40:3).

Four hundred years later came John the Baptist, whom Jesus referred to as Elijah (Matt. 11:14)—preparing the way, preaching the Word.

Northern Irish singer-songwriter Robin Mark invokes Elijah and, implicitly, his new-covenant counterpart, John, in the first stanza of “Days of Elijah,” comparing the ministries of these two prophets to that of the church. Just as John the Baptist prepared the way for the Messiah’s first coming, we are to prepare the way for his second.

The refrain pictures that second coming as a jubilee celebration—as freedom, rest, wholeness, the world set right—announced by a trumpet blast.

We are in the last days, the time between Christ’s two advents. And though we await the fullness of redemption, we do not do so passively. Filled with Christ’s Spirit, we labor as agents of justice and resurrection and praise, as the song suggests.

Above I featured a fairly standard (and skillful!) version of “Days of Elijah” that could be sung by your average church congregation. But here’s one to really knock your socks off: an arrangement by the South African gospel group Joyous Celebration, which they performed live in Johannesburg last month:

Four scenes from a medieval German altarpiece

When I was at the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, Netherlands, in 2019, one of the standout pieces I saw was an early fifteenth-century altarpiece from the Middle Rhine region of Germany. The central section, which I imagine would have been a sculpted Crucifixion scene, has been lost, and the surviving panels are arranged in a modern frame.

Middle Rhine Altarpiece (Catharijneconvent)
Altarpiece from the Middle Rhine, ca. 1410. Tempera on panels. Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, Netherlands. Photo: Ruben de Heer.

Ten panels depicting eight scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary decorate what would have originally been the interior wings—that is, visible when the altarpiece was open.

  1. The Annunciation (2 panels)
  2. The Visitation
  3. The Nativity
  4. The Adoration of the Magi
  5. The Resurrection
  6. The Ascension (2 panels)
  7. The Descent of the Holy Spirit
  8. The Dormition

I’ll describe the first four, as they’re my favorites.

All photos in this post are from the museum’s website, which courteously provides them in high resolution under an open-access policy, promoting scholarship and digital engagement. The Annunciation image is a composite I made from two separate photos.

The Annunciation

Annunciation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece)

In the Annunciation, Mary sits in her bedroom beside a window in front of an open pink chest (her dowry chest?), quietly reading the scriptures, when the angel Gabriel slips in through an open door, holding a banderole that bears his greeting: Ave gratia plena d[omi]n[u]s tecum (“Hail, favored one, the Lord is with you,” Luke 1:28). He then goes on to tell her that she has been chosen to bear God’s Son into the world.

What will Mary say? Four little angels look on in eager anticipation from a tower in the panel above, while in the room two angels already start rolling out the royal treatment, holding up a gilt-brocaded velvet “cloth of honor” behind the young maiden in recognition of her high calling.

A thin column divides Gabriel’s space from Mary’s, creating a sense of threshold. It marks a boundary that is about to be crossed. The separation between God and humanity will be broken down by the Incarnation.

Mary ultimately responds to the surprise invitation with acceptance: Ecce ancilla d[omi]ni fiat michi s[e]c[un]d[u]m verbu[m] t[uu]m (“Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word,” Luke 1:38).

Mary’s yes triggers the release of a thick stream of light—it looks to me like a golden conveyor belt!—from the heart of God the Father, who is peering down through an upper window. Riding that stream is a haloed dove (the Holy Spirit) followed by a tiny yet fully formed infant Christ who’s holding a cross and headed straight toward Mary’s womb.

Annunciation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece, detail)
“Weeee!!!”

The homunculus (“little human”) motif in Annunciation images, though relatively rare, always makes me chuckle. It’s one way artists came up with to visualize the unvisualizable mystery of Christ’s conception, one that includes the Second Person of the Trinity as an actor in the event and shows a very literal descent. Not long after the motif started appearing in the fourteenth century, it was disapproved of by theologians, such as Antoninus of Florence and Molanus, and it was finally banned in the eighteenth century by Pope Benedict XIV as being heretical, since it suggests that Jesus did not take his body from Mary.

For brief commentary on this particular scene by Msgr. Herman Woorts, a Dutch art historian and an auxiliary bishop in the Roman Catholic Church, see this video produced by Katholiekleven.nl:

(To translate the Dutch into your language, click the “CC” button on the player, then the cog icon, and select Subtitles→Auto-translate.)

The Visitation

Visitation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece)

In the Visitation panel, Jesus and John the Baptizer are visible in their mothers’ wombs, each encased in a mandorla (almond-shaped aureole). This visual device of showing the cousins in utero was not uncommon at the time, especially in the Low Countries; art historian Matthew J. Milliner amusingly calls it “ultrasound Jesus”! Here you can actually see little John kneeling before his cousin in adoration.

Elizabeth has emerged from a door at the right, whose frame is labeled “Civitas Juda,” City of Judah (and notice the dog in the doorway! a traditional symbol of faithfulness). As she and Mary embrace each other in celebration of their miraculous pregnancies and imminent salvation, scrolls unfurl with their words from the Gospel of Luke: Et unde michi hoc q[uo]d mater d[omi]ni mei venit ad me (“And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Luke 1:43), at right, and at left, Magnificat a[n]i[m]a mea d[omi]n[u]m. Et exultavit sp[iritu]s meus i[n] deo salutalutari (sic) meo (“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” Luke 1:46–47). The scrolls provide a delicate, wing-like framing around the two women.

And at their head, in the center, an open-beaked dove descends, signifying the Holy Spirit—an extremely rare appearance in Visitation images. This is God breathing on his daughters, blessing their ministries, receiving their praise. Like the prophets of old, they are filled with God’s power and truth spills forth from their lips.

Visitation (Middle Rhine Altarpiece, detail)

At their feet flows a spring of water, a possible allusion to Isaiah 35:6b–7a: “waters shall break forth in the wilderness, / and streams in the desert; / the burning sand shall become a pool, / and the thirsty ground springs of water.” Not to mention the Living Water that is Christ (see John 4).

Another charming detail of this panel is the angels, with their wispy red wings, peeking in at this intimate moment from behind rocks. I’m reminded of the epistle of 1 Peter, whose author says that the mysteries of salvation are “things into which angels long to look!” (1:12). Here they seem to whisper their song that will be exclaimed at full blast on the night of Jesus’s birth: Gloria in exelsis deo (“Glory to God in the highest,” Luke 2:14).

The Nativity

Poor Joseph is often overlooked as a player in the Christmas story, and yet he, too, faithfully responded to a (quite terrifying!) divine calling: to be the adoptive father of Jesus, raising him as his own. Though he initially had doubts about Mary’s story of supernatural conception—who wouldn’t?—an angel set him straight, and he ultimately acted in love and loyalty to Mary, and to God. He was an advocate and a provider for his family, looking out for their best interests all along the way.

Nativity (Middle Rhine Altarpiece)

I mention this because the Middle Rhine Altarpiece shows an actively caring and resourceful Joseph at the Nativity, cooking porridge over an open fire to nourish his hungry and tired wife, who reclines on a rollout mat with her newborn.

Also, notice that his left foot is bare. A legend of unknown origin says that Joseph removed his stockings (German hosen) following Jesus’s birth, cutting them into strips in order to swaddle the child. This narrative detail appealed to popular imagination and was referred to in stories, poems, songs, and the visual arts from the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries in the Netherlands and the Rhineland. At the time this altarpiece was made there was even a venerated relic at Aachen Cathedral purported to be the stockings-turned-swaddling bands.

As had become standard in images of the Nativity, this one includes an ox and an ass. The canonical Gospels don’t mention any animals at the birth—though the mention of a manger in Luke 2:7 implies an animal presence. The seventh-century Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew specifically names the ox and ass, citing their supposed adoration of the Christ child as a fulfillment of an Old Testament “prophecy”: “And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib (Isa. 1:3).” These two domestic animals are also mentioned in the Nativity account that appears in the Golden Legend, an immensely popular text from the thirteenth century.

Here the ox is nose-deep in straw, while the ass looks up with his mouth agape. Perhaps he’s excited at having just spotted the Spirit-dove under the rafters.  

The shepherds are about to arrive at the stable, as in the right background the birth is announced to them. The scroll held by the angel reads, Evanglizo vob[is] gaudi[um] magnu[m] (“I proclaim great joy to you,” Luke 2:10), and above the shepherd is the inscription Transeamu[s] us[que] Betleem (“Let’s go to Bethlehem,” Luke 2:15).

The Adoration of the Magi

In the Adoration of the Magi panel, Mary holds the Christ child on her lap, who is nude save for a thin diaphanous drape, emphasizing his full humanity. She wears a crown, alluding to her identity (in Catholic tradition) as Queen of Heaven. As in the Annunciation, she’s backed by a cloth of honor, which Joseph pulls aside to see what new visitors have come calling. And again, the ever-present Holy Spirit hovers above!

The pointing angel at the top, with the aid of a star, has directed three magi, portrayed here as kings, from their far-off homelands to the Christ child. Ite in iudeam ubi / nascit rex iudeor[um] (“Go to Judea where the king of the Jews was born”), he says.

Having cast his crown at the child’s feet, one of the magi kneels down and kisses the hand of the King of kings. He presents a container of gold coins as tribute, which Jesus rifles through with curiosity (ooo, shiny!).

Two other magi stand behind with their gifts of frankincense and myrrh. One of them, whom tradition calls Balthazar, is African. In the eighth century the historian Bede described Balthazar as having a “black complexion,” and from around 1400 onward he came to be portrayed that way in art, reflecting the growing visibility of other races in Europe.

Exterior Panels

Just to give you a full picture of the altarpiece as a whole . . .

The exterior panels, which were visible when the altarpiece was closed, comprise ten scenes from Christ’s passion. Three, however, are missing, and several of the remaining ones are damaged.

  1. The Agony in the Garden
  2. The Arrest of Christ (lost)
  3. Christ before Pilate
  4. The Flagellation
  5. The Crowning with Thorns
  6. Christ Carrying His Cross
  7. The Deposition (lost)
  8. The Entombment
  9. Mary supported by John
  10. Longinus with the lance (lost)

So all together, the altarpiece would have told the gospel story from Christ’s conception and birth to the Crucifixion to the Resurrection and Ascension to Pentecost. And it would have served as the backdrop to the celebration of the Eucharist, spiritually forming parishioners week after week.

Art museums are full of such treasures as these. I encourage you to visit one of your local museums (or maybe take a weekend trip to one), find a piece of historical art that intrigues you, and sit with it for at least ten minutes. What do you notice? What is strange to you? What makes you smile? What was the object’s original context? What lineages is it a part of (e.g., what communities has it passed through, what iconographies or textual traditions does it draw from and develop, etc.)? What theological ideas, if any, does it express?

If you struggle to meaningfully engage with an artwork, I’m sure a docent would love to help you.

You might also take a photo of the artwork and share it on your social media. Ask your friends what stands out to them.

Advent, Day 11

LOOK: John the Baptist Receiving Instructions by David LaChapelle

LaChapelle, David_John the Baptist
David LaChapelle (American, 1963–), John the Baptist Receiving Instructions, 1985. Hand-painted negative.

A chronicler of pop culture, David LaChapelle is best known for photographing celebrities—Michael Jackson, Andy Warhol, Madonna, Elton John, Courtney Love, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, and so on. But he also maintains a fine-art photography practice, creating pieces that regularly reference religion and the metaphysical. His style is highly saturated and dramatic and combines elements of surrealism and pop art. He has exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Musée d’Orsay, and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

In this photograph, John the Baptizer hears from God, his eyes rolled back as if in a trance. Perhaps he is receiving words for a sermon—he was a fiery preacher of repentance—or the call to rebuke the tetrarch Herod Antipas for divorcing his wife to marry his brother’s ex. He holds a palm branch, a symbol of martyrdom. For speaking truth to power, John literally lost his head.

(Related posts: “Behold!”; “Prepare the Way”)

LISTEN: “He’s a Keeper of the Fire” by Buffy Sainte-Marie, on Illuminations (1969)

He’s as heavy as a lead weight, baby
He’s as skinny as a wire
He’s a prophet of a new day, baby
He’s a keeper of the fire

He’s got a funny kinda voodoo, baby
You oughta see him at the zoo
He’s got a heavy kinda hoodoo, baby
And he can lay it on you

He can say it like an angel, baby
He can say it like a blowhorn
He can see a-seven devils, baby
And never even give a whole turn

Been haunted like a razor, baby
He’s been tested in the blood
He’s a walker on the hot coals, baby
And he’s a-heavenly bound

I saw him walkin’ in the valley, baby
I could see him through the trees
I saw him talkin’ to the moon there, baby
He was walkin’ on his knees

He can play it like a rainbow, baby
He can play it like a clown
He can play it like a river, baby
And he can follow you down

He’s as heavy as a lead weight, baby
And he’s as skinny as a wire
He’s a prophet of a new day, baby
He’s a keeper of the fire

Buffy Sainte-Marie is an Indigenous Canadian American singer-songwriter, visual artist, and social activist. I’ve not found any indication that she wrote this song with John the Baptizer in mind, but boy does that reading seem to fit! The wild-eyed, desert-dwelling, locust-eating ascetic, burning with a heavenly ardor and treading flat the valleys to make way for his cousin Jesus. John prophesies a new day coming, one involving judgment. He carries the weight of this message. Unfazed by societal ridicule, he continues on in communion with God, inviting folks down to the river to be baptized—cleansed of their sin and awakened to new life, in preparation for the coming of Christ.

It’s worth noting that other songs on Sainte-Marie’s Illuminations center on biblical figures—namely, “Adam” and “Mary.” And the opening track is “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot” (brilliantly covered earlier this year by Chris Thile).

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.

Roundup: Andrew Wyeth’s Pentecost, moon in a cathedral, dandelion wishes, and more

VISUAL MEDITATION: Pentecost by Andrew Wyeth, written by Victoria Emily Jones: In 2017 I took a day trip up to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, to attend the major Andrew Wyeth retrospective organized by the Brandywine River Museum of Art. Though some critics dismiss him as a “regional nostalgist” who, in sticking to realism, failed to keep with the times, I was enthralled by his hundred-plus paintings on display, not least of which was Pentecost. Created in 1989, it shows a pair of old fishing nets blowing in the wind on the Maine island his wife purchased and revitalized. Wyeth was not religious, but he was fascinated by the supernatural, and his paintings are often celebrated for their spiritual quality, for the sense of presence they evoke. Click on the link to read my reflection on this painting, named after the annual Christian feast that the church celebrates today (June 9) in honor of the Holy Spirit’s descent.

Pentecost by Andrew Wyeth
Andrew Wyeth (American, 1917–2009), Pentecost, 1989. Tempera with pencil on panel, 20 3/4 × 30 5/8 in. Private collection. Photo © Artists Rights Society (ARS).

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SONG: “Come, Holy Ghost,” arranged and performed by Nichlas Schaal and friends: The ninth-century Latin invocation “Veni Creator Spiritus,” attributed to Rabanus Maurus, has been translated into English more than fifty times since the English Reformation, under such titles as “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire” and “Creator Spirit, by whose aid.” Originally seven verses sung in Gregorian chant, the hymn is usually condensed to four verses in modern hymnals and paired with one of three tunes. This super-fun arrangement by the Schaals, so full of joy (and “la-da-da-das”!), uses a nineteenth-century translation by Edward Caswell and tune by Louis Lambillotte. I’ve been listening to it on repeat all week as I’ve been gearing up for Pentecost. [HT: Liturgy Letter]

Come, Holy Ghost, Creator blest,
And in our hearts take up thy rest;
Come with thy grace and heav’nly aid
To fill the hearts which thou hast made,
To fill the hearts which thou hast made.

O Comforter, to thee we cry,
Thou heav’nly gift of God most high,
Thou fount of life, and fire of love,
And sweet anointing from above,
And sweet anointing from above.

O Holy Ghost, through thee alone
Know we the Father and the Son;
Be this our firm unchanging creed,
That thou dost from them both proceed,
That thou dost from them both proceed.

Praise we the Lord, Father and Son,
And Holy Spirit with them one;
And may the Son on us bestow
All gifts that from the Spirit flow,
All gifts that from the Spirit flow.

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DANCE PERFORMANCES: Grounds That Shout!, curated by Reggie Wilson: It interests me to see how sacred spaces, especially Christian ones, inspire new artistic creations. Here’s one example from last month: “Curated by award-winning choreographer Reggie Wilson, Grounds that Shout! (and others merely shaking) is a series of performances that respond to the layered histories of Philadelphia’s religious spaces through contemporary dance, reflecting on the relationships and connections between practices of movement and worship. Over two weeks, eight choreographers and performance groups . . . perform[ed] in four historic Philadelphia churches, drawing from site and spirit to present original and re-situated works of dance.”

For “Souls a-Stirring” by Germaine Ingram, two female dancers shuffled around the large stone baptismal font at Church of the Advocate, sounding out rhythms as Ingram joined them and sang, “When temptation calls out to me / When dark clouds merge and follow me / I ask god to take my hand / Can he not / Can she not / Inspire a woman to teach God’s love?” Photo: Daniel Kontz/Hyperallergic.

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ART INSTALLATIONS

Museum of the Moon at Ely Cathedral: Today’s the last day to see Luke Jerram’s Museum of the Moon installation at Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, a twenty-three-foot replica of the moon that utilizes high-resolution NASA satellite imagery and a sound composition by Dan Jones. The internally lit spherical sculpture hovers under the cathedral’s painted nave ceiling and is the main attraction of the cathedral’s science festival, “The Sky’s the Limit,” celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing (July 16, 1969). Jerram has produced several moons, which are touring the world, hoisted up in churches and other spaces, indoor and outdoor. For some really stunning photos as well as a tour schedule, check out https://my-moon.org/.

Museum of the Moon by Luke Jerram
Installation view of Luke Jerram’s Museum of the Moon at Ely Cathedral, May 2019. Photo: Joe Giddens/Press Association.

Jerram has also created replicas of Earth, scaled down by a factor of 1.8 million and titled Gaia. They are currently being displayed inside Salisbury and Liverpool cathedrals and will thereafter continue their world tours. (The bronze font by William Pye at Salisbury, designed to reflect and extend the surrounding architecture, makes for some truly amazing photographs of Gaia! Not to mention the significant meaning generated by the interaction of the two.)

Dandelions by The Art Department: From May 11 to 12, a decommissioned building at the Laguna Bell electrical substation in Commerce, California, was transformed into a “wish-processing facility,” where visitors submitted their wishes for questioning and analysis before taking a dandelion and blowing its seeds down a chute. Part installation, part performance, Dandelions was put together by the anonymous collective The Art Department. When asked to define wish, the collective replied, “For some, a wish is a prayer fulfilled by a higher power. For some, a wish is an aspiration imbued with rational optimism. For some, wishes represent unfulfilled longing.”

Art often gives us occasion to confront who we are and what we desire, and with this piece, that was done in a playful way, with a mock bureaucracy that included the Department of Small Things That Float and various logistical assessments. View more photos and read an interview with the creators at My Modern Met, and see also the Hyperallergic review.

Dandelions
Photo: Michèle M. Waite, courtesy of The Art Department

Dandelions installation
Photo: Michèle M. Waite, courtesy of The Art Department

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EXHIBITION: “Renewal: Icon Paintings by Lyuba Yatskiv”: Through June 30, the Iconart Contemporary Sacred Art Gallery in Lviv, Ukraine, is hosting a solo show of new work by Lyuba Yatskiv, one of the country’s several experimental iconographers. Among the subjects on display are the Creation of the World (he’s got the whole world in his hands!), Noah’s Ark, David the Psalmist, the Annunciation, the Flight to Egypt, John the Baptist, and the Holy Women at the Tomb.

Creation of the World by Lyuba Yatskiv
Lyuba Yatskiv (Ukrainian, 1977–), Creation of the World, 2019. Acrylic and gold on gessoed board.

John the Baptist triptych by Lyuba Yatskiv
Lyuba Yatskiv (Ukrainian, 1977–), St. John the Forerunner, Angel of the Desert, 2019. Acrylic and gold on gessoed boards.

I’ve featured Yatskiv’s work several times before on this website: in an Artful Devotion, a compilation of baptism icons, a roundup, and here by association.

Prepare the Way (Artful Devotion)

Serima Mission Church door (detail)
Teak wood relief door panel carved by Cornelius Manguma, 1958, showing John the Baptist preaching repentance (upper register) and baptizing Christ (lower register). St. Mary’s Church, Serima Mission, Zimbabwe. [full door]

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

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

—Mark 1:1–8

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SONG: “Prepare the Way, O Zion” | Text by Frans Mikael Franzen, 1812; trans. Augustus Nelson, 1958; adapt. Charles P. Price, 1980 | Music: Then Swenska Psalmboken, 1697 | Arranged and performed by Chicago Metro Presbytery Music, on Proclaim the Bridegroom Near, 2011

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In A Tourist in Africa (1960), the British writer Evelyn Waugh describes St. Mary’s Church in Serima, Zimbabwe, as the “African Chartres.” Designed by the Swiss Catholic missionary Fr. John Groeber, it was built in 1956–66 and filled with hundreds of carvings, murals, and ecclesiastical artworks by the Shona people. To see more photos of the church and to learn more about it, visit ZimFieldGuide.com or, if you can get your hands on a copy, check out the bilingual (English-German) book Serima: Towards an African Expression of Christian Belief (Gwelo, Rhodesia: Mambo Press, 1974), edited by Albert B. Plangger and Marcel Diethelm.

Another great resource for learning about the Serima Mission, and African Christian art in general, is Christliche Kunst in Afrika by Josef Franz Thiel and Heinz Helf (Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 1984), whence I scanned the above photo. The text is all German, but there are hundreds of magnificent art images from all over the African continent that make this volume one of my favorites from my personal library.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your e-mail or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, cycle B, click here.

Music making at Keur Moussa Abbey, Senegal

Mass at Keur Moussa Abbey in Senegal

Lately I’ve been enjoying the music of the monks at Keur Moussa Abbey, a brotherhood of French expatriates and Senegalese who wed Western liturgical chant with the rhythms and instrumental textures of West Africa. One of their income streams is musical recording sales—in North America, for example, Sounds True distributes Keur Moussa: Sacred Chant and African Rhythms from Senegal. It’s an excellent, seventeen-track CD that comprises songs of praise, exhortation, confession, and supplication in French and Wolof. Below you will find two of those tracks, embedded with the kind permission of Sounds True.

The first is “Suma Hol Nam” (“I Was Glad”), an adaptation of Psalm 122 in Wolof, accompanied by tom-tom. “Let peace reign in your tents, joy within your walls!” it exclaims. The refrain is “How glad I was when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”

 

The second is “Yesu Dekalikuna” (“Jesus Is Risen”), a brisk instrumental kora interlude that evokes the holy women hastening from the tomb on Easter morning.

 

From the liner notes:

In 1963, nine monks from the French monastery of Saint-Pierre of Solesmes—a centuries-old stronghold of the ancient Gregorian plainchant tradition—journeyed to the remote Wolof village of Keur Moussa in Senegal to found the Benedictine Abbey of the Immaculate Heart of Mary [Abbaye du Cœur Immaculé de Marie]. Keur Moussa Abbey, as it is known to the villagers, means “House of Moses.” It is above all a place of prayer, where praise of God is celebrated through hard work, contemplative silence, and joyful music. From the first day of their arrival, these expatriate monks sought to invite the traditions, music, and people of their host village into the monastery grounds.

Today, Keur Moussa Abbey houses 35 brothers, 24 of whom are Senegalese. [According to OSB International, the current number of brothers is 44.] The abbey also sponsors an elementary school and dispensary, run by sisters and laypeople. The monks themselves live from the work of their hands, tending fruit trees, making cheese, and hand-crafting their renowned koras.

The kora, employed for both solos and accompaniment, is an African lute-harp of Mandingo origin. Enchanted by its lyrical voice, the first monks of Keur Moussa Abbey learned from the griots (nomadic Mandingo kora players and storytellers) to play the instrument, and eventually adapted it for use in their liturgical services. Through careful changes in the kora’s construction, they have made it easier to tune—a process that once frustrated even the most experienced of players—without altering its extraordinarily beautiful timbre. . . .

Through the continual exploration of their convergent musical worlds, the monks of Keur Moussa have created an entirely new liturgical choral tradition . . . weav[ing] the rhythms and instrumental textures of the African continent with the sacred words and compositional structures of traditional Western plainchant (sung in French and Wolof, the language of the region). Here, as in the daily masses at the abbey, the choral works are occasionally preceded or followed by instrumental performances on kora, tabala (a large Mauritanian camel-skin drum), balafon (a Malinke instrument similar to the xylophone), tom-tom, and flute.

The notes include English translations of all the songs, plus background information on each one.   Continue reading “Music making at Keur Moussa Abbey, Senegal”

Christian-themed portraits by Kehinde Wiley

“Painting is about the world we live in. Black people live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.”—Kehinde Wiley

Last weekend I visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where the exhibition “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” is showing through September 5, a fifteen-year survey of Wiley’s art organized by the Brooklyn Museum. An academically trained artist, Wiley paints black and brown bodies in proud poses against ornate decorative backgrounds on monumental canvases, riffing on art-historical masterpieces from the Renaissance and Baroque eras. He “street casts” his models: walks the streets of inner-city neighborhoods, inviting black males, ages eighteen to thirty-five, to sit for portraits. In this collaborative process, the model chooses a reproduction of a painting from a book and reenacts, in his streetwear, the pose of the painting’s figure.

In the exhibition catalog, Connie H. Choi, a research associate at the Brooklyn Museum, writes,

In inserting the urban black male figure into the art-historical canon, the artist brings the canon up to date and at the same time questions its centuries-long exclusion of such figures. His manner of portraying African American men is Wiley’s way of affirming their presence in a society that has long discounted or undervalued them. (24)

Cultural critic Touré describes Wiley’s oeuvre as an “attempt to rehabilitate black images”—in the media (especially before the presidency of Barack Obama), often simplistically skewed toward hip-hop music videos and newsreels of urban gang violence—“by putting them in the context of nobility, of import, of beauty” (52).

Kings, nobles, and wealthy merchants are among the subjects depicted in Wiley’s source material. But biblical and extrabiblical saints, and Christ himself, are also present. For centuries religious imagery had a commanding presence in churches, palaces, homes, and government buildings, exercising sway over the imagination and steering popular devotion. By translating European devotional paintings—fashioned in the image of the white ruling class—into a contemporary idiom that places black bodies up front and center, Wiley rectifies the lack of representation of racial minorities in and as the body of Christ.

His Down series, which seeks to capture the majesty and severity of fallen warriors and entombed saints, features three paintings of the dead Christ. Hans Holbein’s life-size predella panel on the subject was the starting point; showing Jesus’s putrefying corpse, it is regarded as one of the all-time most grotesque paintings of Jesus. In The Idiot, Dostoyevsky’s Prince Mishkin says that viewed in isolation from the Resurrection, the painting has the power to make one lose one’s Christian faith.

Dead Christ by Kehinde Wiley

In Wiley’s reconceptualization, Jesus’s body is fit, his skin radiant. Gone are the blue face, puncture wounds, and emaciation of the prototype. Art critics have recognized in this and many more of Wiley’s paintings a homoeroticism, reading them in light of Wiley’s sexuality. That’s their prerogative, but in the direct gaze and parted lips of Wiley’s dead Christ I hear not “Come hither” but “Look, white America, at what you have done, at what you are doing.”

The Down series predates the Black Lives Matter movement but speaks powerfully into that context. It challenges the public—especially the white public—to see the rampant shooting deaths of unarmed black men by police and to name it what it is: an injustice, a tragedy.

Veiled Christ by Kehinde Wiley

Lamentation (Kehinde Wiley)-01

For all their visual engagement with and meditation on the Passion, Christians at large have proven deficient in their willingness to mourn the suffering and death of black brothers and sisters. Maybe, just maybe, gazing on a dead black Christ could produce more empathy in us when we see news photos of black people whose lives have been taken from them. Maybe these paintings can lead us into lament. In Wiley’s Lamentation, for example, we’re invited to poke our heads into the void left by the excision of Mary and John and to wail and moan. (For more on racial tensions in America from a Christian perspective, I commend to you the lecture “The Heart Cry of #BlackLivesMatter” by Jemar Tisby, cofounder of the Reformed African American Network.)

In these three paintings Wiley continues the legacy of those Harlem Renaissance artists—poets, illustrators, musicians—who linked the nation’s destruction of black bodies through lynching to the Crucifixion of Christ.   Continue reading “Christian-themed portraits by Kehinde Wiley”

John the Baptist at the National Gallery, London

The feast day of John the Baptist’s birth is coming up on June 24, and London’s National Gallery has provided a great way to immerse yourself in his story—through art! The museum has produced a ten-video series called Saint John the Baptist: From Birth to Beheading, in which Professor Ben Quash, director of the Centre for Arts and the Sacred at King’s College, joins Dr. Jennifer Sliwka, curator of art and religion at the National Gallery, for a stroll through the museum and some nearby sites to discuss various works of art in which John appears.

Quash and Sliwka teach a collaborative master’s program in Christianity and the Arts, which invites participants to

investigate how Christian scripture, beliefs and practices have found expression in art over 2,000 years; trace the idea of beauty in Western theological tradition; make use of examples in London. . . . The MA will enable students to work across disciplinary and specialism boundaries, and in particular to explore simultaneously the art-historical and theological dimensions of Christian art – approaches which are generally pursued in isolation from one another.

Their analysis of the paintings in this video series is superaccessible to those with no art background, and familiarity with Christianity isn’t assumed either.

The ten videos—about eight minutes each—are embedded below.

  1. Introduction

Artwork: Saint John the Baptist from Carlo Crivelli’s Demidoff Altarpiece

  1. Visitation

Artworks: a Visitation painting from the workshop of Goossen van der Weyden; Francesco Zaganelli’s The Baptism of Christ

  1. Birth and Naming

Artworks: scenes from Niccolò di Pietro Gerini’s Baptism Altarpiece; a predella panel by Giovanni di Paolo

  1. Infancy

Artworks: Garofolo’s The Holy Family with Saints; Bronzino’s The Madonna and Child with Saints; Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks

  1. Wilderness

Artworks: Giovanni di Paolo’s Saint John the Baptist retiring to the Desert; Saint John the Baptist by an anonymous Italian artist from about 1640–60; Moretto da Brescia’s Christ blessing Saint John the Baptist

  1. Preaching

Artworks: Raphael’s Saint John the Baptist Preaching; Pier Francesco Mola’s Saint John the Baptist preaching in the Wilderness; Parmigianino’s The Madonna and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Jerome

  1. Baptism

Artworks: the baptismal font at Salisbury Cathedral, designed by William Pye; Adam Elsheimer’s The Baptism of Christ; and the most famous painting of this subject in any collection: Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ

  1. Martyrdom

Artworks: Caravaggio’s The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist at St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Malta; Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavanne’s The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

  1. The Baptist’s Head

Artworks: Caravaggio’s Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist; Ana Maria Pacheco’s Study of Head (John the Baptist III) at a private residence (includes an interview with the artist)

  1. Power and Judgment

Artworks: the anonymous English Portrait of Richard II at Westminster Abbey (John the Baptist was his patron saint); a scene above the central panel of Giovanni dal Ponte’s Ascension of Saint John the Evangelist Altarpiece depicting John the Baptist preparing souls to enter into heaven; and The Wilton Diptych, depicting John the Baptist presenting King Richard to the heavenly retinue


To engage with more art from the National Gallery, consider buying one of the two books I reviewed here.