Roundup: Christmas music, old poems with Grace, and more

ADVENT MEDITATION: “Love is . . .” by the Rev. Jonathan Evens: Evens shared this brief written meditation last week at Advent Night Prayer at St Catherine’s Wickford in England, pondering the love Mary demonstrated at various points along the way from the announcement of Jesus’s conception to her and her family’s resettlement in Egypt.

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SONGS:

>> “I Pray on Christmas” (cover) by the Good Shepherd Collective: This song was written by Harry Connick Jr. and is performed here by Benjamin Kilgore with Terence Clark, Liz Vice, and Charles Jones of the Good Shepherd Collective, an interdenominational group of musicians collaborating across the US. The video is directed by Jeremy Stanley.

>> “Mary Was the First One to Carry the Gospel” by the Gaither Vocal Band: I grew up in a Baptist church in North Carolina, so southern gospel music is a very familiar genre for me! But I hadn’t heard this song before, until my mom sent me a link last week. It was written by Mark Lowry and Bill Gaither (they took the title from a 1978 song by Dottie Rambo), who sing it here with David Phelps and Guy Penrod at the Alabama Theatre in Birmingham in 2000 as part of the Gaithers’ Christmas in the Country concert. It’s about how Mary was the first person to carry the good news enfleshed—first in her womb, and then in her arms.

>> “Late Upon a Starry Night” by David Benjamin Blower: David Benjamin Blower is an “apocalyptic folk musician, poet, writer, theologian, podcaster, and sound artist” from the UK whose work emphasizes the liberative strains of the gospel. He just released this original Christmas song yesterday, and it will be available only through January 5, 2023, on Bandcamp, with 50 percent of proceeds going to Safe Passage UK, an organization working toward safe routes for refugees. Blower said he wrote the song after hearing a friend talk about her experience of Moria refugee camp in Greece.

The stanzas tell the story of the Annunciation to Mary, Mary and Joseph’s Journey to Bethlehem, the Annunciation to the Shepherds, the Journey of the Magi, and the Flight to Egypt. The refrain draws a line from the first book of the Bible to the last, referencing God’s prophecy in Eden about the serpent’s head being crushed by a descendant of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:15) (the serpent being representative of sin and death) as well as, implicitly, the image in Revelation 12 of the woman in labor and the dragon. Read the lyrics on the song’s Bandcamp page.

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PODCAST SERIES: Advent 2022, Old Books with Grace: I’ve been loving Dr. Grace Hamman’s four-part Advent podcast series, consisting of roughly twenty-minute episodes that discuss seasonal poems. Hamman is a specialist in medieval literature and theology and has the rare gift of being able to translate her extensive knowledge to nonspecialists in engaging and personal ways. She can speak with facility on lit and theology from other eras too. In this series she talks about our status as pilgrims in this world, how Christ carries our prayers in his body, nature-inspired images of the Incarnation, and more. I frequently come away from her podcast with new insight, and always having been spiritually nourished. If you’re traveling for Christmas, queue these up for the car, plane, train, or bus ride! Or work them into your week some other way, perhaps over breakfast, or while you’re doing dishes. Old Books with Grace is available wherever you listen to podcasts. (I use Google Podcasts, but Apple Podcasts or PodBean are the most popular providers.)

  • Episode 1: Were we led all this way for birth or death? (“Journey of the Magi” by T. S. Eliot)
  • Episode 2: Harke! Despair Away (“The Bag” by George Herbert)
  • Episode 3: Heaven Cannot Hold Him (“A Christmas Carol” by Christina Rossetti and excerpt from Piers Plowman by William Langland)
  • Episode 4: Dayspring (releases December 21; will cover an Old English version and Middle English version of one of the O Antiphons)

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DANCING ANGEL: This video from a church Christmas pageant in Porter, Indiana, went viral in 2019, but I’m just now seeing it (thanks to @upworthy!). It shows then-four-year-old Isabella Grace Webb dancing it up freestyle in her angel costume to “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” So adorable!

Roundup: “Art and Social Impact,” Auld Lang Syne in Birmingham, and more

ONLINE PANEL: “Art and Social Impact,” January 26, 2021, 14:30 GMT (9:30 a.m. EST): Next Tuesday the Rev. Jonathan Evens [previously], associate vicar at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, will be talking with interdisciplinary photography and media artist André Daughtry [previously], sculptor Nicola Ravenscroft, portrait painter and humanitarian Hannah Rose Thomas, and graphic designer Micah Purnell about their personal journeys in addressing issues of social concern in their art practices. The session will also explore ways in which churches can engage with such art and use it for exploring issues with congregations and beyond. Register here for a Zoom invite. (Update: View the recording.)

Tears of Gold by Hannah Rose Thomas
Hannah Rose Thomas, paintings from the Tears of Gold series, 2017. Click image to learn more, and see the Google Arts & Culture exhibition.

Ravenscroft, Nicola_With the Heart of a Child
Nicola Ravenscroft, With the Heart of a Child, 2016. Sculpture installation comprising seven life-size bronze children. The artist calls the figures “eco-earthling-warrior-mudcubs.” Click image for artist interview, and here for a theological reflection.

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VISUAL COMMENTARIES: Elijah’s Ascent by Victoria Emily Jones: My latest contribution to the Visual Commentary on Scripture was published this month. It’s a mini-exhibition on 2 Kings 2:1–12, featuring a seventeenth-century Russian icon, a 1944 painting by African American artist William H. Johnson, and a 1985 painting (a Jewish chapel commission) by Polish-born Israeli artist Shlomo Katz. (For more context on the Katz painting, see here.)

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NATIONAL MOURNING: Washington National Cathedral tolled its mourning bell four hundred times Tuesday evening in remembrance of the 400,000 lives lost from COVID in the United States thus far—each ring representing one thousand dead. I spent the thirty-eight-minute livestream lamenting this enormous loss, praying for all those who are grieving and for patients and health care workers, and pleading with God for an end to this virus.

The origami paper doves you see in the video are part of the Les Colombes installation by Michael Pendry [previously], erected in December in the cathedral’s nave to symbolize hope and the Holy Spirit.

Washington National Cathedral COVID memorial

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MUSIC VIDEO: “For the Sake of Old Times” (Auld Lang Syne): Directed by Tyler Jones of the narrative studio 1504, this short film premiered December 30, 2020, by NPR. “From the pews of a church where white deacons once refused to seat African Americans, a group of Black singers in Alabama reminds us why preserving our memories of this historic year is vital—even if we’d rather just leave 2020 behind.” [HT: ImageUpdate]

“To me the piece is a personal encouragement going into the future,” Jones says, “that we hopefully strive to work together for a kinder future, especially at a time where we are so distanced.” Read about the making of the film at https://n.pr/3n6d8Ct.

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ARTICLE: “On the Gifts of Street Art” by Jason A. Goroncy, Zadok: The Australasian Religious Press Association awarded silver prize for “Best Theological Article” to Jason Goroncy [previously] for this piece. (How cool that it won in the theology category!) Like all art, street art can function as a form of civic dialogue, protest, play, hope, remembrance, etc., but Goroncy discusses how some of its particular qualities uniquely position it to perform those functions: its (usually) unsanctioned and interventionist nature, its fragility and impermanence, its celebration and development of culture, its inseparability from place, and its redefinitions of proprietorship. [HT: Art/s and Theology Australia]

Human Ants (street art)
Human Ants, Liverpool Street, Melbourne, Australia. Photo: Jason Goroncy.

“Among the many gifts that street artists offer,” Goroncy writes, “is a proclivity to bear witness to how things are and not merely to how they might appear to be. Such a proclivity involves a telling of the truth about those largely-untampered-with and untraversed spaces of our urban worlds, about what is present but underexposed or disregarded; and even, as Auden hints, to lead with ‘unconstraining voice’ the way toward healing and toward a renewed sense of enchantment, freedom and praise beyond the pedestrian and clamorous. Such a proclivity is also a form of urban spirituality. It can even be a form of public theology.”

Roundup: Cracked lanterns; Incarnation songs; Christmas gallery talks; pregnancy poem

COMMUNITY ART PROJECT + INSTALLATION: Light the Well by Anna Sikorska: Last month artist Anna Sikorska led the congregation of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in creating a constellation of cracked, translucent porcelain globes, lit from within like lanterns and linked together—a visualization of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:6–12, about our hearts being clay jars whose fragility and brokenness enable the light of Christ to shine through all the more. Light the Well was installed at St. Martin’s on November 11, and since November 19 the individual lanterns have been selling for £10 a piece to benefit New Art Studio and Art Refuge UK, charities working with art therapy in the context of migration and displacement. Associate vicar Jonathan Evens delivered a beautiful reflection on this artwork and the scripture that inspired it, as well as a prayer and benediction, which you can read in full here.

Light the Well installation

I love it when churches use art not merely to decorate or prettify the building but to further the congregation’s engagement with scripture and to foster shared doing and seeing.

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SONGS:

“City of David” by the Gray Havens: The Gray Havens, a “narrative pop folk duo” from Nashville made up of married couple David and Licia Radford, released a new Christmas single on November 17—recorded on an iPhone! Listen to the song and watch some of their “making of” process in the video below. God the Father often gets overlooked during this season, so I like that the refrain reminds us that “the Father sent him [the Son] down.” [Purchase here]

“Human for Me” by Katy Kinard: Released last year on the album God of Fireflies, this song praises God for assuming full humanity—for not circumventing any frustrating or painful aspect of it. [Purchase here]

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GALLERY TALKS:

“The Christmas Story in Art” at the National Gallery, Washington, DC: Gallery lecturer David Gariff will lead a 75-minute discussion about paintings in the collection that depict the birth of Jesus, including one of my favorites, Duccio’s Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. (Click on the link to see a full list of works.) The event is free and geared to an adult audience. To participate, meet in the West Building Rotunda at 1 p.m. on December 9 or 10, or 2 p.m. on December 14, 18, 20, 21, or 22.

Nativity with Isaiah and Ezekiel by Duccio
Duccio (Italian, ca. 1255–60–ca. 1318/19), The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, 1308/1311. Tempera on single poplar panel, 48 × 86.8 × 7.9 cm (18 7/8 × 34 3/16 × 3 1/8 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

“Adoration of the Kings” Facebook Live tour at the National Gallery, London: Friday, December 15 at 9 a.m. GMT, director Gabriele Finaldi will be exploring Jan Gossaert and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings of the Adoration of the Magi. This “tour,” offered exclusively online, will be broadcast live on the Gallery’s Facebook page, and a replay version will be available on the channel afterward.

Adoration of the Kings by Jan Gossaert
Jan Gossaert (Flemish, d. 1532), The Adoration of the Kings, 1510–15. Oil on oak, 179.8 × 163.2 cm. National Gallery, London.

Adoration of the Kings by Pieter Bruegel
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish, d. 1569), The Adoration of the Kings, 1564. Oil on oak, 112.1 × 83.9 cm. National Gallery, London.

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POEM: “Scale” by Chelsea Wagenaar: Chelsea and I went to the same small North Carolina church as kids, back when she was a Henderson and I a Hartz, so we share a heritage of learning Bible lessons from Butch the Dragon and competing annually in the Bean Bag Relay at the AWANA Olympics. Now she is an award-winning poet, a Lilly Fellow, a lecturer in Valparaiso University’s English department, and a mom!

Inspired by her pregnancy, the poem “Scale” is full of metaphors that revel in the wonders of prenatal life—the womb is a “winterplum sky,” the cluster of baby cells “untufted cotton,” the belly a “Lenten moon.” The central theme, which Chelsea cleverly plays around, is Psalm 139:16, a praise verse by King David: “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”

Chelsea’s poem is especially appropriate for Advent, a season of pregnancy in which we position ourselves retrospectively with Mary, letting our hearts expand as we wait expectantly for that marvelous deliverance, the coming of the Christ child.

Advent art slideshow and devotional

Advent is just around the corner, commencing Sunday, November 27. To support Christians in their seasonal journey toward Christmas, I’ve developed two companion resources: a slideshow of art images for congregational use, and a devotional booklet for individuals or small groups that offers written reflections on these images.

The structural backbone is a liturgical text written by Jonathan Evens, which has as its refrain the plea “Come, Lord Jesus, come.” It looks forward to Christ’s second advent but also, necessarily, back to his first, in all its various aspects. Along with themes of peace, love, and sacrifice, you are invited to consider

  • what it meant for Jesus to be born of woman—coming as seed and fetus and birthed son;
  • the poverty Jesus shared with children around the world;
  • culturally specific bodies of Christ, like a dancing body and a yogic body;
  • how we are called to bear God into the world today;
  • and more.

Art is a great way to open yourself up to the mysteries of God, to sit in the pocket of them as you gaze and ponder. “Blessed are your eyes because they see,” Jesus said. Theologians in their own right, artists are committed to helping us see what was and what is and what could be. Here I’ve taken special care to select images by artists from around the world, not just the West, and ones that go beyond the familiar fare. You’ll see, for example, the Holy Spirit depositing the divine seed into Mary’s womb; Mary with a baby bump, and then with midwives; an outback birth with kangaroos, emus, and lizards in attendance; Jesus as a Filipino slum dweller; and Quaker history married to Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom.

My vision is for the two-minute slideshow to be shown in church on the first day of Advent during the main service. Two minutes is not nearly enough time to take in twenty-four images, so the slideshow is really just an invitation to deeper, one-on-one engagement with the images throughout the week, and that’s where the booklet comes in—as an aid to contemplation. To reinforce the practice and to make it more communal, pastors might consider drawing one image per week into his or her sermon, or discussion could be built into the Sunday school hour. There are twenty-eight days in Advent this year but only twenty-three reflections, so I’ll leave it up to you how to parse them out.

A humongous thanks to the artists and institutions who have granted permission for use of their work. Copyright of the images is retained by them, except where “Public Domain” is indicated, and reproduction outside the context of this slideshow and booklet is prohibited without their express permission. You of course are encouraged to show the slides publicly, and to distribute the booklet, but you must not charge a fee.

I hope these images fill you with wonder and holy desire—to know Christ more and to live into the kingdom he inaugurated two thousand-plus years ago from a Bethlehem manger.

Download the slideshow as a PowerPoint file.

Download the devotional booklet as a PDF. (Note: This version is slightly edited from the original.)

Want to have the booklet print and bound? Use this print-ready version. (I recommend a coil bind with a clear plastic front cover and a vinyl back cover. This will run you about $20 each at most commercial print centers, or less for larger quantities. Be sure to print double-sided, head-to-head.)

I realize that Sara Star’s The Crowning might be too graphic for some churches. Although I personally am compelled by it and obviously endorse it through its inclusion (what better complement to the line “Coming down the birth canal”?), I offer the following as alternative image suggestions for those who might want to substitute it with something more abstract or sanitized: Through the Needle’s Eye by Grace Carol Bomer; the Dieu parmi nous (God Among Us) panel from La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord) by Sophie Hacker; Motherhood by Matthew Gill; or Nativity by Paula Rego. Please note that I have NOT received copyright clearance for any of these alternates, which means that if you were to use one, you would be responsible for securing the proper permission.

If you have any questions about how to use these resources, or if you’d like to share any feedback with me—either on how the images or format were received in your congregation, or suggestions for future improvement—feel free to contact me at victoria.emily.jones@gmail.com, or use the comment field below. This is really my first attempt to bring the principles of this blog out into the local church, so I’m eager to see what kind of fruit it bears.

Roundup: Church engagement with the arts

“Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story,” St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, London: This program comprises a series of weekly noontime gatherings that use famous local paintings as a springboard into discussion of the biblical narrative and its implications for us today. I’ve enjoyed reading the few presentations given by associate vicar Jonathan Evens, posted on his blog: first, on J. M. W. Turner’s two paintings of Noah’s flood, and more recently, on El Greco’s Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple.

El Greco_Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple
El Greco (Greek, active Spain, 1541–1614), Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, 1600. Oil on canvas, 106 × 130 cm (42 × 51 in.). National Gallery, London.

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VIBRANT music and arts festival, Cahaba Park Church, Birmingham, Alabama: On November 1, 2015, Cahaba Park Church held a Psalms-inspired music and arts festival. Eight visual artists from the church were selected to display their paintings, which were auctioned off to raise money for four nonprofits. The Corner Room performed songs from their new album, Psalm Songs, Volume 1; “Psalm 23” (music by Adam Wright) is the soundtrack for the recap video above. This next VIBRANT festival will be held on July 22.

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“Art and Spirit” exhibition, First Congregational Church, Los Angeles: Through April 24, the works of over fifty artists will be on display in the Neo-Gothic Shatto Chapel of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. Most of the works are by emerging LA artists from Art Division, an organization that provides art training to young adults who lack the resources to attend university but who want to pursue a career in the visual arts; they were asked to respond to the theme “art and spirit.” A few of the works in the exhibition are by well-known artists such as Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer, Corita Kent, and Ed Ruscha.

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Portraits of Resurrection, 2015 Easter initiative, Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, California: Ex Creatis, the arts ministry at Saddleback, is always coming up with unique ways to incorporate art into the life of its church. Last Easter twenty-three volunteer artists sketched portraits of church attendees onto one of three floral prints (of the sitter’s choosing) made by three different artists in the church. These personalized works of art were meant to remind those who took them home of the new life they have in Christ.