Advent, Day 20

LOOK: The Nativity by Christopher Ruane

Ruane, Christopher_Nativity
Christopher Ruane (American, 1981–), The Nativity, 2014. C-print, 52 × 48 in. Click the link to zoom in.

This image by photographer and composite artist Christopher Ruane sets the Nativity of Christ on an urban street corner marked “Bethlehem” and casts racially diverse models in the biblical roles. Mary sits on the hood of an old beat-up car holding her sweet newborn with a protective grip—she has presumably just given birth in the backseat. She’s wrapped in a blue afghan, the color traditionally associated with the Virgin. Joseph leans over, gazing proudly at his new baby son. Instead of the traditional cow and donkey looking on, there’s a spotted dog.

In the foreground are the three “wise men,” which here are two men and a woman, offering their gifts to the family. One man brings a candle; another, a rose. A wealthier woman in a fur coat brings gold jewelry. They stand or kneel on the sidewalk before this miracle baby who will be their deliverer, the way strewn with flower petals.

In the middle ground are three young unhoused people around a trashcan fire, standing in for the shepherds. A cloud of steam rises up out of a manhole before their eyes and coalesces with a heavenly apparition, come to personally announce to them the Messiah’s birth.

Ruane, Christopher_Nativity (detail)

In the windows of the apartment building in the background are various people occupied with various activities. In one room a couple is engaging in sexual foreplay. Across the way, a man is vegging out in front of a TV. One woman, whose closet is spilling over with clothes, is hugging her collection of designer shoes.

Ruane, Christopher_Nativity (detail)

These represent different values or dependencies—for example, materialism, a literal clinging to one’s possessions. But there’s also pain.

On the top floor there’s a young man in a hoodie with a black eye. Maybe he’s abused by his father. Or bullied at school. Or in too deep with a gang. Either way, he is bitter and angry and scared and distrustful and has a gun.

Ruane, Christopher_Nativity (gunman detail)

Christ was born into this world of hurt and false loves. He came to call us out of the darkness of these and into light, to give us abundant life in God. The bright star above beckons us all to follow the light to the feet of Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us. 

LISTEN: “American Noel” by Dave Carter, 1994 | Performed by Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer on American Noel, 2008

Three wise men ridin’ hard through the cold
Lost on some big city street with no place warm to go
They are lookin’ for a manger, or a sign in the lights
But they’re a long way from Bethlehem tonight

But they heard about a savior
And a preacher in the park
Who will camp with the homeless
Where they shiver in the dark
He’ll deliver salvation
To the weary and the cold
And he’ll bring joy, joy, joy to the wanderin’ soul

The cleaning lady sighs as she closes up the gate
This job don’t quite pay the bills, and she’s always workin’ late
But all in a moment comes a light from above
It’s an angel speaking words of joy and love

And he tells her of a savior
And a preacher in the park
Who will camp with the homeless
Under bridges in the dark
He’ll deliver salvation
To the weary and the cold
And he’ll bring joy, joy, joy to the wanderin’ soul

Four in the mornin’ at the Tradewinds Motel
The register reads, “All Full Up,” and the clerk thinks, “Just as well”
But out in the toolshed by an old Coleman lamp
A little family makes its meager camp

And the wise men bring presents
And the angels gather round
The cleaning lady slips in through the door without a sound
And an old black dog looks on with the rest
At the little babe upon his mother’s breast

And there comes a savior (Joy to the world)
And a preacher in the park (The Lord is come)
And he camps with the homeless (Let earth)
Where they shiver in the dark (Receive her king)
He delivers salvation
To the weary and the cold (Let every heart sing)
And he brings joy, joy, joy to the wanderin’ soul
He brings joy, joy, joy to the wanderin’ soul

The American folk singer-songwriter Dave Carter was one half of the duo Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, active from 1998 until Carter’s unexpected death in 2002. His songs have been covered by Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Willie Nelson, and others, and Grammer posthumously released several previously unreleased songs by Carter, including “American Noel.” She and Carter recorded the song sometime between 1999 and 2001 for a series of employee holiday gift compilations commissioned by the president of a hardware store chain.

Like Ruane’s digital photomontage, “American Noel” imagines the Incarnation happening on the margins of a modern American city, attracting low-wage workers and transients, among others. Jesus pitches his tent among the exhausted and despairing, “the weary and the cold,” coming not as an outsider to struggle but as one who will know it firsthand. His childhood, to say nothing of his adulthood, is marked by sudden flight from his homeland to escape a tyrannical king and by an upbringing in a country not his own.

Born a Child and Yet a King (Artful Devotion)

The Infant Savior by Andrea Mantegna
Andrea Mantegna (Italian, ca. 1431–1506), The Infant Savior, ca. 1460. Tempera on canvas, 70.2 × 34.3 cm (27 5/8 × 13 1/2 in.). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace.

—Micah 5:2–5

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SONG: “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus / Joy to the World,” adapted and arranged by Folk Angel, on Live at Green Lux: Christmas Songs, vol. 6, 2014 | Words by Charles Wesley, 1744, with refrain and bridge by Isaac Watts, 1719 | Music by Rowland Hugh Prichard, 1830, and Folk Angel

The backbone of this Folk Angel song is the Advent classic “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” but into this the band has integrated lines from “Joy to the World,” traditionally sung at Christmastime. While the verses plead, “Come!,” the chorus declares, “He has come,” holding together the cries of both seasons. He whom the nations desire is here, “born to reign in us forever.” May earth receive him.

Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.

Joy to the world!
The Lord has come;
Let earth receive her king.
Let earth receive her king.

Born thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a king,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By thine all-sufficient merit,
Raise us to thy glorious throne.

Joy to the world!
The Lord has come;
Let earth receive her king.
Let earth receive her king.

Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing!

Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set thy people free.
We are free.
We are free.
We are free.
We are free.

The verse melody is, of course, that well-loved Welsh tune HYFRYDOL, composed by Rowland Hugh Prichard. The chorus and bridge, however, employ an original tune by Folk Angel, resetting key excerpts from Isaac Watts’s carol that emphasize the kingly nature of the infant Christ. This crescendos into a triumphant repeat of the song’s first two lines, and a grateful acknowledgment of God’s fulfilled purposes: a people set free from their fears and sins, granted eternal rest under the loving rule of Christ. Even so, Lord, thy kingdom come.

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The Infant Savior by the great Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna brings me such delight—that little rosy, chubby-cheeked baby blessing me, blessing the world, this Christmas. You might call the painting a Christ Pantocrator, but it doesn’t fit the standard iconography, because instead of a half-length adult it shows a full-length child of about one year. Still, this is Jesus, “born a child and yet a king”: he wears a velvet robe with a golden clasp and lining, but underneath, his humble swaddling cloths are revealed, and he’s barefoot. His right hand is raised in a gesture of blessing, and in his left hand he holds, instead of a book (as is traditional in Pantocrator images), a cross-shaped scepter. A cross shape also comprises his “crown”—the three streams of light emitted from his bald little head.

Mantegna’s painting suggests that Christ’s kingship was established at his birth, and that it would be furthered by way of the cross.


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 Fourth Sunday of Advent, cycle C, click here.