LOOK: Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Jesus Offering the Light (Arathi), 2004. Oil on canvas. Private collection, California, USA. For commentary by the artist, visit his blog.
LISTEN: “Within Our Darkest Night” by Jacques Berthier (Taizé community), 1991 [sheet music]
Within our darkest night You kindle the fire that never dies away That never dies away
Update, 1/12/21: I just came across the following quote in an Advent devotional (which arrived on order from my library after Advent!), and I instantly thought of this blog post.
Light comes pretty inexpensively and maybe even too conveniently to us. With batteries in flashlights and the cool-to-the-touch fluorescent glow of chemical lights, Christ might well say to us anew: “You are the fire of the world.” Fire is heat and combustion—fuel actively being consumed and transformed into energy. “Fire!” is a cry for attention, and a warning for anyone who is unprepared. That must be what Our Lord had in mind when he said, “You are the light of the world.” We have grown accustomed to Advent being a season of light, but let’s agree to make this Advent a season of fire. Be consumed by the energy that dwells and is growing within. Let it burn in you. Let God use fire to purify the cosmos through you and make ready the Way of the Lord.
BLOG POST: “Jesus as Dancer: Jyoti Sahi’s ‘Lord of Creation’” by Victoria Emily Jones: I wrote a guest post for the Sojourn Arts blog about a gouache I own by Indian artist Jyoti Sahi, which shows Jesus leading the dance of new creation. On one side he pounds a drum, and on the other he emerges from a lotus. The painting brings together Jyoti’s interests in Christian and Hindu theologies and folk symbolism.
Sojourn Arts is a ministry of Sojourn Church Midtown in Louisville, Kentucky, that seeks to support artists and build up the church through the arts. They have organized and/or hosted numerous exhibitions over the years and have commissioned temporary installations for their sanctuary, as well as coordinated community art projects. Visit www.sojourn-arts.com.
THE DAILY PRAYER PROJECT: This fall I joined the team at the Daily Prayer Project as curator of visual art. The Daily Prayer Project is a periodical that covers every season of the Christian year with robust, rooted, and cross-cultural liturgies for use in congregations, households, workplaces, small groups, or other gatherings. Released in seven editions per year, it features daily morning and evening prayer guides for the week, which include Psalm, Old Testament, and New Testament readings; short prayers sourced from around the globe and from different eras; specific prayer prompts; and songs (including lead sheets). In addition to the cover image, there is a mini-gallery of two art images inside, reproduced in full color, to serve as visual prompts for further contemplation and prayer. There is also a section called “The Practices,” with two page-long seasonal reflections by staff members or guest contributors.
The Advent 2020 issue of the DPP, covering November 29 through December 24, was released last week. It features prayers by African American civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, the tenth-century English saint Ethelwold, and others; a Hebrew folk song, a Taizé chant, and an Argentine hymn by Federico J. Pagura; a striking cover image by Hilary Siber, which shows heaven coming down to earth; Charles White’s Prophet I, which resonates with passages from Isaiah; and an apocalyptic paper collage by Nicora Gangi.
The periodical is available as a physical booklet or as a PDF download. Visit the website for more information. If you are an artist and are interested in having your work considered for publication in a future prayerbook, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For centuries many Christian missionaries to other countries brought with them Western hymns and images, presenting them as definitive—as forms that alone are good and pleasing to God. (For example, a woman in the video mentions how she had previously thought that worship songs had to be based on Western scales and performed using certain instruments to be acceptable.) But in the last fifty or so years especially, at least from what I’ve noticed, many missionaries have recognized the falsity of this line of thinking and seek to undo negative conditioning by promoting the use of indigenous artistic expressions (sometimes called “ethnoarts”) in Christian worship, be it dance, drama, music, storytelling, carving, or what have you. I found it interesting that the interviewees seem to suggest that now it’s the forces of modernism that most threaten the survival of traditional cultures, whereas it used to be that the church was largely blamed (missionaries did undeniably play a large part, banning this and that, though in every era there were exceptions to the rule). Now the church is at the forefront of trying to preserve not only traditional languages but also traditional art forms.
“Everything we have was created by God, and we need to return to it with gratefulness because this is how God made us!” says Rev. Herlina of the Christian Church of Sumba. “With whatever we already have, we can be a blessing to our people.”
NEW ART SERIES: “Organic, Sunrise Gradients Mask Front Pages of the New York Times by Artist Sho Shibuya”: Since the lockdown started in March, Brooklyn-based artist and graphic designer Sho Shibuya has been painting color gradients in acrylic over the front pages of the New York Times, inspired by each morning’s sunrise. He calls the series “Sunrises from a Small Window.” I love how he’s able to express gratitude for a beautiful new day and to access calm amid dire news cycles. Shibuya is still reading those headlines and articles; he’s just putting them in a larger perspective. (As for myself, call me escapist, but I’ve found that actually blocking out the news—turning down the noise—for certain periods can be a helpful spiritual practice.)
“I started . . . contrasting the anxiety of the news with the serenity of the sky, creating a record of my new normal,” Shibuya says. “Their front page has always been a time capsule of a day in history, so it made sense to use history as the canvas because the paintings are meant to capture a moment in time. . . . The spirit of the project is that maybe, even after the pandemic subsides, people can continue some of the generosity and peace we discovered in ourselves and that the sky reminds us of every day with a sunrise through a small window. If one thing the news has made clear, we need generosity and peace for all people now more than ever.”
TWO FILMS: “Death on Netflix: I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Dick Johnson Is Dead” by Mitch Wiley: I really liked both these cinematic reflections on mortality, but they’re completely different, as this short Gospel Coalition article bears out. Dick Johnson Is Dead is the more “Christian” of the two because of its hopeful perspective—the human subject of the film is a Seventh-Day Adventist, so death for him is not a final end. After her father was diagnosed with dementia, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson asked her dad if he’d be interested in a collaborative film project where, to help them both face the inevitable, she would stage his death in inventive and comical ways. Relishing the opportunity to spend more time with his busy daughter, he enthusiastically agreed.
The documentary shows them preparing and carrying out these stunts but also interacting in other contexts—birthday parties, trick-or-treating, looking through old photo albums, cleaning out Dick’s office, Dick’s being asked to give up driving, and so on. It made me laugh and cry—films that can do both tend to rate highly on my favorites list. There’s so much love and warmth and heartache and whimsy in it as father and daughter confront death together, talking very openly about it, which I found, strange as it may seem, refreshing. Oh, and the heaven sequences just may be the best I’ve ever seen.
For a more cynical take on death, here’s the trailer to I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman isn’t for everyone, but I’m still thinking about this movie after watching it a month ago, which means it made an impression!):
Seeing and Believing, a Christ and Pop Culture podcast, covered Ending Things and Dick Johnson in episodes 264 and 266, respectively, as have most other film podcasts and reviewers, with Dick Johnson being uniformly lauded as one of the best movies of the year.
SONG: “Hodu” (Give Thanks), performed by the Platt Brothers: The Platt Brothers [previously] singing scripture to me? Yes, please. The text of this song is Psalm 118:1–4, and the music is by Debbie Friedman (1951–2011), a Jewish singer-songwriter whose songs are used widely in Reform and Conservative Jewish liturgies in North America. Friedman’s “Hodu” was originally released on her 1981 album And the Youth Shall See Visions. (Find sheet music here.)
In this video from earlier this month, Henry, Jonah, and Ben Platt sing “Hodu” to a guitar accompaniment by Al Seller.
Hodu l’Adonai kitov Ki l’olam chasdo, ki l’oam chasdo Yomar na, yomar na, Yisraeil Ki l’olam chasdo, ki l’olam chasdo Yomru na, yomru na veit Aharon Ki l’olam chasdo, ki l’olam chasdo
Let all who revere G-d’s name now say Ki l’olam chasdo Give thanks to the Lord for G-d is good Ki l’olam chasdo
The first time the Platt Brothers performed in public as a trio was this April, when they appeared in a virtual Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration at the request of the Jewish Federations of North America, singing “Ahavat Olam.” Ben and Jonah are musical theater performers: Ben originated the title role in Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen and won a Tony for it, and Jonah is best known for playing Fiyero in Wicked on Broadway from 2015 to 2016. Henry is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where’s he’s a member of the a cappella group Counterparts.
We believe in Jesus Christ, our savior and liberator, the expression of God’s redeeming and restoring love, the mark of humanness, source of courage, power, and love, God of God, light of light, ground of our humanity.
We believe that God resides in slums, lives in broken homes and hearts, suffers our loneliness, rejection, and powerlessness.
But through death and resurrection God gives life, pride, and dignity, provides the content of our vision, offers the context of our struggle, promises liberation to the oppressor and the oppressed, hope to those in despair.
We believe in the activity of the Holy Spirit who revives our decaying soul, resurrects our defeated spirits, renews our hope of wholeness, and reminds us of our responsibility in ushering in God’s new order here and now.
This affirmation of faith originally appeared in the December 1986 issue ofiGi, a publication of the Asian Women’s Resource Centre for Culture and Theology. Used by permission.
. . . Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”
Ride on, ride on in majesty!
Hark! all the tribes hosanna cry;
O Savior meek, pursue thy road
with palms and scattered garments strowed.
Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die:
O Christ, thy triumphs now begin
o’er captive death and conquered sin.
Ride on, ride on in majesty!
The angel armies of the sky
look down with sad and wond’ring eyes
to see th’approaching sacrifice.
Ride on, ride on in majesty!
Thy last and fiercest strife is nigh;
the Father on his sapphire throne
expects his own anointed Son.
Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die;
bow thy meek head to mortal pain,
then take, O Christ, thy pow’r and reign.
This year’s Palm Sunday music selection comes from Hymnistry, an excellent podcast that ran from 2015 to 2018. I’ve always liked Henry H. Milman’s hymn text “Ride On, Ride On in Majesty!,” but not the traditional tunes it’s typically paired with. So I was thrilled to hear this contemporary setting by John Hatfield. Hatfield’s introduction to the hymn starts at 5:51. He discusses the cognitive dissonance of Palm Sunday, a celebratory occasion with somber undertones, because we’re really cheering Jesus on to his death. He’s hailed as king, Hatfield says, and “his first act in office is to give himself up for us.” Milman’s text captures this paradox of victory through a cross, and Hatfield seeks to do so as well in his retuning, maintaining a happy energy throughout but sneaking in a minor chord. The actual hymn starts at 9:29.
In the first half of the episode, the Rev. Jacob Paul Breeze, pastor of Holy Family in downtown Houston, gives some illuminating historical background. He says that when Jesus entered Jerusalem during Passover, the Israelites took out the Hanukkah decorations (palm branches) instead! Why were they getting their holidays mixed up? Well, they weren’t. Waving palm branches, which were a symbol of prosperity and triumph in Judaism, is how they celebrated their ancestor Judah Maccabee’s cleansing of the temple in the second century BCE. (He recaptured Jerusalem from the Syrian Greeks and restored Jewish temple worship, which gave way to the first Hanukkah, really a belated celebration of the fall festival of Sukkot; see 2 Maccabees 10:1–8, cf. 1 Maccabees 4:54–60.) The Israelites’ waving of date palms as Jesus processed into their most holy city was their way of affirming him as their chosen one, Breeze says, to lead a revolt against the Romans and secure their freedom.
I love the colorful flurry of excitement in Jyoti Sahi’s painting Entry into Jerusalem, where crowds gather in effusive praise of their new liberator. Birds and angels wing overhead, while green palm branches spill forth from the bottom right to carpet Jesus’s path.
Jyoti told me he started this painting after visiting Jerusalem for an interfaith meeting—his first trip to the Holy Land—where he presented a paper on art and meditation. He was fascinated by the surrounding landscape. The theme of Christ entering Jerusalem is related to the idea of Christ entering the human heart, he says.
The painting was acquired in 2018 by a visiting Italian monk for a Christian chapel in Sicily.
Palm Sunday–related posts from the Art & Theology archives:
Did you know Simon and Garfunkel adapted Orlande de Lassus’s motet setting of the Benedictus (“Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord”) and recorded it for their first album? Read more in my review of Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.
This is the first in a series of eight Artful Devotions I’ve planned—one for each day of Holy Week and the Paschal Triduum. I’m posting this one several days ahead because it’s more substantial than the others; the rest I will endeavor to post in the early morning of the given day, from next Monday through Sunday (Easter!). Most of the world will be spending Holy Week at home this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Paul Neeley of Global Christian Worship has compiled a great list of resources to help individuals and families honor these days while in quarantine: https://globalworship.tumblr.com/post/613778966717841408/holy-week-at-home. I’m sure there are many more ideas and materials out there as well.
As the liturgical calendar was turning over into a new year this week, my husband Eric and I were at the tail end of a visit to India, staying with new friends Jyoti and Jane Sahi. Jyoti’s an artist, and Jane is a children’s educator, and together they live in the Christian village of Silvepura, north of Bangalore, where for years they ran, respectively, an art ashram and a school. It was a lot of fun getting to know them and their work, and discussing art, culture, theology, politics.
Before our flight departed in the wee hours of Sunday morning, the first day of Advent, Jane had set an oil lamp on the dinner table, decorated with flowers from the garden, and selected two poems for us to read aloud: an excerpt from the Gitanjali(Song Offerings) by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore [previously], and “Advent Calendar” by Rowan Williams. It was a meaningful welcoming in of the new season, and a beautiful blend of our hosts’ mixed cultural heritage: Indian and British.
Gitanjali XLVby Rabindranath Tagore:
Have you not heard his silent steps? He comes, comes, ever comes.
Every moment and every age, every day and every night he comes, comes, ever comes.
Many a song have I sung in many a mood of mind, but all their notes have always proclaimed, “He comes, comes, ever comes.”
In the fragrant days of sunny April through the forest path he comes, comes, ever comes.
In the rainy gloom of July nights on the thundering chariot of clouds he comes, comes, ever comes.
In sorrow after sorrow it is his steps that press upon my heart, and it is the golden touch of his feet that makes my joy to shine.
“Advent Calendar”by Rowan Williams, published in After Silent Centuries (The Perpetua Press, 1994) and The Poems of Rowan Williams (The Perpetua Press, 2002; Carcanet Press, 2014):
He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.
He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.
He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.
He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.
While I was at Jyoti’s, I bought three paintings of his. One of them is an Annunciation image that shows Mary in a termite mound, which are considered sacred in India—microcosms of the temple, sources of fertility, and containers of treasure. I saw these tall, hard, insect-built structures in many areas around Bangalore where I was traveling, including a few on Jyoti’s property. (Note that locals refer to termites misleadingly as “white ants,” so these are “anthills.”)
According to Indian folklore, anthills are the ears of the earth, and Jyoti plays on that belief in his visualization of the moment of the Incarnation, of God’s becoming human in the person of Jesus. Mary’s womb is in the shape of an ear, which receives the Word of God. This Word is shown first at the top of the composition in the form of two hamsas (Sanskrit for “I am he,” or “I am that I am”), a mythical swan-like bird whose body resembles an AUM, the ancient threefold syllable, “the Sound that is believed to reverberate creatively through eternity,” Jyoti said. (“In the beginning was the Word . . .”)
Mary listens to the Word, becomes pregnant with the Word, which takes on flesh inside her. Christ, the primordial One, is implanted in the womb of the earth, of humanity—and a tree of life grows forth.
There’s a sixth-century hymn, known as the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos (Mother of God), that celebrates Mary’s role as container of the Divine: “Hail! tabernacle of God and the Word. Hail! greater than the holy of holies. Hail! ark gilded by the Spirit. Hail! unfailing treasure-house of life.” Mary as temple, as holy of holies, as ark of the covenant, contains the world’s greatest Treasure: Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
You can hear Jyoti introduce the painting in the short video above, which is just a snippet of the footage Eric and I took while we were there. (More to come!)
As I traveled back home to the US with this rolled-up canvas last Sunday, I kept thinking about the words of the two poets I had just read—Tagore and Williams. I thought about how Christ came once “like child” but also how he “comes, comes, ever comes” even still today, “in sorrow after sorrow . . . press[ing] upon my heart . . . mak[ing] my joy to shine.”
Centuries of preaching and art have led us to assume without a thought that the two disciples who traveled from Jerusalem to Emmaus the Sunday after the Crucifixion, and dined there with the resurrected Christ, were men. Surely one of them was: the Bible tells us his name was Cleopas (Luke 24:18). But it leaves his companion unnamed.
Their case is built by conflating the identities of “Mary, mother of James” (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40, 16:1; Luke 24:10), present at the Crucifixion and a witness of the empty tomb, and “Mary, wife of Clopas” (John 19:25), also present at the Crucifixion, and then recognizing “Clopas” as a variant spelling of “Cleopas.” Alphaeus—identified in Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, and Acts 1:13 as the father of James—is thought to be the Aramaic form of the name. These connections are well supported by church tradition, dating as far back as the second century.
If Cleopas’s wife, Mary, was in Jerusalem for Passover, it makes sense that she would have traveled back home to Emmaus (or stopped overnight in Emmaus en route to home) with her husband afterward. It wouldn’t have been unusual for a married couple, in this relatively private context, to converse with each other along the way about what they had experienced—the rabbi they had been following, dead, and rumored to have risen—and what it might mean.
Mary had seen the empty tomb with her own eyes and even encountered an angel who affirmed, “Christ is not here! He is risen!” But when she told the other disciples, they dismissed her account as too fantastic, perhaps instilling in her a new skepticism; she hadn’t, after all, seen the body. Or maybe her faith remained fortified, and her trip home was spent trying to convince her husband that Jesus was indeed alive.
Whatever the precise content of their discussion, a “stranger” sidled up alongside them, giving his own interpretation of the weekend’s events. They did not notice it was Jesus because “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” It wasn’t until they arrived home with their newly invited guest in tow, put dinner on the table, and saw him bless the meal that “their eyes were opened.”
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;
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.
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 Eyeby 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 email@example.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.
When the heart is hard and parched up, come upon me with a shower of mercy.
When grace is lost from life, come with a burst of song.
When tumultuous work raises its din on all sides, shutting me out from beyond, come to me, my lord of silence, with thy peace and rest.
When my beggarly heart sits crouched, shut up in a corner, break open the door, my king, and come with the ceremony of a king.
When desire blinds the mind with delusion and dust, O thou holy one, thou wakeful one, come with thy light and thy thunder.
This untitled poem is no. 39 from the collection Gitanjali (Song Offerings) by Rabindranath Tagore. Originally written and published in Bengali in 1910, it was translated into English by Tagore himself in 1912, along with other poems of his from various sources, and published by the India Society of London with an introduction by W. B. Yeats. For this volume he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature—the first non-European to receive such a distinction.
Here the speaker entreats God to break into his life, bestowing divine gifts: mercy, like rainwater, to moisten his dry heart; grace, like a song, to lift his spirit; and peace and rest to counteract the overwhelm of daily work. He asks God to come like a king and lavish his riches on all us spiritually impoverished, and like thunder and lightning, to jolt us awake from our sin and delusion. Each line of the poem works by contrast: man in his neediness, and the need-meeting God.
Tagore’s poetry bears Hindu influence but has wide cross-religious appeal and has inspired numerous musical settings in his native India and abroad. The composition below (a setting of “When the heart is hard and parched up”) is by the famous Indian classical singer and composer Jagjit Singh.
In 2010 American composer Joan Szymko wrote A Burst of Song, a short three-movement choral cycle that sets three poems from the English Gitanjali. Movement 1, “A Shower of Mercy,” excerpts our familiar text. Listen to a performance below (the first movement goes through 1:56) by Portland University’s Man Choir and its female choir, Vox Femina:
Jyoti Sahi is a prolific artist who founded an art ashram in Silvepura Village outside Bangalore in southern India. His paintings are infused with Christian spirituality, often depicting biblical narratives set on Indian soil.
Lord as Ladder of Perfection references Jacob’s dream from Genesis 28:10–22, wherein Jacob witnesses angels descending and ascending a cosmic ladder. This vision resurfaces in the New Testament, when heaven opens and angels are seen pressing in on the Son of Man (John 1:51), ministering to him in his passion and then heralding his resurrection.
By entwining Jesus in this ladder from Genesis, Sahi suggests that Jesus himself is our ladder—the One who connects earth to heaven, heaven to earth. By him, we can access God.
We are meant to identify with the figure in the bottom left corner of the painting, whose gender is deliberately ambiguous. In this figure you might see Jacob, or, as one friend pointed out to me, perhaps you see Mary Magdalene, who is often shown in art weeping at the foot of the cross and is traditionally understood to be the “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume and tears in Luke 7:37–38. Either way, we are invited into the painting by this bent body, invited to worship Christ.
The cosmic implications of Jesus’s mediating role are suggested in a few ways. First, Jesus’s left leg is lifted in the pose of Nataraja (“Lord of the Dance”), an embodiment of the Hindu god Shiva. Nataraja’s dance destroys all obstacles on the path to liberation and prepares the universe for renewal, and here Jesus is grafted into that iconography. He dances, and the world is transformed.
Moreover, the four elements are present: earth, wind, fire, water. Earth forms the base of the painting, where the ladder, treelike, is rooted. Wind sweeps down in the form of a hamsa, a mythical swan-like bird, here signifying the Holy Spirit. Fire burns at the bottom right, a biblical symbol for cleansing and refining, and appears to be setting aflame a bush, a reminder for us to be attentive to God’s call, as Moses was. Straight down the center, water bursts forth from Christ’s side wound, a river of life that washes over the worshipper.
At the top, the ladder branches out and flowers.
Painted in 2014, Lord as Ladder of Perfection reminds me of the traditional hymn “Jacob’s Vision,” which likewise identifies the ladder of Jacob’s dream with the crucified Christ. I wrote about the hymn here—in particular, the beautiful cello-accompanied rendition sung by Ralph Stanley, who passed away on Thursday. I enjoy listening to it while I gaze at Sahi’s painting, as the two interpret each other.
Ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven (and fifty days after his resurrection), his Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, manifesting as “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3). This miraculous gift enabled the apostles to speak in languages foreign to them but native to the many Jews from abroad who were gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot (called “Pentecost” by Hellenized Jews), a festival of giving thanks for the harvest and for God’s provision of the Torah. For the first time the gospel of Jesus Christ was proclaimed to a global audience. Three thousand people came to faith that day, and the Christian church was born.
The Spirit is still at work in the dissemination of the good news today, breathing life into cultures all over the world and thereby building up an incredibly diverse body of Christ.
As at Pentecost, Parthians, Medes and Elamites heard the message, “every man in his own tongue wherein he was born,” so we see Chinese and Japanese and Indians expressing Christianity’s universal language, each with his own brush. For when the spirit of God descends upon any people, new forms of beauty appear, new artistic gifts are revealed, adding another testimony to the universality of the Christian faith.
Since the publication of this book almost seventy years ago, Christianity has grown exponentially in Asia, as have indigenous artistic expressions of the faith. In 1975 Japanese theologian and arts advocate Masao Takenaka published the heavily illustrated book Christian Art in Asia, highlighting the robust variety being produced on the continent. Three years later the Asian Christian Art Association was founded to encourage the exchange of ideas between Asian artists and theologians. Their magazine, Image (not to be confused with the Seattle-based quarterly), has showcased local talents even further. Dozens more books have been published in English on individual Asian artists, countries, and the Asian Christian art movement in general. For the latter, see the beautifully designed The Christian Story: Five Asian Artists Today, plus The Bible Through Asian Eyes.
Below is a sampling of Asian art on the theme of Pentecost. Some works were made using traditional art forms or techniques—Chinese papercutting, Japanese flower arranging (ikebana) or stencil printing (kappazuri), Indian cloth dyeing (batik)—while other artists have chosen to work in oils and acrylics, collage, or glass. Some depict native people and settings—for example, Thai dancers wrapped in sabai, or a group sitting under a thatched roof in Indonesia—while others prefer ethnic and geographic ambiguity. There’s no single style that epitomizes the art of any country.