Roundup: Alternative Advent, Fuller Studio videos, Desmond Tutu and Jeff Chu interviews, Psalm 121 in Arabic

“Lift Up Your Eyes” (Advent 2021): Kezia M’Clelland’s annual “Alternative Advent” video is here—a compilation of news photos from the year, from various photojournalists, matched with promises/declarations from scripture and a song. (I’ve described this project in years past; see here.) Migrant caravans, refugee camps, hospitals overwhelmed with COVID patients, a protest against a military coup, wildfires, volcanic aftermath . . . the global suffering we hear about in headlines and statistics is made personal in these intimate photographs of people who are experiencing it firsthand. M’Clelland bears tender witness to this suffering, but she also takes care to include signs of hope. Alongside images of devastation and misery are images of love, joy, and fortitude. The overall tone is one of somberness but not despair. As I do with each year’s “Alternative Advent,” I spent an afternoon interceding with God for each person in the photos and for others enduring the same harrowing journeys or disasters. I realize how my privilege as a white, middle-class US American insulates me from a lot of these realities, and I know that prayer must be accompanied by action.

Find out more context for the photos and their sources on Instagram @alternative_advent.

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VIDEO ROUNDUP FROM FULLER STUDIO: The Arts for the Life of the Church: In these six, five-minute videos shot by Fuller Studio, artists and creatives (most of them participants in the Brehm Residency) reflect on the diverse ways that the arts enliven, shape, and define their faith, their theology, and their work. Here’s one from the series, in which interdisciplinary artist Dea Jenkins discusses the ways the Spirit’s leading can be intertwined with the process of art-making, and how art has the capacity to be both prophetic and healing.

The other videos feature . . .

  • Young-Ly Hong Chandra on how she sees her creative work participating in God’s work of creation
  • Michelle Lang-Raymond on how theater and the arts can create opportunities for us to safely yet deeply engage with today’s polarizing issues
  • Rachel Morris on how incorporating the arts into worship services and pastoral care can contribute to the church’s healing work in the lives of its members
  • Jin Cho on the holistic, social, and communal dimensions of preaching and the liturgy
  • John Van Deusen on the significance of creating art in community and on the ways we are shaped by inviting both God and others into our creative processes

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ON BEING INTERVIEWS:

>> “Remembering Desmond Tutu”: The South African Anglican bishop, theologian, and human rights activist Desmond Tutu died December 26, 2021, and the On Being podcast re-released this 2010 interview Krista Tippett conducted with him. It’s a great introduction to his story, which includes especially his faith. He discusses the Bible as “dynamite,” our identity as “God-carriers,” the interfaith makeup of the anti-apartheid movement, God’s sense of humor, reconciliation as a process, his experience voting for the first time at age sixty-three (after decades of disenfranchisement), how entrenched racism had become in his own thinking, the beating heart of love at the center of existence, and more. And oh, his laughter is so sweet!

>> “A Life of Holy Curiosity: In Friendship with Rachel Held Evans” with Jeff Chu: Jeff Chu is a journalist, preacher, and co-leader of the Evolving Faith community. When his friend Rachel Held Evans, the famous Christian writer, died unexpectedly in 2019, he took it upon himself to bring to fruition the unfinished book she was working on, Wholehearted Faith (HarperOne, 2021). I enjoyed learning more about Evans through this conversation, and about Chu. They read several excerpts from the book and discuss Chu’s Chinese Baptist upbringing, the recent phenomenon of “religious-but-in-exile,” the enormity of God’s love, the Incarnation, the Psalms, doubt, grief, and the lesson of the compost pile.

(As a side note: I recently came across Evans’s other posthumously published book, for children, titled What Is God Like?, in Target and bought it on a whim. It’s fabulous.)

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SONG: “I Lift My Eyes” by Christopher Tin: A setting of Psalm 121 in Arabic, performed by Abeer Nehme with Christopher Tin and the Angel City Chorale. Nehme is a Lebanese singer and musicologist, one of whose specializations is sacred music from the Syriac Maronite, Syriac Orthodox, and Byzantine traditions. [HT: Joy Clarkson]

Roundup: Advent photo essay, carol in a silo, multicultural Christmas, and more

PHOTO ESSAY: “Advent 2020: Comfort My People”: Community development and relief worker Kezia M’Clelland, a child protection in emergencies specialist, works in areas of disaster and conflict. Every December she compiles a set of news photographs published in The Guardian that year, pairing each with an Advent scripture. (I introduced her in a 2017 Advent roundup.) Text and image amplify each other and prompt deeper reflection on the themes of the season as well as an awakening to global crises and/or injustices. The photos in this year’s compilation include a schoolteacher bringing plastic-wrapped hugs to her quarantined students in Rio de Janeiro, flooded roadways in Honduras following Hurricane Eta, a Syrian family from Ariha breaking their Ramadan fast amid the rubble of their home, a Palestinian boy from the Khan Younis refugee camp standing on a pile of scrapped car parts, the aftermath of the Beirut port explosion in August (caused by improperly stored ammonium nitrate), a protester outside Dallas City Hall in the US insisting that all citizens’ presidential election votes be counted, and others.

Comfort, comfort my people
Photo: Pilar Olivares / Reuters [via], set to Isaiah 40:1 by Kezia M’Clelland

The rough ground shall become level
Photo: Aaref Watad / AFP [via], set to Isaiah 40:4 by Kezia M’Clelland

M’Clelland adds one new photo for each day of Advent and then releases them all in video slideshow form on December 24. Here are her photo compilations from 2019 (“Good News of Great Joy”) and 2018 (“Peace on Earth”):

She also made a photo compilation for Holy Week 2020.

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SONG: “He Who Made the Starry Skies”: For optimal acoustics, three Bruderhof women from the Fox Hill Community in Walden, New York, trek on over to a silo to sing a fifteenth-century processional carol written by the nuns of St. Mary’s, Chester, in England, a medieval nunnery of which nothing now survives. Both the words and music have been preserved in a ca. 1425 manuscript known as The Chester Mysteries. The original is in Latin (and is titled “Qui creavit coelum”), but singers Alina McPherson, Melinda Goodwin, and Coretta Marchant opt for an English translation. I am providing the sheet music here, courtesy of the Bruderhof Historical Archives. [HT: Tamara Hill Murphy]

He who made the starry skies (Lully, lully, lu)
Sleeping in a manger lies (Lully, lully, lu)
Ruler of all centuries (Lully, lully, lu)

Joseph brings the swaddling clothes (Lully, lully, lu)
Mary wraps the babe so mild (Lully, lully, lu)
In the manger puts the child (Lully, lully, lu)

Humbly clad, the King of kings (Lully, lully, lu)
Joy of heav’n to earth now brings (Lully, lully, lu)
Sweet above all earthly things (Lully, lully, lu)

Mary, ask thy little son (Lully, lully, lu)
That he give us of his joy (Lully, lully, lu)
Now and through eternity (Lully, lully, lu)

The Bruderhof is an Anabaptist Christian movement of more than three thousand people committed to peacemaking, common ownership, and proclamation of the gospel. They have twenty-eight settlements on four continents, made up of families and singles. Perhaps you know them through their publishing house, Plough. Their website reads, “Love your neighbor. Take care of each other. Share everything. Especially in these challenging times, we at the Bruderhof believe that another way of life is possible. We’re not perfect people, but we’re willing to venture everything to build a life where there are no rich or poor. Where everyone is cared for, everyone belongs, and everyone can contribute. We’re pooling all our income, talents, and energy to take care of one another and to reach out to others. We believe that God wants to transform our world, here and now. This takes a life of discipleship, sacrifice and commitment; but when you truly love your neighbor as yourself, peace and justice become a reality. Isn’t that what Jesus came to bring for everyone?”

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UPCOMING (ONLINE) CHRISTMAS CONCERTS:

“A Family Holiday Singalong with Dan and Claudia Zanes,” Tuesday, December 15, 6 p.m. EST: Presented by the Lebanon Opera House in New Hampshire, this multicultural concert will feature Christmas, Hanukkah, or New Year’s songs from France, Wales, Germany, America, Puerto Rico, Korea, Tunisia, and Haiti. You can download the set list, which includes lyrics and chords, at the registration link I’ve posted. Dan and Claudia Zanes are a musical couple from Baltimore (my neck of the woods!), and I’ve really enjoyed the daily song videos they’ve been releasing on YouTube since COVID started. Here they are in 2018 with Pauline Jean, singing “Ocho Kandelikas,” a Hanukkah song written by Flory Jagoda in the 1980s in the Judeo-Spanish language known as Ladino. (Update: Concert video available here.)

“Gospel Christmas: O Holy Night,” Friday, December 18, 6 p.m. EST: Presented by Washington National Cathedral, this program will feature gospel, jazz, and blues music interspersed with scripture readings. (Update: Concert video available here.)

“Lowana Wallace Christmas Concert,” Sunday, December 20, 9 p.m. EST: Canadian singer-songwriter Lowana Wallace [previously] incorporates subtle jazz styles into her arrangements of worship songs and her own compositions. Listen to a sampler from her wonderful Hymns & Carols album, and tune in this weekend! (Update: Concert video available here.)

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ARTICLE: “Making Space for a Multicultural Christmas” by Michelle Reyes: “How can each of us celebrate Christmas at the intersection of our faith and our culture, while welcoming differing cultural perspectives on Christ’s birth?” asks Dr. Michelle Reyes, VP of the Asian American Christian Collaborative and editorial director of Pax, in this Gospel Coalition article. She briefly discusses four different cultural traditions that highlight unique aspects of Jesus’s birth narrative: posadas in Central America, Kiahk in Egypt, parols (star-shaped lanterns) in the Philippines, and Día de los Reyes [previously] in Puerto Rico, Mexico, and other Hispanic countries.

(Related posts from my old blog: “Nativity Paintings from around the World”; “More Nativity Paintings from around the World”)

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PODCAST EPISODE: “God’s Global Family,” BibleProject: BibleProject, a nonprofit ed-tech organization and animation studio, produces one of my favorite podcasts, hosted by biblical scholar Tim Mackie and Jon Collins. (I found episodes 6–11 of their recently wrapped “Character of God” series, on the wrath of God, particularly illuminating.) “Family of God” is the name of the series they’re in now. In this first episode they discuss how Christianity is the most multiethnic religious movement in history, and how our humanity cannot be fully realized without understanding, appreciating, and being connected to the identity of every other culture. I link to it here because it dovetails nicely with the Reyes article and because I want to introduce you to the podcast, if you’re not already familiar with it, but also because Mackie spends time talking about the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, with its many culturally specific portrayals of Mary and Jesus from around the world.

Widayanto, Fransiskus_Mother Mary
Fransiskus Widayanto (Indonesian, 1953–), Bunda Maria (Mother Mary), 2006. Ceramic mosaic and relief sculpture. Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth, Israel. Photo © BibleWalks.com. Mary is depicted in a traditional Javanese kebaya.

Madonna and Child mosaic (Thailand)
Thai Madonna and Child, mosaic, Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth, Israel. Photo © BibleWalks.com.

Mveng, Engelbert_Our Lady of Africa
Fr. Engelbert Mveng, SJ (Cameroonian, 1930–1995), Our Lady of Africa, mosaic, Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth, Israel. Photo © BibleWalks.com. The inscription is from Zephaniah 3:10: “From beyond the rivers of Cush / my worshipers, the daughter of my dispersed ones, / shall bring my offering.”

As you know, diversity in biblical imagery, especially images of Jesus, is important to me, so I was delighted to hear this popular podcast tip their hat to this pilgrimage site in Israel that features a range of visual interpretations of the incarnation. You can view a compilation of the church’s national mosaics at BibleWalks.com. Most of them are not of high artistic quality, but I appreciate the initiative of inviting the nations to contribute their own localized representations. Above, I posted three that I particularly like.

Roundup: “O Children, Come”; the Christmas story through news photos; Messiaen and the Incarnation; art from Bethlehem; nativity musical soundtrack

SONG: “O Children, Come” by Keith and Kristyn Getty: The Gettys are an Irish married couple who are major contributors to the modern Christian hymn-writing movement. I really enjoyed singing this song of theirs at church last week (CCLI 7036340); it was my first time hearing it. The acoustic performance below is from the Gettys’ 2015 Christmas concert. They’ve also recorded it with Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

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PHOTO ESSAY: “Alternative Nativity”: Kezia M’Clelland works with children affected by conflict in the Middle East and raises public awareness through her blog, Kezia Here and There. In 2015 she compiled news photos that document the refugee crisis and set them to excerpts from St. Matthew’s account of Christ’s birth and the prologue to St. John’s Gospel—a very powerful pairing that gives impetus to our Advent cry, “Come, Lord Jesus!” This is not a generic mashup; each photo was carefully selected to amplify a corresponding scripture text.

Alternative nativity1
“About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for.” (Photo via Reuters. Displaced Yazidis escape across the Syrian border by foot, fleeing violence from the Islamic State militants who have taken over their home town of Sinjar.)

Alternative nativity2
“So Joseph went to Bethlehem. He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was obviously pregnant by this time.” (Photo via Al Jazeera. A refugee father with his pregnant wife and daughter asks for permission to enter into Hungary near Roszke as the border fence with Serbia is closed by Hungarian police.)

For each subsequent Advent, M’Clelland has released something in a similar vein: the video “Hope Is on the Way” in 2016, and this year, “Light in the Darkness,” with verses of scripture, mainly from the Old Testament prophets, emblazoned across photos from today’s Middle East. “This year again these Advent pictures and words will speak of a hope that is now and not yet,” she writes. “I am grateful that Advent gives us the freedom to weep and to hope, to rejoice and to grieve, to wait for and to recognise the Christ who is already here among us.”

Marrying the Christmas story with contemporary photojournalism can teach us to “pray with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other,” as the popular adage goes. As we see the world’s brokenness, it should intensify our fervor for Christ’s shalom and impel us to action.

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UPCOMING MUSIC & ART EVENT: “Messiaen and the Incarnation,” December 20, 8 p.m., St. Mary’s Addington, London: Next Wednesday evening, Dr. Edward Forman will be performing three movements each from the French avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen’s organ suite La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord) and piano suite Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus). Messiaen was a committed Christian who sought to express theological truths in a fresh, modern idiom. Like much of his output, these two works reject the Western conventions of forward motion, development, and diatonic harmonic resolution, so they can be difficult for first-time hearers. But this complexity, this sense of the unexpected, is appropriate for the mystical content they seek to convey.

Inspired by the unique palette of sounds, textures, and rhythms of Nativité, British artist Sophie Hacker translated these into visual form. After deeply studying the music, in 2007 she created nine mixed-media panels in response—one for each movement—using slats of wood, nails, lead, wire, tree bark, and other found objects; you can see some of her process in the video below. These premiered at Winchester Cathedral in 2008. Then again in 2015 Hacker participated in another Messiaen-inspired artistic collaboration, under the direction of pianist Cordelia Williams, with poets Michael Symmons Roberts and Rowan Williams. This project is called “Between Heaven and the Clouds: Messiaen 2015.”

La Nativité du Seigneur by Sophie Hacker
Sophie Hacker (British), La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord), 2007. Mixed media on nine canvases, 60 × 60 cm each. Photo: Mike J. Davis.

To guide us through the listening experience, St. Mary’s will be projecting Hacker’s artworks onto a screen during the playing, and interspersing it with poetic reflections on the theological themes—from the Bible, Messiaen, Roland Riem (Icons of the Incarnation), and other sources. “We think it is equally pointless to try to explain Messiaen’s music in words as to attempt a sensible account of what it means for God to become human,” writes Forman in the booklet that will be provided to attendees. “We hope that the visual effects, words and music will enhance each other in ways that are inspiring and provoking.”

Messiaen’s compositions are definitely more challenging than the standard Christmas music fare, so I am grateful that St. Mary’s has the boldness, vision, and talent to offer them to the public, and in the meaningful context (which you likely won’t get in the concert hall) of meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation.

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ARTIST PROFILE: Zaki Baboun: Zaki Baboun is a Palestinian Christian artist living in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem. He paints religious scenes in oils on olive wood, which you can browse and purchase here—either the originals or reproductions on Christmas cards.

The first video below contains a short, two-minute interview with Zaki and shows him painting The Journey of the Magi; the second shows him painting The Good Shepherd.

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ALBUM: The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby by Waterdeep: I saw the world premiere of this nativity musical last summer in New York (read my review here), and it really helped shepherd my imagination into a deeper understanding of Mary and Joseph’s social and emotional realities. Now the album is out! The songs express the many ups and downs the Holy Couple likely underwent in their faith journeys to bring the Messiah into the world, with the theme of deliverance standing in highest relief. (Mary’s opening song, “I Want to Be Delivered,” is what spurs, much to her shock, the Annunciation, and the finale, “Walk Through the Sea on Dry Land,” draws everyone into a joyful reminiscence of God’s mighty hand in ages past, manifest in the present through the birth of the Christ child.) Comedy is provided through invented characters like Joseph’s friend Benjamin, the innkeeper and his wife, and a shepherd named Naphtali.

The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph's Baby album cover

The most poignant scene, for me—and hence probably my favorite song—is the “Magnificat.” The biblical account doesn’t tell us much about Mary’s state of mind at this point, so the writers imagine her coming to Elizabeth filled with fear, and Elizabeth building her up, preaching truth to her (and sharing her own story of shame), helping her move from doubt to confidence. Elizabeth’s song is what emboldens Mary to sing. Their “Magnificat” is later reprised by the full cast immediately following Christ’s birth, concluding part 1.

The new album is not an original cast recording; instead the songs were recorded by their writer, Don Chaffer, and his wife, Lori, and released under the Waterdeep moniker. Stream on Spotify; sample and purchase at Amazon or iTunes.