Christmas, Day 4: Ancient Tears

The fourth day of Christmas is set apart in Christian calendars to commemorate the massacre of innocents in Bethlehem shortly after the birth of Jesus. Herod, a Roman client king of Judea, felt threatened by the news that the “Anointed One” of God had been born and would rule the people. In an attempt to secure his political power, Herod ordered that all the male babies in Bethlehem be killed, thinking that surely the Messiah would be among them.

Applying the prophet Jeremiah’s words about the grief of exile (Jer. 31:15) to the present bloodshed, Matthew tells us in his Gospel that the night of the Bethlehem massacre,

A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more. (Matt. 2:18)

Rachel, a matriarch of Israel, was buried near Bethlehem, so the implication is that she was crying out from her grave in grief over her murdered descendants, joining the chorus of wailing Jewish mothers whose loss is unfathomable.

LOOK: Antiquarum Lacrimae (The Tears of Ancient Women) by Joan Snyder

Snyder, Joan_Antiquarum Lacrimae
Joan Snyder (American, 1940–), Antiquarum Lacrimae (The Tears of Ancient Women), 2004. Acrylic and dried flowers on linen, 78 × 120 in. Grand Rapids Art Museum, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Painted in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attack on the New York World Trade Center and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the elegiac Antiquarum Lacrimae by Joan Snyder evokes the suffering of women in times of war and violence. Broad, lateral strokes of green in varying shades form a backdrop for the scrawled repetition of the Latin words of the title, which translate to “The Tears of Ancient Women”—women who weep in personal anguish, lamenting their own losses, but also more broadly for the state of the world. Dried flowers, pressed upside down onto the canvas, suggest a ravaged field, or gravesides, and the thick, round, deep red splotches of dripping paint suggest open wounds.

LISTEN: “Neharót Neharót” by Betty Olivero, 2006–8 | Performed by violist Kim Kashkashian on Neharót, 2009, and live on October 20, 2019 (see video below)

A chamber piece for solo viola, accordion, percussion, two string ensembles, and tape, “Neharót Neharót” is by contemporary Israeli composer Betty Olivero. Its Hebrew title translates to “Rivers Rivers,” referring to the rivers of tears shed by women—though Olivero also points out the word’s resemblance to nehara, meaning “ray of light,” thus identifying a faint hope that shines through floods of suffering. The composition is a textured lament led by viola, which plays lyrically over the top of an ensemble accompaniment and engages with recordings of women’s singing voices.

In 2006 Olivero was working on a commission from 92NY, a Jewish community center in Manhattan, when war broke out at the Israel-Lebanon border between the Israeli military and the militias of Hezbollah, an Islamist group. “Deeply touched and marked by the shocking television images of victims, corpses and mourning people on both sides of the border, [Olivero] chose elegies by mothers, widows and sisters who had lost their loved ones as a point of reference for her composition.”

Olivero taped women in mourning, as well as elegies and love songs of Kurdish and North African origin or derivation performed by professional Israeli singers Lea Avraham and Ilana Elia. One such song is “Fermana” (Destruction), which laments Saddam Hussein’s slaughter of the Kurds. Excerpts from these recordings are played back as part of the fabric of the live performance of “Neharót Neharót.” The piece also quotes Orpheus’s lament from Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo.

“‘Neharót Neharót’ is a dedication to all those women and children living in areas of war,” Olivero says. Though it was catalyzed by and references particular conflicts, it is intended as a universal cry of sorrow on behalf of women everywhere who carry the wounds of war—especially the unremitting grief of having lost children to violence.

Snyder, Joan_Antiquarum Lacrimae
Joan Snyder, Antiquarum Lacrimae (detail). Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Holy Saturday (Artful Devotion)

Entombment of Christ (Armenia)
“The Entombment of Christ,” from an Armenian Gospel-book, 1437. MS Or. 2668, fol. 5v, British Library, London.

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

—Matthew 27:57–61

After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.

—John 19:38–42

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MUSIC: “Tagh for the Funeral of the Lord” by Tigran Mansurian, 1998–2004 | Performed by Kim Kashkashian (viola) and Robyn Schulkowsky (percussion), on Neharo’t, 2009

The tagh is an ancient genre of Armenian monodic music—that is, lamentation over another’s death. “The characteristics of the tagh are its expansiveness of form and volume, its free melodic style, the existence of instrumental passages and richness of rhythm” [source].

“Tagh for the Funeral of the Lord” is the second piece in contemporary Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian’s suite “Three Medieval Taghs for Viola and Percussion” (the other two are for the Crucifixion and for the Resurrection). On YouTube you can find a January 27, 2019, performance by violist Kim Kashkashian and (different from the earlier album recording) percussionist Jonathan Hepfer as part of the Lark Musical Society’s Dilijan Chamber Music Series is Los Angeles. The funeral tagh starts at 4:23:

Note: Sometimes this piece is called Tagh “to” or “of” the Funeral of the Lord.

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The Entombment painting above is from a fifteenth-century Gospel-book copied and illuminated at the Monastery of St. George in Armenia by the priest Awetik. At the center, Christ’s body lies with his head tilted toward the viewer but wrapped, like the rest of him, in a white shroud. Joseph of Arimathea cradles Christ’s head and Nicodemus straightens his legs as the two situate his body in the grave. Two of the Marys stand by, grieving.

The vast swatch of dark blue across the top half of the painting indicates the deep darkness of the cave and accentuates the feeling of emptiness and loss. The figures form a middle band, below which are two more large color fields: brown and green, the colors of the earth.

The inertness is striking, as is the complete hiddenness of God the Son under his burial clothes.


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 Holy Saturday, cycle A, click here.