Lent, Day 13

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

—Matthew 6:25–33

LOOK: The Kingdom of the Father by Damien Hirst

Hirst, Damien_The Kingdom of the Father
Damien Hirst (British, 1965–), The Kingdom of the Father, 2007. Butterflies and household gloss on three canvas panels, 115 7/8 × 190 in. (294.3 × 482.6 cm). Photo: Randy Boverman.

Hirst, Damien_The Kingdom of the Father (detail)
Detail. Photo: Yvette Wohn.

LISTEN: “Seek Ye First” by Emorja Roberson, on The Evening Musicale (2019), feat. the University of Notre Dame’s Voices of Faith Gospel Choir and friends

Seek ye first the kingdom
And watch God add to your life
Seek ye first the kingdom of God
And his righteousness, it shall be yours

No need to worry ’bout the lack in your life
The God I know, he will supply
Submit your request, make it known
Give it to God, leave it alone
But you must have faith and believe what he said
In his word, trust his word

When you pray, seek his face, trust his word—trust and obey
If it’s in his word, you can count on it, trust his word—trust and obey
When you seek him, believe—trust and obey
Trust him, then seek him, and you’ll find him—trust and obey

Seek ye first the kingdom of God
And his righteousness, it shall be yours

I was searching for a good rendition of “Seek Ye First” by Karen Lafferty, a pioneer of the Jesus Movement of the 1970s—but instead I came across this awesome gospel song inspired by the same scripture passage! It was written by Emorja Roberson—pianist, conductor, workshop coordinator, composer, arranger, and classical and gospel vocalist. He graduated with a master’s of sacred music in vocal performance from the University of Notre Dame in 2017 and is currently a student in the school’s doctor of musical arts in choral conducting program, with a focus on the African American repertoire. He is the director of the Voices of Faith Gospel Choir.

Roberson’s “Seek Ye First” is featured in the online project Songs of Notre Dame: A Lenten Offering 2020. The accompanying meditation reads,

In this season, we pause and examine the things that stand in the way of our relationship with God. Notre Dame’s Voices of Faith Gospel Choir reminds us that we must seek God first – before fame, riches, pleasure, or certainty. In order to anchor our lives in God and to direct our efforts towards the coming of the kingdom, we must trust in God’s providence. What might be taking priority in our lives over our relationship with God? How can we re-center this day, this week, and this Lenten season, by seeking God first?

Advent, Day 7

LOOK: Jesus, John, and a Neighbor Boy Playing by Cody F. Miller

Miller, Cody F._Jesus, John, and a Neighbor Boy Playing
Cody F. Miller (American, 1972–), Jesus, John, and a Neighbor Boy Playing, 2002. Original mixed media, 36 × 24 in.

American artist Cody F. Miller’s body of work deals with themes of journeying, grace, self-offering, and hope amidst suffering. Many of his mixed-media pieces are keyed to specific biblical texts or to lines of spiritual verse, offering imaginative interpretations. In the work pictured here, he shows the boy Jesus engaged in a ring dance with his cousin John and another playmate, while Mary and Elizabeth peek at them over a clothesline in adoring delight.

Describing his technique, Miller says, “I work with cut paper and paint because I enjoy the interplay of the known and unknown. For the known, I work out many variations of a sketch until the design I’m looking for is finally realized. The unknown comes from my files full of patterns and objects waiting to find a new home. I am repeatedly fascinated when I find that some odd cut-out works better than my original intention.”

I commend to you the set of Christmas cards he offers through his website, which includes three different designs: the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Journey of the Magi, and the Holy Family Asleep.

LISTEN: “A Child Will Lead Us All” by Drew Miller, 2017; on Consolation, 2019

The following video performance is by the Orchardists, with the song’s writer, Drew Miller, on guitar and lead vocals, Janie Townsend on background vocals, Lincoln Mick on mandolin, Kevin Gift Jr. on bass, and Camille Faulkner on violin. The recording on Spotify, released two years later, is from Miller’s solo album Consolation.

The kingdom’s coming as a seed
Smaller than the eye can see
From wanting eyes to set us free
Kingdom come

The kingdom’s coming as the rain
To wash away our castles vain
And cleanse the burdened heart from stain
Kingdom come

The kingdom’s coming as a word
The wisest man has never heard
And foolish lips will speak the cure
Kingdom come

The kingdom’s coming as a song
Mournful dirge and anthem strong
To cheer the ones who sing it wrong
Kingdom come

A child will lead us all home

The kingdom comes from far away
The kingdom has no place to stay
To you who open up the door
Kingdom come

The kingdom’s coming to the poor
Sons and daughters of the Lord
And all that’s lost will be restored
Kingdom come

The kingdom’s coming as a feast
The finest wine for all the least
We’ll taste the broken bread of peace
Kingdom come

The kingdom’s coming slow and true
Till every inch has been made new
And it will ask your life of you
Kingdom come

A child will lead us all home

A brilliant piece of songwriting, “A Child Will Lead Us All” is full of poetic verve and biblical allusiveness, bringing several of Jesus’s parables into conversation with ancient Jewish prophecy and John’s Apocalypse. Christ’s kingdom is coming as seed, rain, a word, a song, a feast, from far away and to the poor. The refrain “A child will lead us all home” is derived from Isaiah 11:6, which describes the messianic kingdom, where heaven and earth join again as one. We are led into that reality by the One who came to us first as an infant, small and vulnerable.

Advent, Day 7: Behold!

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
    and all flesh shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

—Isaiah 40:3–5

LOOK: Caiphas Nxumalo (South African, 1940–2002), John the Baptist, 1970. Linocut. Source: Christliche Kunst in Afrika, p. 278.

Nxumalo, Caiphas_John the Baptist

Caiphas Nxumalo was a printmaker and wood sculptor who studied at the Rorke’s Drift Art School from around 1968 to 1971 (sources vary on the precise years). He was associated with the African-initiated amaNazaretha Church in South Africa.

In this linoleum cut Nxumalo shows John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, preaching repentance (bottom; Matt. 3:1–3), baptizing (Matt. 3:5–6), and eating wild honey (Matt. 3:4). The eye of God, which sees secret sins, burns bright and glorious. I’m not sure whether the people at the bottom are running away from John’s message of wrath or “turning around” from their wickedness to follow the true way. In Matthew’s account there are people from both categories of response.

The triangular frame rising from the base line was a common compositional device Nxumalo used to tell multiple components of a story, and in this context it’s especially appropriate, as it seems to me to allude to the valleys being lifted and the mountains being brought down low—a leveling of the landscape so that God’s glory can be plainly seen from any vantage point. (On another level, this Isaianic prophecy probably also refers to the proud being overthrown and the humble being exalted, as Mary sings about in her Magnificat.)

Advent is about the coming consummation of the kingdom of God in the day of the Lord. In Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge, who calls on the church to restore Advent’s focus on apocalyptic theology, describes John the Baptist as the central figure of Advent. She half-jokes that behind one of those cute little Advent calendar windows should be a coarse, fiery John shouting, “You brood of vipers!” (Matt. 3:7). “Irreducibly strange, gaunt and unruly, lonely and refractory, utterly out of sync with his age or our age or any age,” John the Baptist “arrives announcing the opening event of the end-time” (277, 13). As prophesied by Malachi at the end of the Old Testament and confirmed by Jesus in Matthew 11, “John the Baptist is the new Elijah, standing at the edge of the universe, at the dawn of a new world, the turn of the ages. That is his location as the sentinel, the premier personage of this incomparable Advent season—the season of the coming of the once and future Messiah” (277).

Like John, the church, Rutledge says, is also located on the frontier of the new age, between Jesus’s first and second advents, and we, too, are called to herald the Messiah, announcing, “Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand.”

[Related posts: “Prepare the Way (Artful Devotion)”; “Turn and Live (Artful Devotion)”; “John the Baptist at the National Gallery, London”]

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

—Matthew 3:1–12

LISTEN: “His Kingdom Now Is Come (Behold! Behold!)” by Paul Zach, Isaac Wardell, Leslie Jordan, Lorenzo Baylor, and Brian Nhira, on Justice Songs by the Porter’s Gate (2020) | CCLI #7158500

In my review of Justice Songs (and its companion album, Lament Songs), I wrote,

Justice Songs opens with a rousing call-and-response song, “His Kingdom Now Is Come (Behold! Behold!),” that combines material from the mystical prologue of John’s Gospel with an Isaianic prophecy commonly read during Advent [Isaiah 40:3–5]. . . . Verse 4, syncopated with hand claps, lists divine epithets like “God of justice” (Isa. 30:18). “Father of the fatherless” (Ps. 68:5), “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). “He’s troubling the water, and we’re marching through”—an oblique reference to the African American spiritual “Wade in the Water,” about the liberation of the Israelites through the miraculously parted Red Sea, the paradigmatic “day of the Lord.”

The refrain, “Behold!,” is a word used hundreds of times throughout scripture, and it means “to fix the eyes upon; to see with attention; to observe with care.” Jesus says in Luke 7:21, “Behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” May we behold with humility and excitement the age to come and respond with fruits of repentance.

Here’s a socially distanced performance of “His Kingdom Now Is Come” by the musicians of Whitworth Campus Worship for the Center for Congregational Song’s Election Day 2020 broadcast.

(Update, 12/9/20: Watch the Porter’s Gate perform this song in the studio on this Instagram video.)

This post marks the end of the first week of Advent. For many more Advent songs, see “Advent: An Art & Theology Playlist” on Spotify.