VISUAL COMMENTARIES: Elijah’s Ascent by Victoria Emily Jones: My latest contribution to the Visual Commentary on Scripture was published this month. It’s a mini-exhibition on 2 Kings 2:1–12, featuring a seventeenth-century Russian icon, a 1944 painting by African American artist William H. Johnson, and a 1985 painting (a Jewish chapel commission) by Polish-born Israeli artist Shlomo Katz. (For more context on the Katz painting, see here.)
NATIONAL MOURNING:Washington National Cathedral tolled its mourning bell four hundred times Tuesday evening in remembrance of the 400,000 lives lost from COVID in the United States thus far—each ring representing one thousand dead. I spent the thirty-eight-minute livestream lamenting this enormous loss, praying for all those who are grieving and for patients and health care workers, and pleading with God for an end to this virus.
The origami paper doves you see in the video are part of the Les Colombes installation by Michael Pendry [previously], erected in December in the cathedral’s nave to symbolize hope and the Holy Spirit.
MUSIC VIDEO: “For the Sake of Old Times” (Auld Lang Syne): Directed by Tyler Jones of the narrative studio 1504, this short film premiered December 30, 2020, by NPR. “From the pews of a church where white deacons once refused to seat African Americans, a group of Black singers in Alabama reminds us why preserving our memories of this historic year is vital—even if we’d rather just leave 2020 behind.” [HT: ImageUpdate]
“To me the piece is a personal encouragement going into the future,” Jones says, “that we hopefully strive to work together for a kinder future, especially at a time where we are so distanced.” Read about the making of the film at https://n.pr/3n6d8Ct.
ARTICLE: “On the Gifts of Street Art” by Jason A. Goroncy, Zadok: The Australasian Religious Press Association awarded silver prize for “Best Theological Article” to Jason Goroncy [previously] for this piece. (How cool that it won in the theology category!) Like all art, street art can function as a form of civic dialogue, protest, play, hope, remembrance, etc., but Goroncy discusses how some of its particular qualities uniquely position it to perform those functions: its (usually) unsanctioned and interventionist nature, its fragility and impermanence, its celebration and development of culture, its inseparability from place, and its redefinitions of proprietorship. [HT: Art/s and Theology Australia]
“Among the many gifts that street artists offer,” Goroncy writes, “is a proclivity to bear witness to how things are and not merely to how they might appear to be. Such a proclivity involves a telling of the truth about those largely-untampered-with and untraversed spaces of our urban worlds, about what is present but underexposed or disregarded; and even, as Auden hints, to lead with ‘unconstraining voice’ the way toward healing and toward a renewed sense of enchantment, freedom and praise beyond the pedestrian and clamorous. Such a proclivity is also a form of urban spirituality. It can even be a form of public theology.”
Several readers have asked if there’s a way to donate to the work of this blog. After much thought I’ve decided to go ahead and add a Donation page, where those who wish to send a small financial gift to support the blog’s upkeep and development can do so through PayPal if they feel so inclined. Thank you!
CIVA ART AUCTION, November 13–15, 2020: In a few weeks CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) is hosting an online auction of art created and/or donated by CIVA members. The lots comprise a range of media, sizes, and styles—a little something for everyone. It’s a great way to support artists of faith (by supporting CIVA), and to acquire beautiful art for your home!
The first artwork I ever purchased was through a CIVA auction: a linocut by Steve Prince, who has three new works up for bid this year. Sandra Bowden has donated several works from her extensive and esteemed collection of religious art, including an Adoration of the Magi lithograph by the major modern artist Otto Dix and a mola (handmade textile) from Panama, which I’m eyeing. I also noticed 40 Days, Forty Sacraments, a set of gouaches painted by Kari Dunham over the course of Lent one year as a way to rediscover beauty in the ordinary. And a mixed-media piece by Joseph di Bella, whose theme of redemption is underscored by the making of the substrate, which consists of “failed and unfinished works on paper” that “are destroyed, then reformed into new, yet still imperfect sheets.”
If you plan on bidding, be sure to register; you will be able to see all the other bids and can set up notifications. And if you don’t win, don’t be discouraged: you can always go to the artist’s website, and there will likely be other works available for purchase there.
ALBUM: Daughter Zion’s Woe: Produced by Rachel Wilhelm and released last month by Cardiphonia, this new album features thirteen lament songs written, arranged, and performed by women. It will be available on Spotify after Christmas, but until then, all Bandcamp sales benefit Hagar’s Sisters, an organization that serves victims of domestic violence. My favorite song on the album is “The Glory Shall Be Thine” by Christy Danner, a retuning of the late nineteenth-century “Transformed” by F. G. Burroughs (pseudonym for Ophelia Burroughs, later Adams, née Browning); this hymn text is completely new to me, and what a gem! Danner’s music really draws out its poignancy. Other highlights include Eden Wilhelm’s “Lord, Draw Near” (Psalm 88), Sister Sinjin’s “Silence,” and Lo Sy Lo’s “Let It Be So” (Psalm 12).
EXHIBITION:The Evidence of Things Unseen by Titus Kaphar,October 16–November 28, 2020, former Église du Gesù, Brussels: Titus Kaphar’s [previously] art, which reinterprets traditional Anglo-centric imagery through a Black lens, has grown out of his “spending time in European museums and longing for pictures that looked like they actually made space for individuals that look like me.” In this new exhibition, staged by the Maruani Mercier gallery in a deconsecrated church in Belgium, Kaphar revises Christian paintings by silhouetting, covering in tar, or duct-taping over likenesses of white Jesus, drawing attention to unseen people and narratives. The exhibition’s title is taken from Hebrews 11:1.
The press release reads: “It is virtually impossible to tell the story of Renaissance art without an exploration of Christianity. While the personal faith of the individual artist varied from devotee to atheist opportunist, the largest patron of the arts was the Church, and Catholic iconography the artist’s lingua franca. . . .
“In The Evidence of Things Unseen, Kaphar utilizes Catholic iconography as a ground on which to explore ideas beyond simple proselytization. Kaphar utilizes his whole vocabulary of formal innovation in this exhibition: canvases aggressively fold, crumple, undulate, and project from the wall, forcing themselves into the space of the viewer. Through Kaphar’s physical interventions, works like Susan and the Elders and Eve exist as bodies transformed into landscape and typography rather than polite easel paintings. In Jesus Noir Kaphar duct-tapes a portrait of a young black man over the face of Christ. Christ’s outstretched right hand, originally pointing to the heavens, now appears as a plea for help. The application of duct tape – a utilitarian material known to be used in all kinds of industrial and household repairs – suggest urgency and impermanence.
“Even though many biblical stories take place in the Middle East and Africa, representations of Christ and his followers are almost always depicted as European. It is not surprising that the devoted attempt to see themselves in the stories of the Bible, and to envision a Christ they can recognize: Christian tradition teaches that mankind was created in God’s own ‘image and likeness.’ And yet, religious paintings from the Renaissance unwittingly oversimplify an understanding of God by excluding a part of his creation. There are no black angels of the Renaissance. The Evidence of Things Unseen is Kaphar’s latest attempt at revision.”
PANEL DISCUSSION: “Perspectives on Empathy and the Arts”: In 2017 Roots of Empathy brought together a panel of three—Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF); Martha Durdin, chair of the board of trustees of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM); and Raymond Mar, professor of psychology at York University—to discuss the connection between art and empathy and why it’s so important. The conversation is moderated by Mary Ito. I especially appreciated from 42:32 onward.
4:10: Children who take acting lessons are more prosocial and empathetic 5:48: Films and empathy 9:34: Fiction and empathy 12:42: Moonlight(2016) 21:54: Learning from mistakes: Into the Heart of Africa (1989) and point of view 28:38: Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano (2015) 30:37: Forced assimilation of Native people in church-run residential schools 31:18: Can art museums institutionalize empathy? 34:48: How does me empathizing with a character in a book or a painted figure translate to me being empathetic to actual people? 39:05: Superhero comics and movies 41:22: Are we suffering from an empathy deficit? 44:37: Empathy for ideological opponents 46:10: Where does empathy run up against morality/ethics? Are we to empathize with abusers? 46:56: How do we do better through the arts?
Though I grew up in the church, for a long time I was ignorant of the vibrant threads of lament and justice that run throughout scripture. I imbibed the message that good Christians never complain or get angry or question God or call him to account, that “rejoicing always” means always putting on a happy face (dwelling in sadness was tantamount to distrust), and that social justice is a “liberal agenda” and a distraction from the gospel. As my faith has matured and my engagement with the scriptures has deepened, my eyes have been opened to the embeddedness of justice in the biblical narrative, and how any lack of justice is cause for lament.
Tim Keller’s book Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (2012) was instrumental in helping me see how social justice is an expression of God’s own heart and an important part of the church’s mission, not tangential to the gospel but an extension of it. My earlier conception of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, was so impoverished, as I had reduced it down to nothing more than a private transaction between me and God regarding the eternal destination of my soul. As I began to see, through reading scripture, that God cares about this world, and he cares about people’s souls and bodies, I came to realize how expansive the gospel really is, with real implications for the here and now. We may be in right relationship with God, or think we are, but are we in right relationship with our neighbors and, I would add, with the rest of God’s creation? That is, do we live justly, as God commands, which includes supporting policies that promote, as best as possible, the flourishing of all, not just ourselves or others like us?
Keller shows how the Christianese terms “sin” and “righteousness” have to do not only with personal morality but also with systems, and how “justice” is more multifaceted than merely “punishment.” Punishing wrongdoers and reestablishing rights is one type of justice, called rectifying (or retributive) justice, or mishpat in Hebrew. But primary justice (aka distributive justice) is making sure goods and opportunities are more equitably distributed in society. It’s proactive. “Primary justice, or tzadeqah, is behavior that, if it was prevalent in the world, would render rectifying justice unnecessary, because everyone would be living in right relationship to everyone else” (11). Keller says that when these two Hebrew words appear together in the Bible, the best translation of the compound is “social justice.” So, for example, when Psalm 33:5 says, “He loveth righteousness [tzadeqah] and judgment [mishpat],” perhaps a better modern translation would be “The LORD loves social justice.”
The truncated “ticket to heaven,” “me and Jesus” understanding of salvation shows up in countless Christian worship songs, which form, or malform, our imaginations. I’m not at all dismissing the need for personal salvation (that is a critical component of the gospel!), or suggesting that we ought not to be looking toward eternity. What I am saying is that our relationship with Jesus, including our transformative experience of his love and grace, should have a profound impact on how we relate to and advocate for our neighbors, and our conception of heaven should be as huge and as glorious as the Bible alludes to (the entire world renewed and in harmony under the headship of Christ)—and we should start living into that vision NOW, even as we await Christ’s return. I often wonder whether, if there had been more biblical justice–oriented songs circulating and in church use during my upbringing, my deep hurt over the brokenness of the world and thus my sense of social responsibility as a Christian would have developed sooner.
Founded in 2017 by Isaac and Megan Wardell, The Porter’s Gate is a music collective whose mission is to be a “porter” for the Christian church—one who looks beyond church doors for guests to welcome. Their first album, Work Songs (2017), explores the concept of vocation in both the public and private spheres. That was followed up by Neighbor Songs (2019), centered on the communal aspect of Christian living and of God’s future, and the embodied love at the heart of the gospel.
And now, released this month, are two companion albums: Lament Songs and Justice Songs. Recorded by a diverse group of musicians in July 2020 on a farm in Virginia, the albums interweave fragments from the Psalms with biblical prophecies and apocalypses, blessings, Gospel stories, and protest chants, crafting a robust kingdom theology that promotes constructive engagement with contemporary issues and a looking toward the reconciliation of all things in Christ. “We fight for the victories we know You will win” (a lyric from “Justicia”) is a good encapsulation.
Political corruption, police brutality, racism, mass incarceration, sexual violence, economic exploitation, and war are all referenced, either implicitly or explicitly, as forms of oppression that need to be toppled, as they are an affront to God, marring his image.
Full of heartbreak and hope, the songs are shepherding me out of my tendency toward cynicism and helping me recapture the beauty of God’s vision for the world. They’re saturated in biblical language. An antidote to the all-too-common escapism theology present in some Christian music, they catalyze the church to weep with those who are weeping (Romans 12:15), to bear the burdens of others (Galatians 6:2), and to participate in God’s work of renewal in the world. God has not redeemed us to wait idly by while sin tightens its grip on society. No, he calls us to sow the seeds of his kingdom in anticipation of a bountiful harvest. To walk in the power of the Spirit, into dark corners, bringing light.
The Porter’s Gate seeks to provide songs for corporate worship, and all these would (potentially) be appropriate in that setting; for churches that aren’t used to the practice of lament or to engaging justice issues, some advance education and pastoral guidance will be in order. Some songs will naturally land better in some churches than in others. Some are challenging—and that’s a good thing, as challenge tends to grow us.
As one would expect, God is supplicated throughout the songs. Entreaties include
Come, Jesus, come
Be our light
Drive out the darkness
End all the violence
Do not be silent
Illuminate the shadows
Keep the enemy back
Be our refuge
Make me an instrument
Help me restore
And God is abundantly praised, and his promises laid claim to.
The songwriters on the two albums are Isaac Wardell, Latifah Alattas, Kate Bluett, Jessica Fox, Jon Guerra, Casey J, Wendell Kimbrough, Leslie Jordan, Dan Marotta, Orlando Palmer, John Swinton, Gregory Thompson, Liz Vice, Keith Watts, Tina Colón Williams, and Paul Zach.
As the writers would acknowledge, the general content and ethos of the songs are not “new” or alien to Christianity. If you cringe at the thought of bringing current events into worship or singing a confession of corporate sin or expressing sadness or outrage to God, just know that faithful Christians have been doing it since the beginning, and your discomfort may be because you haven’t been exposed to church traditions outside your own. Ecumenicism is an important aspect of The Porter’s Gate’s identity, says Isaac Wardell—an ecumenicism that says, “I come with gifts of the Spirit of my tradition, but I come also with the poverty of my tradition, looking for the charisms and the gifts of your tradition.” And I love that about the project.
Because I’m eager for others to see the biblical groundedness of the songs (which will be obvious to many upon first listening, but maybe not to those who are more selectivist in their Bible reading), and because I’m a musical worship leader who approaches worship music with great discernment of the theology it espouses, I’m going to point out just some of the scriptural connections in the songs.
Acknowledging that the world is not right, and mourning specific instances of that unrighteousness, is the first step in justice work. It’s called lament. Lament cries out, “Why, God?” and “How long?” Honest expressions of woe are not irreverent. The Bible is full of such language. The fact that lament is addressed to God means that faith has not been abandoned; on the contrary, lament leads to a renewed confidence in God.
The first song on Lament Songs, “Wake Up, Jesus” (feat. Liz Vice), takes as its conceit the story of Jesus’s calming the storm after being woken up by his scared disciples, but it is sung in medias res, from the vantage point of one who is caught in a storm that is still raging. “Jesus, when you gonna wake up? . . . Won’t you rise up?” Again, maybe you’ve always assumed this kind of forthrightness is forbidden in prayer, but it’s in perfect sync with the way the biblical psalmists, for example, relate to God; take Psalm 44: “Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? / Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. / Why do you hide your face / and forget our misery and oppression?” (vv. 23–24). (See more biblical examples of this demand at https://artandtheology.org/2019/07/09/rise-up-artful-devotion/.)
When the instrumental intro to the second song begins, we recognize the famous passion chorale tune by Hassler, and we ready ourselves to sing “O Sacred Head . . .”—but instead we get “O Sacred Neck.” The word change is jarring. Why are we talking about Jesus’s neck? Then with the next phrase, “pressed down by blows and knees,” it becomes clear that the reference is to black victims of police violence, like George Floyd, who died in May after an officer, arresting him for trying to make a purchase with a counterfeit $20 bill, knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes while he pled for his life and then died. (Two other officers assisted in restraining him, and another prevented onlookers from intervening.)
Lord, thou hast been favourable unto thy land: thou hast brought back the captivity of Jacob.
Thou hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people, thou hast covered all their sin. Selah.
Thou hast taken away all thy wrath: thou hast turned thyself from the fierceness of thine anger.
Turn us, O God of our salvation, and cause thine anger toward us to cease.
Wilt thou be angry with us for ever? wilt thou draw out thine anger to all generations?
Wilt thou not revive us again: that thy people may rejoice in thee?
Shew us thy mercy, O LORD, and grant us thy salvation.
I will hear what God the LORD will speak: for he will speak peace unto his people, and to his saints: but let them not turn again to folly.
Surely his salvation is nigh them that fear him; that glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
Yea, the LORD shall give that which is good; and our land shall yield her increase.
Righteousness shall go before him; and shall set us in the way of his steps.
—Psalm 85 KJV
This psalm is a community lament, probably written during the period of Israel’s return from the Babylonian exile—to a ruined city, a fallen temple, and a mourning land. The people seek forgiveness for their covenant unfaithfulness and restoration, appealing to the benevolence God has shown them in the past. The closing section expresses confidence that salvation will come.
Verse 10 personifies four of God’s virtues: mercy (lovingkindness; Heb. hesed, Lat. misericordia), truth (Heb. emeth, Lat. veritas), justice (righteousness; Heb. tsedeq; Lat. iustitia), and peace (Heb. shalom, Lat. pax). Mercy and Truth meet together, and Justice and Peace embrace with a kiss. In medieval Christian writings these virtues came to be allegorized as the “four daughters of God,” a motif developed most famously by Hugh of St. Victor and Bernard of Clairvaux.
Many churches sing Psalm 85 at Advent or Christmastime, the birth of Jesus being a time when God’s salvation came near and “glory . . . dwell[ed] in our land.” All the virtues of God kissed each other in Christ, bringing heaven to earth. Others read the psalm as prophesying Jesus’s atoning death.
I love how Eugene Peterson translates this psalm in The Message, which suggests that these virtues of God are ones that humanity should emulate, and indeed what the gospel calls us to:
Our country is home base for Glory!
Love and Truth meet in the street,
Right Living and Whole Living embrace and kiss!
Truth sprouts green from the ground,
Right Living pours down from the skies!
Oh yes! GOD gives Goodness and Beauty;
our land responds with Bounty and Blessing.
Right Living strides out before him,
and clears a path for his passage. (vv. 9b–13)
Jesus lived rightly and bound up the brokenness he encountered, bringing wholeness. His ministry announced, verbally and in tangible ways, a kingdom to come, and we are to pave the way for that kingdom by embodying its values.
O God, will you restore us, And grant us your salvation? (×2)
I will hear what God proclaims.
The Lord our God proclaims peace.
Kindness and truth shall meet,
Justice and peace shall kiss.
O God, will you restore us, And grant us your salvation?
“Here is the fast that I choose:
To loosen the bonds of the oppressed and break their chains.
Let righteousness and justice go out before you,
Then you will call out and I will hear.”
O God, will you restore us, And grant us your salvation?
Near indeed is his salvation to those who call on him.
He will incline his ear and hear their prayers.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
and justice will rain down from heaven.
O God, will you restore us, And grant us your salvation?
The Lord will guide you on a righteous path,
His vindication will shine down forth as the dawn.
Your people will be called repairers of broken walls,
Making straight the path to proclaim his reign!
O God, will you restore us, And grant us your salvation?
O God, will you restore us? Please grant us your salvation.
Isaac Wardell’s “O God, Will You Restore Us” cleverly integrates Psalm 85 with Isaiah 58, which both center on themes of restoration, blessing, and social responsibility, even using similar word pictures. The refrain is based on the plea of Psalm 85:6–7, the heart of the psalm.
Opening with that plea, Wardell’s first verse then moves into Psalm 85:8, 10: God proclaims shalom. Verse two articulates what that looks like: the bonds of wickedness loosed, the oppressed set free. This verse is derived from God’s words in Isaiah 58:6, 8–9, in which he expresses the work he wants his people do be about—namely, justice. Only when his people practice true piety—emancipating captives, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless—will he answer their prayers.
The third verse is drawn from Psalm 85:9, 11, an image of abundance and refreshment. And finally, verse four sandwiches Isaiah 58:8, 12 between Psalm 85:13, which itself has resonance with Isaiah 40:3 (“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God”).
Unmetered and in a minor key, the song has the feel of a Gregorian chant.
“The Allegory of Justice and Peace,” or “Justice and Peace Kissing,” was a popular subject in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the art of the Italian and Flemish Baroque and the French Neoclassical, including works by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Corrado Giaquinto, Pompeo Batoni, Artemesia Gentileschi, Theodoor van Thulden, Maerten de Vos, Jacob de Backer—and the artist featured above, Laurent de La Hyre. Although the image comes from the Hebrew Bible, where it is rooted in God’s dealings with his people, artists often used it for secular purposes, to express political peace. Some such paintings were gifted to rulers as a form of flattery.
The iconography that developed draws on classical symbolism and mythology, with both virtues being personified as women. Justice’s attributes include a crown, a sword, scales, and a fasces; Peace’s, an olive branch, an inverted torch (which burns weapons and armor), ears of wheat and/or a cornucopia (because peace leads to plenty), and a caduceus (one myth suggests that Mercury saw two serpents entwined in mortal combat and separated them with his wand, bringing about peace between them).
The Hebrew word for “kiss” in Psalm 85 refers seldom to an erotic kiss, says Sigrid Eder, but rather to a form of greeting or goodbye exchanged by near relatives or to the final phase of a peacemaking ritual. In medieval Europe, where the visual motif of Justice and Peace Kissing was first introduced, kissing was even more widespread than in ancient Judaism; it was common for people of equal rank, both male and female, to exchange lip-to-lip kisses. (See a compilation of medieval “kiss paintings,” showing a variety of contexts, here.) But the Baroque taste for undraped figures means that quite a few artistic renditions of Justice and Peace can be read as sexualized, as when one of the women has a bared breast, for example.
In Laurent de La Hyre’s The Kiss of Peace and Justice, the action is set within a larger landscape. An olive-wreathed Peace embraces a blue-beribboned Justice beside a fountain inscribed with Iusticia et Pax // osculatae sunt, from the Latin Vulgate. The women are surrounded by ruins—upturned roadstones, crumbled walls and detached columns, a cracked garden urn. But this an image of hope. A lion-faced spigot emits fresh, flowing water, which sheep flock to for refreshment, and trees part to reveal a vista. After the upheaval, healing and repair are underway. Justice and Peace have harmonized.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, which owns the painting, notes that its date coincides with the end of the Fronde, a period of civil war in France during which the parlement (law courts) and the nobility sought—unsuccessfully—to limit the power of the monarchy. So it’s likely the painting is an allusion to the climate of general reconciliation between parties.
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 Proper 14, cycle A, click here.
VIDEO TALK: “The Breath of Life: Why Art Matters in a Pandemic” by James K.A. Smith: In this half-hour Zoom talk released June 2, Image journal editor in chief Jamie Smith [previously] discusses the ability of the arts to stimulate our cultural imagination in much-needed ways. “The arts matter in a pandemic,” he says, “because they shape us for the work of reshaping and rebuilding society. In other words, we all need artists to continue creating for us so the rest of us can cultivate the imagination we need to re-create our common life, our social bonds.” And again: “The arts train our imagination so that we relearn to see what we need to see. . . . It’s art as imagination therapy, it’s art as an ophthalmology of the soul that we need in order to build and sustain and restore the institutions of a healthy, flourishing society. . . . If we’re going to imagine the world otherwise, we need imaginations that are trained in subtlety, that have been humbled by mystery, and that are infused with infinity.”
At 14:44 Smith introduces three ways in which art matters during and after a pandemic: art helps us (1) attend, (2) transcend, and (3) mend. That is, art helps us attend more carefully to the world and our neighbors, calling sometimes for gratitude, sometimes for grief, often both; art helps us transcend despair, attesting to the “something more” we long for (“the arts enable us to transcend the tragic when they invite us into a joy that forgets nothing”); and art helps us mend our tattered social fabric by helping us to better understand one another and to imagine possibilities. For each of these functions he provides a few concrete examples, including the current Home Alone Together exhibition.
Along these same lines . . . at the end of the Makers & Mystics podcast episode “Art as Healing,” recorded live last year at The Farm House in Charlottesville, Virginia, and released June 5, 2020, host Stephen Roach reads an excerpt from a book he’s writing:
In our present day, it can be easy to conclude from the various crises taking place around the world, all the injustice and political unrest, the rampant poverty and environmental threats, persecution and killings, diseases and displacements, that art and beauty are mere luxury. It could even make some feel that to focus on art and beauty is insensitive or shortsighted. However, I want to suggest that it’s precisely because of these desperate situations that the artist is called upon to beautify the world with art and engage these issues from a vantage point of hope.
The desperate situation in our world calls for the artist to emerge as a prophetic voice for change and to offer heaven’s alternatives. I’m reminded of the example of Iraqi cellist Karim Wasfi, who countered the tragedy of war by playing music at the sites of car-bomb explosions, with smoldering buildings in the background of his concertos. Wasfi said, “The other side chose to turn every element, every aspect of life in Iraq into a battle and into a war zone. I chose to turn every corner of Iraq into a spot for civility, beauty, and compassion.”
This is the call of the artist in collaboration with God: we are called to be the architects of hope and to counter the destruction of life with the opposite spirit in beauty and creativity.
Here’s a video of Wasfi playing an original cello composition in the destroyed buildings of Al Shifa Hospital in Mosul, Iraq, in September 2018, where some two thousand explosive hazards were removed by UNMAS (United Nations Mine Action Service):
It reminds me of a photograph by Julie Adnan that I saw in National Geographic a decade ago and that, of all the extraordinary photos published in that magazine, has stuck with me the most. Its caption reads, “Some 160 miles northeast of Baghdad, in a Sulaymaniyah music hall ravaged by war, looting, and neglect, a violin-playing boy sounds a note of hope. His teacher, Azad Maaruf, lives there, instructing scores of students.”
The expression “fiddling while Rome burns,” which legend says the emperor Nero did in 64 AD, is used deprecatingly to refer to the doing of something trivial and irresponsible during a crisis. But beauty is not trivial, and its pursuit during times of crisis does not indicate apathy. I love that this little boy wants to play music while bombs sound out around him. Making art can be a daring act of resistance, an assertion of and call to common humanity, a better way. It’s life-affirming. As artist Laura Bon says: “Artists need to create on the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy.”
Every Sunday since March 15, Good Shepherd New York (“an interdenominational church helping New Yorkers embody the love of Christ for the good of our neighbors”) has been releasing a worship service video with liturgy, prayer, sermon, open communion—and phenomenal music led by associate pastor David Gungor, which engages current events. The whole services are worth watching/participating in, but here are a few musical highlights I’ve queued up. I especially like the medleys, which blend together excerpts from a range of songs:
“Way Maker”– Written by Sinach (Osinachi Kalu) – Performed by Zanbeni and Benny Prasad – This husband-wife duo [previously] brings a fusion of R&B, jazz, and Indian classical music to this 2015 gospel song.
EXHIBITION / VIRTUAL ART TOUR: Celebrating 800 Years of Spirit and Endeavour: To celebrate the eight hundredth anniversary of the laying of its first foundation stone, Salisbury Cathedral organized a major exhibition this year, which was three years in the making. After the art was sited and installed both inside the building and outside on the lawns, COVID-19 hit, and the cathedral was forced to close. But the planning team adapted to the setback, developing a virtual tour that uses panorama technology to enable the viewer to enter the cathedral virtually, watch a video introduction, and navigate around the exhibition space by clicking on thumbnail images of the works and links to the corresponding catalog pages.
Curated by Jacquiline Creswell, who has led the cathedral’s visual arts program for the past eleven years, the exhibition features twenty-nine works of art by significant artists of the modern and contemporary eras, including Henry Moore, Elisabeth Frink, Antony Gormley, Mark Wallinger, Shirazeh Houshiary, and Subodh Gupta. Nine of the works are from the cathedral’s permanent collection, while the other twenty were specially brought in, of which two were newly commissioned: the abstract, solar-powered mobile in the nave by Daniel Chadwick, and the light installation in the north porch by Bruce Munro.
The beautifully photographed, ninety-page exhibition catalog is available for free download from the Spirit and Endeavour page of the cathedral website. Besides providing commentary on all the artworks, it also includes an essay by Sandy Nairne that discusses significant art commissions by British churches in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and the difference between viewing art in a cathedral versus a museum gallery. Another available resource is a guide for kids with questions and activities. While I do hope the interior portion of the exhibition is able to open to visitors soon, I’m grateful that the online resources enable me to “visit” from my living room in the US.
PSALM 13 SETTINGS FROM INDIA: In November 2015 a group of musicians from Poona Faith Community Church in Pune, India, composed and recorded worship songs in several of the country’s languages. Because Psalm 13 is assigned to today’s lectionary, here are three settings of that lament, in Marathi, Hindi, and Nepali. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
(This psalm has also been impactfully adapted by Isaac Wardell, as “How Long,” on Bifrost Arts’ 2016 Lamentations album.)
Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying out;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.
. . .
My prayer is to you, O LORD.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness.
from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies
and from the deep waters.
Let not the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up,
or the pit close its mouth over me.
Answer me, O LORD, for your steadfast love is good;
according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.
Hide not your face from your servant,
for I am in distress; make haste to answer me.
INTERVIEW:“Singing the Songs of Injustice” with David M. Bailey and W. David O. Taylor: David Bailey is the director of the reconciliation ministry Arrabon and founder of its music-making and liturgical resource arm, Urban Doxology, and David Taylor is an assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. In this conversation the two men discuss how “biblical, angry, congregational worship can help transform our hearts and churches.” “God has given us the psalms to be an ‘anger school’ for us and I’ve discovered that when we skip class, we aren’t emotionally equipped to deal with difficult stuff we’re experiencing now,” Taylor says. “The extraordinary gift of the psalms is that they show us how to pray angry prayers without being overcome by our anger, how to hate without sinning (to borrow from Saint Paul’s language), or, as Eugene Peterson once put it, how to ‘cuss without cussing.’”
Bailey and Taylor talk about the constant simmer of race relations in America, faithful versus unfaithful expressions of anger, the language of “enemy” in the Psalms, the importance of lament in Sunday gatherings and the need for language that expresses the horizontal aspects of what it means to be a Christian, and leading without moderation during turbulent times.
Taylor’s latest book, Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, contains a chapter on “The Psalms of Anger.” Read an excerpt here, or view this video talk. To coincide with the release in March, he and his wife Phaedra created a set of fifteen prayer cards. His prayer on the “Anger” card reads, “To the God whose holy anger heals, to the Messiah whose righteous anger overcomes evil, and to the Spirit who keeps our angers from turning violent and destructive: receive our wounded hearts, take our burning words, protect us from the desire for revenge. May our faithful angers become fuel for justice in our fractured world and for the mending of broken relations in our communities. For God’s sake—and ours. Amen.”
“I Just Wanna Live” by Johnnetta Bryant, performed by Keedron Bryant: Twelve-year-old gospel singer Keedron Bryant posted a video on Instagram last week of himself singing a song his mom wrote in response to the killing of George Floyd. “God gave me those lyrics” for Keedron, she said in a joint interview on Today. Keedron said he prayed the song, meditated with it, then hit record. It’s a heart-baring, heartbreaking lament, a plea for divine protection in a world that is especially dangerous for young black males.
“It Is Enough!” by R. DeAndre Johnson: R. DeAndre Johnson is the pastor of music and worship life at Christ Church Sugar Land outside Houston. He wrote the lyrics for “It Is Enough!” in July 2016 following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile but hadn’t set them to music until now. The nine verses bear the refrain “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy!), or “Christe eleison” (Christ, have mercy!), a common cry of lament. “There are no words that can contain / The depth of sorrow, grief, and pain / That mothers, sons, and all exclaim: / Kyrie eleison!” Johnson sang the song for his church’s livestreamed service on May 31. A lead sheet is available on his Facebook page. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
“I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”: Sharon Irving is a singer-songwriter, spoken-word artist, and worship leader from Chicago who was also a semifinalist on season 10 of America’s Got Talent. In this video from 2015 she sings a spiritual that expresses deep sorrow—“When my strength is failing,” “When my heart is aching,” “When my life feels like a burden”—but also trust in the companionship of Christ, who walks with us through valleys of death. Having likely originated as an improvisation, the song has several lyrical variations and can be easily adapted to voice a range of feelings: “In my rage,” “In my frustration,” “In my exhaustion,” “In my confusion,” etc.
“O This Night Is Dark” by Tom Wuest: Last Sunday my congregation sang Isaac’s Wardell’s setting of Psalm 126 [previously], whose refrain is “Although we are weeping, Lord, help us keep sowing the seeds of your kingdom . . .” Seeds of love, truth, justice, hope. I just learned that Wardell’s song was inspired by Tom Wuest’s “O This Night Is Dark,” released in 2008 on Rain Down Heaven. In addition to Psalm 126, Wuest’s song also references 1 Corinthians 15, Isaiah 2, Amos 9, and Isaiah 65.
And this week as I was listening to the song, the following image by Scott Erickson showed up on my Instagram feed, with the caption “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it” (1 Cor. 12:26).
Erickson painted the image in July 2016 in response to the fatal shootings of Sterling and Castile. It suggests that tears of grief can be generative, that new life can rise out of death. That’s not at all to say that death is good because it catalyzes a movement of change, but that our mourning the evils of racism and murder, our publicly crying out “Enough!,” is not fruitless, though it often seems so. Growth will come.
VIDEO ART: Weight by André Daughtry: “Weight is an attempt to visualize societal projections on the black male body,” writes André Daughtry, a Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary photography and media artist, writer, and performer. The piece is from 2014, and last year PBS’s AllArts station commissioned Daughtry to restage it in New York City as part of a larger video work. [HT: ImageUpdate]
Daughtry has a master’s degree in theology and the arts from Union Theological Seminary and serves as community minister of the arts at Judson Memorial Church, which has a long history of nurturing artists. “We believe that artists have the potential to serve as our modern-day prophets,” the church website reads. “They show us where we’ve been, who we are, and what we can become.”
PODCAST EPISODE: “The SPU Conversation About Spike Lee Films,”North by Pacific Northwest: In this Seattle Pacific University conversation released April 11, 2019, two cinephiles, Jeffrey Overstreet and Josh Hornbeck, discuss some of the films of writer-director Spike Lee, “the boldest and brashest auteur in American film” (Guardian). The first several minutes, though, are spent decrying the then recent Oscar win of Green Book, which popular audiences loved but critics were generally sour on because it perpetuates the simplistic and ultimately false notion that to solve racism, white people just need to realize that “we’re all the same” and find a black friend.
Best known for Do the Right Thing (1989), Lee is one of several filmmakers they cite who deals with race in more complex ways, and while some people dismiss him as an “angry black man,” many celebrate him for forcing audiences to reckon with the problem of racism. “I think there should be rage inside of every conscious human being in the world, because there’s stuff that’s just not right,” he said in a 2000 interview. “Anger can be constructive.” Lee’s films are heavy-handed, in-your-face; they shout and unsettle. Heavy-handedness usually makes for bad art, but Overstreet and Hornbeck show how the approach works for Lee.
Starting at 16:44, they focus on the satirical comedy-drama Bamboozled (2000), which joined the prestigious Criterion Collection just this March. (It’s also been the subject of much scholarly study across fields, one instance I’ve come across being an essay by art theorist W. J. T. Mitchell, titled “Living Color: Race, Stereotype, and Animation in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled,” in What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images.) “Under pressure to help revive his network’s low rating, television writer Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans) hits on an explosively offensive idea: bringing back blackface with The New Millennium Minstrel Show. The white network executives love it, and so do audiences, forcing Pierre and his collaborators to confront their public’s insatiable appetite for dehumanizing stereotypes.”
From 25:54 onward, Overstreet and Hornbeck discuss more generally their passion for cinema and the importance of revisiting films.
People have been expressing frustration that The Help, a civil rights era drama that sidelines the perspectives of its black characters, is the number one most-streamed movie on Netflix right now. Film critic Alissa Wilkinson gives a list of fifteen movies to watch instead on racial injustice and being black in America. A mix of dramas and documentaries by such filmmakers as Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee, and others, these are black-centered stories that help illuminate where we’re at right now. All are available for online streaming, and Wilkinson provides links to her reviews.
From March 28 onward, Melbourne-based creative nonfiction writer, oral storyteller, and arts educator Julie Perrin has been writing and publishing collects (short prayers, pronounced KÄ-lekts) for anyone to freely use and republish (with credit) in this time of pandemic. I’m so grateful for her giving us this language to voice our anxieties, sadness, and pleas to God, and for reminding us of who God is. (And thanks to Art/s and Theology Australia for alerting me to this collect series.)
The photographs, posted here with permission, are by Ian Ferguson, a minister at Brunswick Uniting Church in Melbourne. They were taken in East Gippsland in February and March, following the Australian bushfires.
God of those who are numbed,
stunned by loss,
enfold us in a gentle darkness,
a hidden sleep, a long stillness.
Re-member us to ourselves,
awaken the courage we’d forgotten we had. [source]
God who knows chaos,
Who creates in darkness,
makes life from mud.
Give us back to ourselves
dissolved and helpless
may we feel ourselves forming
know our own shape. [source]
Fierce Lover of life,
give strength to our arms and our resolve.
Critical is this time for cleaning, swabbing, scrubbing
and washing our hands again.
And again, and again.
Let us join ourselves to the task
with readiness, steadiness, clarity.
Because we too love life,
our own and our neighbour’s. [source]
Who hovers over the waters,
Remain with us, for we are stranded on tiny islands of fear.
Draw a circle around our solitude,
hold us back from bringing danger to ourselves and others.
And where touch can no longer reach,
let love spin light across dark waters,
a thread of sweetness for small songs we might sing. [source]
God who speaks the word ‘Beloved,’
Keep watch on those who give voice to care,
Who speak trenchant truths,
explaining, instructing and chiding without blame.
Let us hear the warmth and strength in voices that stir response
and nourish hope in thoughtful action.
Give us ears to listen without fear. [source]
God of the frail in body and mind,
be a companion in loneliness,
a consolation in absence,
a balm in mystified sorrow.
When doors, through dire necessity, must stay shut,
Let love arise in memory of gesture and embrace. [source]
God of Shadows,
give shelter to hollow, shaken humans
bewildered by sudden closure.
Sturdy structures shattered, hopeful trade ended,
meaningful work gone.
In the shocking silence where nothing can be said,
let birdsong be heard. [source]
Holy One who fears no fracture,
Lend your clarity to us for we are full of fear.
Already the abyss appears
Cracks in the earth, shifts in the ground we took for granted,
Now there is rupture
We do not trust our capacity to live.
That which is holy, divine, beyond us
frightens and allures us.
Call us to the mystery of the holy. [source]
God of the despondent,
Who sees our tiredness at futile effort,
Who knows that fear breeds phantoms,
help us we pray.
We are weary, and everywhere we turn
another impediment rises.
Our shoulders sag, the breath goes out of us.
In this stripped-back bareness, give us breath,
May we delight in human kindness, meet holiness anew. [source]
God of the harried,
Help us in the tension of these days,
for we are crushed by too many tasks,
nervous of new skills and tools in the too-much of this moment.
May we give heed without collapse,
restore our trust in longer spans of time – beyond the urgency of now. [source]
Lover of all, Who watches through the night,
draw close to those who are dying,
and to those who mourn.
Calm our terror of abandonment.
Let us hold faith with one another
that love reaches beyond death. [source]
God who weeps,
comfort those who are dying,
may they die without fear.
And while they are yet living
give us courage to tell our love and trust in yours. [source]
This final prayer is not strictly a collect but rather a litany of things to love:
Great God who calls us to belonging,
Who delights in curiosity, invention, ingenuity:
Praise be for minds that bend and flex despite restriction,
for bodies that signal love by staying apart.
Praise be for neighbours talking across fences,
calling from balconies, waving through windows,
for greetings that cross the space between us.
Praise be for strangers, careful on footpaths,
for children asking their questions,
for truth tellers who earn our trust and speak to our fear.
Praise be for friends who warn and chide and encourage,
for human warmth in time of distance.
Praise be. [source]
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.
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.
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.
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.
So when they bury Abel, there is no veil
between her grief and her love. And there he stands,
so like his father, his cities yet unbuilt.
His father cuts open earth with bare hands,
leaving plough and shovel, the sharp edges
and the heavy handles, apart in furrowed field.
She calls each animal he resembles: mole, badger, fox.
He named them, once, and now she names him:
father unfathered, sonless, one son less. The sun hangs
round and clear, apple-red, above the dark tree line.
Once, when Cain was the only child in the world,
their fields withered and arrows flew fruitless.
Dull-eyed by the empty fire, beside the windless cedars,
he wailed at the dry breast. Much later,
after thunder dumbed the stars,
they faced the barren, muddied vale together. Adam said,
God made paradise, and we made this—
this is all we have to give him. He struck his staff
upon the seedless ground. Cain made two tiny fists.
Abel she cannot unsee as a splintered spear
of red lightning, reduced to kindling
on the perfumed grass, the churned earth
weeping red mud. Loss escapes her in a hiss
of distant fear: this time, the choice
for death has been made for her,
despite that it was life she’d sent into the world.
Her voiceless throat swells tight, dry as scales.
Her hair is short and stiff and gray. The world is young.
There will yet be other sons, and daughters more;
the seed of man must multiply. But this grief is older
than she knows, its gaze fixed far ahead
on what, someday, must be done. The wind’s voice
keens a long lament, a parent loss,
the form of sons’ deaths yet to come.
LeighAnna Schesser’s poem “After the Fig Leaves, Eve Cuts Her Hair” explores parental grief following the death of a child—in particular, that of our primordial parents, Adam and Eve, who mourn the loss of their second-born son, Abel. Genesis 4:1–16 recounts how Abel was murdered by his older brother, Cain, in a fit of jealousy. This is the first human death in the Bible, and it was the direct result of sin.
The poem starts with the title, which flows with unbroken syntax into the first line: “After the fig leaves, Eve cuts her hair so when they bury Abel, there is no veil between her grief and her love.” The cutting of hair in response to death in the immediate family is a ritual practiced by women in many Native American tribes and Aboriginal people groups, where the act of severing, and the subsequent absence of, a cherished part of your self serves as a stark physical reminder of your loss. Similarly, after 9/11, many non-Native women in the US cut their hair as a sign of shock and sadness at the immense loss of life; one woman said, “I felt so different internally, I wanted something to express it externally.” Schesser imagines Eve taking part in some form of this ancient mourning ritual, wanting to leave her crying face exposed.
This is “after the fig leaves,” euphemistic shorthand for that landmark event earlier in her life in which she stole fruit from an off-limits tree and then, feeling shame for the first time, went to cover her nakedness with the first available foliage. The title/opening line, between that prepositional phrase and the first clause, skips over quite a long period of time—from the Genesis account, it sounds like at least two decades passed between Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden and the murder of Abel. But these two events are life-defining for Eve, so the chronology is collapsed.
“And there he stands / [. . .] his cities yet unbuilt.” The “he” here refers to Cain, who, after being confronted by God, went into exile “east of Eden,” to the land of Nod (Gen. 4:17). In his later life he built up the world’s first city, Enoch.
Like the burrowing species of animals he named, Adam digs into the earth with his bare hands—elemental. For this, the making of his son’s grave, he leaves aside plow and shovel as a sort of penance: he wants to feel directly the hard dirt, his body’s full labor and sweat, the effects of the curse he brought upon the world, which he feels implicates him in his son’s death. As he digs, the sun hangs above him “round and clear, apple-red,” a taunting reminder of his former trespass.
In the third stanza the speaker goes back to the time that’s elided in the poem’s opening, back to when Adam and Eve left God’s teeming garden and entered a dead world. They struggled to secure food for themselves. Eve gave birth to a baby boy, but soon her breast milk dried up. It was then that they resolved to get down to business and fight for a life in this inhospitable land. Even baby Cain expressed defiance against the odds with little fists as Adam broke new ground.
Snapping back to the present, Eve observes Abel’s limp body, bloody and broken and reddening the earth. “The churned earth / weep[s] red mud”—an arresting poetic image to match God’s in Genesis 4:11: “The ground . . . has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand,” he tells Cain. We are taken back again to the Fall through more figurative language, this time evoking the snake: fear “hiss[es]” in the distance; Eve’s throat is “dry as scales.” Eve, God’s child, chose death in the Garden, and now her child (the one to whom she gave life) has chosen death too. She now has a taste of the horror, disappointment, and sadness God must have felt.
“Though the world is young,” the poem continues, “this grief is older / than she knows.” Older, even, than God’s grief at the Fall. For another child of God, his “only begotten son” (John 3:16), was destined to die millennia later—“the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). In his foreknowledge God saw this death and mourned it immensely. His is the oldest grief.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting The First Mourning shows the lifeless body of Abel sprawled out over Adam’s lap, and he and Eve ridden with grief. Adam clutches his broken heart, and Eve buries her face in her hands, sobbing uncontrollably. The only color in the bleak landscape is from the puddle of blood on the ground. In the background, smoke rises from an altar, mixing with the storm clouds in the sky; this is the remnant of Abel’s offering going up to God, the cause of Cain’s resentment that led him to commit murder.
By the time Bouguereau painted this scene in 1888, three of his five children had died of illness. (A fourth child of his would also die within his lifetime—twelve years later, at age thirty-two.) He knew the sorrow that accompanies such a traumatic event as seeing your kids leave this world before you do.
The iconography he uses is closely related to that of the Pietà, an image type that shows a grieving Virgin Mary holding her dead son, Jesus, on her lap following his crucifixion. The connection is intentional, as death—which Abel was the first person to experience—will ultimately be undone by the death and resurrection of Jesus. The writer of Hebrews says that “the sprinkled blood [of Jesus] speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:24), because Christ’s blood is redemptive, bringing us back to the Garden that we lost through sin.
Call to artists: I’d love to see you interpret Schesser’s poem visually: Eve shorn inside and out (her hair “short and stiff and gray”), wearing her grief openly; Adam animalistic, digging a grave by hand; Cain looking on; and the wind bearing their lament forward to the cross. If you pursue this suggestion, do let me know!
LeighAnna Schesser is a Catholic writer and a homeschooling mom of four from Kansas, whose forthcoming book of poetry, Struck Dumb with Singing (out in May), “meditates on family, devotion, divine mysteries, and their rootedness in place.” Visit Schesser at her website, https://acanticleforhomestead.com/, where you will find, among other things, links to some of her other published poems and articles.