Lent, Day 19

I am my beloved’s, and my beloved’s is mine . . .

—Song of Solomon 6:3a (cf. 2:16)

He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.

—Song of Solomon 2:4

I will extol thee, O LORD; for thou hast lifted me up . . .

—Psalm 30:1a

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ . . .

—Ephesians 1:3

LOOK: Ethiopian Angels, Debre Birhan Selassie Church

Ethiopian church ceiling
Painted wood ceiling, 19th century, Debre Birhan Selassie Church, Gondar, Ethiopia. Photo: A. Savin.

Debre Birhan Selassie (Trinity and Mountain of Light) Church in Gondar, the imperial capital of Ethiopia from 1636 to 1855, is famous for the colorful paintings that cover every inch of the interior walls and ceiling. The south wall concentrates on the Life of Christ, while the north wall depicts various saints. The focal point—on the east wall, in front of the holy of holies—is a Crucifixion scene and an icon of the Trinity. But the most celebrated visuals inside the church are the hundred-plus winged heads painted in rows between the wooden beams of the ceiling, representing the cherubim and God’s omnipresence.

The original church, which was round, was consecrated in 1693 by Emperor Iyasu I, but lightning destroyed it in 1707. The rectangular stone church that stands on the site now likely dates to the late eighteenth century, and it is the only one of the forty-four Orthodox Tewahedo churches in Gondar to survive the 1888 sack of the city by Mahdist soldiers from Sudan. (Locals say the marauders were miraculously rerouted by a swarm of bees.)

According to Ethiopia (Bradt Travel Guide) writer Philip Briggs, “The paintings are traditionally held to be the work of the 17th-century artist Haile Meskel, but it is more likely that several artists were involved and that the majority were painted during the rule of Egwala Seyon (1801–17), who is depicted prostrating himself before the Cross on one of the murals.”

Debre Birhan Selassie is still an active church, but priests also offer tours. Here’s some video footage of the inside (you’ll see it’s very dark, and flash photography is not allowed), and some drone footage of the exterior.

The church is part of a larger imperial compound, known as Fasil Ghebbi, that has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979 and that includes palaces, monasteries, and public and private buildings.

Angels (Debra Berhan Selassie Church)
Photo: Alan Davey

LISTEN: “His Banner Over Me Is Love” by B. C. Laurelton (pseudonym of Alfred B. Smith), 1965 | Performed by Christy Nockels on Be Held: Lullabies for the Beloved, 2017 | CCLI #28579

I am my Beloved’s and He is mine—
His banner over me is love.
I am my Beloved’s and He is mine—
His banner over me is love.
I am my Beloved’s and He is mine—
His banner over me is love,
His banner over me is love.

He brought me to His banqueting table—
His banner over me is love.
He brought me to His banqueting table—
His banner over me is love.
He brought me to His banqueting table—
His banner over me is love,
His banner over me is love.

He lifted me up to the heavenly places—
His banner over me is love.
He lifted me up to the heavenly places—
His banner over me is love.
He lifted me up to the heavenly places—
His banner over me is love,
His banner over me is love.

I sang a version of this song in children’s church regularly when I was little (with hand motions!) and have carried it with me all these years, a gentle assurance that I am divinely loved and protected. I’ve quoted the scriptures it’s drawn from above. Its refrain comes from Song of Solomon 2:4: “his banner over me was love.”

The Song of Solomon, aka the Canticle of Canticles, has traditionally been read, at least on one level, as an allegory of the love between God and the human soul—or, more specifically in the Christian tradition, Christ and his church.

From the root “to cover,” the Hebrew word for “banner” in this verse refers to a military standard. It is being used figuratively here to indicate that we enlist ourselves under Love’s banner, which goes forth in triumph and protects those under its billows. We belong to love, commit ourselves to love, overcome through love. The verse is perhaps an allusion to the names of generals being inscribed on the banners of their armies. God’s name is Love (1 John 4:8).

The image is at once vigorous and gentle. The NRSV translates the phrase as “his intention toward me was love.”

The song “His Banner Over Me Is Love” was written by Alfred B. Smith (1916–2001), an itinerant song leader, songwriter, and Christian music publisher. Smith compiled and published his first songbook, Singspiration One: Gospel Songs and Choruses, while he was a student at Wheaton College in 1941, to support the evangelistic meetings he was running with his roommate, Billy Graham (yes, that Billy Graham!). Two years later he founded Singspiration Publishing Company, which published several popular series of songbooks. In 1963 he sold Singspiration to Zondervan, but he ran other publishing ventures (i.e., Better Music Publications and Encore Publications) for the remainder of his ministerial career.

According to Music in the Air: The Golden Age of Gospel Radio by Mark Ward Sr., Smith composed “His Banner Over Me Is Love” in 1965 as an impromptu offertory while serving as a visiting song leader at First Baptist Church–Laurelton in Brick, New Jersey. Afterward he received requests from the congregation for the music. His original notation read “B. C. Laurelton” (for “Baptist Church Laurelton”) to designate where he wrote the song, and it was copied as such as people shared the music with others—so when the song was later published in 1972, Smith decided to adopt “B. C. Laurelton” as a pen name.

Singer-songwriter Christy Nockels [previously] sings “His Banner over Me” on an album of lullabies to a twinkling piano accompaniment.

May this truth—that God’s banner over you is love—soothe you and give you confidence.

Christmas, Day 10

LOOK: The Passion of Mary by Katherine Kenny Bayly

Bayly, Katherine_The Passion of Mary
Katherine Kenny Bayly (American, 1945–), The Passion of Mary, before 2006. Collage on paper, 8 × 12 in.

This collage by Katherine Bayly is from the 2006 CIVA traveling exhibition Highly Favored: Contemporary Images of the Virgin Mary. In seven alternating vertical bands, it combines Michelangelo’s Pietà from St. Peter’s Basilica with a Virgin and Child painting by Laurent de La Hyre, showing Christ’s birth and death as two sides of the Incarnation coin. One can hear echoes of Simeon’s prophecy to Mary, that “a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35)—a veiled reference to the Crucifixion.

Since the Middle Ages artists have often embedded symbolic or other visual references to Christ’s passion in Nativity paintings—a goldfinch, a coral rosary, a bunch of grapes, a cave that recalls the tomb, swaddling bands that look like burial wrappings, a manger that looks like a sarcophagus or altar, or, more explicitly, angels holding the arma Christi (instruments of the passion). Sometimes artists would use a diptych format to juxtapose images of Mary holding Jesus as a vibrant young infant with her holding him as a pale adult corpse deposed from the cross, a pairing that strikes an emotional tenor, as there’s perhaps no deeper grief than a mother’s loss of a child. Bayly draws on this tradition in The Passion of Mary, foreshadowing a future sorrow and reminding us that Christ came to earth not only to live but also to die.

LISTEN: “Baby Boy” by Rhiannon Giddens, on Freedom Highway (2017)

Baby boy, baby boy, don’t you weep
Baby boy, baby boy, don’t you weep
You will be our savior
But until then, go to sleep

Young man, young man, I’ll watch over you
Young man, young man, I’ll watch over you
While you lead our people to the promised land
I will shelter you

Baby boy (Young man)
Baby boy (Young man)
Don’t you weep (I will watch over you)
Baby boy (Young man)
Baby boy (Young man)
Don’t you weep (I will watch over you)
You will be (You will be)
Our savior
But until then, go to sleep

Beloved, beloved, I will stand by you
Beloved, beloved, I will stand by you
When you leave this place to do what you must
I will always love you

Baby boy (Young man) (Beloved)
Baby boy (Young man) (Beloved)
Don’t you weep (I will watch over you) (I will stand by you)
Baby boy (Young man) (Beloved)
Baby boy (Young man) (Beloved)
Don’t you weep (I will watch over you) (I will stand by you)
You will be (You will be)
Our savior
But until then, go to sleep

Poignantly performed by Rhiannon Giddens [previously], Lalenja Harrington, and Leyla McCalla, “Baby Boy” is a lullaby written in the voice of a mother to her son, her salvation, whom she sings to sleep. She pledges to always watch over, shelter, and support him to the best of her ability.

The subject of the song could be Moses and the speaker his birth mother, Jochebed, as there’s mention of him leading his people to the promised land. This boy will grow up to shepherd a nation into its rest.

Or it could be Jesus, the New Moses, who liberated humanity at large, breaking their bondage to the powers of evil. Remembering the angel’s promise, Mary whispers her grand hopes to this cuddly little bundle she holds who will be their fulfillment, even as she shushes his cries.

Note, though, how there are three voices singing—a trio of women, a sisterhood united in their love of this child and their eager expectation of deliverance. Think of the women who, against all odds, ensured Moses’s protection as a young one and those who later walked alongside him in his difficult calling. Think, too, of all the women who supported Christ throughout his ministry, materially and spiritually, standing by him until the end, mourning his death, and spreading the news of his resurrection. One might imagine this song being sung by the three Marys, for example. They have a faint sense of the danger ahead and know the hero Jesus will become, but for now, they simply wish him sound slumber and sweet dreams. “Until then . . .”