Mary didn’t waste a minute. She got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah’s house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,
You’re so blessed among women,
and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
And why am I so blessed that
the mother of my Lord visits me?
The moment the sound of your
greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb
skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
Blessed woman, who believed what God said,
believed every word would come true!
And Mary said,
I’m bursting with God-news;
I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
VISUAL COMMENTARIES: “The Pool of Bethesda” by Naomi Billingsley: In a recent contribution to the online Visual Commentary on Scripture [previously], Naomi Billingsley has compiled and written about three artworks based on John 5:1–18, a story in which Jesus heals a paralyzed man at a reservoir in Jerusalem. A source of hydration, cleansing, and tranquility, the pool of Bethesda, Billingsley says, is a symbol that transcends individual religious traditions.
She discusses William Hogarth’s painting of the subject for a hospital, showing sick patients receiving care; a “Dreamtime” drawing from Aboriginal Australian artist Trevor Nickolls’s Bethesda series, created during his recovery from a major car accident; and The Angel of the Waters fountain in Bethesda Terrace in Manhattan’s Central Park, designed by Emma Stebbins in 1842 to celebrate an aqueduct that brought clean water to New York City and improved public health (and which you may recognize as the site where John the Baptist baptizes disciples in the opening sequence of the movie Godspell).
ARGENTINE TANGO HYMN: “Tenemos Esperanza” (We Have Hope): This hymn text was written in 1979 by Federico Pagura (1923–2016), a Methodist bishop and human rights champion from Argentina, and set to tango music by Homero Perera (1939–2019) of Uruguay. Argentinian pastor Federico “Fede” Apecena, who lives in Georgia in the US, recently introduced the song to his friend Josh Davis, who heads the multicultural worship ministry Proskuneo, and the two banged out this awesome video performance. “The song is a record of all that Jesus came to do and to be,” Apecena explains at the end of the video. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
OBITUARY: Ernesto Cardenal (1925–2020), poet and priest who mixed religion and politics in his commitment to social justice in Nicaragua, dies at 95: A Catholic priest, poet, and political revolutionary from Nicaragua, Ernesto Cardenal was a controversial figure. He supported the Sandinista insurrection against the dictatorial Somoza regime in the seventies and, when the Sandinista government (which claimed to integrate Marxist and Christian ideals) came to power, served as its minister of culture from 1979 to 1987. He viewed this post as an extension of his priestly office and, refusing to quit it at Pope John Paul II’s behest, was forthwith suspended from the priesthood in 1984. (Pope Francis absolved him of canonical censure in February 2019, permitting him to administer the sacraments once again.)
Cardenal’s most enduring achievement was his 1966 founding of a religious community among the peasant farmers and fishermen of the Solentiname archipelago in Lake Nicaragua. He saw to the construction of a small wooden church, where he led collaborative Masses: instead of giving a homily on the week’s assigned Gospel reading, he opened up dialogues about it with his parishioners, relishing their insights. Transcripts of these conversations were published in four volumes as El Evangelio en Solentiname (The Gospel in Solentiname) between 1975 and 1977, with English translations appearing in 1976–82—a classic work of liberation theology.
Besides cultivating the islanders’ interest in the Bible, Cardenal also took notice of their creative talents. He brought in artists to lead workshops, which led to the development of a primitivist art school that achieved international recognition for its paintings, many of them depicting Jesus’s birth, ministry, and passion taking place in Solentiname, in and around the familiar thatched-roof buildings, blue waters, and lush vegetation. In 1984 Orbis Books editors Philip and Sally Scharper combined several such images with a heavily abridged version of The Gospel in Solentiname and published it as The Gospel in Art by the Peasants of Solentiname, a slim, full-color hardcover that I highly recommend.
“It was the Gospel which radicalized us politically,” Cardenal said. “The peasants began to understand the core of the Gospel message: the announcement of the kingdom of God, that is, the establishment on this earth of a just society, without exploiters or exploited.” Afraid of the dangerous ideas taking root in Solentiname, Somoza’s National Guard razed the settlement to the ground in 1977, and Cardenal was forced to flee to Costa Rica. He gave his blessing to his community’s decision to join the Sandinistas, the people’s army, to attempt an overthrow of Somoza, a victory they achieved in 1979. The surviving peasants returned to Solentiname to rebuild, and their practice of art and faith continues to thrive to the present day.
Cardenal is also known as a poet. I’ve read only one volume of his poetry, in English translation: Apocalypse: And Other Poems (New Directions, 1977). I didn’t connect well with a lot of it, but it does have a few gems, like “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe,” “The Cosmos Is His Sanctuary (Psalm 150),” and “Behind the Monastery,” reprinted here in full:
Behind the monastery, down the road,
there is a cemetery of worn-out things
where lie smashed china, rusty metal,
cracked pipes and twisted bits of wire,
empty cigarette packs, sawdust,
corrugated iron, old plastic, tires beyond repair:
all waiting for the Resurrection, like ourselves.
(translated from the Spanish by Robert Pring-Mill)
LECTURE: “On Beauty” by Natalie Carnes: “Beauty has been leveraged in ways that wound us, with legacies of misogyny, class hatred, and racial injustice,” says Dr. Natalie Carnes, associate professor of theology at Baylor University. “And yet I want to suggest that beauty tends those same wounds, and can be found in those same wounds, for beauty is a name for God.”
In this half-hour talk given November 1, 2017, at Dallas Theological Seminary as part of school’s Arts Week, Carnes examines the paradox, expressed in the church’s art and theology across history, that God is both beautiful and not beautiful. In his suffering, Carnes says—his entering the ravaged and scarred places of our humanity—God does not renounce his beauty but reveals it.
The divine presence in grotesque suffering is not a departure from the divine life but characteristic of it. And that movement into the grotesque is not antagonistic to beauty but the revelation of it. God’s faithfulness goes by way of intimacy with not-God, and beauty by way of the grotesque. The beauty that rejects suffering is false, and the one who follows the call of beauty faithfully will find herself in the scarred places of the world. Beauty, after all, is a name for God, and God does not abandon divinity in identifying with the suffering and afflicted but expresses through such identification the very marker of divine life.
This is not to say that suffering, affliction, or poverty is beautiful. Beauty is distinct from the mode of its arriving. Poverty and suffering can be important sites of beauty, even as they are not themselves beautiful, because they mediate the beauty of the God who is charity. . . .
PLAYLIST: “Spiritual Cosmonaut,” compiled by Latifah Alattas: Last month singer-songwriter and music producer Latifah Alattas [previously] curated a short Spotify playlist of “Spiritual songs that stir my soul. Melodies that tap into mystery. Sounds that open me up to the wonder and peace of God.” It’s great!
Alattas is the frontwoman of the band Page CXVI [previously], which has just returned from a six-year hiatus. I’m so moved by their recently released rendition of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” with piano, synthesizer, and pedal steel guitar. Alattas has made the song more communal, subbing out all first-person singular pronouns for first-person plural, even rewording whole lines, like the last two of the chorus, which become “Amidst the pain of this world you grieve with us—unfailing faithfulness, dwelling so near.” Or the final line of the final verse, which she changed from “Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!” to “Blessings for all, Christ within us resides.”
People who are attached to singing the song a certain way might object to such lyrical revisions, but I see them, along with the creative musical liberties she takes, as helping to bring out the themes that are already there. Alattas helped me to hear this classic hymn with new ears.
FILM: The Two Popes (2019), dir. Fernando Meirelles: I recently watched this Oscar-nominated biographical drama and enjoyed it more than I thought I would! I wasn’t expecting the respect it gives to its subjects and to Christianity. Its title refers to the fact that, for the first time in six hundred years, the Roman Catholic Church has one reigning pope and one retired pope, the “pope emeritus.” (When Benedict announced his resignation in 2013, it shocked the world, as it’s expected that, if chosen, you serve in that role until death.)
The movie is primarily about the relationship between the traditionalist Pope Benedict XVI (born Joseph Ratzinger) and the progressive Pope Francis (born Jorge Bergoglio), which starts out antagonistically but buds into a friendship of sorts. It’s dialogue-heavy (it was adapted from a stage play), but in the most interesting way, as the two engage in “a series of philosophical and dogmatic discussions and disagreements about the nature of faith and forgiveness, and the direction of a church struggling to maintain relevance in the modern world” [source].
But it’s not just about the church’s struggle or the burdens of high office; it’s also about personal faith as a struggle—how to discern one’s calling in life, how to hear God’s voice and deal with his silence, and how to forgive oneself for one’s own tragic silences (in Benedict’s case, regarding the sex abuse perpetrated by clergy; in Francis’s, regarding the Dirty War in his home country of Argentina in the late seventies and early eighties, while he was serving as priest).
Francis’s backstory, of which I knew nothing beforehand, is told in flashbacks. (The fiancée is fictional, though the real Francis has admitted to having romantic crushes as a teenager and even as a seminarian.) The portrayal of both men, by Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Francis, is very humanizing (not initially for Benedict, but his character gets there)—and not just because of the glimpse it provides into Francis’s life prior to the cloth, but also, in part, because of little nods it gives to their interests beyond the church, like Francis’s love of soccer and tango dancing, and Benedict’s piano playing and Fanta drinking. And because it shows their personal fallibility, their regret over past misdeeds.
It should be noted that the meeting of the two men at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo prior to Benedict’s resignation is invented, as are many of their lengthy dialogues, which are nonetheless inspired by speeches, letters, and other writings of theirs, brought into conversation with one another by playwright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten.
One of the most celebrated paintings of the Northern Renaissance, Jan van Eyck’s 1430s Annunciation depicts the moment of Christ’s conception in a world of forms that have weight and volume and shade and texture that was largely unprecedented in European painting at the time. The extraordinary realism of the Annunciation—its deep, rich, subtly gradated colors, varied textural details (from hard, polished gems to soft, fragile flower petals and plush velvet), and intricate play of light and shadow—were enabled by the use of oil paint, a medium that was not widely used then. van Eyck’s “virtuoso handling of the medium . . . represented a turning point in its eventual adoption as the major painting medium in Europe in the sixteenth century,” replacing egg tempera.
This three-foot-tall painting probably originally formed the left wing of a triptych, whose other panels, now lost, may have depicted the Nativity or the Adoration of the Magi and the Visitation or the Presentation in the Temple. It likely spent its first centuries in the ducal chapel of a Carthusian monastery in Dijon, then-capital of Burgundy (van Eyck served as court painter to Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, from 1425 to 1441), and has since passed through various other rich and powerful hands, including those of King William II of the Netherlands and Czar Nicholas I of Russia. It is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where it is viewed by people from all over the world.
Several iconographic elements in van Eyck’s Annunciation were already standard for the subject: the dove, the lilies, the Bible laid open to Isaiah 7:14. But van Eyck also introduced his own sophisticated program of typological imagery, which plays out in the background frescoes and the niello floor designs, connecting Old and New Testaments—in addition to other innovative touches that we will explore below.
He was also one of the first artists to locate this momentous event inside a church (as opposed to a portico or domestic space), which would become a popular choice in the Low Countries. In her 1999 Art Bulletin article “Van Eyck’s Washington Annunciation: Narrative Time and Metaphoric Tradition,” Carol J. Purtle argues that van Eyck was connecting the Lukan narrative of the Annunciation with the Golden Mass (“Missa Aurea”), a liturgical drama that was popular in the Netherlands at the time. Taking place yearly on Ember Wednesday (the Wednesday following the third Sunday of Advent), the Golden Mass featured a reenactment of the Annunciation, dove and all, by two young choirboys.
There’s much to lavish attention on in this painting, but I’d like to let three poets be our eyes: Pimone Triplett, Terri Witek, and Peter Steele, each of whom has written a poem reflecting on their encounter with the Annunciation by van Eyck. (The vivid poetic description of a work of visual art is known as ekphrasis, and it is an ancient tradition that I’ve seen explode in recent decades.) Notice what the poets notice in the painting as they pore over van Eyck’s artistic choices and their spiritual import. There is some overlap in their discoveries, but the landing point, and even the emphasis, of each poem is unique.
Starts with a stream of gold that’s ridden
by a relentlessly linear dove,
ready to pierce a young girl’s head.
Then, her face, her gaze looking up, out
past the easel and later, past the frame,
eyes raised as if to ask a question. Take
the virgin robe, for instance, which van Eyck has made
to fall luxuriously as a second chance
across the old storyline etched below her.
And, further down, the church’s intricately
strict apse, each floorboard, painstaked as lace, showing here,
David’s lesson in beheading, there Samson’s
tearing down the temple—that history
interrupted by her silken, layered folds:
each blue built up from perfecting the oil.
His favorite signature, “As best I can”
or “As I was able, but not just as I wished.”
Imagine the endless effort: a man
in the distance, deep in the could have been,
who sat before the easel, hours, perhaps,
past his patience for lasting regrets,
flat refusals—the quick-drying water-based
attempts flung around a room.
And how, alone with pigment barrels, chamber pots,
the canvasses stretched, the fire exhumed,
he poured a stream of oil back and forth,
watching it catch the light, change a wooden bowl.
For the sake of making the mundane
seem to marry the mysterious,
her eyes raised—lacquered, slippery wells, caught—
her startled acceptance. Since it’s her choosing
to be chosen that mattered, largest figure
in the frame, the virgin form layered
with gold light, blue, her pale hands open
for the god imagined sick with thin horizon,
and ready to enter thickness now, the body’s
blood, gristle, vertebrae, whorled fingerprint.
The oil spread back and forth. His wrist stiffened.
“As I was able, but not just as I wished.”
So, out to pay the right kind of attention
to detail, as if, in the lengthening
carelessness of cracked roads leading away
from his town, beneath a matted pulp
of the year’s leaves, he wished he could hear
silence taking shape: a weed, say, starting
to split the surface, part vegetal
altar and example of dumb, green change.
Or, say, through the window, a flock of geese
receding, advancing, by turns, as the sky’s gray
sometimes meets the double strength gray of sea,
he might have looked between the shapes,
their invisible lines blooded, some racing ahead,
others falling behind, each filling in, quickly,
empty spaces where the wings once beat.
And still, she looks up, asking to be entered.
So that if she turned away from shadows, wood panels,
chamber pots, winter coats lined against the wall,
he might have looked so far into the difficult
that he finally could believe: behind her gaze,
beneath her brow, under the layers of
shell, salt, finally skin-white, lay the mind
of a mother giving birth to a father
and a son, the flesh—a color, an instant, spared.
Pimone Triplett’s poem explores the physicality of the oil-paint medium, focusing on van Eyck’s innovations in that area and as one who both accepts and transcends his limitations. She refers to the personal motto with which he signed several of his paintings (although not this one): Als ich chan, which means “As best I can.” Even with as advanced a painter’s toolkit as he developed and his great skill, how could he possibly succeed in depicting the holy mysteries?
The physicality of the artist’s studio, too, comments on the Incarnation. Christ came into a world of chamber pots! Triplett describes Jesus’s coming into human being, his traveling those seven thin gold rays of light into the womb of his mother, where he takes on flesh: “the god imagined sick with thin horizon, / and ready to enter thickness now, the body’s // blood, gristle, vertebrae, whorled fingerprint.”
There are also some lovely lines that touch on Mary’s agency (“it’s her choosing / to be chosen that mattered”; “she looks up, asking to be entered”) and her role as the Second Eve, whose obedience leads to the redemption of humanity (her robe “fall[s] luxuriously as a second chance” over the Old Testament story line told in the floor below her).
I’m not entirely sure how to interpret the last stanza. It’s possible that “father” refers to van Eyck as the father of oil painting: his many Marian paintings in this medium cemented his reputation as such, so in that sense Mary gave birth to him as an artist, as well as, of course, to her son Jesus. Shell and salt were ground into pigments to render realistic flesh tones, and the slow drying time of oil paint enabled artists to better blend colors on the canvas, creating subtle variations, and to develop the painting gradually. But why “a color, an instant, spared”? Any thoughts?
“Take a World”by Terri Witek
The Annunciation by Jan Van Eyck, 1434–36
Take a world in which each flower’s an Easter lily
and books chivvy open to the place where our names leap.
Then step into the temple where Mary,
gown belled like a Christmas tree angel’s,
speaks with a real one. Their hands negotiate:
Mary is asking why light curls to ribbony rainbow
on the angel’s back while through her own body
it shoots in stiff gold arrows. The angel nods, grins.
Nothing more gorgeous than their drapery-softened
gesticulation, the room’s blue-propped lilies
and plump ottoman. It’s enough to make us think
they’re standing in the world, two women alert
to the heft of their clothes as Mary asks,
“Who, me?”, her eyes sliding sideways to her painter,
master of distraction. She can’t see Jehovah
behind her, his one blazing window, though we can,
we see the room’s whole depth falling into light
as we wait for someone not transfixed by dilemma
who’s standing where we are. As we wait for Joseph.
Terri Witek’s poem focuses on the paradox of the Annunciation’s being both an entirely thisworldly and yet profoundly otherworldly moment. The two figures in van Eyck’s painting have bulk and heft, and their clothes hang on their bodies, subject to the laws of gravity, and yet in the scene they inhabit, everything is so carefully placed, so perfect—so divine. Witek mentions the stained glass window in the back, which shows God in a mandorla, standing underneath his fiery chariot on a globe labeled ASIA and holding an open book and a scepter; the light that comes through this window and fills the room is thus refracted through him who is all-sovereign.
(Note: The iconography in the window is very similar to the type known as Christ in Majesty, though there’s no cross-shape inside the halo; I wonder whether the figure is meant to be Jesus in his then-future exaltation. But the art historians I’ve read identify him, along with Witek, as God the Father. I think a case could be made for either.)
I especially like how Witek points out the contrast between the pleasant, blended, colorful way light interacts with the angel’s wings and the severe, narrow manner in which it comes diving toward Mary—and humorously suggests that Mary’s expansis manibus gesture is her asking why. This observation unpeeled for me an additional layer of van Eyck’s possible meaning: how God’s coming to Mary was direct and piercing. His messenger, sure, has a soft rainbow glow, but the actual implantation of God in the womb happens with a laser focus that sears Mary in ways that will be all the more keenly felt as the years go by (see Simeon’s prophecy in Luke 2:34–35).
I got stuck on the last two lines, though: Why do we wait for Joseph? Isn’t he peripheral to the event? And was he not also “transfixed by dilemma” for a time, as he debated whether to say yes or no to God’s plan? So I asked the poet what she had in mind. She said how, standing before the painting, we, like Mary, become transported into this drama that lifts us up to a heavenly plane (I’m paraphrasing here), where we interact vicariously with Gabriel. We need someone to bring us back down to earth, so “we will be glad of Joseph, the human, the touch of the everyday real,” Witek explained to me.
The room “falling into light” describes the painted scene but also the public gallery where the painting is on display, and the name Joseph also has a double meaning, as Witek’s husband’s name is Joseph. In their museum going, his presence sometimes shakes her gently out of her reveries, reminding her that it’s time “to move on to the next painting, though it might not be as gorgeous,” she told me.
“Waiting for the Revolution”by Peter Steele
If love is ‘the bright foreigner’, then here’s
not Amour himself but still
a follower afire, his wings a blend
of peacock and rainbow, the pearled cope
blooming to crimson on its ground of gold,
his hair a downspill from the lock
of a coronet badged with jewels, the fingered sceptre
a rod of crystal, and the smile
something they practise in another country.
This is not wasted on the woman who,
her hands come up from the shell of a robe
which seems to have been steeped in ocean when
darkness and light were still contending,
gazes now from the blaze of being at
van Eyck, the Duke of Burgundy,
a Tsar made out of ice and marble, or
whoever gives the alms of an hour
in minute-hungry fuming Washington.
Outside, a beat or two of an angel’s wings
away on the Capitol is Freedom,
one of the later products of the Bronze
Age, equipped with shield and sword,
a wreath for some earthly use or other, plumes,
an eagle-crested helmet. She eyes
the status quo from her eminence and murmurs,
‘The past is prologue’, a Delphic saying
which she construes as ‘blessed are those in possession’.
I have been in and out of the world worlds,
amphibious and double-hearted,
and still am. The shimmer of July
speaks now for a perpetual
immobility, bronzing the will. The pavement
beneath woman and angel shows
Goliath down and done with, Samson at grips
with a sheltering enslaving place:
and for some want of the white bird of esprit
that plunges goldrayed into the woman’s mind,
I’m in the middle. They say that she
has her consent to the revolution printed
upside down for easier reading
in heaven. It may be so, but I’m guessing that
the words in their reversal figure
a world swung round upon its axis, the all-
clear given to those in quest
of the bright foreigner who lightens angels.
“Waiting for the Revolution” by Peter Steele appears in Plenty: Art into Poetry (Melbourne: Macmillan Art Publishing, 2003).
Peter Steele (1939–2012), a Jesuit priest from Australia, opens and closes his poem with a phrase from a 1849 journal entry by Ralph Waldo Emerson that says, “Love is the bright foreigner, the foreign self.” Steele interprets Jesus as that “bright foreigner” from heaven, Love, Amour, whose light gives angels their light. Those who search for themselves, he suggests implicitly, can find themselves in Jesus, who created them in love and calls them back into that love that is the ground of their being.
Before moving to this conclusion, Steele first relishes the painting’s fabulous details, especially the clothing: Gabriel’s elaborate, brocaded silk cope, with gold embroidery and green fringe, and Mary’s ultramarine robe trimmed in ermine. He also notes the angel’s wry and mysterious smile, an expression that draws me in every time I see this painting.
He considers how Mary’s eyes gazed out first at van Eyck the painter, then at the painting’s various owners over the centuries, and now at any visitor to or resident of Washington, DC, who stands before it in its dimly lit gallery on the National Mall.
Its location in the United States capital city prompts Steele to contrast it with the nearby monument originally known as Freedom Triumphant in War and Peaceor Armed Freedom, an allegorical figure in bronze that crowns the Capitol building. He has Freedom reciting a famous line from act 2, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest—“What’s past is prologue”—spoken by the villainous Anthony in an attempt to convince Sebastian to murder his sleeping father and thus make himself king; the idea is that his whole life up to this point was merely an introduction to the great story that will be underway if he goes through with the plan. (The line is inscribed on the base of Robert Aitken’s sculpture Future, located on the northeast corner of the National Archives Building, which shows a young woman holding an open blank book and contemplating the things to come.) Steele imagines this saying, in the mouth of Freedom, as bearing the subtext “Blessed are those in possession” (or, in its original Latin, Beati sunt possidentes), a proverb popularized by the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz in reference to the possession of power and force.
The two government-commissioned artworks and two quotes Steele’s poem references ping around in my mind as I think about how they relate to the Annunciation. The picture of Freedom as a colossal helmeted woman bearing a sword differs from the smaller, quieter way “Freedom” comes to reign in the Christmas story: that is, as a babe in a manger. And the self-protecting, self-aggrandizing path commended by Clausewitz butts heads against the self-emptying ethic at the heart of Christianity. So does the motivation of the Shakespearean character—treacherous, underhanded—who was the first to say, “What’s past is prologue.” But when considered in light of Luke 1 and even the Future sculpture in DC, this “Delphic” (obscure, ambiguous) saying from the Bard can be seen as alluding to Mary’s position at the Annunciation, at the turning point of history. Mary is fated to act; the past has set the stage for her yes, and for all that will happen next. The New Testament is as yet unwritten—until her bravely submissive response to the angel’s invitation sets God’s grand redemption plan, on hold for four hundred years, into motion once again, and what we call “gospel,” good news, arrives on earth at last in the person of Christ.
In van Eyck’s Annunciation, as in many others, the words AVE GRA[TIA] PLENA (“Hail, full of grace”) stream forth from Gabriel’s mouth in gold lettering, to which Mary replies, ECCE ANCILLA D[OMI]NI (“Behold the handmaiden of the Lord” [Luke 1:38]). Amusingly, van Eyck renders her response upside-down, a device he also uses in the Ghent Altarpiece, presumably so that God can read it from heaven. Steele playfully interprets the inversion as signaling the upside-down nature of God’s incoming kingdom; the world has been turned on its head by Mary’s yes—which is why that yes is rotated 180 degrees!
One aspect of this upside-down-ness is how Mary contradicts the aforementioned adage, used in diplomacy, “Blessed are those in possession.” In scripture Mary is called blessed, but not because she seizes or owns or controls anything. Quite the opposite: because she relinquishes her right to go on living a normal, play-it-safe life. And because she is humble, God raises her up, and those like her. (She sings about this in her Magnificat.) That’s not at all to say that Mary is passive or lacks agency. She stands actively with open hands to receive grace, to receive God himself, and to gift him to the world. She “consent[s] to the revolution.”
I’m reminded of the song “Canticle of the Turning,” written by Rory Cooney in 1990 based on Mary’s Magnificat and set to the traditional Irish tune STAR OF THE COUNTY DOWN. Listen to an acoustic performance by Katherine Moore:
“The world is about to turn.”
For a further in-depth look at the symbolic significance of the architecture and objects in Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation—including the wall paintings and windows in the background, the nielli in the floor, the footstool in the foreground, and the missing boards in the ceiling—see Early Netherlandish Painting: The Collections of the National Gallery of Art by John and Oliver Hand and Martha Wolff, pages 76–86: a PDF of the entire book is provided for free download by the National Gallery of Art. See also the NGA’s special webpage for this collection highlight.
Advent, which begins December 1 this year, ushers in four weeks of holy longing for Christ’s coming into our dark and broken world to make all things new. With the Old Testament saints and the early Christians alike, we cry, “Come, Lord!” The anticipation that marks the season is both joyful and aching, as on the one hand, we have a sure hope that the Lord is coming, and that’s cause for celebration, but on the other hand, well, we’re tired and weak, and sometimes hope hurts.
Every Advent, my husband and I whip out the Spotify playlist that I’ve been building over the years, and we let the music shape our longings toward Christmas, toward new creation. Centuries’ worth of Christian song comes through our speakers to build up our hearts and minds with words and tunes that prepare us to welcome not just Christ’s birth but also the parousia. While I’m not a stickler for “no Christmas music before December 25!,” I have come to appreciate the distinctiveness of Advent and have found something sweet in the waiting rather than rushing headlong into the truth that “Christ is born!” Of course, Advent bleeds into Christmas, and both seasons contain both darkness and light, mourning and festivity—but setting aside a month to linger with the visions of the prophets and the stories of Elizabeth, Zechariah, John the Baptist, Mary, and Joseph can deepen one’s appreciation of the fullness of Christmas and how it fits into God’s bigger story.
People, I think, are generally unaware of the rich body of Advent-themed music that’s available to us. Apart from the classics “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” and maybe a selection or two from Handel’s Messiah, I bet many Christians would be hard-pressed to name a single Advent song.
There’s intention to the structure of the list, which moves from God’s promise to Abraham that “all shall be well” to ancient prophecies of a redemption-to-come to Gabriel’s visit to Mary and her subsequent Magnificat to Jesus’s parable of the ten bridesmaids and other such warnings of / yearnings for his second coming, with glimmers and bursts of hope scattered throughout.
Sometimes the line between a “Christmas” song and an “Advent” song is blurry, but generally I characterize an Advent song as one that’s marked by a sense of longing or expectation. As I said before, this longing can be expressed joyously or with tears and groaning, and both these shades are present in the playlist.
The predominant musical style represented is indie-folk (Sufjan Stevens, Josh Garrels, The Welcome Wagon, The Oh Hellos [previously], The Brilliance, Ordinary Time, etc.), but there’s also some choral, gospel, jazz, Taizé chant, sixties rock, show tunes, a Harry Potter-esque celesta interlude, and an Irish reel! Oh, and a smattering of virtuosic oud solos by Joseph Tawadros, with evocative titles like “Dream with Me” and “Where It All Began.” I hope the list is full of surprises for you.
I must note that there are plenty more traditional Advent hymns that exist but that I’ve excluded either because I could not find suitable recordings on Spotify, or because the tunes are dull or awkward. (And I’m sure there are also many songs that I’m simply not aware of.) I put a lot of stock in musical composition and vocal quality.
As you move down the first third of the list, let me draw your attention to some of the biblical texts the songs are drawn from—various foretastes of the coming kingdom that God vouchsafed to certain Hebrew poets and seers. May we capture their vision this Advent:
“Come, Lord” is the cry of Advent, and you will find it manifest in many of the songs here, from the bright, guitar-picked “Come Into My Heart” by Reilly & Maloney or Isaac Wardell’s “Messiah” waltz to St. Ambrose’s fourth-century “Veni, Redemptor gentium”—translated variously into English as “Savior of the Nations, Come” and “Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth,” each set to a different tune—to the African American spiritual “Kumbaya” (Gullah for “Come by Here”) [previously].
I’ve included only a few non-English songs, and where you encounter them, I encourage you to look up lyric translations, so as not to miss their full impact. The Swedish “Jul, Jul, Strålande Jul” (Christmas, Christmas, Glorious Christmas) by Edvard Evers and Gustaf Nordqvist, for example, prays, “Come, come, blessed Christmas: lower your white wings, / over the battlefield’s blood and cry . . .”
The “Come, Lord” song that makes me the most emotional, that taps deeply into my longing for the world, and my own heart, to be made new, is “Immanuel” by Jason Morant. “God with us, where are you now? . . . Be here somehow . . . in this desert of prosperity.” I’ve prayed through this song for years but have only just now discovered the music video Morant made for it, which attaches to it a story of desperation:
Perhaps my favorite Advent song is “The Trumpet Child,” written by husband-wife duo Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist of Over the Rhine. The two are superb songwriters, here giving us some stunning imagery and a really unique take on Advent:
The trumpet child will blow his horn
Will blast the sky till it’s reborn
With Gabriel’s power and Satchmo’s grace
He will surprise the human race
The trumpet he will use to blow
Is being fashioned out of fire
The mouthpiece is a glowing coal
The bell a burst of wild desire
The trumpet child will riff on love
Thelonious notes from up above
He’ll improvise a kingdom come
Accompanied by a different drum
The trumpet child will banquet here
Until the lost are truly found
A thousand days, a thousand years
Nobody knows for sure how long
The rich forget about their gold
The meek and mild are strangely bold
A lion lies beside a lamb
And licks a murderer’s outstretched hand
The trumpet child will lift a glass
His bride now leaning in at last
His final aim to fill with joy
The earth that man all but destroyed
The song intertwines Christ’s first and second advents, combining incarnation with apocalypse. The trumpet is a heralding instrument, announcing the arrival of a ruler or dignitary—but the aural image here is not of a ceremonial fanfare, formal and rigid, but of a fiery, improvisatory jazz solo, blaring soulfully into the night, and played by the comer himself. At his arrival, Christ will “blast the sky till it’s reborn,” rupturing the old world order. (I think of Isaiah 64:1–2: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood . . .”) A fearsome thought, that sudden splitting, that roar . . . and yet at the same time, the arrival is smooth and graceful. Strength and tenderness, hand in hand.
Christ’s mouthpiece, the part of the trumpet you blow on to make sound, is a burning coal, the song says; this picks up on imagery from Isaiah 6:6–7 and evokes notions of the sacred, sacrifice, purgation. The bell, or flare—the part of the trumpet where sound comes out—is “a burst of wild desire.” Christ’s song is full of passionate intensity. This smoky, smoldering, bursting quality is reflected in the playing of piano, double bass, and percussion throughout, and by the trumpet and sax that come in after the final verse. (Note: The live performance above has no trumpet or saxophone.) Appropriately for Advent, the song does not end on the tonic, the home chord, but rather remains unresolved, playing out the tension that we presently live in, between the “already” and the “not yet” of Christ’s kingdom—that is, the space between his first and second comings.
Major props to Rob and Amy Seiffert of Madhouse for the album’s brilliant cover illustration, by the way, which converts the flaring horn of a vintage record player into an open white lily. The result is a hybrid image of “power” and “grace,” which is how Christ comes to us. His gospel packs a punch, blaring into our lives, but it’s also full of delicate beauty. The choice of a lily to allude to the “trumpet child’s” advent has precedent in countless traditional paintings of the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel holds such a flower out to Mary just before Jesus is conceived in her womb.
“The Trumpet Child” references legendary jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong (nicknamed “Satchmo”) and jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, as well as the “peaceable kingdom” prophecy of Isaiah 11, where predation is no more, and the end-time Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6–9). Jesus’s final aim, Bergquist sings, is to fill the earth with joy. Joy to the world.
So lastly, that joy: Christy Nockels. Her hand-clapping, foot-stomping “Dance at Migdal Eder,” played on the Irish fiddle, never ceases to get me excited for Christmas! Although it uses the present progressive tense, not the future, I have it on my Advent list because it creates for me a sense of Love’s call revving up, coming closer, beckoning me to dance. And it amplifies my yearning for “home.” It’s from Nockels’s 2016 album The Thrill of Hope, and indeed, it captures that thrill.
Can you hear it calling
Mercy is falling down
Love is calling
Love is calling you home
I had to look up the name in the title: Migdal Eder (literally “tower of the flock”) is an ancient geographic locale on the outskirts of Bethlehem, where shepherds tended their sheep. So Nockels likely had in mind the rejoicing of the shepherds (Luke 2:8–20) when she wrote this song.
So there you go. I offer this lovingly crafted Advent playlist, with many thanks to all the contributing artists, as an invitation to slow down and reconnect with the amazing, ongoing salvation narrative that God’s authoring. Christ has come, Christ will come again. And in the Spirit, he is with us now, Emmanuel. Let’s reorient our desires and expectations toward him.
If 170-plus songs is too overwhelming a list for you to work through, use this abridged Advent playlist instead, which contains just an hour’s worth of highlights:
As you prepare room for Christ Jesus this season, may you come to experience more deeply and intimately all the hope, peace, joy, and love that are yours in him.
(Update, 1/6/20: Thank you for all the positive feedback! I’ve just added another batch of songs to the list, some of them at the end, others integrated higher up to maintain the narrative. New additions include “Will There Really Be a Morning” by Julie Lee, “Let There Be” by Gungor, “Advent Moon” by Cecilia McDowall, some selections from Drew Miller’s, Nathan Partain’s, and Lo Sy Lo’s new Advent albums, some Katy Wehr and Nina Simone, and the title track of the Duke of Norfolk album Attendre et Espérer, whose text comes from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas:
Live, then, and be happy, beloved children of my heart, and never forget, that until the day when God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words: “Wait and hope.”)
The Third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word for rejoice. Churches and families all over the world will be lighting the joy candle of their Advent wreath—traditionally rose-pink instead of purple like the other three—and worshipping with gusto in anticipation of the great joy to come at Christmas.
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you;
he has cleared away your enemies.
The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall never again fear evil.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
“Fear not, O Zion;
let not your hands grow weak.
The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.
I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival,
so that you will no longer suffer reproach.
Behold, at that time I will deal
with all your oppressors.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you in,
at the time when I gather you together;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes,” says the LORD.
SONG: “Rejoice” | Adapted from the soprano air “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” from Handel’s Messiah | Performed by the Broadway cast of Mamma Mia, feat. Jenn Noth, Felicity Claire, Gerard Salvador, and Albert Guerzon, on Broadway’s Carols for a Cure, vol. 15(2013)
(I was unable to find the name of the adapter/arranger of this song. If you know, please notify me.)
This song is a setting of Zechariah 9:9a:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he . . .
Though this verse is not an assigned lectionary reading for this week, its sentiments are echoed in the Zephaniah passage.
The title of Gill Sakakini’s painting pictured above is Éclat, a French word meaning brilliance, glow, glory, or a burst. Sakakini discusses it in an interview with Mark Byford in the book The Annunciation: A Pilgrim’s Quest (274). The painting captures a post-Annunciation moment, she says: Mary, alone in her room, responding to Gabriel’s news “through a bursting, embodied YES!” A bold, botanic wallpaper design forms the backcloth, emphasizing openness and fecundity; “the ‘garden,’ like creation itself, shares the immediacy of her joy through the shape of wide open, fully ripe petals which reinforce the openness of her limbs in this accepting gesture.” Sakakini says she’s aware that Mary almost surely cycled through other natural responses to the unexpected news of her pregnancy, like shock and fear, but that her ultimate posture was one of joyful acceptance, of celebration of what God was doing through her. “I’m not denying there were other stages, but this is the fruit of all those other interior conversations. . . . This is when she’s finally arrived.”
Jucundare, filia Sion,
exsulta satis filia Jerusalem, alleluia.
Daughter Sion, be glad!
Dance, dance, daughter Jerusalem! Alleluia.
—from the monastic liturgy (Antiphonale Monasticum)
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 the Third Sunday of Advent, cycle C, click here.
You’ve probably heard this lovely lilting Baroque piece performed as an instrumental at weddings. But the composer who popularized it—the inimitable J. S. Bach—originally programmed it as the finale to a ten-movement liturgical work celebrating the miraculous pregnancies of Mary and Elizabeth from the Gospel of Luke, and God’s subversion of the world order through the birth of Christ. “The wondrous hand of the exalted Almighty / is active in the mysteries of the earth!” the work proclaims.
Under Bach’s design, those pastoral triplets (DUM-da-da DA-da-da DA-da-da DA-da-da . . .) gird up a choir-song of praise to Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, our joy and our strength. Even when the light, bright major chords give way to the minor in line five, signifying the turning of life’s circumstances, the Christian’s confession remains the same: Jesus is mine; what shall I fear?
Though Bach is often cited as the melody’s originator, that credit in fact goes to Johann Schop; it was first published in 1642 with Johann Rist’s hymn text “Wach auf, mein Geist, erhebe dich” (“Wake, My Spirit, Rise”). In 1661 Martin Janus wrote a new text for the tune—of no less than nineteen stanzas!—titled “Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne” (“Jesus, My Soul’s Bliss”). Bach took stanzas six and seventeen of this hymn, harmonized and orchestrated them, and placed them as the closings to part one and part two, respectively, of his cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life) (BWV 147).
These two chorale movements, titled “Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe” (“Blest am I, that I have Jesus”) and “Jesus bleibet meine Freude” (“Jesus shall remain my joy”), have identical musical settings, and their English translation is as follows:
Blest am I, that I have Jesus!
O how tightly I cling to Him,
so that He delights my heart
when I am sick and sad.
I have Jesus, who loves me
and gives Himself to me as my own;
ah, therefore I will not let go of Jesus,
even if my heart is breaking.
Jesus shall remain my joy,
my heart’s comfort and sap;
Jesus shall fend off all sorrow.
He is the strength of my life,
the delight and sun of my eyes,
the treasure and wonder of my soul;
therefore I will not let Jesus go
out of my heart and sight. [Source]
Bach wrote Herz und Mund in 1723 during his first year as the director of church music in Leipzig, basing it on an earlier cantata he had written in Weimar in 1716 for the fourth Sunday of Advent. Because Leipzig observed tempus clausum (a “closed time” of penitence) during Advent, allowing cantata music only on the first Sunday, Bach could not perform the cantata for the same occasion in Leipzig, so he adapted it for the feast of the Visitation on July 2.
Scored by Bach for four vocal soloists, a four-part choir, and an instrumental ensemble of trumpet, two oboes, violin, viola, and continuo, the chorale music was first given the title “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” in 1926 when Dame Myra Hess published a transcription for solo piano—which you can hear Benjamin Moser play in the video below.
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
SONG: “Jina la Bwana: An African Magnificat” by Steven C. Warner, 1995 | Performed by the University of Notre Dame Folk Choir, on Prophets of Joy (1996)
The Swahili refrain, “Jina la Bwana ni takatifu,” translates as “The name of the Lord is holy.”
This image of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth was commissioned for the Monastery of the Visitation in north Minneapolis, a group of monastic sisters very near and dear to my heart. In what has become a well-known neighborhood tradition, the sisters hang a windsock outside their house every other day of the week as a signal to the neighborhood children that they can come in and enjoy after-school activities. They read and paint. They pray and have fun. The sisters celebrate birthdays with the kids and walk through hard times with them as well. The spirit of the first Visitation, where Jesus was so lovingly shared between two kinswomen, is very much alive today and is the inspiration for this painting.
Mary, dressed in gold because she is the woman clothed with the sun, also wears a cape with green stars and blue crosses, which symbolize Bethlehem and Calvary. She is a little fearful of the news she has recently received herself, that she was pregnant with God’s child. But Luke tells us that she put her fears aside to be with her cousin Elizabeth and help her in her own miraculous pregnancy. Elizabeth’s bright and welcoming smile assures Mary, and us, that in God’s plans, everything always works out for the best. The tops of their halos form a heart which meets at the bottom in the wombs of the two women. The fluttering windsock behind them reminds us of the wind of the Holy Spirit, ever fresh, ever new.
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 the Third Sunday of Advent, cycle B, click here.
With so many different elements, design matters a lot, and I’m super-impressed by what Biola has come up with. The homepage is laid out as a gridded calendar with thumbnail images; click on a date, and you’re brought to a new viewing mode in which a large image and a music player are set in a fixed position on the left while the right sidebar contains scrollable text, separated into two tabs—the main content, and biographical information about the artists. This design enables the image to remain before your eyes so that you can continue to reference it as you read on (something that, frustratingly, I cannot achieve with Art & Theology’s long-scrolling format), and it also relegates the bios to “back matter.” It’s all very organized and easily navigable.
This initiative is an outworking of the CCCA’s mission to explore the rich interrelationships between contemporary art making, theology, and religious tradition. Be sure to check out the other sections of their website; they offer plenty of free resources, including an archive of past Advent (and Lent!) devotionals, and a calendar of events, such as lectures, workshops, symposia, art exhibitions, concerts, film screenings, and more.
Below is one of my favorite Advent Project entries from last year, reproduced by kind permission of the CCCA. Centered on Mary’s Magnificat, it brings together the work of an Italian Renaissance painter, a contemporary British video artist (who I’ve written about before), a modern Bohemian Austrian poet, and a minimalist composer working with Spanish, Latin, and English texts. Adjunct professor of philosophy Evan Rosa (who is a superb writer!) reflects on how scandalous Mary’s humility is for power-hungry Western Christians—just as it would have been for the Greco-Roman world in which she lived. He concludes with a prayer that invites us to move from self-magnification to the magnification of God.
Due to this blog’s design limitations, I had to adapt the following content from its original format. To view the devotion on the Biola website, click here. I have excluded biographical information for the song performers and poet.
ARTWORKS: The Visitation by Pontormo; The Greeting by Bill Viola
About the Artist and Artwork #1:
Jacopo Carucci(1494–1557), usually known asPontormo, was an Italian Mannerist painter and portraitist from the Florentine School. His work represents a profound stylistic shift from the calm perspectival regularity that characterized the art of the Florentine Renaissance. He is famous for his use of twining poses, coupled with ambiguous perspective; his figures often seem to float in an uncertain environment, unhampered by the forces of gravity. Pontormo’s painting The Visitation, completed in 1528, now adorns the altar of a side chapel in a small church called the Pieve di San Michele in Carmignano, a town west of Florence, Italy. The setting for this painting is the visitation of the Virgin Mary on her older pregnant cousin Elizabeth, the wife of Zacharias. Elizabeth and Mary, who are painted in profile, gracefully embrace each other as they exchange glances of mutual affection and share in the news of Mary’s pregnancy. They dominate the canvas as they stand on the threshold of Zacharias’s house.
About the Artist and Artwork #2:
Bill Viola(b. 1951) is internationally recognized as one of today’s leading artists. He has been instrumental in the establishment of video as a vital form of contemporary art, and in so doing has helped to greatly expand its scope in terms of technology, content, and historical reach. His works focus on universal human experiences—birth, death, the unfolding of consciousness—and have roots in both Eastern and Western art as well as spiritual traditions.
Bill Viola’s large-screen video installation The Greeting was inspired by TheVisitation, painted by Italian Mannerist artist Jacopo Pontormo. Viola’s video sequence echoes the drama of Pontormo’s Visitation, but transforms the moment into an enigmatic contemporary narrative. In this still frame, three women are dressed in long, flowing garments and stand in an Italianate architectural setting similar to that in Pontormo’s painting. The woman in the orange dress, her stomach visibly swollen, has just entered the scene from the left, interrupting a conversation and perhaps whispering to the older woman the news of her pregnancy. This encounter was filmed in less than a minute, but Viola has slowed the video down to ten minutes. The use of extreme slow motion draws attention to the nuances of the women’s gestures and glances, and intensifies the psychological dynamic of the exchange. Continue reading “Advent 2017 online arts devotional by Biola University”→