“On the Swag” by R. A. K. Mason

His body doubled
    under the pack
    that sprawls untidily
    on his old back,
    the cold wet dead-beat
    plods up the track.

The cook peers out:
    oh, curse that old lag—
    here again
    with his clumsy swag
    made of a dirty old
    turnip-bag.

Bring him in, cook,
    from the cold level sleet:
    put silk on his body,
    slippers on his feet;
    give him fire
    and bread and meat.

Let the fruit be plucked
    and the cake be iced,
    the bed be snug
    and the wine be spiced
    for the old cove’s night-cap—
    for this is Christ.
Schmalz, Timothy_When I Was a Stranger
Timothy P. Schmalz (Canadian, 1969–), When I Was a Stranger, 2016. Bronze, 42 × 23 × 39 in. Basilica of San Lorenzo (Saint Lawrence), Lucina, Rome.

R. A. K. Mason (1905–1971) was one of New Zealand’s preeminent poets. Written around 1932, his poem “On the Swag” was inspired by Matthew 25:31–46, where Jesus says that our treatment of the poor redounds to him. That is, if we ignore the cries of the poor or even directly reject them, we are effectually ignoring or rejecting Christ—but if we welcome the poor into our homes and lives and endeavor to meet their needs, it is as if we welcome Christ himself.

In New Zealand and Australia, “swag” refers to a pack of personal belongings, and to “go on the swag” is an informal expression meaning to become a wandering foot-traveler, lacking a permanent residence and steady work. So in the poem a homeless man, hunched over in exhaustion and with his meager bag of possessions in tow, is passing down a neighborhood lane. A house cook sees him through the window and in vexation complains about what an eyesore he is, stinking up the streets and making the city look bad. She has seen him in these quarters before and wishes him good riddance.

(Related posts: “The Seven Works of Mercy”; “Advent, Day 19”)

But in the next two stanzas a more compassionate voice intervenes—probably the master or mistress of the house, or otherwise an intrusive narrator. This voice orders the cook to bring the man inside and to lavish him with the finest foods and dress, and then to make up a warm bed for the “old cove.” (“Cove” is an old-fashioned British word meaning “fellow.”) The last line tells us what impels this loving and urgent hospitality: “this is Christ.”

Whenever you encounter an outstretched hand or a dejected face, how might seeing it as the hand or face of Christ impact your response?

Copyright credit: “On the Swag” by R. A. K. Mason was originally published in 1932 in Kiwi: The Magazine of the Auckland University College and more recently has appeared in R. A. K. Mason: Collected Poems (Victoria University Press, 2014). It is reproduced here by permission of Hocken Library Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago, Dunedin, the holder of Mason’s papers.

Roundup: New books and conferences; refugee memorial removed; icon against animal cruelty

PUBLIC ART CONTROVERSY: Olu Oguibe’s Monument to Strangers and Refugees, commissioned for last year’s major quinquennial art exhibition Documenta, was removed on October 3 by order of the Kassel City Council after, it is presumed, mounting pressure from Germany’s anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Designed as a site-specific work for Königsplatz (King’s Square), a pedestrian zone in the city center, where it had stood since June 2017, the fifty-three-foot concrete obelisk prominently features an excerpt of Jesus’s words from Matthew 25:35—“I was a stranger and you took me in”—inscribed in gold letters in German, English, Arabic, and Turkish. This quote reflects Jesus’s revolutionary ethic of love at the expense of personal comfort, of disadvantaging the self for others, so it’s no surprise that even today, it still offends. (Later in the passage, Jesus issues a sobering warning for those who fail to heed his command to welcome strangers.)

Monument to Strangers and Refugees by Olu Oguibe
Olu Oguibe (Nigerian American, 1964–), Monument to Strangers and Refugees, 2017. Concrete, about 53 ft. tall (3 × 3 × 16.3 m). Installation in King’s Square, Kassel, Germany.

Immigrant memorial removed
Olu Oguibe’s Monument to Strangers and Refugees was dismantled early on October 3 following orders by the city of Kassel. Photo: Regina Oesterling.

Germany has become increasingly polarized since 2015, when Chancellor Angela Merkel initiated an open-door immigration policy, leading to an influx of over one million refugees and asylum seekers at the height of the European refugee crisis. The city council had raised funds to purchase Oguibe’s monument for permanent display, and negotiations with the artist were in motion, but on September 24 they changed course, voting to remove the monument instead. According to Councilman Thomas Materner, a member of the AfD party, the obelisk is “ideologically polarizing, disfigured art.”

[Update, 10/12/18: The city and the artist have agreed on a new public location for the monument: Treppenstrasse, a nearby pedestrian area (via). 4/18/19: The monument was installed today at its new location (via).]

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CONFERENCES

“The Saddleback Visual Arts / CreativeChurch Arts Conference is a unique, full three-day conference and retreat October 18–20, 2018 at the beautiful Saddleback Rancho Capistrano Retreat Center. Creative leaders, arts ministry practitioners, and renowned artists will share visionary ideas and practical applications during sessions, workshops, creative and interactive performances and experiences. Attendees will explore applications for the arts and creativity in the local church, discover creative inspiration, experience refreshing and empowering ministry, connect with their creative tribe, and have the opportunity for personal or team retreat time in a beautiful setting. . . . For more information, and to register, please visit the CreativeChurch Arts website, here.”

[Update, 10/26/18: Below is a short video debrief of the conference.]

Another conference taking place that same weekend, October 19–20, 2018, is “Visual Theology I: Transformative Looking Between the Visual Arts and Christian Doctrine (1850–Now).” The inaugural conference of the Visual Theology Symposia, it’s being held in Chichester, England, and it may sound familiar to you, since I publicized the call for papers back in April. One of my favorite writers and thinkers in the field, Jonathan A. Anderson, will be speaking there, along with others. The focus will be scholarly, whereas Saddleback’s conference will be more practical, hands-on, and ministry-focused.

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LECTURE: “Cathedrals from the Outside: Questions of Art, Engagement, Commemoration and Celebration” by Sandy Nairne: At the National Cathedrals Conference in Manchester last month, Nairne, who served as director of London’s National Portrait Gallery from 2002 to 2015, spoke on the spiritual in art—in public spaces, galleries, and cathedrals. His starting questions: “How does contemporary art function in museums in ways that are of interest to cathedrals? And are there new ways in which art is playing a part in cathedrals that is important to the cultural world as a whole?” Click on the link to read the transcript.

The White Doves by Michael Pendry
Michael Pendry (German, 1974–), Les Colombes – The White Doves, 2017. 2,000 white paper doves, 49 ft. (15 m). Pentecost installation at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London. (Shirazeh Houshiary’s East Window is in the background.) Photo: Marc Gascoigne.

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NEW ICON: Christ Breaking the Bonds of Animal Suffering: Iconographer Aidan Hart writes, “Sometimes I am commissioned to paint an icon of a saint for whom nothing yet exists, or at least no satisfactory icon. This is usually a pre-schism Western saint. But more rarely, the subject is a new theme, a new emphasis or combination. This was the case when Dr Christine Nellist approached me to create an icon that embodied some of the Orthodox Church’s teaching about our relationship with animals. The icon was to be used as flagship for her newly founded organisation Pan-Orthodox Concern for Animals and to illustrate her pending book on the subject. This article tells the story of its genesis and explains its design.” Fascinating!

Breaking the Bonds of Animal Suffering by Aidan Hart
Aidan Hart (British, 1957–), Breaking the Bonds of Animal Suffering, 2018. Tempera on wood.

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BOOK REVIEWS

The Hymnal: A Reading History by Christopher N. Phillips, reviewed by Leland Ryken: Who knew hymnals didn’t take the form of a songbook until the 1870s! Before then, says Phillips, they were essentially volumes of poetry, used in family and private devotions. “The focus [of this book] . . . is an exploration of the hymnbooks that preceded our familiar hymnal. These were books containing the texts of the hymns without accompanying music. . . . [The author] doesn’t deal with the history of hymn-singing in church services but with the private reading of hymns as poems. I can’t imagine a more original approach to hymns for our generation.” Definitely adding this one to my to-read list.

The Hymnal: A Reading History

Everything Tells Us about God by Katherine Bolger Hyde, with illustrations by Livia Coloji, reviewed by Amanda McGill: This children’s book from Ancient Faith Publishing begins, “The world is like a giant puzzle God made to tell us about Himself—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Every piece whispers one of His secrets—all we need to do is listen.” “I love the message of the book,” writes McGill: “finding God in the ordinary elements of creation. I think it affirms what children already suspect: that the world is meaningful, personal and infused with specialness. One of the first things I was thankful for was the inclusion of baptism and the Eucharist at the beginning of the book. It situates the sacraments within the normal experiences of life.”

Everything Tells Us about God