25 Poems for Christmas

Hawkins, William L._Nativity Scene
William L. Hawkins (American, 1895–1990), Nativity Scene, 1987. Oil on canvas, 48 × 48 in. Newark Museum of Art, Newark, New Jersey.

1. “Remembering that it happened once” by Wendell Berry: For the last forty-plus years, Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry has been writing what he calls “Sabbath poems,” which emerge from his spiritual practice of walking outdoors on Sundays without any to-do’s. “I go free from the tasks and intentions of my workdays,” he says, “and so my mind becomes hospitable to unintended thoughts: to what I am very willing to call inspiration.” This Sabbath poem from 1986 explores how the sacred permeates the mundane and how Christ is, in a sense, always being born. For an SATB choral setting by Doug Brandt, see here.

Source: A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979–1997 (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1998); compiled in This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2014)

2. “BC:AD” by U. A. Fanthorpe: Ursula Askham Fanthorpe (1929–2009), CBE, FRSL, was an English poet who is well loved by both critics and the general public. She was also a practicing Quaker. Each year she wrote a new Christmas poem to send to friends, of which “BC:AD” is the best known. It considers Jesus’s birth as the pivotal point in history, dividing time into epochs, into “before” and “after.” At this nativity, kairos invaded chronos—and we’re still singing about it millennia later.

Source: Christmas Poems (London: Enitharmon, 2002)

3. “Making the House Ready for the Lord” by Mary Oliver: For many of us who succumb to cultural pressures, December is a time of rushing around, making sure the house is decorated like a magazine, the Christmas cards sent out, the cookies baked to perfection, the gifts individually selected and bought and wrapped. But in all this flurry of activity, are we missing “the better part” (Luke 10:42)? The speaker of this poem, Martha-like, is busy making preparations for Jesus, who’s coming to visit, but as she’s cleaning, outdoor critters keep popping in. At first she bemoans their presence—they’re not on the guest list!—but eventually she comes to accept, even welcome, them, surrendering her fussy desire for orderliness to a charitable embrace of whatever is. And on another level, this poem is about how all of creation longs for Christ (Rom. 8:19–22); the animals, too, want to see him, want to join the party.

Source: Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006)

4. [It’s all so messy] by Kelly Belmonte: A haiku for Advent.

Source: https://allninemuses.wordpress.com/

5. “Second Advent” by Anya Krugovoy Silver: Memorializing a friend (Ishiuan Hargrove) who died of metastatic brain tumors, “Second Advent” unsettlingly combines stark hospital-room and anatomical language with language that is soft, gentle, lyrical. Recounting one of Ishiuan’s several neurosurgeries, the poet remarks how her head was nimbed by surgical lights and then swaddled in gauze. The title refers to Ishiuan’s waking up on the second Sunday of Advent, but also to the hope of Christ’s second coming, when pain, disease, and sorrow will be done away with. Anya Silver was herself a cancer patient, an experience she wrote much about in her four volumes of poetry, before dying of breast cancer in 2018.

Source: Second Bloom (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017)

6. “The Nativity” by Henry Vaughan: “Peace!” rang the angels’ song the night of Christ’s birth—and yet what irony, that he who came to bring peace was himself no beneficiary of it in this life, being born among animals in a borrowed stable, then made a refugee, then later disbelieved, betrayed, mocked, tortured, and crucified. The darkness that bred such unwelcome of the Son of God still persists—violence, ignorance. Referencing the Genesis 1 creation narrative as well as the journey of the magi, the poem ends with an invocation for God’s light to manifest once again, leading us to Christ.

Source: Thalia Redivina: The Pass-Times and Diversions of a Countrey-Muse (London: Robert Pawlet, 1678). Public Domain.

7. [little tree] by E. E. Cummings: One of E. E. Cummings’s earliest published poems (it came out in the January 1920 issue of The Dial), “little tree” was intended to appear as one of five “chansons innocentes” in Cummings’s first book of verse, Tulips and Chimneys, but his editor, Thomas Seltzer, cut it (along with sixty-five others!). In it a young child consoles a recently felled evergreen tree—enlisted for the holiday festivities—with promises of glory and love. Though it runs the danger of being read as twee, Cummings remained fond of the poem and even had it printed and sent it as his family Christmas card in 1960, two years before he died.

Source: XLI Poems (New York: The Dial Press, 1925); compiled in E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems, 1904–1962 (New York: Liveright, 2016). Public Domain.

8. “Messiah (Christmas Portions)” by Mark Doty: The speaker of this poem is unexpectedly transported by a local community choir performance of Handel’s Messiah. He marvels at how these ordinary, flawed neighbors of his can produce such beauty with their collective voices. The last line is probably a reference to the accompagnato and air sung by the bass toward the end of the oratorio, taken from 1 Corinthians 15:51–54—about how we will all be changed in a moment at the last trump, and the corruptible will put on incorruption.

Source: Sweet Machine (New York: HarperFlamingo, 1998); compiled in Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008)

9. “What the Body Knows” by Jean Janzen: The anonymous scribes and illuminators of the Book of Kells spent countless hours copying and beautifying God’s word amid Viking raids. In this ekphrastic poem, Jean Janzen reflects on the Gospel-book’s five whimsically painted folios of Luke’s genealogy of Christ, commenting on the continual inbreaking of God into our world and the “wild safety” of God’s love.

Source: What the Body Knows (Telford, PA: DreamSeeker Books, 2015)

10. “Confession” by Leila Chatti: The Tunisian American poet Leila Chatti was raised by a Muslim father and a Roman Catholic mother, and both religious traditions have shaped her faith and her writing. Islam and Christianity hold many sacred figures in common, including Mary (Maryam), whose conception and delivery of Jesus (Isa) are narrated in the Quran 19:16–34. Chatti confesses to being more compelled by the Islamic characterization of Mary as grunting and sweating in the pangs of labor (in contrast to Catholic teaching, which says her birthing experience was effortless, her contractions painless, though the Bible itself doesn’t specify). Chatti finds comfort in picturing Mary not as someone exempt from the effects of the fall and set apart on a pedestal of supreme virtue, but as one who suffered the same physical and emotional toll as other childbearing women—and who probably did have the occasional selfish thought, which, in moments of intensity and vulnerability, she deigned to vocalize!

Source: Deluge (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2020) | https://www.leilachatti.com/

11. “Two Carols” by Evelyn Underhill: An English Anglo-Catholic writer and mystic, Evelyn Underhill meditates in this double poem on how Christ set foot on the long, hard road we travel to be a balm for our wounds and those of the earth. The epigraph to part 1 is from the Latin Vulgate of Song of Solomon 2:12: “The flowers appear on the earth.” What follows are several Catholic titles for Mary: rose without thorn, queen, generatrix. The epigraph to part 2 is a quotation of Romans 8:22: “The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” The refrain, Dominus tecum!, translates to “The Lord is with you!,” words spoken by the angel Gabriel to Mary and, by virtue of the Incarnation, to all humanity. The other Latin phrases translate to “He who is in the heavens,” “A King is born,” and “Let the kingdom come!” Adveniat regnum!

Source: Immanence: A Book of Verses (London: J. M. Dent, 1912). Public Domain.

12. “The Christmas Babe” by Fr. John Banister Tabb: Written by a Catholic priest from Virginia, this simple quatrain marvels at the paradox of God’s simultaneous largeness and smallness.

Source: Poems (London: John Lane, 1894). Public Domain.

13. “Snowflakes” by Jennifer Grotz: When the world is viewed through a sacramental lens, we recognize God in commonplace wonders like falling snow, and such things can be a sort of wordless prayer that we offer back to God through our enjoyment of them.

Source: Window Left Open (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2016) | https://www.jennifergrotz.com/

14. [The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman] by Emily Dickinson: In these two compact stanzas, Dickinson reflects on how kind Jesus was (an understatement!) to have made the far journey to Bethlehem, “a rugged billion Miles” from heaven, especially in the cold month of December, all “for little Fellowmen.” She refers to him as “docile”—obedient, submissive—harking to Philippians 2, to his bowing to the eternal will of the Father, submitting to human limitations, suffering, and death for the life of the world.

Source: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1976)

15. [Wilt thou love God, as he thee? Then digest] (Holy Sonnet No. 15) by John Donne: A self-address to the soul, this poem by the English poet-priest John Donne, first published in 1633, two years after this death, celebrates the Triune God’s salvific workings: we’re adopted by the Father, redeemed by the Son, indwelt and regenerated by the Spirit. The closing couplet, referencing the imago Dei, packs a wallop: “’Twas much, that man was made like God before, / But, that God should be made like man, much more.”

Source: Poems (London: M.F. [Miles Fletcher], 1633). Public Domain.

16. “The Little Towns of Bethlehem” by John Terpstra: All over Canada, Christ is being reborn this Christmas, in the sense that the Story has taken root, is retold, and continues to have impact. The speaker imagines the Christ child “wrapped in cast-off flannel” in a boxcar stopped on the tracks in Esther, Alberta, or feeding at his mother’s breast in a broken-down car on the shoulder of a road in Englehart, Ontario—actual sights that one might encounter today. Localizing the Story can help us to see it afresh, and to see the sacred humanity of families experiencing homelessness or other hardships.

Source: Two or Three Guitars (Kentville, Nova Scotia: Gaspereau Press, 2006) | http://johnterpstra.com/

17. “Song of the Shepherds” by Richard Bauckham: Richard Bauckham, FRSE, FBA, is best known as a biblical scholar—he’s one of today’s tops, in fact—but he also writes poetry! (I featured one of his poems last year.) In this poem, the shepherds on Bethlehem’s hillsides recall an ancient tale about the stars singing at the creation of the universe, which they thought merely a poetic embellishment, until they experienced something of the like for themselves: “a song of solar glory” eclipsing the lesser lights and exorcising the dark, creating the world anew. Unforgettable.

Source: Tumbling into Light: Collected Poems (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2022) | https://richardbauckham.co.uk/

18. “Those Magi” by Kathleen O’Toole: What exactly were the magi seeking? What compelled them to leave their treasure behind in that cattle shed? Whence their strength to defy Herod? Besides musing on these questions, the poem also contains a passing metaphor that I found striking and new: cow breath as incense.

Source: Christian Century, January 18, 2019 | https://kathleenotoolepoetry.com/

19. “Carol of the Brown King” by Langston Hughes: Tradition names one of the wise men who visited the Christ child “Balthazar” and says he’s from Africa. Langston Hughes, a preeminent poet of the Harlem Renaissance, exults that there was “one dark like me—part of His Nativity.” This poem is included in Hughes’s musical play Black Nativity and is one of six Nativity poems by Hughes that make up a children’s book illustrated by Ashley Bryan.

Source: Crisis (Dec. 1958), p. 615; compiled in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Knopf, 1994)

20. “Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter, 1993” by Jane Kenyon: I couldn’t find the particular church mosaic program that Kenyon is writing about, but here’s my interpretation. Set inside a Serbian Orthodox church during the Bosnian War, this poem imagines a mosaic of Christ Pantocrator hovering in the dome, lamenting the violence that goes on beneath. Under the gaze of the I AM is another mosaic, portraying Jesus’s birth, but also, in a way, Mary’s, as she herself is being reborn in Christ, her mind increasingly shaped in accordance to his. Nativity icons often show Mary framed by a red blanket that she’s reclining on at the mouth of a cave, which Kenyon reads as embryonic.

Source: Otherwise (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 1996); compiled in Collected Poems (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005)

21. “Breath” by Luci Shaw: This poem reflects on the contraction of the infinite God who breathed the universe into existence into a finite human being needing oxygen, who, as is foreshadowed at his birth, will finally ex-pire (“breathe out” his last) on a cross before entering his “next dark cave,” a prelude to resurrection.

Source: Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006) | https://lucishaw.com/

22. “Mary’s Vision” from medieval Ireland: Mary foresees the future suffering of her infant son and dialogues with him about it in this poem translated from Middle Irish by Eleanor Hull (the same woman who, through her translation and versification, gave us the hymn “Be Thou My Vision”!).

Source: The Poem-Book of the Gael (London: Chatto & Windus, 1912). Public Domain.

23. “Joseph at the Nativity” by Tania Runyan: Staring at the “shriveled pod” that Mary just birthed, Joseph grapples with his complicated feelings—doubt, embarrassment, jealousy, helplessness, confusion, pride—and with figuring out what role he should play in the life of this child going forward.

Source: Simple Weight (Lexington, KY: FutureCycle, 2010) | https://taniarunyan.com/

24. “Waiting in Line After Christmas” by Sharron Singleton: (Scroll down to fourth poem) Rather than exchanges of refunded money for unwanted items, Singleton ponders what a mutually life-giving exchange of intangibles might look like.

Source: Our Hands a Hollow Bowl (Hartford, CT: Grayson Books, 2018)

25. “Burning the Old Year” by Naomi Shihab Nye: Through the act of forgetting, we must destroy the worthless trivialities of the year, and we must let that which is solid, that which matters—the “stones”—be revealed and remain.

Source: Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Portland, OR: Far Corner Books, 1995)

Oji-Cree Nativity painting

Jackson Beardy (1944–1984) was an Anishinaabe artist born on the Garden Hill Reserve in Manitoba. He belonged to the Woodland school of art [previously], adopting its distinctive style of Indigenous expression characterized by thick black outlines and vivid, compartmentalized color. His paintings draw on Ojibwe and Cree oral traditions and often express cosmological and spiritual concepts.

Nativity by Jackson Beardy
Jackson Beardy (Oji-Cree, 1944–1984), The Nativity, 1975. Acrylic on canvas, 121.1 × 172.1 cm. Collection of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. © Concacan Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Beardy is one of twenty Canadian artists commissioned by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1975 to convey the Christian message using whatever idiom they wished. Beardy chose to portray the Virgin Mary pregnant with the Word, the sun’s fire pouring into her and yet she is not consumed. He provided the following artist’s statement:

It is my personal belief that a messenger from the Great Spirit came to earth in the form of His image after Him through a virgin birth in unrecorded history. Through this man, knowledge was passed on to man from the Great Spirit. Many of the teachings of this man have been kept by word of mouth through the ages by the elders of all tribes.

We see the virgin mother-to-be holding on to an embryo connected to the sun symbol (the Great Spirit) [center] who has deemed it necessary to send his messenger to his people. The mother is also connected to Mother Earth, who is nursing her [see the breast shape below]. She too is connected by a lifeline to the sun symbol. Around her are all the orders of creatures who come to see the messenger. He is born to explain their existence, [to restore] harmony between humanity and the elements, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

On the other side of the sun symbol we see an elder in prayer, ritually offering a bowl filled with sacred things. You can see the sun symbol is resting on his hunched frame, bearing him down with doubts, fear, depression, and all the ills of his time, his back to the very miracle he is praying for. It will take time for all to fully comprehend this phenomenon which has come to pass.

The four semicircles represent the elements of the air: snow, rain, tornadoes, heat. The moon [the blue circle] is painted above the elder. We regard the moon as our Grandmother who keeps vigil over all creatures during the night.

Though titled The Nativity, the painting is actually a prebirth scene, as Jesus is still in utero. Beardy shows the Christ child taking root in Mary’s womb (having been conceived by the power of the Great Spirit) and growing to full term as people and animals alike long for his arrival. They groan, they watch, they wrestle and seek. Creator Sets Free—as the First Nations Version of the New Testament translates the name Jesus—is almost here.

(Note: There’s a flipped version of this image floating around online. I confirmed with the CCCB that the file posted here, which I licensed directly from them, represents the correct orientation.)

Leaning into that Advent yearning, here is a performance of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in Ojibwe—“Ondaas, Ondaas, Emaanooyen”—performed by E Halverson:

Now, I have a crowdsourcing request: I am searching for Advent or Christmas songs originally written in Indigenous Canadian or Native American languages, preferably by an Indigenous person. If you know of any, please let me know in the comments below, or in an email. Thanks!

Roundup: Upcoming Texas events (music of the Psalms, art seeking understanding) and more

UPCOMING EVENTS:

>> “The Music of the Psalms in Church History” by W. David O. Taylor, Christ Church, Austin, Texas, October 1, 2022: “For two thousand years, Christians have found the Psalter to be an invaluable resource for worship and prayer. And, like the original psalmists, Christians have felt compelled and inspired to set the text of the psalms to music, of all sorts: from a cappella to choral, from folk to rock, from reggae to gospel, and more. In collaboration with local musicians, David Taylor, Associate Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and author of Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, will explore how Christians in different periods of church history have sung the psalms within corporate worship,” spanning the apostolic, medieval, Renaissance, Reformation, modern, and contemporary eras.

Psalms (David Taylor)
Left: Icon of the Holy Prophet-King David. Right: Celtic Cross with Bible Page, encaustic by Phaedra Jean Taylor.

A choir will perform several chants (Hebrew, Byzantine, Gregorian) and a motet, and then attendees will be led in a handful of Psalm-based songs, from a hymn of German origin to an African American spiritual to CCM classics. Along the way Taylor will provide historical context and trace a narrative.

Sponsored by the Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary, the event is free, but registration is required and filling up; reserve your spot here. It will be recorded and eventually posted on the Fuller Studio YouTube channel (whether there will be a livestream is still TBD).

>> Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture: Art Seeking Understanding, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, October 26–28, 2022: Every fall the Institute for Faith and Learning at Baylor University organizes a symposium around a given topic, and this year’s topic is the arts. Registration is still open! The standard cost is $250, or $125 for students. “The notion of art seeking understanding (ars quaerens intellectum) invites association with the notion of faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum). Just as faith is a gift of grace that grows toward deeper knowledge, so it seems that art is a gift whose practice leads to a deeper order of understanding. This seems true not only for the person who experiences art, but also the artist—whether musician, painter, sculptor, or poet. The 2022 Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture invites contributions from across the disciplines (including scholars, artists, and other practitioners) as we explore together how art seeks understanding and thus contributes to human flourishing.”

Their line-up of presenters includes several from within Baylor’s own distinguished ranks, such as composer and liturgist Carlos Colón, theologian Natalie Carnes, art historian Heidi J. Hornik, and literature scholar David Lyle Jeffrey, in addition to famous outside guests like theologian-pianist Jeremy Begbie, contemporary nihonga painter Makoto Fujimura, and Early Christian art historian Robin M. Jensen. See a full list by clicking on the boldface link above.

Books
Just a fraction of the books authored by the eminent speakers at the upcoming Baylor symposium

The website does not provide a list of presentation titles, but among the topic suggestions on its call for proposals page are how art contributes to moral and spiritual perception, sensitivity, and/or character formation; the power of imagination; the relation of poetic art to the communication of moral truth; art therapy in pastoral counseling; how musical settings of biblical texts add value to those texts; and how to reconcile the making of religious art with the commandment in Exodus 20:4.

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SONG: “The Lord Is My Light” by Lillian Bouknight | Performed by the Notre Dame Folk Choir, dir. Emorja Roberson: “Very little is known about Lillian Bouknight (d. 1990), except that she was an African American from North Carolina, and a soloist and composer in the Pentecostal Holiness movement in the Aliquippam, PA, Community, also serving as a prayer warrior and on the Mother’s Board.” This setting of Psalm 63 that she composed appears in the African American Heritage Hymnal #160.

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VIDEO: “Theology through the Arts” by Jeremy Begbie: A pioneer of the field of theology and the arts, UK-born and US-based scholar Jeremy Begbie is the headliner for the Baylor symposium mentioned above. I met him briefly at a Duke conference a few years ago, and he’s such a delightful person, not to mention a phenomenal teacher who often dispenses wisdom from a piano bench. If you’re not familiar with his work, this fourteen-minute video is a great introduction to it. He’s all about demonstrating how instrumental music (his specialization is Western classical) can help unlock the truths of the Christian gospel. Here he talks about the given, the improvised, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

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BLOG: Pray with Jill Geoffrion: The Rev. Dr. Jill Kimberly Hartwell Geoffrion is a spiritual director, pilgrim guide, workshop leader, and retreat facilitator who spends at least three months a year at Chartres Cathedral in France, known for its architecture, sculpture, prayer labyrinth, and the world’s most extensive collection of twelfth- and thirteenth-century stained glass. An ordained American Baptist minister with an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary and a PhD in women’s studies and Christian spiritualities, she is the author of Visions of Mary: Art, Devotion, and Beauty at Chartres Cathedral (2017) (beautifully produced, from Paraclete Press), Pondering the Labyrinth: Questions to Pray on the Path (2003), and more. Contact her if you are interested in a spiritually based visit to Chartres or in having her present to a group.

Geoffrion is also a professional photographer, and she shares many of her beautiful art photographs from Chartres on her blog, providing specific prompts for prayer and meditation based on the images. For example, in a post on the stained glass panel of Saint Martin bringing a man back to life, she writes, “Think of what is dead and needs resurrection in you, in those you love, in those who live within twenty-five miles of you, and in whatever country you call home. Then, take a very deep exhale and plead with God, ‘Bring resurrection!’” Or, reflecting on the sixteenth-century Nativity sculpture group attributed to Jehan Soulas, she invites us to “imitate one or more of the sets of eyes in the image . . . as you pray, ‘May I see with Your eyes, God. Teach me to see anew.’”

Saint Martin bringing a man back to life (with two onlookers), 1217–20, stained glass window panel in the south ambulatory at Chartres Cathedral, France. Photo: Jill Geoffrion.

Soulas, Jehan_Nativity
Jehan Soulas, Nativity, 1529, from the choir screen in Chartres Cathedral, France. Photo: Jill Geoffrion.

Geoffrion’s blog is a wonderful free resource for those looking to engage prayerfully with the art treasures of Chartres Cathedral. New content is typically posted in batches a few times a year, and the archive goes back to 2015. Sometimes Geoffrion digitally isolates certain details of the stained glass to aid in a more concentrated focus.

As I said when I featured the Tree of Jesse window several years ago, Chartres is high on my list of places to visit, for aesthetic, historical, and spiritual reasons. I hope to make it there sometime in the next five years.

Christmas, Day 11

LOOK: Dominican Nativity by Valentine Reyre

Reyre, Valentine_Nativity
Valentine Reyre (French, 1889–1943), Nativité aux dominicaines (Dominican Nativity), 1918. Oil on canvas. Private collection. Photo: Michel Guérin.

Valentine Reyre was a French artist who participated in the revival of religious art in the first half of the twentieth century. She was the cofounder, with Maurice Storez and Henri Charlier, of L’Arche, a group of Catholic artists and architects active from 1919 to 1934. She also participated in the Ateliers d’art sacré, a movement that sought to reconcile tradition and modernity, art and craft, in the decoration of church interiors, especially those devastated by World War I. Members of the Ateliers—the most famous of which were Maurice Denis and George Desvallières—rejected academism on the one hand and the avant-garde (e.g., futurism, cubism) on the other, seeking a third way forward for religious art.

Reyre’s Dominican Nativity is set outside a Dominican convent in the hills of France. The focal point is the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, clothed in white and seated under a small, open, roofed structure. It’s deliberately ambiguous as to whether these figures are meant to be present in the flesh in this space or are a statue; in other words, is this the holy birth transplanted to another time and place, occurring as if for the first time, or is it the birth memorialized? Either way, a procession of nuns winds through the tree-studded landscape to offer their worship and devotion to Christ, their shaping mirrored by the ribbon of angels that unfurls from distant sky to the foregrounded rooftop. The adult male figure at the right is probably Saint Dominic, the medieval Castilian priest who founded the Dominican order, as he is tonsured and wears a habit.

I love the intersection of time and eternity in this image—heaven breaking into the everyday. A community of sisters bows in prayer and re-members Christ’s Nativity.

LISTEN: Hymns and Sacred Songs, FS 83: No. 1. Förunderligt at sige | Words by Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig, 1845 (reworked from “Mit hierte altid vanker” [“My Heart Always Wanders”] by Hans Adolph Brorson, 1732) | Music by Carl Nielsen, 1919 | Performed by the Svanholm Singers, dir. Sofia Söderberg Eberhard, on December, 2010

Forunderligt at sige,
Og sært at tænke paa,
At Kongen til Guds Rige
I Stalden fødes maa,
At Himlens Lys og Ære,
Det levende Guds Ord,
Skal huusvild blandt os være,
Som Armods Søn paa Jord!

Selv Spurven har sin Rede,
Kan bygge der og boe;
En Svale ei tør lede
Om Nattely og Ro;
De vilde Dyr i Hule
Har hver sin egen Vraa:
Skal sig min Frelser skjule
I fremmed Stald paa Straa?

Nei, kom! jeg vil oplukke
Mit Hjerte, Sjæl og Sind,
Ja, bede, synge, sukke:
Kom, Jesus, kom herind!
Det er ei fremmed Bolig,
Du den har dyrekiøbt!
Her skal du hvile rolig,
I Kiærligheden svøbt!

English translation by Jenny Rebecca Rytting, 2012:

How wonderful to sing of,
And strange to think at all,
The sovereign of God’s kingdom
Is born within a stall,
All heaven’s light and honour,
God’s living word, e’en he,
On earth shall homeless wander,
The son of poverty.

The sparrow, with her nesting,
Can build herself a home;
We find the swallow resting,
At night she needn’t roam.
The wild beasts abide in
The burrows where they stay.
Shall then my Saviour hide in
An unknown stall on hay?

No, come, I’ll open to thee
My heart, my soul, my mind.
I’ll pray and sing and sue thee,
“Come, Jesus, come inside!”
For here thou art no stranger;
This home thou dearly bought.
Rest now within this manger
In swaddling love has wrought.

Jenny Rebecca Rytting describes this Danish carol’s complex textual history, starting with its origins in an eighteenth-century carol by the Danish bishop and hymn-writer Hans Adolph Brorson. Brorson’s text has eleven verses; Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig cut it down to six in 1837, adapting these verses but following Brorson’s wording fairly closely. In 1845 Grundtvig made “extensive changes” to his initial reworking of the carol and published it in a booklet of his hymns. Much later, in 1939, the editors of Højskolesangbogen (The Folk High School Songbook) published Grundtvig’s text with only three verses (verses 1, 5, and 6 of his 1845 version). That’s the version that’s most often used today. Rytting has produced an English translation, posted above. For a translation of all six verses, albeit one that’s a bit clumsy, see here (scroll down to #50, “How wonderful to ponder”).

Carl Nielson, widely recognized as Denmark’s most prominent composer, wrote a musical setting for “Förunderligt at sige” in 1914 (in a letter to his wife at the time, he described it as “the most beautiful I have yet composed”), and it was first published in 1919. Cataloged as CNW 165, it is now considered the standard tune for the carol.

The text is inspired in part by Jesus’s words in Matthew 8:20: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” He was born in an out-of-town stable, lived as a stranger in Egypt, and spent years as an itinerant preacher, never staying for too long in any one place. The speaker invites the wandering Christ to take up permanent residence within her, as he has already bought her (Gal. 3:13; 1 Cor. 6:20). Her love, she says, will provide the swaddling, a cozy warmth.

Christmas, Day 7

LOOK: Babe in a Manger by Janpeter Muilwijk

Muilwijk, Janpeter_Babe in a Manger
Janpeter Muilwijk (Dutch, 1960–), Kind in Bakje (Babe in a Manger), 1999. Watercolor and pencil on paper, 58 × 38 cm. Private collection, Netherlands.

LISTEN: “Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace) / Auld Lang Syne” | Arranged and performed by Yo-Yo Ma (cello) and Chris Botti (trumpet), on Songs of Joy & Peace (2008)

The three-word Latin prayer “Dona nobis pacem,” which translates to “Grant us peace,” is part of the Agnus Dei section of the Catholic mass. The traditional melody associated with it likely originated in the sixteenth century.

“Auld Lang Syne” (Old Long Since) uses a traditional Scots folk melody.

In this final track on Yo-Yo Ma and friends’ 2008 holiday album, Ma plays the “Dona Nobis Pacem” theme alone on cello and then is joined by trumpeter Chris Botti playing “Auld Lang Syne” as a countermelody. The two are cozily layered together in an expression of warm wishes for the new year.

Christmas, Day 6

LOOK: Adoration of the Shepherds by Hugo van der Goes

van der Goes, Hugo_Adoration of the Shepherds
Hugo van der Goes (Flemish, ca. 1440–1482), Adoration of the Shepherds, ca. 1480. Oil on oak wood, 99.9 × 248.6 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

After the angel of the Lord announced the birth of the Messiah to a band of shepherds, “they went with haste” to the place where he lay (Luke 2:16). The Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes shows the shepherds’ hurried arrival at the manger. One of them gallops through the door panting, having run from the scene in the upper right corner, and another removes his hat and kneels. Two more stand behind them just outside the shed—one playing a recorder, the other in midclap.

van der Goes, Hugo_Adoration of the Shepherds (detail, Annunciation)
van der Goes, Hugo_Adoration of the Shepherds (detail, shepherds)

In the center of the composition, the Christ child squirms in his makeshift bed, surrounded by his parents, an ox and ass, and a coterie of angels. At the foot of the manger is a sheaf of wheat, an allusion to Jesus as “the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:51) and, by extension, to the Eucharist. This painting, after all, was originally made, most likely, to hang over an altar.

van der Goes, Hugo_Adoration of the Shepherds (detail, Jesus)

In the foreground two men draw open a set of curtains, revealing God made flesh. An actual wooden rod is attached to the panel and painted with rings, enhancing the illusion. Most scholars agree that the men represent Isaiah (left) and Jeremiah (right), Old Testament prophets who foretold Christ (see, e.g., Isa. 7:14; Jer. 23:5–6)—though John Moffitt suggests they are the apostles Mark and Paul, two New Testament personages who specifically associate themselves with a veil as a sign of divine manifestation. Either way, these figures act as intermediaries between the viewer and the depicted narrative, inviting us, like the shepherds, to bear witness to the wondrous mystery of the Incarnation and to respond in adoration.

van der Goes, Hugo_Adoration of the Shepherds (detail, Jeremiah)

This Adoration, sometimes referred to as van der Goes’s Berlin Nativity, is not the artist’s most famous painting on the subject. That would be the central panel of the Portinari Altarpiece, painted a few years earlier.

LISTEN: “Where Shepherds Lately Knelt” | Words by Jaroslav J. Vadja, 1987, © Concordia Publishing House | Music by Carl F. Schalk, 1987, © GIA Publications, Inc. | Performed by Koiné on Emmanuel Lux, 2012

Where shepherds lately knelt and kept the angel’s word,
I come in half-belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred;
but there is room and welcome there for me,
but there is room and welcome there for me.

In that unlikely place I find him as they said:
sweet newborn babe, how frail! and in a manger bed,
a still small voice to cry one day for me,
a still small voice to cry one day for me.

How should I not have known Isaiah would be there,
his prophecies fulfilled? With pounding heart I stare:
a child, a son, the Prince of Peace for me,
a child, a son, the Prince of Peace for me.

Can I, will I forget how Love was born, and burned
its way into my heart, unasked, unforced, unearned,
to die, to live, and not alone for me,
to die, to live, and not alone for me?

Evelyn Underhill on the Incarnation

El Greco_Nativity
El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos) (Greek Spanish, 1541–1614), The Nativity, 1603–5. Oil on canvas, diameter 128 cm. Church vestry, Hospital de la Caridad de Illescas, Villarrobledo, Spain.

We are being shown here [in the Incarnation] something profoundly significant about human life—“God speaks in a Son,” a baby son, and reverses all our pet values. He speaks in our language and shows us his secret beauty on our scale. We have got to begin not by an arrogant other-worldliness, but by a humble recognition that human things can be holy, very full of God, and that high-minded speculations about his nature need not be holy at all; that all life is engulfed in him and he can reach out to us anywhere at any level.

As the Christmas Day gospel takes us back to the mystery of the divine nature—In the beginning was the Word . . .—so let us begin by thinking of what St. Catherine called the “Ocean Pacific of the Godhead” enveloping all life. The depth and richness of his being are entirely unknown to us, poor little scraps as we are! And yet the unlimited life who is Love right through—who loves and is wholly present where he loves, on every plane and at every point—so loved the world as to desire to give his essential thought, the deepest secrets of his heart to this small, fugitive, imperfect creation—to us. That seems immense.

And then the heavens open and what is disclosed? A baby, God manifest in the flesh. The stable, the manger, the straw; poverty, cold, darkness—these form the setting of the divine gift. In this child God gives his supreme message to the soul—Spirit to spirit—but in a human way. Outside in the fields the heavens open and the shepherds look up astonished to find the music and radiance of reality all around them. But inside, our closest contact with that same reality is being offered to us in the very simplest, homeliest way—emerging right into our ordinary life. A baby—just that. We are not told that the Blessed Virgin Mary saw the angels or heard the Gloria in the air. Her initiation had been quite different, like the quiet voice speaking in our deepest prayer—“The Lord is with thee!” “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” Humble self-abandonment is quite enough to give us God.

—Evelyn Underhill, from an address given at the Chelmsford Diocesan Retreat House at Pleshey in May 1932 (published in Light of Christ by Evelyn Underhill, 1945, 2004)

Christmas, Day 5

LOOK: Tibetan Nativity thangka

Nativity thangka
Nativity Thangka, 1998. Painting on silk, 17 × 12 cm. Presented by H.H. the Dalai Lama to the World Community for Christian Meditation and housed at the Bonnevaux Centre for Peace, Marçay, France. Photo: Fr. Laurence Freeman, OSB. https://wccm.org/

A traditional Tibetan art form, a thangka (roughly pronounced tonka; literally “recorded message”) is a painting on a portable fabric scroll of silk or cotton. Traditionally they depict Tibetan Buddhist deities or influential leaders and are used for personal meditation or instruction of monastic students.

This thangka, however, portrays a Christian narrative: the birth of Jesus Christ. He lies on a leafy bed on the ground, surrounded by Mary, Joseph, two yaks, two horses, and an angel who is seated much like a bodhisattva and who plays the dramnyen (a Himalayan six-stringed lute, roughly pronounced dra-nyen). The stylization of the clouds and mountains is clearly Tibetan, whereas the angels seated on the clouds bear Western influence, as does Mary’s gesture of hands crossed reverently over the chest.

The Nativity Thangka was presented by the Dalai Lama in 1998 to the World Community for Christian Meditation, “a global spiritual community united in the practice of meditation in the Christian tradition . . . shar[ing] the fruits of this practice widely and inclusively . . . and building understanding between faiths and cultures.” It is on display at WCCM’s Bonnevaux outside Poitiers, France, a retreat center that is home to a residential community living in the spirit of Saint Benedict.

LISTEN: “Gawala! Gibala!” (O what joy! O what happiness!), a Tibetan Christmas carol | Composer and lyricist unknown | Performed by the WEC UK Resonance band, 2020 [HT: Global Christian Worship]  

Téring Gyamgön trungsong
Gawala!
Gyamgön Yeshu trungsong
Gibala!

Gawala! Gibala!

The Savior’s born on this day
Gawala!
The Savior Jesus is born
Gibala!

Gawala! Gibala!

He was born in Bethlehem
Gawala!
He was in a stable
Gibala!

Gawala! Gibala!

Shepherds saw the angels
Gawala!
Bringing news of great joy
Gibala!

Gawala! Gibala!

From the East a star rose
Gawala!
Showing where the road lay
Gibala!

Gawala! Gibala!

From the fields came shepherds
Gawala!
Shepherds sang their praise songs
Gibala!

Gawala! Gibala!

From the East came wise men
Gawala!
Offering gold and silver
Gibala!

Gawala! Gibala!

Angels filled the heavens
Gawala!
Singing songs of gladness
Gibala!

Gawala! Gibala!

The day of joy has risen
Gawala!
Songs of beauty sounding
Gibala!

Gawala! Gibala!

Gibä nyima sharsong
Gawala!
Nyenbä luyang langsong
Gibala!

Ian Collinge, the man leading this song in the video above, is an ethnomusicologist who trains people in cross-cultural and multicultural music at All Nations Christian College and London School of Theology. In addition, he and his wife, Helen, lead Arts Release, a ministry of WEC International that they founded in 2008. One of its initiatives is Resonance [previously], a multicultural collective of Christian musicians formed in the UK in 2011 with the aim of integrating songs from the global church into the Western worship repertoire. The Resonance band raises awareness of the beautifully rich diversity of musical expressions that exist around the world to praise the Triune God of the Bible.

Collinge learned “Gawala! Gibala!” while living in Nepal in the 1990s doing music research, which is also when he learned to play the dramnyen. Besides the dramnyen, the recording also uses a Tibetan instrument called the erkha, small pellet-bells that are sometimes attached to the legs and used in dancing or are otherwise played unattached to clothing, as here.

“I can easily imagine this song being done as a dance song, especially as a circle dance,” Collinge tells me. “I am playing it in the Southern Tibetan dramnyen style, distinguished by this tuning and introduction/ending and links patterns, and I have arranged it in the typical slow then fast section format.”

Addendum, 12/30/21: After reading this post, a friend of mine sent me a video of one of her friends, Migmar Dondup Sherpa, playing the same song on the dramnyen! I post it here with his permission. Sherpa is a worship leader at his church in Nepal, and he also writes original worship songs in Nepali and Tibetan.

“After Luke 2:19” by Michelle Ortega

Mantegna, Andrea_Madonna with Sleeping Child
Andrea Mantegna (Italian, 1431–1506), Madonna with Sleeping Child, ca. 1465. Tempera on canvas, 16 1/2 × 12 1/2 in. (42 × 32 cm). Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.

She took it all in: the shepherds and the royal and learned
men with their prophecies and proclamations. Resting among
common beasts, nipples sore and womb-ached, she smiled at
their praise—but her awe had begun with the angel’s decree.
At the mysterious life-pulse deep inside her. When flicker-
kicks strengthened to rolls and turns, elbows and heels in her
ribs. As buttocks bounced on her bladder.

The brightest star above them—a wondrous sign, but no
more miraculous than when, far from her mother and the
other village women, the flesh of her depth awakened and she
willed the baby from contentment into a harsh night. His cry
pierced the darkness, then quieted as, pressed to her breast,
he found her heartbeat again.

“After Luke 2:19” by Michelle Ortega, reproduced here by the author’s permission, was written for the 2021–22 exhibition Mary, Mary: Contemporary Poets and Artists Consider Mary at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia. Ortega is the author of the chapbooks Don’t Ask Why (Seven Kitchens Press, 2020) and Tissue Memory (Porkbelly Press, forthcoming).

Christmas, Day 1

LOOK: Nativity by Linda Syddick Napaltjarri

Syddick Napaltjarri, Linda_Nativity
Linda Syddick Napaltjarri (Pintupi, ca. 1937–2021), Nativity, 2003. Acrylic on linen, 37 × 48 in. The Ahmanson Collection, Los Angeles.

Linda Syddick (Aboriginal name Tjunkiya Wukula Napaltjarri) (ca. 1937–2021) was a Pintupi artist from Australia’s Western Desert region whose work was influenced by her Christian and Indigenous beliefs and heritage. Living a seminomadic lifestyle until the age of eight or nine, she settled with her family at the Lutheran Mission at Haasts Bluff in the 1940s. She was taught to paint in the 1980s by her uncles Uta Uta Tjangala and Nosepeg Tjupurrula, who were both significant figures in the Papunya Tula art movement. She painted Tingari and biblical stories and was a three-time finalist for the prestigious Blake Prize, a religious art competition. Her works are held by the National Gallery of Australia, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Art Gallery of South Australia, and many other institutions.

In Syddick’s 2003 Nativity, a series of wavy, concentric blue and white lines encompass Joseph, baby Jesus, and Mary, while many more lines in blue and beige converge on the trio from the image’s border. To me the artwork conveys a vibrating joy! And myriad pathways leading to the birth of the Savior.

Jesus is the centerpiece of the composition, a little tot represented geometrically as a circle. What do you see in this form? A sun? An egg? A pebble thrown into a lake, sending ripples outward? A reverberant well?

LISTEN: “Shout Your Joy” | Original German words by Johannes David Falk, 1816 (stanza 1), and Heinrich Holzschuher, 1826 (stanzas 2–3) | English translator unknown | Music by Reindeer Tribe, 2011

O thou joyous day! O thou holy day!
Gladsome Christmas is here again!

O thou joyous day! O thou holy day!
Gladsome Christmas is here again!
When the world was rent and torn,
Christ was born on Christmas morn!
Shout your joy to all the world!
Shout your joy to all the world!

O thou joyous day! O thou holy day!
Gladsome Christmas is here again!
Christ now is living, his mercy giving.
Shout your joy to all the world!
Shout your joy to all the world!

O thou joyous day! O thou holy day!
Gladsome Christmas is here again!
Choirs of angels singing, joy and honor bringing,
Shout your joy to all the world!
Shout your joy to all the world!

This song by Reindeer Tribe has its origins in a tri-holiday hymn written in German in 1816 by Johannes David Falk. Falk wrote one stanza for each of the three main festivals of the church year—Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost—for the use of the children at the orphans’ school he ran in Weimar, paired with a preexisting tune known as O SANCTISSIMA or SICILIAN MARINERS. After Falk’s death, in 1826, his assistant Heinrich Holzschuher isolated the Christmas stanza and added two additional stanzas, turning it into a carol, known by its opening phrase, “O du Fröhliche” (O Thou Joyous [Day]). This Christmas carol is still widely sung in Germany today. 

O du fröhliche, o du selige,
gnadenbringende Weihnachtszeit!
Welt ging verloren, Christ ist geboren:
Freue, freue dich, o Christenheit!

O du fröhliche, o du selige,
gnadenbringende Weihnachtszeit!
Christ ist erschienen, uns zu versöhnen:
Freue, freue dich, o Christenheit!

O du fröhliche, o du selige,
gnadenbringende Weihnachtszeit!
Himmlische Heere jauchzen Dir Ehre:
Freue, freue dich, o Christenheit!

Reindeer Tribe chose one of the several available English translations (translator unknown) and wrote new music for it that really captures its celebratory spirit. They add a repeat of the last line of each stanza and call the song “Shout Your Joy.” If you’re looking for recordings in English that use the traditional tune, you can search under “O Thou Joyful Day” or “Oh How Joyfully.” For alternative English translations, which each has merit, see here, here, and (by Beale M. Schmucker) here.