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.

Roundup: Giotto projections, global Christmas music playlist, Sakhnini Brothers concert, sacred lettering, deep incarnation

PROJECTION MAPPING INSTALLATION: Il Natale di Francesco (The Christmas of Francis): Last year the Sacro Convento in Assisi, a Franciscan friary, initiated an architectural lighting project called Il Natale di Francesco that featured projections of Christmas-themed frescoes by Giotto from the Lower Basilica of St. Francis onto several of the city’s landmark churches. Architect Mario Cucinella served as artistic director, and the company Enel X realized the installation, which ran throughout Advent and Christmastide, from December 8, 2020, to January 6, 2021 (and I hear it’s been reprised this year!). The pièce de résistance was the projection of Giotto’s Nativity onto the facade of the Upper Basilica of St. Francis. Other projections included the Annunciation on the Cathedral of San Rufino, the Visitation on the Basilica of Saint Clare, and the Adoration of the Magi on the abbey church of San Pietro in Valle—all images adapted using advanced technology to suit the spaces they illuminated.

Annunciation projection

Other components of the installation included frescoed stars from the main basilica’s vaults projected onto the streets; a re-creation of Giotto’s scenes with dozens of sculpted figures, including the addition of a masked nurse at the crèche in honor of all the frontline healthcare workers serving during the COVID-19 crisis; and every thirty minutes a video-mapping show that offered views of the basilica’s interior. I so love the creativity of bringing the sacred art treasures of the church out into the town squares when the pandemic necessitated church closures.

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VIRTUAL CONCERT: Christmas with the Sakhnini Brothers: The Sakhnini Brothers are Adeeb, Elia, and Yazeed, three Arabic-speaking brothers from Nazareth who are followers of Jesus. They play about twenty instruments collectively but specialize in piano, oud, and violin, respectively, and love to blend modern Western and ancient Middle Eastern musical styles.

In this half-hour living room concert that premiered December 13, they are joined by vocalist Nareen Farran, pianist Sireen Elias, and percussionist Firas Haddad. They perform an instrumental rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”; “Amano Morio” (With Us the Lord), a traditional hymn from the Syriac Maronite liturgy, whose lyrics translate to “The Lord is with us day and night”; “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in Arabic; “Sobhan Al Kalima” (Glory to the Word), another traditional hymn in Syriac (see YouTube video description for full English translation); “Mary, Did You Know”; and “Laylet Eid” (Christmas Eve), a song by Fairuz to the tune of “Jingle Bells.” Their arrangements are fantastic! (You especially have to hear what they do with that closing number; I can’t stop smiling.)

You can support the Sakhnini Brothers on Patreon and follow them on Facebook.

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PLAYLIST: Global Christmas Music YouTube Playlist: At the request of Inspiro Arts Alliance, my friend Paul Neeley, an ethnodoxologist blogging at Global Christian Worship, has curated a playlist of twenty-eight Christmas songs from around the world. Languages include French, Yoruba, English, Arabic, Gaelic, Huron, Norwegian, Nepali, German, Hindi, Thai, Italian, Urdu, Spanish, Pangasinan (Philippines), Zulu, Korean, and Swahili. Here are just two videos from the list: “The Greatest Gift,” an original rock song by Sinn Patchai from Thailand, and “Don Oíche Úd i mBeithil” (That Night in Bethlehem), a traditional Irish carol performed by Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh.

Neeley also put together a listening guide so that you can follow along with the lyrics.

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VIRTUAL EXHIBITION: Visual Music: Calligraphy and Sacred Texts, Henry Luce III Center for the Arts & Religion: “‘Form,’ wrote Jewish-American artist Ben Shahn, ‘is the very shape of content.’ Shahn’s statement serves as the guiding principle for this exhibit. Each of these fifteen pieces, all by living artists, is a calligraphic interpretation of a text sacred to Jews, Christians, or both. Each artist has pondered their chosen text, explored it inside and outside, and provided their own rendition of it—their own ‘translation’ into visual form.”

Jonathan Homrighausen, a doctoral student in Hebrew Bible at Duke University who writes and researches at the intersection of Hebrew Bible, calligraphic art, and scribal craft, has curated this wonderful online art exhibition for the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts & Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. I spent hours viewing all the rich content on the website, including Homrighausen’s illuminating commentaries (which take us beyond a simplistic “ooh, pretty” response), and following links to learn more. From the exhibition homepage you can click on any of the images for a detailed description, detail photos, embedded videos and music, and suggested articles for further reading.

Also check out the video presentation Homrighausen gave on December 12 for the Jewish Art Salon in New York City in which he discusses five of the Hebrew Bible–based pieces on display, plus two that render rabbinic quotes. The Q&A that follows is moderated by Jewish calligrapher Judith Joseph.

Since many of my blog readers will have just read Mary’s Magnificat from Luke 1 this past Sunday (it’s one of the assigned lections for Advent 4) and we’re just a few days away from the feast of Christmas, let me share these two timely images from the exhibition:

Wenham, Martin_Magnificat (front and back)
Martin Wenham (British, 1941–), Magnificat (front and back), 2008. Paint on found pinewood, 84 × 8 1/2 in.

Ling, Manny_In the beginning was the word
Manny Ling (Chinese, 1966–), ‘In the beginning was the word’ (John 1:1), 2018. Chinese ink on paper, 11 11/16 × 16 1/2 in.

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VISUAL MEDITATION: “An Icon of Deep Incarnation” by John A. Kohan: Art collector John A. Kohan reflects on the painting Madonna of the Woods by Cypriot artist Charalambos Epaminonda, a variation on the Virgin Hodegetria type. “God took on human flesh and entered creation not just to bring you and me personal salvation or rescue the human race from sin and death, but to restore and renew the entire earth and all that is therein. Contemporary theologians in our age of ecological awareness call this concept ‘deep incarnation’ . . .”

Epaminonda, Charalambos_Madonna of the Woods
Charalambos Epaminonda (Cypriot, 1962–), Madonna of the Woods, 2011. Acrylic on canvas, 46 × 29 cm. Sacred Art Pilgrim Collection.

Advent, Day 20

LOOK: The Nativity by Christopher Ruane

Ruane, Christopher_Nativity
Christopher Ruane (American, 1981–), The Nativity, 2014. C-print, 52 × 48 in. Click the link to zoom in.

This image by photographer and composite artist Christopher Ruane sets the Nativity of Christ on an urban street corner marked “Bethlehem” and casts racially diverse models in the biblical roles. Mary sits on the hood of an old beat-up car holding her sweet newborn with a protective grip—she has presumably just given birth in the backseat. She’s wrapped in a blue afghan, the color traditionally associated with the Virgin. Joseph leans over, gazing proudly at his new baby son. Instead of the traditional cow and donkey looking on, there’s a spotted dog.

In the foreground are the three “wise men,” which here are two men and a woman, offering their gifts to the family. One man brings a candle; another, a rose. A wealthier woman in a fur coat brings gold jewelry. They stand or kneel on the sidewalk before this miracle baby who will be their deliverer, the way strewn with flower petals.

In the middle ground are three young unhoused people around a trashcan fire, standing in for the shepherds. A cloud of steam rises up out of a manhole before their eyes and coalesces with a heavenly apparition, come to personally announce to them the Messiah’s birth.

Ruane, Christopher_Nativity (detail)

In the windows of the apartment building in the background are various people occupied with various activities. In one room a couple is engaging in sexual foreplay. Across the way, a man is vegging out in front of a TV. One woman, whose closet is spilling over with clothes, is hugging her collection of designer shoes.

Ruane, Christopher_Nativity (detail)

These represent different values or dependencies—for example, materialism, a literal clinging to one’s possessions. But there’s also pain.

On the top floor there’s a young man in a hoodie with a black eye. Maybe he’s abused by his father. Or bullied at school. Or in too deep with a gang. Either way, he is bitter and angry and scared and distrustful and has a gun.

Ruane, Christopher_Nativity (gunman detail)

Christ was born into this world of hurt and false loves. He came to call us out of the darkness of these and into light, to give us abundant life in God. The bright star above beckons us all to follow the light to the feet of Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us. 

LISTEN: “American Noel” by Dave Carter, 1994 | Performed by Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer on American Noel, 2008

Three wise men ridin’ hard through the cold
Lost on some big city street with no place warm to go
They are lookin’ for a manger, or a sign in the lights
But they’re a long way from Bethlehem tonight

But they heard about a savior
And a preacher in the park
Who will camp with the homeless
Where they shiver in the dark
He’ll deliver salvation
To the weary and the cold
And he’ll bring joy, joy, joy to the wanderin’ soul

The cleaning lady sighs as she closes up the gate
This job don’t quite pay the bills, and she’s always workin’ late
But all in a moment comes a light from above
It’s an angel speaking words of joy and love

And he tells her of a savior
And a preacher in the park
Who will camp with the homeless
Under bridges in the dark
He’ll deliver salvation
To the weary and the cold
And he’ll bring joy, joy, joy to the wanderin’ soul

Four in the mornin’ at the Tradewinds Motel
The register reads, “All Full Up,” and the clerk thinks, “Just as well”
But out in the toolshed by an old Coleman lamp
A little family makes its meager camp

And the wise men bring presents
And the angels gather round
The cleaning lady slips in through the door without a sound
And an old black dog looks on with the rest
At the little babe upon his mother’s breast

And there comes a savior (Joy to the world)
And a preacher in the park (The Lord is come)
And he camps with the homeless (Let earth)
Where they shiver in the dark (Receive her king)
He delivers salvation
To the weary and the cold (Let every heart sing)
And he brings joy, joy, joy to the wanderin’ soul
He brings joy, joy, joy to the wanderin’ soul

The American folk music singer-songwriter Dave Carter was one half of the duo Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, active from 1998 until Carter’s unexpected death in 2002. His songs have been covered by Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Willie Nelson, and others, and Grammer posthumously released several previously unreleased songs by Carter, including “American Noel.” She and Carter recorded the song sometime between 1999 and 2001 for a series of employee holiday gift compilations commissioned by the president of a hardware store chain.

Like Ruane’s digital photomontage, “American Noel” imagines the Incarnation happening on the margins of a modern American city, attracting low-wage workers and transients, among others. Jesus pitches his tent among the exhausted and despairing, “the weary and the cold,” coming not as an outsider but as one who will know struggle firsthand. His childhood, to say nothing of his adulthood, is marked by sudden flight from his homeland to escape a tyrannical king and by an upbringing in a country not his own.

Virtual Lessons and Carols Service (jazz style)

City Church San Francisco put on a really enjoyable Lessons and Carols service last year, which was all-virtual given the COVID restrictions. Livestreamed December 13, 2020, it features guest vocalist Nicolas Bearde, the City Church Jazz Quintet (Patrick Wolff on tenor sax, Mike Olmos on trumpet, Marcus Shelby on bass, Adam Shulman on piano, and Jeff Mars on drums) with Karl Digerness, and a children’s ensemble. Here’s the abbreviated version I recommend, which is forty-five minutes:

The following songs are interspersed with scripture readings (the links will take you to the extracted song video on YouTube):

I suggest you light the fireplace (if you’re in a wintry clime, that is!), grab some hot cocoa, and gather the fam on the couch to give a listen together. Lyrics are printed onscreen for a few of the carols, for you to sing along with.  

Or, perhaps you want to play the video while you’re doing some holiday baking!

The fuller-blown service, which is ninety minutes, includes a time of offering, a homily, communion, responsive prayers, church announcements, and a few additional songs and instrumental numbers that I’ve embedded below.

“I Wonder as I Wander” (instrumental prelude):

“Go Tell It on the Mountain!”:

“Joy to the World”:

“O Tannenbaum” (instrumental postlude):

The City Church Little Big Band produced a Christmas jazz album in 2012, Go Tell It!, that includes recordings of many of the arrangements you hear here. Check it out.