Dawning Light (Artful Devotion)

Tutin, Judith_Breaking
Judith Tutin (Irish, 1979–), Breaking, 2011. Diptych, St. Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland.

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.

—Isaiah 9:1–5

Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

—Matthew 4:12–17

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SONG: “The Dawning Light” by James Ward, 1998 (CCLI 4200451)

 

This song was recorded live in 1998 at the Resurrection Youth Convention in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The MP3 can be downloaded for free, along with sheet music, at http://ncfmusic.com/resource/dawning-light/.

For a previously featured James Ward song, see the Artful Devotion “Death Is Ended.”

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The Jewish prophet Isaiah was active during the Assyrian captivity in the second half of the eighth century B.C. The Israelite lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were, along with Gilead in Transjordan, the first to fall to Assyria; the people were deported, and their lands became Assyrian provinces. But these three areas, according to Isaiah 9:1, would also be the first to see the dawning of a glorious new era, where the people step out of darkness and desolation into the fruits of God’s victory, and all military equipment is cast once and for all into an enormous bonfire, for war is over, and oppression is no more.

In The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, biblical scholar J. Alec Motyer emphasizes how Isaiah 9:2–5 is couched in past tenses, even though what it describes has not yet occurred:

The future is written as something which has already happened, for it belonged to the prophetic consciousness of men like Isaiah to cast themselves forward in time and then look back on the mighty acts of God, saying to us: ‘Look forward to it, it is certain, he has already done it!’ Because of this confidence, Isaiah can place the light of 9:1ff. in immediate proximity to the darkness of 8:22, not because it will immediately happen but because it is immediately evident to the eye of faith; those walking in the darkness can see the light ahead and are sustained by hope. . . .

Isaiah insists here that hope is a present reality, part of the constitution of the ‘now’. The darkness is true but it is not the whole truth and certainly not the fundamental truth. (98–99)


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, cycle A, click here.

Stomp (Artful Devotion)

Treading the Basilisk by Brian Kershisnik
Brian Kershisnik (American, 1962–), Treading the Basilisk, 2003. Oil on panel, 85 × 32 in.

Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—
the Most High, who is my refuge—
no evil shall be allowed to befall you,
no plague come near your tent.

. . .

You will tread on the lion and the adder;
the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.

“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him;
I will protect him, because he knows my name . . .”

—Psalm 91:9–10, 13–14

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SONG: “Anyataka” (Victory), a Congolese folk song | Performed by New City Fellowship, July 21, 2013

This video is from a Sunday worship service at New City Fellowship (previously here and here), a multicultural church in St. Louis, Missouri. The church contains a fair number of immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo, including on its leadership team, which has led it to partner with churches in the DRC, a relationship of mutual encouragement. “Anyataka” was introduced to the congregation by Athoms Mbuma, a visiting pastor and musician from Kinshasa and a member of the popular Congolese worship band Le Groupe Adorons L’Éternel (GAEL).

Anyati Satana lelo! (“We stomp on Satan!”), sing the worshippers, miming the action with gusto. “Victory! We have victory in Jesus.” And the refrain: “Yahweh, you reign.”

Click here for a leadsheet, as well as music for trumpet, alto sax, flute, and trombone.

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Many Christians read Psalm 91 as a messianic psalm, prophesying Christ’s victory over Satan. (Visual theologians included: check out the fascinating super aspidem motif, aka “Christ treading on the beasts.”) But it can also be applied more broadly, as the psalmist no doubt intended, to the people of God.

An adder, or viper, is a venomous snake; the word is sometimes alternately translated as “asp,” “cobra,” or even “basilisk,” a mythical reptile. According to the ESV Study Bible commentary, “The lion and the adder are probably images for people bent on harming the faithful (cf. Ps. 58:3–6; Deut. 32:33), or perhaps the demonic agents that inspire the harm.” I’m reminded of Luke 10:19 (cf. 9:1), where Jesus delegates his power over demons to his disciples: “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.”

The Christian’s power over evil is rooted in the very power of Christ, who by his death and resurrection has vanquished the Enemy. Now we, too, can put evil under our feet.

Both works of art in this post—the painting by Kershisnik and the Congolese worship song—are inspired by Psalm 91 (the song a little less directly), but they approach it with different tones. The song is very exultant, heightened by a demonstrative performance in which the singers enact the victory of which they sing. By contrast, the figure in the painting is very matter-of-fact about her crushing of the snake; by the power of the word (signified doubly by the book in one hand and the sword in the other), she quietly and assuredly renders it powerless. She appears completely undisturbed by the incident; it barely registers!

Both responses to the text are, I think, appropriate. Christ’s victory, which he grants to us, ought to elicit our loud and happy praise, befitting the context of a worship gathering. But what Kershisnik gives us in this private devotional painting is a calm assurance that in our day-to-day, when the Enemy rears its head, we need not fear one bit; we can carry on unfazed because the battle has already been won—we merely need to claim the victory.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for the First Sunday in Lent, cycle C, click here.