Advent, Day 3: Come Christmas

LOOK: Home by Olya Kravchenko

Kravchenko, Olya_Home
Olya Kravchenko (Ukrainian, 1985–), Home, 2012. Egg tempera on gessoed board, 29 × 39.9 cm.

This painting shows a cottage on a snowy hillside at night. Inside, a fire is lit in the hearth, casting a warm glow and sending smoke rising up the chimney. There’s a cat in the window and a sled on the lawn.

On all sides, the sky is populated by a mystical swirl of birds and flowery tendrils and angelic beings. Two of those angels, represented by large golden heads, hold wisps of snow in their hands and embrace the house, offering a protective presence.

Sadly, this cozy winter idyll is elusive for many this year, not least those in Ukraine, where this painting comes from. Many Ukrainians have had to flee their homes to evade the encroaching Russian troops. Others are dealing with the trauma of having lost family members in the war, or the fear of having loved ones on the front line.

Kravchenko told me this month that the situation in her country is “terrifying and unfathomable,” and she alerted me to a few of the recent icons she has painted in response to the war, including Air Defense, The one who protects the sky above the city, Crucifixion in War, and The Virgin of Peace and Victory. Follow her on Instagram @olyakravchenkoart.

LISTEN: “Jul, Jul, Strålande Jul” (Christmas, Christmas, Glorious Christmas) | Words by Edvard Evers, 1921 | Music by Gustaf Nordqvist, 1921 | Performed by Zero8 on A Zero8 Christmas, 2011 (YouTube: 2016)

Jul, jul, strålande jul, glans över vita skogar,
himmelens kronor med gnistrande ljus,
glimmande bågar i alla Guds hus,
psalm som är sjungen från tid till tid,
eviga längtan till ljus och frid!
Jul, jul, strålande jul, glans över vita skogar!

Kom, kom, signade jul! Sänk dina vita vingar,
över stridernas blod och larm,
över all suckan ur människobarm,
över de släkten som gå till ro,
över de ungas dagande bo!
Kom, kom, signade jul, sänk dina vita vingar!

English translation by Michael A. Lowry:

Christmas, Christmas, glorious Christmas: shine over white forests,
heavenly crowns with sparkling lights,
glimmering arcs in the houses of God,
hymns that are sung throughout the ages,
eternal longing for light and peace!
Christmas, Christmas, glorious Christmas, shine over white forests!

Come, come, blessed Christmas: lower your white wings,
over the battlefield’s blood and cry,
over the sighs from the bosoms of men,
over the loved ones who’ve gone to their rest,
over the daybreak of newborn life!
Come, come, blessed Christmas: lower your white wings!

“Jul, Jul, Strålande Jul” is one of the most widely sung Swedish Christmas songs. It personifies Christmas as a luminous winged being, asks it to descend over our wooded neighborhoods and over our songs and our longings, dispensing blessing; to extinguish our wars and raging and spread its comforts over our anxieties and losses; and to cradle the new lives that have been born this year, reminders of innocence and signs of hope for a future.

A Spacious Place (Artful Devotion)

Kravchenko, Olya_Landscape
Landscape painting by Olya Kravchenko, 2016

. . . you have brought us out to a spacious place.

—Psalm 66:12 RSV

I will be glad and rejoice in your love, for you saw my affliction and knew the anguish of my soul. You have not given me into the hands of the enemy but have set my feet in a spacious place.

—Psalm 31:7–8 NIV

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MUSIC: “Restoration Sketches” by Daniel Martin Moore, on Stray Age (2008)

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God has brought us out to “a spacious place,” the psalmist says in Sunday’s lectionary reading from Psalm 66—also translated as “a wealthy place,” “a watered place,” “a wide open place,” or “a place of abundance.” I love that phrase, “a spacious place.” In our English Bibles, it’s used also in Psalm 31 (though the Hebrew words are different).

Psalm 31:7–8 first stood in relief for me when, spurred by a loved one’s cancer diagnosis, I read Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ by J. Todd Billings. He opens the book with a meditation on these two verses:

One thing about the experience of being diagnosed with cancer is that it feels like a narrowing, a tightening, rather than “a spacious place” to dwell. . . . It feels a bit like the lights in distant rooms are turning off or, rather, flickering. They were rooms that you were just assuming would be there for you to pass through in future years. The space starts to feel more constricted, narrowed. . . .

In light of all this, it is important to remember a distinctive entryway that Christians have into this Psalm—that through God’s victory, our feet have been placed in “a spacious place.” Ultimately, to be and to dwell in Christ is to dwell in the most “spacious place” imaginable. In our culture, to focus one’s trust and affection on one hope—Jesus Christ—strikes many as narrow or risky. But because of who Jesus Christ is [the Alpha and Omega, and the One in whom all things hold together], to dwell in him is to occupy a wide, expansive place. (5)

This word, merchâb—“spacious place” or “large room”—is also found in 2 Samuel 22:20, Psalm 18:19, Psalm 118:5, and Hosea 4:16, where it denotes a place of openness, safety, and freedom.

Since reading Billings’s personal take on Psalm 31:7–8, whenever I feel like walls are closing in on me, whenever I feel pressed down by circumstances, I visualize a wide-open space and myself standing smack-dab in the middle of it, to remind myself that in Christ, there is freedom, there is freshness, there is an infinitely wide ground to stand on. However constricted we might feel in the moment, we must remember, as our spiritual forebears have testified in scripture, that our huge God leads us out of constriction and into a spacious place. Our circumstances might not change, but our spirits, through the Spirit, can know rest and relief.


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 Proper 23, cycle C, click here.

Shine Like a Star (Artful Devotion)

Saints by Olya Kravchenko
Icon by Olya Kravchenko (Ukrainian, 1985–)

“And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
—Daniel 12:3

“On that day the Lord their God will save them,
as the flock of his people;
for like the jewels of a crown
they shall shine on his land.”
—Zechariah 9:16

“Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”
—Matthew 13:43

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SONG: “Shine Like a Star in the Morning” | American folk song, adapted by Elizabeth Mitchell from a string trio arrangement by Ruth Crawford Seeger | Performed by Elizabeth Mitchell, Simi Stone, and friends on The Sounding Joy (2013)

Though passed off as a Christmas song on this Smithsonian Folkways album, “Shine Like a Star in the Morning” seems to me especially fitting for All Saints’ Day (November 1), as it draws on those biblical passages that equate righteousness with heavenly resplendence. “Shine, shine all around the throne of God,” the song goes.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his poem “The Starlight Night,” makes the same connection:

Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in the dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . Christ and his mother and all his hallows.


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.

Matthew 13:43 belongs to the Gospel lection for July 23, 2017 (Proper 11, cycle A). To read the passage in full, along with the week’s three other Revised Common Lectionary scripture passages, click here.