You can hear this song—and twelve others—on “Anonymous 4: The Sacred Harp,” a Saint Paul Sunday radio broadcast that aired on American Public Media in September 2006. The entire concert-interview is worth a listen, or you can skip to 7:49.
This Sunday Christians will celebrate Pentecost, the historic giving of the Holy Spirit to all believers in Jesus Christ and thus the birthday of the church.
Before it was the name of a Christian holiday, Pentecost (Heb. Shavuot) was celebrated annually by the Jewish people in honor of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Jews still celebrate it today, fifty days after Passover—hence the name Pentecost (“pente” = five). (Appropriately, Christian Pentecost occurs fifty days after Easter.) Because of the importance of the feast, ancient Jews traveled from all over the known world to their religious capital, Jerusalem, for the occasion, and that’s what we see in Acts 2—a multiregional, multilinguistic gathering. Continue reading ““Not as a dove…”: Two Pentecost poems by Mark DeBolt”→
Ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven (and fifty days after his resurrection), his Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, manifesting as “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3). This miraculous gift enabled the apostles to speak in languages foreign to them but native to the many Jews from abroad who were gathered in Jerusalem for Shavuot (called “Pentecost” by Hellenized Jews), a festival of giving thanks for the harvest and for God’s provision of the Torah. For the first time the gospel of Jesus Christ was proclaimed to a global audience. Three thousand people came to faith that day, and the Christian church was born.
The Spirit is still at work in the dissemination of the good news today, breathing life into cultures all over the world and thereby building up an incredibly diverse body of Christ.
As at Pentecost, Parthians, Medes and Elamites heard the message, “every man in his own tongue wherein he was born,” so we see Chinese and Japanese and Indians expressing Christianity’s universal language, each with his own brush. For when the spirit of God descends upon any people, new forms of beauty appear, new artistic gifts are revealed, adding another testimony to the universality of the Christian faith.
Since the publication of this book almost seventy years ago, Christianity has grown exponentially in Asia, as have indigenous artistic expressions of the faith. In 1975 Japanese theologian and arts advocate Masao Takenaka published the heavily illustrated book Christian Art in Asia, highlighting the robust variety being produced on the continent. Three years later the Asian Christian Art Association was founded to encourage the exchange of ideas between Asian artists and theologians. Their magazine, Image (not to be confused with the Seattle-based quarterly), has showcased local talents even further. Dozens more books have been published in English on individual Asian artists, countries, and the Asian Christian art movement in general. For the latter, see the beautifully designed The Christian Story: Five Asian Artists Today, plus The Bible Through Asian Eyes.
Below is a sampling of Asian art on the theme of Pentecost. Some works were made using traditional art forms or techniques—Chinese papercutting, Japanese flower arranging (ikebana) or stencil printing (kappazuri), Indian cloth dyeing (batik)—while other artists have chosen to work in oils and acrylics, collage, or glass. Some depict native people and settings—for example, Thai dancers wrapped in sabai, or a group sitting under a thatched roof in Indonesia—while others prefer ethnic and geographic ambiguity. There’s no single style that epitomizes the art of any country.
The macabre vision that God gives Ezekiel in 37:1–14 is to me one of the most compelling in all of scripture. In it God brings Ezekiel to a valley filled with dried-up human bones (the aftermath of a battle) and commands him to prophesy life to the bones. As he does, they start to reassemble into human shapes, then they grow tissue, then flesh. But they have no breath. So Ezekiel invokes the Spirit of God to come fill the corpses, and when the Spirit does, the corpses transform into live beings.
The dry bones in the vision represent the hopelessness of divided, dispersed Israel. She was “dead” as a nation, deprived of her land, her king, and her temple. But God promises to restore Israel physically and spiritually. The reanimation of the dry bones is a sign of that promise.
Christian theologians interpret this vision as being fulfilled by the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2, to permanently indwell believers and so give them new life. Jesus Christ came as both king and temple for Israel, and founder of the New Jerusalem, and when he ascended to heaven he left his Spirit (pneuma, breath) on earth to continue his resurrection work.
I am standing in a valley filled with dead, dry bones
I don’t know if they could ever live again
He says, “I am calling you from your grave.
You will know I am Lord when I bring you from the dead.”
Rise up, dry bones Breathe the air, live again Rise up, dry bones Death shall be master over you no more
I am standing in the valley when the Lord God says,
“Prophesy, son of man, over the dead,
For their bones dried up, and their hope is lost,
But they will know I am God when I bring them from their graves.”
Oh Breath, breathe on these slain
That they may live
Oh Breath, breathe on these slain
That they may live
All God’s people have their own personal resurrection narratives, and Osborn’s “Dry Bones” speaks to those. Before Christ, we were dead in sin, unwhole. But Christ breathed life into us, just like God did at Creation (Genesis 2:7), bringing us up out of the valley of death. In this mighty act of re-creation, Christ’s power is made known.
Still, even after receiving the gift of Christ’s Spirit, we sometimes experience periods of deadness. Things happen that obscure for us the reality of love and life that is at the center of the universe. This song can be used to sing through those valleys. We can ask God to bring us back to life, to revive us just as he did all those skeleton heaps before Ezekiel’s wonder-filled eyes.
The sixth-century illuminated Syriac manuscript known as the Rabbula Gospels (after the signed name of its scribe) contains one of the earliest depictions of Christ’s ascension into heaven. A full-page miniature, it illustrates the narrative from Acts 1:6–11—but not strictly.
One embellishment to the story is the centralized presence of Mary on the bottom level. She is not mentioned in the biblical account of the event, but her attendance was likely. Here she stands in a frontal, orant pose and, unlike the other disciples, is nimbed. Whereas those around her are wracked with confusion, she understands the deep mysteries of her son’s birth, death, resurrection, and ascension, and she stands ready for his return.
Among the crowd is the apostle Paul—an anachronistic insertion, as his conversion occurred after the Ascension. The book he holds, signifying his contributions to the New Testament, is one of his identifying attributes.
The “two men . . . in white robes” mentioned in Acts 1:10 are interpreted as angels.