Roundup: “O Children, Come”; the Christmas story through news photos; Messiaen and the Incarnation; art from Bethlehem; nativity musical soundtrack

SONG: “O Children, Come” by Keith and Kristyn Getty: The Gettys are an Irish married couple who are major contributors to the modern Christian hymn-writing movement. I really enjoyed singing this song of theirs at church last week (CCLI 7036340); it was my first time hearing it. The acoustic performance below is from the Gettys’ 2015 Christmas concert. They’ve also recorded it with Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

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PHOTO ESSAY: “Alternative Nativity”: Kezia M’Clelland works with children affected by conflict in the Middle East and raises public awareness through her blog, Kezia Here and There. In 2015 she compiled news photos that document the refugee crisis and set them to excerpts from St. Matthew’s account of Christ’s birth and the prologue to St. John’s Gospel—a very powerful pairing that gives impetus to our Advent cry, “Come, Lord Jesus!” This is not a generic mashup; each photo was carefully selected to amplify a corresponding scripture text.

Alternative nativity1
“About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for.” (Photo via Reuters. Displaced Yazidis escape across the Syrian border by foot, fleeing violence from the Islamic State militants who have taken over their home town of Sinjar.)
Alternative nativity2
“So Joseph went to Bethlehem. He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was obviously pregnant by this time.” (Photo via Al Jazeera. A refugee father with his pregnant wife and daughter asks for permission to enter into Hungary near Roszke as the border fence with Serbia is closed by Hungarian police.)

For each subsequent Advent, M’Clelland has released something in a similar vein: the video “Hope Is on the Way” in 2016 (embedded below), and this year, daily scripture verses, mainly from the Old Testament prophets, emblazoned across photos from today’s Middle East (to go to the next entry, scroll to the bottom of the link and click “Advent Day 2”). “This year again these Advent pictures and words will speak of a hope that is now and not yet,” she writes. “I am grateful that Advent gives us the freedom to weep and to hope, to rejoice and to grieve, to wait for and to recognise the Christ who is already here among us.”

Marrying the Christmas story with contemporary photojournalism can teach us to “pray with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other,” as the popular adage goes. As we see the world’s brokenness, it should intensify our fervor for Christ’s shalom and impel us to action.

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UPCOMING MUSIC & ART EVENT: “Messiaen and the Incarnation,” December 20, 8 p.m., St. Mary’s Addington, London: Next Wednesday evening, Dr. Edward Forman will be performing three movements each from the French avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen’s organ suite La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord) and piano suite Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus). Messiaen was a committed Christian who sought to express theological truths in a fresh, modern idiom. Like much of his output, these two works reject the Western conventions of forward motion, development, and diatonic harmonic resolution, so they can be difficult for first-time hearers. But this complexity, this sense of the unexpected, is appropriate for the mystical content they seek to convey.

Inspired by the unique palette of sounds, textures, and rhythms of Nativité, British artist Sophie Hacker translated these into visual form. After deeply studying the music, in 2007 she created nine mixed-media panels in response—one for each movement—using slats of wood, nails, lead, wire, tree bark, and other found objects; you can see some of her process in the video below. These premiered at Winchester Cathedral in 2008. Then again in 2015 Hacker participated in another Messiaen-inspired artistic collaboration, under the direction of pianist Cordelia Williams, with poets Michael Symmons Roberts and Rowan Williams. This project is called “Between Heaven and the Clouds: Messiaen 2015.”

La Nativité du Seigneur by Sophie Hacker
Sophie Hacker (British), La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord), 2007. Mixed media on nine canvases, 60 × 60 cm each. Photo: Mike J. Davis.

To guide us through the listening experience, St. Mary’s will be projecting Hacker’s artworks onto a screen during the playing, and interspersing it with poetic reflections on the theological themes—from the Bible, Messiaen, Roland Riem (Icons of the Incarnation), and other sources. “We think it is equally pointless to try to explain Messiaen’s music in words as to attempt a sensible account of what it means for God to become human,” writes Forman in the booklet that will be provided to attendees. “We hope that the visual effects, words and music will enhance each other in ways that are inspiring and provoking.”

Messiaen’s compositions are definitely more challenging than the standard Christmas music fare, so I am grateful that St. Mary’s has the boldness, vision, and talent to offer them to the public, and in the meaningful context (which you likely won’t get in the concert hall) of meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation.

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ARTIST PROFILE: Zaki Baboun: Zaki Baboun is a Palestinian Christian artist living in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem. He paints religious scenes in oils on olive wood, which you can browse and purchase here—either the originals or reproductions on Christmas cards.

The first video below contains a short, two-minute interview with Zaki and shows him painting The Journey of the Magi; the second shows him painting The Good Shepherd.

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ALBUM: The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby by Waterdeep: I saw the world premiere of this nativity musical last summer in New York (read my review here), and it really helped shepherd my imagination into a deeper understanding of Mary and Joseph’s social and emotional realities. Now the album is out! The songs express the many ups and downs the Holy Couple likely underwent in their faith journeys to bring the Messiah into the world, with the theme of deliverance standing in highest relief. (Mary’s opening song, “I Want to Be Delivered,” is what spurs, much to her shock, the Annunciation, and the finale, “Walk Through the Sea on Dry Land,” draws everyone into a joyful reminiscence of God’s mighty hand in ages past, manifest in the present through the birth of the Christ child.) Comedy is provided through invented characters like Joseph’s friend Benjamin, the innkeeper and his wife, and a shepherd named Naphtali.

The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph's Baby album cover

The most poignant scene, for me—and hence probably my favorite song—is the “Magnificat.” The biblical account doesn’t tell us much about Mary’s state of mind at this point, so the writers imagine her coming to Elizabeth filled with fear, and Elizabeth building her up, preaching truth to her (and sharing her own story of shame), helping her move from doubt to confidence. Elizabeth’s song is what emboldens Mary to sing. Their “Magnificat” is later reprised by the full cast immediately following Christ’s birth, concluding part 1.

The new album is not an original cast recording; instead the songs were recorded by their writer, Don Chaffer, and his wife, Lori, and released under the Waterdeep moniker. Stream on Spotify; sample and purchase at Amazon or iTunes.

ESSAY: “Where Sorrow and Pain Are No More” by Margaret Adams Parker

Last summer when participating in a two-week Calvin College seminar, I was providentially assigned to room with Margaret (Peggy) Adams Parker, a sculptor and printmaker who lives, as it so happens, just an hour south of me! Peggy’s enthusiasm—for God, for life, for art—is infectious. She possesses such deep joy, and yet she feels so deeply the hurts of the world. She is attentive, as all good artists must be. “I feel called as an artist to bear witness to the world I see around me and also to the ways I understand that world,” Peggy wrote in an ArtWay feature. “This yields not only images of beauty and tenderness, but also images of suffering and terror.” She regards her art as a means of prayer.

The recipient of numerous church and seminary commissions, Peggy majors on religious and social justice themes. Her sculpture Mary as Prophet won a 2016 honor award from the Interfaith Forum on Religion, Art, and Architecture. In addition to maintaining a studio practice and doing shows, Peggy serves as an adjunct instructor at Virginia Theological Seminary, teaching such courses as “Encountering Scripture through the Visual Arts” and “The Artist as Theologian.” She also writes for various publications, including ARTS: The Arts in Religious and Theological Studies and the Anglican Theological Review, and collaborated on the book project Who Are You, My Daughter? Reading Ruth through Image and Text. She is currently working on a Saint Andrew sculpture group. To learn more about Peggy and view more of her work, visit her website, www.margaretadamsparker.com.

By way of further introduction, here is an essay Peggy wrote ten years ago for the book Heaven, ed. Roger Ferlo (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), pp. 158–66. It is reproduced by kind permission of the publisher.

“Where Sorrow and Pain Are No More”

by Margaret Adams Parker

To be honest, I’ve never thought much about heaven, at least in any systematic fashion. I was interested enough to pick up, at some point, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis’s allegory of heaven and hell. And I’ve been known to joke about my expectations that heaven had better have a comprehensively stocked art studio, as well as a fabulous bookstore.

But in looking back though many years of making art and also teaching about art at a Christian seminary, I’ve unearthed a great deal about heaven, although not in the expected places. I haven’t glimpsed heaven among the many imagined depictions, ranging from medieval woodcuts to the visual speculations of twentieth-century outsider artists. I’m simply not drawn to “visionary” images. These are not the kinds of images I make. Instead, my image of heaven is distinctly negative (theologians would call it apophatic). I have no vision of what heaven is like. But I have seen, and I have also made, pictures of what heaven is not.

I am a concrete thinker, and so my art is earthbound, far from visionary. I’ve always understood the incarnational nature of Christianity as a charge to take seriously life in this world. What’s more, my two great artistic mentors—Rembrandt and Käthe Kollwitz—were rarely given to visions. Rather, their work was grounded in the physical, spiritual, and social realities of life. Such symbols as they used (most notably Kollwitz’s use of the skeleton to represent death) served to underscore their understanding of human existence as it is. They recorded moments as small as a child learning to walk and as momentous as war or revolution. Even when picturing the incarnation, that most heavenly of earthly events, both artists showed the miracle taking place in a tangible human setting.

Consider some of these two artists’ characteristic images. Rembrandt’s drawings testify powerfully to his all-encompassing interest in the life around him. He depicted everyone he saw—beggars and merchants, rabbis and serving girls—with the same probing yet sympathetic scrutiny. His drawings of his wife Saskia constitute a particularly poignant record: we watch as she endures four pregnancies, suffers the deaths of three infants, and finally dies at thirty, a short nine years after their betrothal. We glimpse her first in a silverpoint drawing (1633), made the week of their engagement. In this love poem in line, Rembrandt shows us a winsome young woman, resting her cheek lightly against her hand, dangling in her other hand one of the flowers that also adorn her straw hat. In a pen and ink drawing made four years later (1637), Saskia lies in bed, supporting her head heavily on her hand, staring out with a weary and resigned expression. And in the image that Rembrandt sketched on a tiny etching plate the year Saskia died (1642), she has become an old woman, worn, gaunt, and desperately ill.

Portrait of Saskia as a Bride
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Portrait of Saskia as a Bride, 1633. Silverpoint on parchment, 18.5 × 10.7 cm (7 3/10 × 4 1/5 in.). Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin. Inscription (trans.): “This was portrayed after my wife when she was 21 years old, the third day after we were married. June 8, 1633.”
Saskia in Bed
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Saskia in Bed, ca. 1637. Pen and brown ink, 8.4 × 10.4 cm (8 3/10 × 10 1/10). British Museum, London.
Sick Woman with a Large White Headdress by Rembrandt
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Sick Woman with a Large White Headdress (Saskia), ca. 1642. Etching with touches of drypoint, 6 × 5.1 cm (2 3/8 × 2 in.).

Käthe Kollwitz’s imagery is more politically engaged. The daughter of a trained lawyer who chose to work as a builder rather than practice within the Prussian legal system, she spent her life depicting the plight of the poor and protesting the ravages of war. In her first great print series, A Weavers’ Rebellion (1897–98), she chronicled the causes, progression, and bloody aftermath of the 1844 revolt of Silesian home weavers against their employers. The series begins with Poverty (1894), where a family of weavers gathers around the deathbed of an infant, and concludes with The End (1897), where the bodies of slain revolutionaries are being laid out on the floor of a weaver’s cabin. In both of these dimly lit interiors, the looms and other apparatus of the weavers’ trade stand as ominous reminders of the weavers’ plight.   Continue reading “ESSAY: “Where Sorrow and Pain Are No More” by Margaret Adams Parker”

Discarded life jackets used by artists to raise awareness of refugee crisis

Last month the six front columns of Berlin’s historic Konzerthaus were decked out with fourteen thousand bright orange life jackets—an installation by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, titled Safe Passage. A tribute to those who have risked their lives on the Mediterranean Sea to escape persecution in the Middle East and North Africa, the work was made to coincide with Cinema for Peace’s annual award gala on February 15, part of the Berlin International Film Festival. The money raised at this year’s gala was used to purchase five thousand rescue blankets and one thousand emergency baby kits (for births that have taken place at sea), which the Cinema for Peace Foundation delivered this past week to the Greek island of Lesbos, the most popular port of entry for people fleeing to Europe through Turkey.

Safe Passage installation
Ai Weiwei’s crew finishes hanging life jackets on the sixth column of Berlin’s Konzerthaus, just before putting up an inflatable dinghy with the title of the installation: Safe Passage. Photo: Markus Winninghoff.
Safe Passage installation
Safe Passage: installation of fourteen thousand life jackets by Ai Weiwei, Konzerthaus, Berlin, February 14–17, 2016. Photo: Oliver Lang.

Weiwei visited Lesbos in December to see for himself the human faces of the current refugee crisis. He shared on Instagram photos and videos he took inside a refugee camp, to show the world what’s going on in Lesbos, and has opened an additional studio there.

One thing that visually struck Weiwei were the giant mounds of life jackets heaped up on the beaches. Refugees shed them as soon as they disembark their boats, setting foot, at last, on land, and ready to start their new lives. Seeing in them a poignant symbol of the crisis, he asked the mayor of the island if he could take a small portion—and yes, fourteen thousand is only a small portion—with him to Europe to use for an art installation. His request was granted. Wrapped around the grand facade of Berlin’s nineteenth-century concert house, they bear witness to the scale of the crisis and even allude to its human cost: last year, a reported 3,770-plus refugees died while attempting to cross the Mediterranean, and the death toll for this year has already exceeded 400. Some of these deaths were due to defective life jackets sold to migrants by a Turkish company looking to cut down on production costs.

While some have questioned the efficacy of staging such a large awareness raiser in Germany, a country that has taken in more refugees than any other European Union member state, others point out that several antirefugee organizations have emerged there, such as Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), which calls on the German government to enact stricter asylum laws. Not all the German people are proud of the measures its country has taken to invite in Syrians, Afghans, and other huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Instead they fear the repercussions. Weiwei’s Safe Passage protests against that fear-based mentality that denies and excludes.

Weiwei has not been the first person to recycle used life jackets into art. Last December British artist Arabella Dorman incorporated three life jackets into her installation Flight in St. James’s Church in Piccadilly, London, which has them tumbling out of a capsized dinghy hanging from the ceiling. She also filled the Christmas crèche at the front of the church with a few dozen more: they cushion the ground where the sculpted figures kneel in adoration of the newborn Christ child.   Continue reading “Discarded life jackets used by artists to raise awareness of refugee crisis”