Roundup: Arte de Lágrimas, “To Thessalonica,” and more


The Easter season is a time of hope. There still is fear, there still is a painful awareness of sinfulness, but there also is light breaking through. Something new is happening, something that goes beyond the changing moods of our life. We can be joyful or sad, optimistic or pessimistic, tranquil or angry, but the solid stream of God’s presence moves deeper than the small waves of our minds and hearts. Easter brings the awareness that God is present even when his presence is not directly noticed. Easter brings the good news that, although things seem to get worse in the world, the Evil One has already been overcome. Easter allows us to affirm that although God seems very distant and although we remain preoccupied with many little things, our Lord walks with us on the road and keeps explaining the Scriptures to us. Thus there are many rays of hope casting their light on our way through life.

—Henri Nouwen, A Cry for Mercy: Prayers from the Genesee (1981) [HT]


TRAVELING EXHIBITION: Arte de Lágrimas: Refugee Artwork Project: Started in August 2014 by the Rev. Dr. Gregory Cuéllar and Nohemi Cuéllar, Arte de Lágrimas (Art of Tears) is a traveling art exhibit and archive that aims to create greater public awareness of the lived migratory journeys of asylum-seeking children and youth from Central America. The Cuéllars and other volunteers have visited respite centers in Texas border towns like McAllen, Brownsville, and Eagle Pass, distributing art supplies to migrant children who are waiting for buses to take them to their longer-term destination. They want to give these children the option to express themselves or process their journeys through an artistic outlet. Some of the children have chosen to donate their artworks to the volunteers, and it is these that constitute the Arte de Lágrimas collection, which is currently on display at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

This Thursday, April 27, Fuller is holding a gallery reception at Travis Auditorium (180 N. Oakland Ave., Pasadena) from 6 to 9 p.m., which will include a presentation by Gregory Cuéllar as well as a panel discussion; RSVP here. Cuéllar, who teaches Old Testament at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, is the author of Resacralizing the Other at the US-Mexico Border: A Borderland Hermeneutic (Routledge, 2020) and Voices of Marginality: Exile and Return in Second Isaiah 40–55 and the Mexican Immigrant Experience (Peter Lang, 2008).

If you can’t make it to the exhibition at Fuller, you can at least tour the Virtual Showroom that the Cuéllars developed, which hangs the images in a digital space that gives users the impression of being in a physical gallery.


ARTICLE: “‘He Is Not Here’: A Choral Easter Season” by Mark Meynell: This Rabbit Room blog post is part of 5&1, a weekly series from 2021 in which British chaplain Mark Meynell shares five short pieces of classical music and one long piece, drawing attention to some of their musical elements. For Easter he selected a setting of Psalm 118:24 by Renaissance composer William Byrd; “O dulce lignum” (O Sweet Wood) from Ēriks Ešenvalds’s Passion and Resurrection (below); “Christus Vincit” by Sir James MacMillan; an anthem for Ascension Day by Gerald Finzi; an Easter hymn from an Italian opera by Pietro Mascagni (also below); and the fifth movement of Mahler’s famous Resurrection Symphony. I appreciate that he provides lyrics and translations!


BLOG POST: “The Good Fridays of Our Eastertide Lives” by W. David O. Taylor, feat. Sam Wedelich: W. David O. Taylor, a theology professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, shares a visual interpretation of Matthew 28:8 by Sam Wedelich, at the time a member of Hope Chapel in Austin, where Taylor served as arts pastor. Wedelich’s collage shows how both fear and joy gripped the hearts of the two Marys on Easter morning, reflecting the complexities of our own often muddled-up feelings. Whether we’re skipping to the tune of “Hallelujah” this Easter or standing still, immobilized—or experiencing, like the Marys, some strange mixture of stances—the Risen Lord meets us, Taylor writes.

Wedelich, Sam_With Fear and Great Joy
Sam Wedelich, With Fear and Great Joy, 2005. Collage.

This is an early piece by Wedelich, which she made when she was a college student. She has since become well established as an illustrator. Follow her on Instagram @samwedelich. I especially like the series of “patron saint” paintings she did in 2020. Two of them are available for sale as prints from her online shop: Patron Saint of Keep Going and Patron Saint of Listen.


SONG: “To Thessalonica” by John Davis: Dedicated to his father, who passed away last month, Nashville-based rock singer-songwriter John Davis’s new album, My Hope Is Found in a God Who Can Raise Up the Dead, includes an original musical adaptation of 1 Thessalonians 4:14–18: “This we declare to you by word from the Lord: We who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who sleep in death. The Lord will descend with a cry of command; the voice of an archangel too. And with the sound of the trumpet of God, the dead in Christ will rise up first. The dead in Christ will rise up first. I know, I know, I know we’re gonna meet in the air. Yeah! The shout of command and the voice of the angel, the trumpet of God will declare. Yeah! I believe, I believe in, I believe, I believe in . . . My hope is found in a God who can raise up the dead, yeah! . . . My hope is found in a God who has raised up the dead. . . .” [HT: Crowdfunding Christian Music]

Easter sermon by Saint Ephrem (excerpt) + triptych by Jyoti Sahi

Sahi, Jyoti_Triptych of Salvation
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Triptych of Salvation, 2021. Acrylic, oil, and ocher on canvas, 24 × 48 in. All photos courtesy of the artist.

Death trampled our Lord underfoot, but he in his turn treated death as a highroad for his own feet. He submitted to it, enduring it willingly, because by this means he would be able to destroy death in spite of itself. Death had its own way when our Lord went out from Jerusalem carrying his cross, but when by a loud cry from that cross he summoned the dead from the underworld, death was powerless to prevent it.

Death slew him by means of the body which he had assumed, but that same body proved to be the weapon with which he conquered death. In slaying our Lord, death itself was slain. It was able to kill natural human life, but was itself killed by the life that is above the nature of mortals.

Death could not devour our Lord unless he possessed a body, neither could hell swallow him up unless he bore our flesh; and so he came in search of a chariot in which to ride to the underworld. This chariot was the body which he received from the Virgin; in it he invaded death’s fortress, broke open its strong room, and scattered all its treasure.

At length he came upon Eve, the mother of all the living. She was that vineyard whose enclosure her own hands had enabled death to violate, so that she could taste its fruit; thus the mother of all the living became the source of death for every living creature. But in her stead Mary grew up, a new vine in place of the old. Christ, the new life, dwelt within her. When death, with its customary impudence, came foraging for her mortal fruit, it encountered its own destruction in the hidden life that fruit contained. All unsuspecting, it swallowed him up, and in doing so released life itself and set free a multitude.

He who was also the carpenter’s glorious son set up his cross above death’s all-consuming jaws, and led the human race into the dwelling place of life. Since a tree had brought about the downfall of humankind, it was upon a tree that humankind crossed over to the realm of life. Bitter was the branch that had once been grafted upon that ancient tree, but sweet the young shoot that has now been grafted in, the shoot in which we are meant to recognize the Lord whom no creature can resist.

We give glory to you, Lord, who raised up your cross to span the jaws of death like a bridge by which souls might pass from the region of the dead to the land of the living. . . .

We give glory to you who put on the body of a single mortal and made it the source of life for every other mortal.

You are incontestably alive! Your murderers sowed your living body in the earth as farmers sow grain, but it sprang up and yielded an abundant harvest of people raised from the dead.

Come then, my brothers and sisters, let us offer our Lord the great and all-embracing sacrifice of our love, pouring out our treasury of hymns and prayers before him who offered his cross in sacrifice to God for the enrichment of all.

—Ephrem the Syrian, sections 3–4 and 9 of the Eastertide sermon “On Our Lord,” trans. the International Commission on English in the Liturgy in The Liturgy of the Hours, vol. 2 (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1976), 735–36

Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306–373) was a prominent Christian theologian, hymnist, and teacher who is venerated as a saint and a doctor of the church. Born in Nisibis (in modern-day Turkey), he served as a deacon and later lived in Edessa, a center of Greek and Syriac theological and philosophical thought in Upper Mesopotamia. He spoke and wrote in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, and is the most significant of all the Syriac Christian fathers.

This sermon excerpt appears in the Roman Catholic Office of Readings for Friday of the Third Week of Easter. In translating the passage, the committee referenced the parallel text in Thomas Joseph Lamy’s Latin translation, “Sermo de Domino nostro,” columns 152–58, 166–68, in Sancti Ephraemi Syri Hymni et Sermones, vol. 1 (1882). Read Ephrem’s full sermon, in an English translation by A. Edward Johnston, at New Advent.

The three-paneled painting at the top of this post is by my friend Jyoti Sahi, one of the most theologically exploratory artists working today. I saw this triptych at an earlier stage of development when I visited his home in Silvepura Village, India, in 2019 and am so pleased by how it turned out. “It represents Christ ascending the cross (left), harrowing the underworld as the drummer (center), and rising like the sprout from the seed that is Mary, from whose womb he sprang forth (right),” Jyoti told me.

Sahi, Jyoti_Triptych of Salvation (left)
Sahi, Jyoti_Triptych of Salvation (central)

The central panel is based on iconography of the Anastasis, in which Jesus descends into Hades following his crucifixion to liberate those who have died. In such icons, Adam and Eve, who represent all of humanity, are “drawn up from the earth,” as Jyoti puts it. Jyoti portrays this rescue as a dance, with Jesus beating out the rhythms of redemption, as well as a time of planting and harvest (he wields a plow and a scythe). Jesus’s death tilled the soil, making conditions right for the dead to be raised to new life.

Jyoti has long been interested in the symbolism of the ladder and the seed, and both symbols are employed here. The ladder is an instrument of both descent and ascent, and the seed, as Christ himself taught, must “die”—be buried in the ground—before it yields life. In the right panel of the Triptych of Salvation, Jesus, having gone down into the earth, bursts forth from his casing, emerging as the tree of life, whose roots are watered by the river of life, which flows across all three panels. This tree is the cross transformed.

Sahi, Jyoti_Triptych of Salvation (right)

His arms raised again as they were on the cross but no longer pinned down, Jesus leads the dance of resurrection, and Adam and Eve and the others who have been delivered join in. They are the fruitful crop of Christ the Gardener.

For two similar paintings by Jyoti, see my blog posts “Jesus as Dancer” and “Jesus as Ladder.”

“Resurrection” by W. R. Rodgers (poem)

Kuziv, Kateryna_Mary
Kateryna Kuziv (Ukrainian, 1993–), Mary!, 2022. Egg tempera and gilding on gessoed wood, 40 × 40 cm.

In the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn towards the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene.

The tomb, the tomb, that 
Was her core and care, her one sore.
The light had hardly scarleted the dark
Or the first bird sung when Mary came in sight
With eager feet. Grief, like last night’s frost,
Whitened her face and tightened all her tears.
It was there, then, there at the blinding turn
Of the bare future that she met her past.
She only heard his Angel tell her how
The holding stone broke open and gave birth
To her dear Lord, and how his shadow ran
To meet him like a dog.
And as the sun
Burns through the simmering muslins of the mist,
Slowly his darkened voice, that seemed like doubt,
Morninged into noon; the summering bees
Mounted and boiled over in the bell-flowers.
‘Come out of your jail, Mary,’ he said, ‘the doors are open
And joy has its ear cocked for your coming.
Earth now is no place to mope in. So throw away
Your doubt, cast every clout of care,
Hang all your hallelujahs out
This airy day.’

This is the last of fourteen untitled, epigraphed poems from “Resurrection: An Easter Sequence” by W. R. Rodgers, originally published in Europa and the Bull and Other Poems (Farrar, Straus and Young, 1952) and compiled posthumously in Collected Poems (Oxford University Press, 1971) and later Poems, ed. Michael Longley (The Gallery Press, 1993). Used with permission of The Gallery Press.

William Robert “Bertie” Rodgers (1909–1969) was an Irish poet, essayist, radio broadcaster and scriptwriter, lecturer, and (for eleven years) a pastor. Born, raised, and educated in Belfast, he studied literature as an undergraduate and then entered theological college, becoming ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1935 and taking a post at Loughgall parish in County Armagh. He began writing poetry three years later, after a friend lent him books by contemporary poets, of whom Auden made the biggest impact. In 1946 he left pastoral ministry to work for the BBC in London and later to freelance, creating radio portraits of Irish writers using a pioneering sound mosaic technique that is now a staple of radio documentaries. He joined a community of writer friends that included Dylan Thomas and Louis MacNeice. During his lifetime he published two books of original verse, with themes including the landscape of Northern Ireland, war, myth, erotic love, and the life of Christ.

Easter, Day 7: Creation Blooms Anew

LOOK: Magnolias by Stanley Spencer

Spencer, Stanley_Magnolias
Stanley Spencer (British, 1891–1959), Magnolias, 1938. Oil on canvas, 22 × 26 in. (56 × 66 cm). Private collection.

LISTEN: “Creation Blooms Anew” by Nick Chambers, 2020

Again your Spirit sweeps,
a wind over the deep;
a new creation now arrives
to rouse us from our sleep.

The breath of heaven brings
the long-awaited spring
into the fields and seas and skies
and every barren thing.

Creation blooms anew
in fresh and joyful hue.
In Christ’s arising all things rise
to draw their breath from you.

Awaken by the sound
of forging swords into plows.
Come fill the Garden with your light,
and we will till the ground.

The earth is being cleared
for heaven to come near.
From every depth an eager sigh
is all that we can hear. [Refrain]

Nick Chambers [previously] is the worship pastor at Church of the Incarnation in Atlanta and a singer-songwriter whose debut album, Great Cloud, released last year. “Creation Blooms Anew” is not part of that LP, but he shared it on YouTube in 2020. It was inspired by a hymn of Adam of St. Victor, a major Latin-language poet from twelfth-century France:

Earth blooms afresh in joyous dyes;
In Christ’s arising all things rise;
A solemn joy o’er nature lies;

Now peace the sea, the sky doth fill;
Heav’n’s breath wakes fair each vale and hill;
Spring pours through barren hearts and chill;

Life wins from death the glorious prey;
The cherub’s sword is turned away,
And Eden’s paths are free today;

Trans. A. M. E., 1884

Memories of his family’s first Easter in Atlanta in 2017 also influenced the song. “More than anything I remember the magnolia flowers,” Chambers said, “bright white and big as our baby’s head. The branches bent with the weight of them, swinging like bells welcoming us into a new home, a new season of life.”

Chambers reflects further on the image of flowering:

Norman Wirzba, in one of his many reflections on gardening, writes, “It is significant that the material context for creation and for redemption should be a garden, for it is precisely through gardening that we most experience ourselves as created beings, as beings tied to a magnificent creation and to God. . . . [The writer of Genesis 2] is clear that we become authentic and truly fulfill our vocation as we learn to care for the garden which is creation itself.” He continues, “Gardens have long been a place of spiritual nourishment, because it is here that we can sense the vivifying and gracious power of the creator at work in the creation. Without much help from us, and sometimes in spite of our worst efforts, we can plainly see that we are in the presence of a life- and death-wielding power that overcomes and envelops us all” (The Paradise of God, 117).

In the beginning, God creates humanity to till the ground in a garden. Christ suffers anguish and grief in a garden, then to be resurrected in a garden and even mistaken for its caretaker. The story comes to its endless ending in a garden—steady streams in the shade of trees thick with healing leaves. We live from this past into this future, ourselves like flowers nourished by soil and bending toward the sun. Here and now, Easter invites us into this vision, into the wild surprises of spring to be both gardeners and the garden itself.

Roundup: Steve Martin on banjo, poetry comic about the Resurrection, and more

BANJO DUET: “Foggy Morning Breaking” by Alison Brown and Steve Martin: Did you know the actor Steve Martin also has a music career? He’s been playing the banjo since he was a teenager, and he writes, records, and tours, both solo and as part of bluegrass bands. He’s even won three Grammys for his banjo music!

Fellow banjoist Alison Brown invited him to contribute to one of the tunes on her forthcoming album, On Banjo, which releases May 5. It’s called “Foggy Morning Breaking.” She wrote and plays the A section; he wrote and plays the B. The piece was released last month as a single, along with this music video.


VIDEO: “Spring” by Jamie Scott: This time-lapse short film of flowers blooming is extraordinary! It’s by visual effects artist and time-lapse photographer Jamie Scott (IG @invisiblejam). The score is by Jim Perkins. [HT: Tamara Hill Murphy]



>> April 22: “The Ekstasis Café: An Evening of Poetry, Music, Testimony, and Gallery,” Goldberry Books, Concord, North Carolina: Ekstasis is a beautiful quarterly magazine “exhibit[ing] arts and letters that reflect the depths of Christian life.” Next Saturday they are hosting their first-ever public gathering! Their hope with it is to foster meaningful connections, conversation, deep aesthetic encounters, and inspiration.

>> April 28: Artists’ Talk and Reception for The Resurrection and the Life by Fish Coin Press Exhibition, Sojourn Arts Gallery, Louisville, Kentucky: Fish Coin Press (IG is a Richmond, Virginia–based publisher of illustrated books, comics, and trading cards rooted in the story of scripture. They work with a range of artists and are doing really imaginative work.

Procopio, Stephen_Ascension
Stephen Procopio, Ascension, 2020. A full-color version of an illustration for Come See a Man (an illustrated Gospel of John) by Fish Coin Press.

From April 9 to May 28, the gallery at Sojourn Church Midtown in Louisville is exhibiting a selection of art from Fish Coin projects (open Sundays from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., or by appointment); here are a few exhibition views. And two Friday evenings from today, Fish Coin Press creative director Jared Boggess and development lead Stephen Procopio, who are illustrators themselves, will be visiting the gallery to discuss “visual theology” and its role in the local church. There will be a Q&A and a sneak preview of upcoming publications.


POEM: “Psalm” by Dorianne Laux: This poem sings the glories of “the hidden and small,” of the plants and creatures beneath our feet. Read more of Laux’s poems at


LECTURE: “Resurrection and the Renewal of Creation” by N. T. Wright: In this 2018 lecture sponsored by Lanier Theological Library and Baylor University’s Truett Seminary, ancient historian and New Testament scholar N. T. Wright discusses the meaning of Jesus’s resurrection, a topic he explores thoroughly in the influential academic tome The Resurrection of the Son of God and its more accessible corollary, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. “Easter is the start of something; it isn’t the ending,” he says. With the resurrection of Christ, the new creation has been launched and put to work in the world. It’s not about securing our souls a place in some nonspatiotemporal heaven when we die but about heaven colonizing earth here and now. We humans, he says, are meant to stand at the place where heaven and earth interlock. We who have received life are to be ourselves life-bringers, to participate in God’s massive renewal project. We are resurrection people!

Wright addresses common Christian misconceptions about death, judgment, and the fate of this world, seeking to root out the corrupting influence of Platonism and other pagan Greek philosophies on Christian eschatology. (For example, the new creation won’t be a creatio ex nihilo, creation out of nothing; it will be a creatio ex vetere, a creation out of the old. The implications of that are huge.) He also affirms the absolute importance of belief in Jesus’s bodily resurrection—his rising is no mere metaphor!—and calls on Christians to recover a centralizing hope in the general resurrection (what he calls “life after life after death”; fully embodied life in the new heavens and the new earth that comes after the not-yet-fully-realized life experienced in the interim between one’s death and the future cosmic coming of Christ) rather than regarding what happens immediately after one’s death as the ultimate beatitude.

Wright always makes me excited about what God’s doing and excited to be a disciple of Jesus. What more could a preacher ask for?

The final half hour of the video is Q&A.


DIGITAL COMIC: 30 Days of Comics (2022) by Madeleine Jubilee Saito: Madeleine Jubilee Saito [previously] is a Seattle-based cartoonist who is interested, as she says on her website, in “friendship, formal experimentation, medieval sacred comics, the built environment, solidarity, climate justice, the psalms, the material world, and the sacred.” Last year she was one of five artists in the inaugural cohort of On Being Project’s Artist Residency; during that time she created “For living, in climate crisis.” Her work is poetic, spiritual, and earthy, and I love it.  

Saito, Madeleine Jubilee_Made New
Comic by Madeleine Jubilee Saito, 2022, the ninth of thirty from “30 Days of Comics.”

In November 2022 Saito made a one-page, four-panel comic (almost) every day for the duration of the month. The series is resurrection-themed and, she told me, inspired by one of my blog posts: the one about Fra Angelico’s Noli me tangere at San Marco, a painting in which Christ the Gardener sows his stigmata across the lawn, as art historian Georges Didi-Huberman so beautifully interprets in his monograph on the artist. Click on the image and scroll down (then, at the bottom, click “←older”) to view all twenty-seven comics from the series. Each can stand alone, but they also have a cumulative effect. It’s stunning! You can follow Saito on Instagram @madeleine_jubilee_saito.

Easter, Day 6: Hope

LOOK: Hope by Ulrich Barnickel

Barnickel, Ulrich_Hope
Ulrich Barnickel (German, 1955–), Hoffnung (Hope), fourteenth station from the cycle Weg der Hoffnung (Path of Hope), 2009–10. Iron sculpture, Geisa, Germany.

This is the last of fourteen monumental sculptures situated along the former inner German border that separated Soviet-occupied East Germany and Allied-occupied West Germany from 1952 to 1990. Stretching from Hesse to Thuringia, this highly militarized frontier consisted of high metal fences, barbed wire, alarms, watchtowers, and minefields, a literal iron curtain that divided families, friends, and neighbors.

In 2009, the Point Alpha Foundation, founded to preserve the historic site as a memorial, commissioned German metal sculptor Ulrich Barnickel to create an artwork as part of the memorial. He decided to draw on the traditional fourteen Stations of the Cross, connecting the suffering of Jesus to that of the people on the inner German border under Communism. Collectively titled Path of Hope, his fourteen iron sculptures cover 1,400 meters of ground (scaling down the 1,400 kilometers of the former border). All but the last are figurative, representing Jesus falling, meeting his mother, being nailed to the cross, and so on. They contain artifacts from or references to German Cold War era history, such as a vintage steel helmet hanging on Pilate’s chair, or the grenade and the trench that Jesus stumbles over.

The final station, titled Hope, is a threefold open doorway. After all the heaviness of the previous thirteen stations, we get this breather. Here’s what the doors say to me: Invitation. Possibility. The fourteenth station of the cross is traditionally where Christ is buried in his tomb. But instead of a dead body on a slab or a sealed-up cave, Barnickel gives us an open frame, a door ajar, a view of sky. It alludes to resurrection. Jesus walked through death and came out the other side. And so can we.

While the Path of Hope is a vehicle for remembering, lamenting, and healing from the collective traumas of war and political violence and oppression, it can also speak to personal losses, to any individual’s journey of grief. It’s an invitation to acknowledge the pain we carry but also to see beyond it to the Better Day that is coming, as well as to embrace the life before us here and now. The doors ask us to unburden ourselves of whatever weight is crushing us and to be renewed. (Notice the crown of thorns, an emblem of suffering, left hanging on the corner of the final threshold.) To follow the Man of Sorrows, who walks beside us in our own sorrow, from death into life.

For those accompanying a loved one to the door of death, or who have had a loved one suddenly snatched through, may Barnickel’s Hope meet you in your grieving, filling you with soft consolations of a Love stronger than death, a Love who, once buried, became on the third day the firstfruits of the resurrection harvest.

Barnickel, Ulrich_Hope

LISTEN: “Alleluia, Christ Is Risen Once Again” by Tara Ward, written 2007, performed 2020

Waking up to tragic dawn
Not comprehending what is going on
Alleluia, Christ is risen once again

And it frames a hollow place
Lost dreams and accolades
Alleluia, Christ is risen once again

Alleluia, Christ is risen
Though the walls of castles fall
Alleluia, he is risen for us all

From these sights the shadows light
In an overwhelming night
Alleluia, Christ is risen once again

Hopes fly from us every day
Fear reigns far and so does hate
Alleluia, Christ is risen once again

Alleluia, Christ is risen
Though the gates of all this war
Alleluia, Christ is risen evermore

Alleluia, God is able
To complete the life you led
Alleluia, Christ is risen from the dead

Alleluia, he is risen once again

From the sorrow you have fled
You have joy around your head
Alleluia, Christ is risen once again

And as from earthly trials you fly
You leave sadness when you die
Alleluia, Christ is risen once again

Alleluia, Christ is risen
And the life you’re living now
Alleluia, all’s forgiven somehow

Alleluia, there is beauty
When I think of you, joy I feel
Alleluia, in my sadness, faith is real

Alleluia, Christ is risen once again
Alleluia for you, my friend

Tara Ward [previously] wrote this song during the 2007 Easter season when two tragedies struck within a week of each other. On April 16, a mass shooter opened fire at Virginia Tech, killing thirty-two people, and on April 21, Ward’s friend Liz Duncan was fatally struck by a car while jogging. In the second half of the song, Ward addresses Duncan in the second person, rejoicing through tears that she has entered a state of joy and rest and will one day be raised, body and soul.

Ward returned to the song for Easter 2020 following the death that March of another friend and the initial outbreak of COVID-19. “I was trying to think of what I would sing if I was still working at a church, looking for honest songs to sing on Easter, and this one came up,” she writes on the YouTube video description.

The Nashville community, and America at large, is still reeling from the March 27 shooting at Covenant School that left seven dead, the 131st mass shooting in the US this year. I can only imagine the absolute devastation and rage a parent would feel upon learning that the child they dropped off at school that morning would not be coming home because they were gunned down with an assault rifle.

As I listen to this song, I think, too, of Leslie Bustard, a writer and book publisher, a luminary in the art and faith sphere, who, less than two months after hosting an amazing Square Halo conference on the theme of “ordinary saints,” is now in hospice with late-stage cancer.

Sometimes all the exuberance of Easter can seem disjunctive with the bleak state of the world or our own present circumstances. Christ is risen, but death is still a reality, and it’s still painful. Quiet and aching, this song gives space to grief while also confessing this central Christian doctrine: that Jesus rose from the dead, giving life to all who will receive it. Of course, that doesn’t mean Christians are exempt from experiencing physical death—we will all one day go to the grave—nor from the grief that follows in the wake of a loved one’s passing.

But what Ward’s song helps us do is sing “alleluia” in our sadness, because Christ’s resurrection life is at work in those who have passed on in him, and it’s at work in those of us who walk through the valley of death’s shadow here on earth. The “once again” language—“Christ is risen once again”—indicates that Jesus’s historical rising has ongoing implications, its efficacy extending to every new place of death.

Easter, Day 4: Kriste aghdga

LOOK: Anastasis, Georgian Orthodox church fresco

Harrowing of Hell (Georgia)
Anastasis (Harrowing of Hell), ca. 1207. Fresco, St. Nicholas Church, Kintsvisi Monastery, Shida Kartli region, Georgia.

In this (partially damaged) icon of the Resurrection from the main church at Kintsvisi Monastery in the country of Georgia, Christ stands over the pit of hell, atop its broken gates. He has come to take back his own from this place of death. He heaves Adam up first, and Eve next. On the right stand Kings Solomon and David and John the Forerunner (aka John the Baptist). The deliverance they’ve been awaiting has come.

Fresh from the tomb, Christ holds aloft his cross as a victory staff. As is common in Orthodox icons, it has three horizontal beams: a short one on top, representing the titulus that read, “King of the Jews”; the main one, onto which Jesus’s hands were nailed; and a footrest at the bottom.

(Related post: “‘Done Is a Battle’ by William Dunbar”)

LISTEN: “Kriste aghdga” (Christ Is Risen), the Paschal troparion in a traditional Georgian setting from the Svaneti region | Performed by the Sheehan Family, 2020

Krist’e aghdga mk’vdretit
sik’vdilita sik’vdilisa
dam trgun velida saplavebis shinata
tskhovrebis mimnich’ebeli.

English translation:

Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Frederica Mathewes-Green, an Eastern Orthodox author and speaker from Johnson City, Tennessee, wrote the following on her Facebook page last year:

The troparion [short hymn] for Pascha is this brief and punchy one, written by St. John of Damascus (d. 749):

Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

We sing it many, many times—surely hundreds of times—before Pascha concludes on the day of Pentecost. It is always sung a capella, without accompaniment (apart from the vigorous ringing of bells, in some congregations). It is set to many, many different melodies. Each ethnicity has a half-dozen favorite melodies, so the options are very broad. . . .

But when Orthodox of other nations hear it sung in a Georgian tone, they stop and listen.

Georgian church music is unique. It is always sung in three parts, honoring the Trinity; but what’s striking is the sound of it, unlike anything we have in the West. Someone who is trained in Georgian chant might be able to explain it, but I can’t. 

Let’s hear from Dr. John A. Graham, an American musicologist specializing in the history of Georgian liturgical music and who runs the website

“Kriste aghdga” (Christ is Risen) is an important Easter hymn in the Georgian Orthodox tradition. It is sung when the priest knocks on the doors of the church, symbolizing entrance to the tomb of Christ, just before entering the sanctuary space to commence the all-night liturgy service [on the Saturday before Easter].

Then it is repeated in groups of three throughout the All-Night vigil service (4-7 hours). It is also sung in every service after Easter until Pentecost.

The chant survives in many musical variants, as chanters in each village and region perfected their individual style.

The most popular variant, the one you heard above, is from Svaneti, a highland region in northwest Georgia. The style is influenced by Svan folk music. This variant begins with a solo sung by the middle voice. You can purchase the vocal score here, as sung by the Sheehan family, or see the free transcription that Graham provides.

Here’s the Orthodox Virtual Quarantine Choir, directed by Steve Jacobs, singing the chant in English, interspersed with a Paschal reading taken from Psalm 68:1–3 (“Let God rise up . . .”) and Psalm 118:24 (“This is the day . . .”):

In his article, Graham lists seven characteristics of traditional Georgian chant, among which are its three-part voicing, its close harmonies (“The dissonances are integral to the desired sound. The tension-release in the music is symbolic of our prayers and supplications to God.”), and an ending in unison. He posts videos of several other regional musical variants of the troparion in Georgian.

This song, as performed by the Capitol Hill Chorale, is on the Art & Theology Eastertide Playlist.

Easter, Day 3: Lord of Light and Life

. . . the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings . . .

—Malachi 4:2

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.

—Isaiah 9:2

LOOK: The Sun by Edvard Munch

Munch, Edvard_Sun
Edvard Munch (Norwegian, 1863–1944), The Sun, 1911. Oil on canvas, 455 × 780 cm (14.9 × 25.5 ft.). The Aula, University of Oslo, Norway.

Over twenty-five feet across, Edvard Munch’s The Sun is the centerpiece of an eleven-piece cycle of oil paintings on the theme of enlightenment commissioned for, and still located in, the Aula (assembly hall) at the University of Oslo. It shows a blazing sunrise over the coastline of Kragerø in Norway, its multicolored rays extending to adjacent canvases, which portray men and women reaching up toward the light.

Though he didn’t have an explicitly Christological meaning in mind, Munch did see the sun as the source of all life, as he wrote about in his notebooks, and in his work it is often read as a symbol of the eternal.

LISTEN: “Again the Lord” | Words by Anna L. Barbauld, 1772 | Music by Ben Thomas, 2015 | Performed by Ben Thomas on Bring Forth, 2015

Again the Lord of light and life
Awakes the kindling ray
Unseals the eyelids of the morn
And pours increasing day

O what a night was that which wrapped
The sleeping world in gloom
O what a Sun which rose this day
Triumphant from the tomb

This day be grateful homage paid
And loud hosannas sung
Let gladness dwell in every heart
And praise on every tongue

Ten thousand different lips shall join
To hail this welcome morn
Which scatters blessing from its wings
To nations yet unborn

This song is on the Art & Theology Eastertide Playlist.

Easter, Day 2: When the Sabbath was past . . .

LOOK: The Three Marys by Henry Ossawa Tanner

Tanner, Henry Ossawa_The Three Marys
Henry Ossawa Tanner (American, 1859–1937), The Three Marys, 1910. Oil on canvas, 42 × 50 in. Fisk University Art Galleries, Nashville, Tennessee.

Based on Mark 16:1–4, this painting shows Mary Magdalene (leading the way), Mary the mother of James, and Salome approaching the tomb of their rabbi, Jesus, the Sunday after his crucifixion. They came bearing spices to anoint his body. They expected it to be a mournful day.

Imagine their response when they found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty! That’s the moment the artist Henry Ossawa Tanner shows us here. Not the Resurrection itself, but the emotional reaction to it, or rather to the evidence of it.

What do you read on the faces of these women? Surprise? Confusion? Fear? Curiosity? Caution? Wonder? Love? Some mix thereof?

They are illumined by the light of an angel who is out of frame and who will speak the news to them presently. Mary Magdalene lifts her hand to her face in a gesture of self-reassurance, while her companion raises her tensed arms at the elbow in a defensive posture, as I read it. Compelled but still somewhat guarded, they progress toward the mystery.

Born and raised the son of a minister in the AME Church in Pennsylvania, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937) was an African American expat to Paris whose biblical paintings, inspired in part by his two trips to the Holy Land, garnered him international acclaim. In Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, art historian James Romaine identifies Tanner as “the most artistically gifted and theologically astute American painter of biblical subjects.” A master of conveying nuanced mystery, “Tanner paints personal experiences rather than public spectacles,” Romaine writes, communicating more through suggestion than depiction and urging the viewer to undergo, like the figures in his paintings, their own experience of spiritual sight.

LISTEN: “Dum transisset Sabbatum” (When the Sabbath was past) | Text: Mark 16:1–2 | Music by John Taverner, 1520s | Performed by Alamire, 2010

Dum transisset Sabbatum, Maria Magdalene et Maria Jacobi et Salome emerunt aromata ut venientes ungerent Jesum. Alleluia.

Et valde mane una sabbatorum veniunt ad monumentum orto iam sole.

Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto.

English translation:

And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. Alleluia.

And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulcher at the rising of the sun.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.

The third responsory at Matins on Easter Sunday, this text has been set to music by many composers. The motet by English Renaissance composer John Taverner is the most famous. The video above is just an excerpt. The full piece lasts about eight minutes and alternates between plainchant and polyphony.

This song is on the Art & Theology Eastertide Playlist.

Easter, Day 1: “Now in glory he doth rise!”

The high point of the church year, Easter is a fifty-day festal season, beginning today, that celebrates the Resurrection of Christ with concentrated vigor! The first eight days of Easter are called the Easter Octave. During this octave I will be publishing daily art-and-song posts, as I did for Holy Week, in the hopes that these works of beauty will help you to bask, wonder, and rejoice in the world-changing truth that Christ is risen.

LOOK: Alleluia by Helen Siegl

Siegl, Helen_Resurrection
Helen Siegl (Austrian/American, 1924–2009), Alleluia, 1975. Color woodcut, 20.5 × 12 cm.

Jesus flipped the script on death! On the bottom of this woodcut, Jesus hangs dead on a tree. The sun and moon have gone black. In the center of the composition, a large crown of thorns encircles instruments of the passion: the titulus, the rooster, the three nails, the spear, the sponge-tipped reed, the scourge, the bread and the wine. But Jesus emerges victorious from the whole ordeal. The serpentine creature that bares its teeth could be read as the serpent from Genesis, whom God prophesied would have his head crushed by the offspring of Eve (Gen. 3:15), or as the sea monster from the book of Jonah as an allegory of the tomb in which Jesus spent three days before emerging anew (Matt. 12:38–41). Sun, stars, planets—the cosmos rejoices. Its Savior has risen.

LISTEN: “Praise the Savior, Now and Ever” | Original Latin words by Venantius Fortunatus, 569 CE; adapted into Swedish by Johan Olaf Wallin, 1819; translated into English by Augustus Nelson, 1925 | Music: American shape-note tune (HOLY MANNA), attributed to William Moore, 1829 | Performed by the musicians of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis, 2007

Praise the Savior, now and ever;
Praise him, all beneath the skies!
Prostrate lying, suff’ring, dying
On the cross, a sacrifice.
Vict’ry gaining, life obtaining,
Now in glory he doth rise.

Man’s work faileth, Christ’s availeth;
He is all our righteousness.
He, our Savior, has forever
Set us free from dire distress.
Through his merit we inherit
Light and peace and happiness.

Sin’s bond severed, we’re delivered;
Christ has bruised the serpent’s head.
Death no longer is the stronger,
Hell itself is captive led.
Christ has risen from death’s prison;
O’er the tomb he light has shed.

For his favor, praise forever
Unto God the Father sing;
Praise the Savior, praise him ever,
Son of God, our Lord and King.
Praise the Spirit; through Christ’s merit
He doth us salvation bring!

This song has its roots in one of the oldest Easter hymns, “Pange, lingua, gloriosi proelium certaminis” (Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle)—from the sixth century. It’s been copiously translated and adapted over the years. This version comes from Redeemer Indy, a Presbyterian church in Indianapolis. While working as a worship director there in the 2000s, Bruce Benedict found the English text in the Trinity Hymnal and paired it with the shape-note tune HOLY MANNA to give it an “Easter jamboree vibe,” arranging it for bluegrass instruments.

The Psalter Hymnal Handbook notes, “The text sets forth the gospel of Easter: Christ who died has risen in victory (st. 1), has set us free from sin (st. 2), and has conquered death and hell itself (st. 3); to that confession we respond with our praise—a doxology to the Trinity (st. 4).” 

This song is on the Art & Theology Eastertide Playlist.