VISUAL COMMENTARIES: Elijah’s Ascent by Victoria Emily Jones: My latest contribution to the Visual Commentary on Scripture was published this month. It’s a mini-exhibition on 2 Kings 2:1–12, featuring a seventeenth-century Russian icon, a 1944 painting by African American artist William H. Johnson, and a 1985 painting (a Jewish chapel commission) by Polish-born Israeli artist Shlomo Katz. (For more context on the Katz painting, see here.)
NATIONAL MOURNING:Washington National Cathedral tolled its mourning bell four hundred times Tuesday evening in remembrance of the 400,000 lives lost from COVID in the United States thus far—each ring representing one thousand dead. I spent the thirty-eight-minute livestream lamenting this enormous loss, praying for all those who are grieving and for patients and health care workers, and pleading with God for an end to this virus.
The origami paper doves you see in the video are part of the Les Colombes installation by Michael Pendry [previously], erected in December in the cathedral’s nave to symbolize hope and the Holy Spirit.
MUSIC VIDEO: “For the Sake of Old Times” (Auld Lang Syne): Directed by Tyler Jones of the narrative studio 1504, this short film premiered December 30, 2020, by NPR. “From the pews of a church where white deacons once refused to seat African Americans, a group of Black singers in Alabama reminds us why preserving our memories of this historic year is vital—even if we’d rather just leave 2020 behind.” [HT: ImageUpdate]
“To me the piece is a personal encouragement going into the future,” Jones says, “that we hopefully strive to work together for a kinder future, especially at a time where we are so distanced.” Read about the making of the film at https://n.pr/3n6d8Ct.
ARTICLE: “On the Gifts of Street Art” by Jason A. Goroncy, Zadok: The Australasian Religious Press Association awarded silver prize for “Best Theological Article” to Jason Goroncy [previously] for this piece. (How cool that it won in the theology category!) Like all art, street art can function as a form of civic dialogue, protest, play, hope, remembrance, etc., but Goroncy discusses how some of its particular qualities uniquely position it to perform those functions: its (usually) unsanctioned and interventionist nature, its fragility and impermanence, its celebration and development of culture, its inseparability from place, and its redefinitions of proprietorship. [HT: Art/s and Theology Australia]
“Among the many gifts that street artists offer,” Goroncy writes, “is a proclivity to bear witness to how things are and not merely to how they might appear to be. Such a proclivity involves a telling of the truth about those largely-untampered-with and untraversed spaces of our urban worlds, about what is present but underexposed or disregarded; and even, as Auden hints, to lead with ‘unconstraining voice’ the way toward healing and toward a renewed sense of enchantment, freedom and praise beyond the pedestrian and clamorous. Such a proclivity is also a form of urban spirituality. It can even be a form of public theology.”
“The Christmas Story: Images from Ethiopic Manuscripts” by Eyob Derillo: The British Library has a fantastic collection of Christian manuscripts from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Ethiopia. This blog post by curator Eyob Derillo shows Christmas-related illuminations from four different ones. Follow the links in the captions to explore each manuscript further.
You can follow Derillo on Twitter @DerilloEyob. He’s always posting fascinating things about Ethiopian art and its intersection with the country’s history, culture, politics, and Christianity, including lots of Ethiopian saints’ stories!
If you enjoyed the blog post, I recommend the highly accessible book The Road to Bethlehem: An Ethiopian Nativity, an interweaving of ancient (apocryphal) tales surrounding Jesus’s birth that flourished in Ethiopia, compiled and told by Elizabeth Laird, with the biblical narrative. It’s illustrated in full color with images from the British Library’s collection and is perfectly appropriate for children (and adults!). I’ve perused the Ethiopian manuscripts on the BL website but am not able to decode several of the images because I’m unfamiliar with the tales and cannot read Ge’ez, and Laird’s book helped me out in that respect, at least in part. For a deeper dive into Ethiopian art—which is inextricable from its patrons’ and makers’ Christian spirituality—see the informative and beautifully produced Ethiopian Art: The Walters Art Museum, a catalog from another museum that houses a fine collection of Ethiopian art.
The Angel of the Lord in icons of the Magi: In this recent post from Icons and Their Interpretation [previously], icons consultant David Coomler spotlights a fresco from Decani Monastery in Serbia that shows an angel on horseback leading the magi to the Christ child, emphasizing supernatural direction. He identifies the same, idiosyncratic figure in a 1548 painting by Frangos Katelanos at Varlaam Monastery in Meteora, Greece, comparing it to two more common appearances of an angel with the magi in Eastern iconography: on foot beside the newborn king’s “throne,” presenting the magi to him.
SONG MEDLEY:“Christmas Around the World” by Acapals: “Acapals is a collaboration of four friends and a penguin who share a love for making a cappella music (despite not sharing much in the way of geography, culture or language).” They are Nick Hogben, tenor, from England; Leif Tse, baritone, from Hong Kong; Jacky Höger, alto, from Germany; and Prayer Weerakitti, soprano, from Thailand. In this video each of them arranged a holiday song in their native language, which they sing together: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (English), “Silent Night” (Cantonese), “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” (German), and “New Year Greeting” (Thai). [HT: Global Christian Worship]
“The Cloister and the Cradle” by Shannon Reed: Some medieval nuns and lay religious women cared for baby Jesus dolls (ceramic or wooden) as a devotional practice—dressing them, playing with them, “feeding” them, singing to them, rocking them in cradles. Full of wit and tenderness, this Vela magazine essay by Shannon Reed explores that practice. “It is difficult to separate my modern reaction to the sight of a grown woman (in a habit!) acting in such bizarre ways, carrying a doll around and pretending it’s real,” Reed writes. “But I try to remember that for these women, this was an empowering opportunity to be Mary, most holy, most blessed.”
Reed considers women’s agency in the Middle Ages, mystical visions made tangible, and the desire for maternal intimacy, incorporating personal stories and reflections, as a single woman without children, about attending baby showers, nannying through grad school, shopping for godchildren, and teetering between enjoyment of her non-mom status and an inclination to mother. As a thirty-two-year-old woman who also does not have kids (though I am married) and is content but constantly surrounded by reminders of what I’m missing, I can relate to a lot of the feelings and experiences Reed articulates here. I chanced upon this essay when trying to find more information about a Beguine cradle I saw at the Met, pictured below (spurred, too, by the description of a Virgin and Child ivory). I found myself unexpectedly moved by the author’s vulnerability and by the connections she draws between modern-day longings for and expressions of motherhood and those played out in medieval Christian convents.
The Sanctuary Between Us: A Retreat for Women’s Christmas by Jan Richardson: Every year artist, writer, and Methodist minister Jan Richardson provides a new compilation of her art, blessings, and spiritual reflections as a free PDF download. The subtitle references the Irish custom of Nollaig na mBan, or Women’s Christmas, observed particularly in County Cork and County Kerry. “Women’s Christmas originated as a day when the women, who often carried the domestic responsibilities all year, took Epiphany [January 6] as an occasion to celebrate together at the end of the holidays, leaving hearth and home to the men for a few hours.” In this spirit Richardson offers an opportunity “to pause and step back from whatever has kept you busy and hurried in the past weeks or months, . . . spend[ing] time in reflection before diving into what this new year will hold.”
“Blessing to Summon Rejoicing,” “Blessing of Memory,” “Blessing the Body,” and “Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light” are among the several benedictions, thoughtfully introduced and many accompanied by collages, paintings, or encaustics. Some sections also include questions for personal reflection. For example: “How do you experience—or desire to experience—remembering in community? Who are the people who hold your memories with you? Are there ways you experience memory as a sacrament, a space where you know the presence and grace of God at work in your life? For whom might you be (or become) a sanctuary of memory as you help them hold their stories and their lives?”
The poem “Wise Women Also Came,” printed as an interlude, is especially compelling, describing how, in addition to the wise men mentioned in the biblical narrative, wise women also came to Jesus’s birth bearing gifts—“water for labor’s washing, / fire for warm illumination, / a blanket for swaddling.”
ONLINE LECTURES, organized by Bridge Projects: This Los Angeles gallery is offering a series of free online events to complement A Composite Leviathan, an exhibition of emerging Chinese artists that runs through February 27, 2021. Here are two I RSVPed for. (Both will be presented in English and Chinese.)
“The Virgin Mother, Her Majesty, Our Lady: Globalism, All-Under-Heaven, and Madonna In-Between” by Dong Lihui, January 12, 8–9:30 p.m. EST: Dong Lihui (PhD, art history), whose research centers on art exchange between East and West, is the author of Chinese Translation of Western Images: Christian Art in China in the 16th and 17th century. In this talk she will discuss the hybridization of European globalism and the Chinese “all-under-heaven” worldview as observed in Chinese Madonna icons made between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries.
“Counterculture: Chinese Contemporary Christian Art and the Bible” by Clover Xuesong Zhou, January 26,8–9:30 p.m. EST: “The advent of modernity brought with it enmity between Christian traditions and a newly liberated art world. Similarly, contemporary artists in China found themselves at odds with the government beginning in the 1980s. All the while, Christianity has had a torrid relationship with Chinese government and culture. Thus, Chinese artists who are also practicing Christians work within these complex intersections.” Art writer and art theologian Clover Xuesong Zhou will be discussing some such artists, including photographer Feng Junlan, video artist Li Ran, and installation artist Gao Lei.
SONG: “O Holy Night” by Ben Caplan and friends: An absolutely stunning minor-key rendition by Canadian singer-songwriter Ben Caplan (who is often compared to Leonard Cohen) and a team of others, combining gypsy jazz, classical, and Jewish folksong influences. Caplan, who is Jewish, didn’t grow up listening to much Christmas music. “I have to admit that I find a lot of that music a bit corny. Where is that minor fall? Where is the major lift? Where is the bafflement?” He continues, “I have a deep felt belief that if you don’t like something, you should do something about it. It’s not enough to complain from the sidelines! There are some truly beautiful songs and carols out there, and I wanted to make something that tip-toes towards the sublime rather than shopping-mall-easy-listening.” Arcade Fire’s “My Body Is a Cage” was one of his reference points. (“I wanted to try to recreate that gradual build, and the sublime surrender to an enormous scale of sound.”) There are a few intentional semitone clashes to generate dissonance.
Filmed last year inside Halifax’s Fort Massey United Church and released in November, this recording was in the making for four years and is the result of much collaboration. The left-handed violinist in the video, Donald MacLennan (see, e.g., 1:34), reharmonized the carol, and he, Caplan, upright bass player Anna Ruddick, drummer Jamie Kronick, and vocalist Taryn Kawaja worked out an arrangement for their band, which they performed at a Christmas concert in 2016. Peter-Anthony Togni, who plays organ for the song, was brought in later to arrange the song for string quartet, pipe organ, and bass clarinet. Caplan chose the instrumentation and aesthetic shape. He recounts the process in detail and names all the people involved on his Bandcamp page. “I want to dispel the myth of the lone genius,” he says. “It took a lot of people with a lot of talent to pull this off. I am just the lead singer, and the guy who was stubborn enough to bring all the people together and spend an outlandish amount of money trying to achieve this vision.” Purchase on Bandcamp, and/or stream on Spotify.
I am truly moved by this atmospheric take on an old classic, which perfectly brings together the darkness and light of the Christmas season. “Original, and righteous—hymn for the COVID time,” says one YouTube user. “You’ve found things in this old carol that I never knew existed,” says another. And another: “A sensory feast. So deeply piercing.”
DIGITAL EXPERIENCE: “Holy Night: The Christmas Story and Its Imagery”: This “Digitorial”—a responsive, multimedia, educative webpage—was created as a supplement to a physical exhibition at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Frankfurt that ran from October 12, 2016, to January 29, 2017, which brought together over one hundred paintings, sculptures, and other precious objects, mostly from medieval Germany, to tell the story of Jesus’s birth. Featured online are a magnificent Rhenish tapestry (seriously, click that link and zoom in!), an ivory relief carving, an altar, a wooden statuette of Mary with a removable flap on her belly that reveals the Christ child, a liturgical cradle and doll, a manuscript illumination, a woodcut, and more. Also included, for listening, are readings from the Revelations of Saint Bridget of Sweden (a fourteenth-century mystic whose vision of the nativity had widespread influence) and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (source of the legend of the miraculous palm tree on the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt), as well as a lullaby from a medieval mystery play at Leipzig and perhaps also sung as part of the custom of Kindleinwiegen. Curator Stefan Roller introduces the exhibition in this video:
The “Holy Night” Digitorial is written for a middle-grade reading level, I’d say; some of the narration seems geared toward kids. It doesn’t assume any knowledge of the Nativity story, and in addition to highlights from the biblical accounts, it mentions some apocryphal story elements, like Joseph’s backstory, the midwives at the birth, the palm tree and wheatfield miracles, and the identity of the “kings.” I appreciate how it covers the full story, including Jesus’s circumcision and the flight to Egypt. My only two wishes are that the images were provided in higher resolution and that full credits (especially the collection these objects are from) were given at the bottom.
I really love the Digitorial format! It’s engaging. If I could afford it, I would endeavor to hire web designers to help me produce products like this. This one was designed and developed by Scholz & Volkmer with funding by the Aventis Foundation. More about Digitorials: “Digitorials are short, interactive, online editorials that combine text, images and animations into a meaningful whole and enable innovative storytelling. Digitorials are not intended to replicate or replace physical exhibitions. Rather, they are a useful way of adding breadth and depth, and are usually used before or after visiting an exhibition. The format was developed by the Städel Museum, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung and Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt and is breaking new ground in art mediation, as it uses digital technology to offer an accessible and approachable way of engaging with art. It has already been awarded the Grimme-Preis.” See other examples: https://www.staedelmuseum.de/en/digitorial; https://www.liebieghaus.de/de/angebote/digitorial; https://www.schirn.de/en/program/offerings/digitorial/.
“Jeg Synger Julekvad” (In dulci jubilo): This Christmas hymn of German origin often appears in English-language hymnals as “Good Christian Men, Rejoice!” or the gender-neutral “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice!” This jazz arrangement by Heidi Skjerve, with Norwegian lyrics by Magnus Brostrup Landstad, is performed by Skjerve (she’s the vocalist on the left) and students from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Department of Music [previously]. The other two vocalists are Liv Ellen Rønning and Jakob Leirvik. See the full list of musicians in the YouTube description. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
“Carol of the Bells,” arr. Al White, performed by the Berea College Bluegrass Ensemble: Al White, who taught Appalachian instruments at Berea College in Kentucky until retiring in May, founded the Berea College Bluegrass Ensemble in fall 1999 to give students with backgrounds or potential in bluegrass music an opportunity to play in a bluegrass band with weekly rehearsals, performances, and travel. This is one of the many arrangements he wrote—sometime around 2008. In this 2016 video, recorded inside Berea’s Danforth Chapel and outdoors, White plays mandolin and leads four other musicians: Brenna Macmillan on banjo and vocals and Theo Macmillan on fiddle (the two are siblings, now performing and recording as the Theo & Brenna Band), Matt Parsons on guitar, and Casey Papendieck on upright bass (he’s part of the Handshake Deals). As of this fall, the Berea College Bluegrass Ensemble is under the direction of Sam Gleaves. [HT: Global Christian Worship]
“Peace Upon the Earth” by Hillsong Worship: Since being introduced to Chopin by my piano teacher as a kid, he’s been one of my favorite composers to play—his etudes, nocturnes, waltzes, fantasias. In this 2017 song from Hillsong’s Christmas: The Peace Project, Marty Sampson wrote lyrics for Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major (op. 9, no. 2), which actually works really well! It’s a beautiful handling of the iconic melody. Starting at 3:44, Sampson talks about his songwriting process. He says he was inspired by “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” which came about when William Hayman Cummings adapted the melody of “Vaterland, in deinen Gauen,” a song from Mendelssohn’s secular “Gutenberg Cantata,” to fit Charles Wesley’s hymn text.
NEW ACQUISITIONS: “2 Armenian Manuscripts Join the Getty Collection”: This year the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles acquired, among other art objects, (1) a detached leaf with a full-page Nativity illumination from a seventeenth-century Armenian Gospel-book, and (2) a sixteenth-century Armenian Gospel-book illuminated by a brother and sister team, Ghoukas and Eghisabet. (A female illuminator named in an early modern manuscript—woot woot!) “Little is known about the involvement of women in the trade of manuscript illumination, but we hope that highlighting figures like Eghisabet will spark further research and understanding about their role,” write Elizabeth Morrison and Nava Streiter in this Getty blog post.
Ms. 119 is now the third Armenian Gospel-book in the museum’s collection, and Morrison and Streiter compare one of the illumination subjects side-by-side across all three books—in addition to providing visual comparisons with Ethiopian and Byzantine Gospel-books.
PANEL DISCUSSION: “Religious Art,” organized by the Forum for Philosophy: I posted about this live online event a month ago, and now that it’s passed, I want to share the video recording. Theologian Ben Quash (King’s College, London), curator Lieke Wijnia (Catharijneconvent Museum, Utrecht), and art historian Mehreen Chida-Razvi (Khalili Collections, London) discuss the relationship between art and religion, how art can function within religious practice, how to exhibit religious art in a museum, and artworks as sites of conversation across religious traditions.
In reference to Hadzi-Vasileva’s canopy of pig’s caul fat, Quash says that challenge or provocation can be a meaningful thing to happen in a religious context:
Works that ambush you are also religiously important, because a sort of religious art that only gives you what you already expect and want quickly becomes kitsch. It’s just a reward of your expectations. And that shouldn’t be what religious art does, it seems to me. It should actually want to take you somewhere else, just as good religion should—it should be transformative, not merely confirming where you already are. So there’s a role for these sorts of artworks within religion as well as outside it.
Chida-Razvi shares slides of Islamic architectural spaces, devotional objects, and manuscript illuminations, including a Mughal painting that exemplifies the interfaith dialogue going on at the court of Akbar in Lahore, and Wijnia shares her experience curating objects people pray with for museum display and (forthcoming) an exhibition on Mary Magdalene. Such great content!
“He Comes,” words by Kate Bluett, music by Paul Zach: A lovely new Advent hymn, performed here by Paul Zach.
“The Heavens Shake” by Reindeer Tribe:Reindeer Tribe is a group of friends based in Los Angeles who get together each year to make a live Christmas album, a mix of originals and traditional, sometimes retuned, carols. They bring their voices, instruments, and arrangements and jam together for a long weekend in a big living room. (COVID-19 put the kibosh on this year’s gathering.) This original song, perfect for Advent, is on their 2014 album, A Great Light. “For thus says the LORD of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth . . .” (Haggai 2:6).
ARTICLE: “We don’t need to be afraid of the Christmas tree’s pagan roots” by Damian Costello, America: Dr. Damian Costello specializes in the intersection of Catholic theology, Indigenous spiritual traditions, and colonial history. In this article he considers how the Christmas tree pictures Christ as the new Yggdrasil (the giant ash tree at the center of the Norse cosmos), and the spiritual character of nature. The second half—about “the hidden agency of trees”—stretches my categories for sure, and I wonder if it’s a bit overwrought, but I’m intrigued by the links Costello draws between the Psalms, Anishinaabe spirituality, and the theology of Catholic saint John Henry Newman. The article reminds me of Luci Shaw’s poem “Perfect Christmas Tree.”
FILM: The Nativity (2010), written and directed by Tony Jordan: I’m always skeptical of film adaptations of the Bible because so many are poorly done. But I gave this four-part BBC miniseries (streaming on Amazon Prime) a shot, and, other than a really cheesy moment during the birthing scene, I thought it was quite good! Writer-director Tony Jordan is not a Christian but approaches the story with the reverent curiosity of a dramatist. He said he never connected with the nativity story until he worked on this project and started to see the very real humans beneath the auras tradition has given the “holy couple”—he saw their earthiness and complexity and began to imagine their emotional lives, especially their reactions to the disruptions they encountered. He said the relationship between Mary and Joseph was key to him. Many storytellers assume that because the marriage was arranged (or because, according to apocryphal sources, Joseph was an old man), there was no passion in their relationship, that they were bound together more by duty than by love, but Jordan, without overly romanticizing, imagines otherwise. The warmth between Mary and Joseph in the first half, which they have to work to regain after news of Mary’s pregnancy hits Joseph like a ton of bricks, is a hallmark of the movie.
Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) is probably my favorite Mary I’ve seen onscreen. (I also like Andrew Buchan [Broadchurch] as Joseph.) Jordan says most people see Mary as “a one-dimensional character with a halo round her head,” but actually, “she’s not saccharine. Just a nice kid—real but fallible.” He shows her as virtuous but not a goody-goody, fun-loving and confused and scared and courageous all at once, stepping into her new role by faith without seeing the full picture and even discipling Joseph into that faith. Maslany plays the part brilliantly, endearingly. The film addresses the isolation Mary felt, being rejected not only by her fiancé at first but also by the synagogue leadership and disbelieved, too, by the community she had grown up in. I’ve seen many actors portray Mary as detached, transcending all her difficult circumstances with calm, unshaken resolve. This Mary, by contrast, experiences hurt and fear and yet endures, which, I suspect, is closer to the historical reality. This in no way undermines her faith.
I was delighted by the Annunciation scene, where Gabriel comes to Mary as an ordinary man, much like the angels who visited Abraham generations earlier. He is not wearing ermine or carrying a scepter or standing on a rock above Mary with a booming voice and a heavenly glow. He’s simply a stranger who startles her, even more so when he relays his news. He speaks gently, colloquially. The moment of conception is portrayed as sudden and visceral; Mary feels Light enter her and reacts with a sort of joyful shock.
The trailer and posters, I will say, make the film seem pretty conventional. It does follow some conventions, but it’s also fresh, and while it has some flaws, I think it’s a very worthy use of two hours—it brings this ancient story to life in compelling ways.
PHOTO ESSAY:“Advent 2020: Comfort My People”: Community development and relief worker Kezia M’Clelland, a child protection in emergencies specialist, works in areas of disaster and conflict. Every December she compiles a set of news photographs published in The Guardian that year, pairing each with an Advent scripture. (I introduced her in a 2017 Advent roundup.) Text and image amplify each other and prompt deeper reflection on the themes of the season as well as an awakening to global crises and/or injustices. The photos in this year’s compilation include a schoolteacher bringing plastic-wrapped hugs to her quarantined students in Rio de Janeiro, flooded roadways in Honduras following Hurricane Eta, a Syrian family from Ariha breaking their Ramadan fast amid the rubble of their home, a Palestinian boy from the Khan Younis refugee camp standing on a pile of scrapped car parts, the aftermath of the Beirut port explosion in August (caused by improperly stored ammonium nitrate), a protester outside Dallas City Hall in the US insisting that all citizens’ presidential election votes be counted, and others.
M’Clelland adds one new photo for each day of Advent and then releases them all in video slideshow form on December 24. Here are her photo compilations from 2019 (“Good News of Great Joy”) and 2018 (“Peace on Earth”):
SONG: “He Who Made the Starry Skies”: For optimal acoustics, three Bruderhof women from the Fox Hill Community in Walden, New York, trek on over to a silo to sing a fifteenth-century processional carol written by the nuns of St. Mary’s, Chester, in England, a medieval nunnery of which nothing now survives. Both the words and music have been preserved in a ca. 1425 manuscript known as The Chester Mysteries. The original is in Latin (and is titled “Qui creavit coelum”), but singers Alina McPherson, Melinda Goodwin, and Coretta Marchant opt for an English translation. I am providing the sheet music here, courtesy of the Bruderhof Historical Archives. [HT: Tamara Hill Murphy]
He who made the starry skies (Lully, lully, lu) Sleeping in a manger lies (Lully, lully, lu) Ruler of all centuries (Lully, lully, lu)
Joseph brings the swaddling clothes (Lully, lully, lu) Mary wraps the babe so mild (Lully, lully, lu) In the manger puts the child (Lully, lully, lu)
Humbly clad, the King of kings (Lully, lully, lu) Joy of heav’n to earth now brings (Lully, lully, lu) Sweet above all earthly things (Lully, lully, lu)
Mary, ask thy little son (Lully, lully, lu) That he give us of his joy (Lully, lully, lu) Now and through eternity (Lully, lully, lu)
The Bruderhof is an Anabaptist Christian movement of more than three thousand people committed to peacemaking, common ownership, and proclamation of the gospel. They have twenty-eight settlements on four continents, made up of families and singles. Perhaps you know them through their publishing house, Plough. Their website reads, “Love your neighbor. Take care of each other. Share everything. Especially in these challenging times, we at the Bruderhof believe that another way of life is possible. We’re not perfect people, but we’re willing to venture everything to build a life where there are no rich or poor. Where everyone is cared for, everyone belongs, and everyone can contribute. We’re pooling all our income, talents, and energy to take care of one another and to reach out to others. We believe that God wants to transform our world, here and now. This takes a life of discipleship, sacrifice and commitment; but when you truly love your neighbor as yourself, peace and justice become a reality. Isn’t that what Jesus came to bring for everyone?”
UPCOMING (ONLINE) CHRISTMAS CONCERTS:
“A Family Holiday Singalong with Dan and Claudia Zanes,”Tuesday, December 15, 6 p.m. EST: Presented by the Lebanon Opera House in New Hampshire, this multicultural concert will feature Christmas, Hanukkah, or New Year’s songs from France, Wales, Germany, America, Puerto Rico, Korea, Tunisia, and Haiti. You can download the set list, which includes lyrics and chords, at the registration link I’ve posted. Dan and Claudia Zanes are a musical couple from Baltimore (my neck of the woods!), and I’ve really enjoyed the daily song videos they’ve been releasing on YouTube since COVID started. Here they are in 2018 with Pauline Jean, singing “Ocho Kandelikas,” a Hanukkah song written by Flory Jagoda in the 1980s in the Judeo-Spanish language known as Ladino. (Update: Concert video available here.)
ARTICLE: “Making Space for a Multicultural Christmas” by Michelle Reyes: “How can each of us celebrate Christmas at the intersection of our faith and our culture, while welcoming differing cultural perspectives on Christ’s birth?” asks Dr. Michelle Reyes, VP of the Asian American Christian Collaborative and editorial director of Pax, in this Gospel Coalition article. She briefly discusses four different cultural traditions that highlight unique aspects of Jesus’s birth narrative: posadas in Central America, Kiahk in Egypt, parols (star-shaped lanterns) in the Philippines, and Día de los Reyes [previously] in Puerto Rico, Mexico, and other Hispanic countries.
PODCAST EPISODE: “God’s Global Family,” BibleProject:BibleProject, a nonprofit ed-tech organization and animation studio, produces one of my favorite podcasts, hosted by biblical scholar Tim Mackie and Jon Collins. (I found episodes 6–11 of their recently wrapped “Character of God” series, on the wrath of God, particularly illuminating.) “Family of God” is the name of the series they’re in now. In this first episode they discuss how Christianity is the most multiethnic religious movement in history, and how our humanity cannot be fully realized without understanding, appreciating, and being connected to the identity of every other culture. I link to it here because it dovetails nicely with the Reyes article and because I want to introduce you to the podcast, if you’re not already familiar with it, but also because Mackie spends time talking about the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, with its many culturally specific portrayals of Mary and Jesus from around the world.
As you know, diversity in biblical imagery, especially images of Jesus, is important to me, so I was delighted to hear this popular podcast tip their hat to this pilgrimage site in Israel that features a range of visual interpretations of the incarnation. You can view a compilation of the church’s national mosaics at BibleWalks.com. Most of them are not of high artistic quality, but I appreciate the initiative of inviting the nations to contribute their own localized representations. Above, I posted three that I particularly like.
DANCE:“Ave Maria”:Queensland Ballet dancers Victor Estévez and Mia Heathcote perform a pas de deux (ballet duet) to the Schubert melody that today is most associated with the prayer “Ave Maria,” which begins, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” These are the words the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary when he came to announce that she would bear in her body the Son of God. Though I can’t say what this duo had in mind when they choreographed the piece, I can’t help but think, given the music choice, of the Annunciation—the Divine coming to dance with humanity, to partner with her for the redemption of the world. The dancing starts thirty-five seconds in.
VISUAL MEDITATION: “Embodied Joy, Serious Joy: Making Room in the Body and Life for New Creation” by Alexandra Davison: I shared a visual meditation by this culture care leader just last week. In this devotional piece based on Luke 1:41–55, Davison discusses two abstract paintings from Louise Henderson’s The Twelve Months series. In October, “Henderson has a cropped representation of a pregnant woman, her belly bright and fruitful as a melon, shines with what Henderson describes from her own pregnancy as ‘bubbles of life circulating in the womb.’ She magnifies joy from its tiniest beginnings both seen and unseen in the mother and the child.” Reflecting on this ebullient image in conjunction with her own pregnancy experience and Mary’s, Davison ends by quoting an adaptation of the Magnificat by songwriter Marcus Walton.
VIDEO INSTALLATION:Mary! by Arent Weevers: One of the primary images or metaphors for the season of Advent is pregnancy—the pregnant Mary awaiting the birth of Jesus, her belly swelling a little more each day, and a world heavy with expectancy, at the threshold of (re)birth. In 2009, media artist and theologian Arent Weevers [previously] created a gorgeous video installation titled Mary!. “Standing in the middle, a heavily pregnant young woman. Her hair partly covers her naked body to her ankles. She peers past you, with no expression on her face. From underneath, a gusty wind begins to blow, wafting her hair slowly upwards into the air. Suddenly, the woman bends slightly forward, her left arm in front of her abdomen, and grimaces painfully. Losing her balance, she falls sideways out of the frame until only black remains.” You can preview the video here. (Because of the nudity, there will be a content warning you have to accept before proceeding.)
Weevers’s art aims to express the paradoxical nature of the human body—its vulnerability and its strength—and in her role as Mary, the actor in this video exemplifies both so well. Gloriously gravid and standing tall at first, the woman looks into the distance and sees the future suffering of her son. She clasps her belly protectively in response, hunching forward as the painful knowledge of his destiny shoots through her.
MAGNIFICAT SERMON (and sketch): “The Love That We Are Made For” by Bob Henry: Bob Henry is an American Quaker pastor who often sketches in preparation for and in response to sermons. In this sermon he delivered December 11, 2016, at Silverton Friends Church in Oregon, he reflects on the oldest and most radical Advent hymn: Mary’s Magnificat. We are so used to thinking of Mary as quiet and demure, but Henry imagines her as “a strong woman with arms flaring, fists raised, wild bodily movements, beads of sweat forming on her brow, and a strong voice throwing down these words from Luke 1:46–55.”
This characterization is expressed in his drawing, which shows a Black Mary, full of faith and fire, surrounded by the words of Joy Cowley’s “Modern Magnificat.” He says the women of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago, where he used to teach Bible, embody for him Mary’s bold declaration of justice, freedom, and hope in today’s world. He challenges us to sing Mary’s song in our own political climates.
The Christmas–Epiphany 2020/21 edition of the Daily Prayer Project [previously], a publication I work for part-time, released this week! The cover image is from the sanctuary mural at Holy Angels Catholic Church in Chicago, by Cameroonian artist-priest Engelbert Mveng. (See the full mural here.) Also in this edition are images of Grace Carol Bomer’s From Strength to Strength, showing Light stepping into darkness, and the Piper-Reyntiens stained glass window in Coventry Cathedral, with its yellow sunburst amid an abstract pattern of reds, blues, and greens. We include visual art as a supplement to the prayers, scripture readings, and songs with the understanding that it, too, can promote spiritual development and a deeper communion with God.
You can purchase a digital copy (PDF) of the Christmas–Epiphany edition (December 24–February 16) through the website, and if in the future you’d like to receive hard copies, starting with Lent 2021, you can become a monthly subscriber. Part of the money goes to supporting artists.
On a related note: My colleagues at the DPP have curated an excellent Spotify playlist, “DPP Advent Songbook,” that is reflective of the types of music featured in the prayerbooks (in the form of simplified lead sheets, typically four songs per edition). Check it out!
Unburden: A Virtual Interactive Exhibit, December 4, 2020–January 8, 2021: The Gallery at W83 is part of a 45,000-square-foot cultural center built by Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan’s Upper West Side as a service to the city’s artists and larger community. W83 Events and Programming Director Eva Ting has curated a virtual exhibition of photographs and stories from Kristina Libby’s Floral Heart Project, a series of living memorials to those lost to or suffering from COVID-19. Libby initiated the project in New York City in May, partnering with 1800Flowers.com to place floral heart garlands all around the city to create space for ceremony and to invite the community to process and mourn. The project has since grown nationwide.
“Many of us are carrying burdens of loss, anxiety, and uncertainty as we move towards the end of 2020,” Ting writes. “We have all been impacted in some way by the events of this year, and we bear fatigue weighed heavier by the inability to gather as a community to collectively grieve. In this interactive virtual exhibit Unburden, the Gallery at W83 invites you to participate in an unburdening of the load we carry.”
The exhibition webpage invites you to release personal burdens by writing down any grief, fears, loss, or anxiety you wish to let go of (can be submitted anonymously if desired). These words will be incorporated into a new floral heart laying on December 20 at Fort Tryon Park, an event that will be livestreamed. You can also ask for prayer, and members of the W83 team will pray for your requests. “Through these individual and collective acts of unburdening, may we imagine what it would look like to truly let go of these burdens.”
I enjoyed attending the virtual “Songs of Hope: A TGC Advent Concert,” featuring music and spoken-word performances from a variety of artists (see YouTube description), interspersed with Advent readings. It was a truly meaningful worship experience.
I’m sure there are many more virtual Advent/Christmas concerts and other online events coming up. What ones are you most looking forward to?
One that I’ll probably be tuning in to is “We Three Queens Holiday Show” by Pegasis, a sister trio, on December 17, 8:30 p.m. EST (7:30 p.m. CST). It will be live on Facebook and and Instagram. (Update, 12/17/20: View the performance here. My favorite two songs are probably “Poncho Andino” at 19:04 and “Mary Had a Baby” at 45:24—such a unique arrangement!)
POEM: “Harlem” by Langston Hughes: This is a brilliant poem—its sensory images, its rhythm, its rhyme, its multivalence (especially the last line). I loved it so much when I first read it in ninth grade that I memorized it unbidden. When writer and podcaster Joy Clarkson posted a reflection on the poem for her Patreon community in October, resulting in a lively conversation thread in the comments section, it reignited my enthusiasm for and got me thinking more deeply about “Harlem.” She opened by quoting Proverbs 13:12: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, / But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”
“What happens to a dream deferred? // Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” Written in 1951 as part of a sequence of poems exploring black life in Harlem, “Harlem” is inextricably tied to the civic discourse of the contemporary American moment, writes Scott Challener in Poetry Foundation’s guide to the poem. The “dream” he refers to is the so-called American Dream, unattainable for so many due to racial inequalities and oppression. (Also assigned in the ninth-grade English curriculum is Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which takes its title from and addresses the questions of “Harlem.”)
While not wishing to strip the poem of its specific context, I have been thinking about all the dreams that have been deferred this year—put on hold, or even irretrievably lost, because of COVID-19. Hughes posits a string of descriptive similes for a deferred dream: a dried-up raisin, a festering sore, rotting meat, a crusted-over sweet, a sagging load. One commenter on Joy’s Patreon observed how a raisin can’t turn back into a grape, rotten meat can’t be made fresh again, and an overcooked dessert can’t be cooked back down (though perhaps the burnt bits could be scraped off), but a sore can heal and a load can be lifted.
The final suggestion—“or does it explode?”—can be read in myriad ways. In one respect it could refer to the explosion of cultural output, of creativity, that results from deferred dreams—i.e., the Harlem Renaissance. I’ve definitely seen this happen this year, as people, in the face of crushing personal and professional disappointments, have found unique ways to come together and produce and share works of beauty within the restrictiveness of health and safety protocols. One example—speaking of Harlem—is the Dance Theatre of Harlem, a groundbreaking neoclassical ballet company founded at the height of the civil rights movement in 1969 and still active today. Bans on gatherings of certain numbers have meant that dancers and other performers have had to find alternative ways of reaching their audiences, so DTH artists Derek Brockington and Alexandra Hutchinson created “Dancing Through Harlem,” taking choreography from Robert Garland’s “New Bach” out into the streets and capturing it on video for people to enjoy from home. To help support the DTH during this time, you can donate easily through the fundraising sidebar on the video’s YouTube page or through the company’s website.
SONG: “400 Years” by Sarah Sparks: This original song, sung with Kate Lab, appears on Sarah Sparks’s new album, Advent, Pt. One. It’s about how the centuries-long silence of God between the ministry of Malachi (ca. 420 BCE) and the appearance of John the Baptist in the early first century CE was broken with the birth of Jesus—the Word made flesh. Its refrain, “For the first time, not a silent night,” cleverly turns on its head the sweet, familiar carol “Silent Night.” Through the incarnation, God spoke to all who would listen.
“An Advent Visio Divina” by John Skillen, CIVA blog: John Skillen, author of Putting Art (Back) in Its Place, discusses four works of Advent-themed art from Italy, where he lives for part of each year leading retreats and seminars through the Studio for Art, Faith & History. He starts in Florence with The Adoration of the Shepherds altarpiece by Renaissance artist Domenico Ghirlandaio, which invites worshippers to follow the shepherds’ (and patrons’) example of adoring the Christ child. Then he moves to Orvieto, spotlighting Karin Coonrod’s directing a medieval mystery play in the city’s streets and churches. (For more on this, read Skillen’s excellent essay in Image no. 96, “Fierce Mercy: The Theater Art of Karin Coonrod.”) Advent is also about the second coming, so Luca Signorelli’s apocalyptic frescoes in the Chapel of San Brizio in Orvieto Cathedral are appropriate. Continuous, in some ways, with these late fifteenth-century paintings are the bronze reliefs on the central doors by Emilio Greco from 1962; they depict the seven works of mercy, the criteria, according to Matthew 25, by which humanity will be judged.
“Passion for the Light” by Alexandra Jean Davison, ArtWay: For last Sunday, the first day of Advent, Culture Care RDU Director Alexandra Jean Davison wrote this wonderful meditation on a set of contemporary sculptures by Jaume Plensa at the North Carolina Museum of Art, connecting them to the season we’re in. She begins, “We see three identical nudes filled with light, the face and arms covered with names and Scripture. Each figure sits at rest horizontally on one of the three walls which form a triangle. The closed eyes and mouth are covered with embossed text of the names of the eight gates of the ancient city walls of Jerusalem: New, Herod, Damascus, Golden (two doors: Gate of Repentance and Gate of Mercy), Lions, Jaffa, Zion, and Dung. Tattoo-like passages from the Song of Songs emerge from the heart upon the arms.” Read more at ArtWay.eu.
VIDEO: “Matthew 1:18-23” by SALT Project: The Emmy Award–winning production company SALT Project released a short video this week setting a reading from Matthew’s Gospel (“This is how the birth of Jesus came about . . .”) against evocative time lapses of blooming flowers. They’re generously offering it for free download and use in worship services, online or in-person. It could be used as an opener, as one of the morning’s scripture readings, or in a number of other ways.
SONGS (the latter two released this week!):
“Christ Child’s Coming”: This simple Advent song is based on the African American spiritual “The Train Is a-Coming” (where “train” is a multivalent metaphor having to do with salvation). While a musician at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California, Keith Watts adapted the lyrics to relate more explicitly to Advent: “Christ child’s coming, oh yeah!,” “Light is coming, oh yeah!,” and “Our king’s coming, oh yeah!” The song is sung here by Trinity Majorins, accompanied by her mom, Sarah [previously], on the piano and her dad, Philip [previously], on guitar.
“Weight/Wait” by Mike McMonagle: “Hope . . . flicker[s] underneath the weight of the wait.” Introducing this new demo, Mike McMonagle, a roots rock musician from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, wrote on Facebook about how the pandemic has created an extended season of waiting in the darkness this year, which has helped him to feel both pain and longing more keenly: “For the past couple of months, I’ve found myself processing all the ups & downs of the current life experience in step with what I’d label the deepest dive into the Advent season that I’ve ever done. All my life, Advent was just a church-y word for rat race otherwise known as The Holidays. There were happy hours, shopping trips, family outings – things that made it hard to focus on the Advent season for more than an hour each Sunday. This year has been different.”
“In Distress” by the Pharaoh Sisters: Written by Austin Pfeiffer and Jared Meyer and based on Psalms 120 and 121, this song blends Latin and Appalachian folk music influences and has lyrics in both English and Spanish. “The song’s creation began in the spiritual angst after the 2016 [US presidential] election,” Pfeiffer writes. “Calling on believers to put their hope in Christ as King, the song has broad themes of Kingdom orientation, raises questions about social divisions, but also leans into Advent ideas, specifically Isaiah 9.” It premiered at the 2017 Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) General Assembly but didn’t end up fitting on the Pharaoh Sisters’ 2020 debut album, Civil Dawn. “Now as our nation plunges deeper into distress and unrest, be it political and/or social, the band is eager to release the song for Advent 2020.”
ONLINE PANEL: “Religious Art,”December 9, 6:00–7:15 p.m. London time (1:00–2:15 p.m. ET): “The relationship between religion and art is ancient and complex, varying across religious traditions and cultures. In this event, Mehreen Chida-Razvi, Ben Quash, and Lieke Wijnia consider how these traditions of religious art differ and what role art plays in religion today. How should we display religious art? Might art be a way of opening interfaith dialogue? And has art itself become a kind of religion?” This free Zoom event is organized by the Forum for Philosophy and the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics. I’ll be attending! (Note: The promotional image below is David LaChapelle’s Last Supper.) Update, 12/10/20: The panel discussion has been archived and can be viewed here.
For those readers who are new, welcome! I want to alert you to (and remind others of) the Art & Theology Advent Music Playlist. I released it last year on Spotify and have made some additions since then, including all six songs from Lo Sy Lo’s excellent album St Fleming of Advent, selections from recent releases by the Porter’s Gate’s, Andrew Bird, and Caroline Cobb, some Nina Simone and Jackson 5, a musical setting of an Emily Dickinson poem by Julie Lee and a Count of Monte Cristo quote by the Duke of Norfolk, the shape-note hymn “Bozrah,” and more. I’ve structured the list as a journey from the early promise of a Savior in God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen. 22:18), through Isaiah’s prophecies about a great light dawning and a shoot springing up out of a stump and valleys being lifted and swords being beaten into plowshares, to the angel’s announcement to Mary and her subsequent Magnificat and pregnant waiting, which I transition into the church’s waiting for Christ’s second coming, with warnings to keep our lamps trimmed and burning, to stay awake, to watch and pray. Sprinkled throughout are groanings from God’s people as well as expressions of joyful expectancy.
A Christmas playlist will be forthcoming in just two weeks.
Bard and Ceilidh Advent Calendar: This Advent, multi-instrumentalist and melodist Mary Vanhoozer (aka Bard and Ceilidh) is offering a digital “Advent calendar” with twenty-four traditional, Celtic-infused Christmas carols played on various folk instruments. For $20, you will receive a code that unlocks a new song daily for download. Here are two of Vanhoozer’s previous releases, to give you a sense of the style she plays in. The first is her own arrangement of “I Saw Three Ships” with “Branle des Chevaux” (The Horse’s Brawl). The second, “When Icicles Hang by the Wall,” is an original setting of the winter hymn from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost, which celebrates the season of biting cold and red, runny noses and sloshy roads and singing owls and simmering crabapples and interior warmth.
“Veni Emmanuel: A brief meditation on the meaning of Advent” by John B. Graeber: This short piece published last year in Curator is a great introduction to the liturgical season we’re entering into on November 29. It begins, “Advent is the hope of redemption, sung in minor key. It is the promise of resurrection, and the sorrow of that hope not yet fulfilled. In this the midnight of the liturgical year, these few weeks before we celebrate the birth of Christ, we confront a world not yet reborn and embody what Saint Paul calls the ‘hope against hope,’ a hope that endures when the world says it should not. A hope that looks back to the birth of our savior, and forward to His coming again, when all will be made new.”
DRAMATIC READING AND DISCUSSION: The Book of Job: On Sunday, December 6, 4–6 p.m. ET, Theater of War Productions will be hosting a free online event where actors, including Bill Murray, will be performing Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the book of Job, adapted and directed by Bryan Doerries. “The Book of Job is an ancient Hebrew poem that timelessly explores how humans behave when faced with disaster, pestilence and injustice,” Doerries writes, and this dramatic reading aims to serve “as a catalyst for powerful, guided conversations about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic upon individuals, families, and communities.” After the reading, four community panelists will kick off the discussion with their gut responses to what resonated with them, and then discussion will open up to the audience. RSVP here.
“Theater of War Productions works with leading film, theater, and television actors to present dramatic readings of seminal plays—from classical Greek tragedies to modern and contemporary works—followed by town hall-style discussions designed to confront social issues by drawing out raw and personal reactions to themes highlighted in the plays. The guided discussions underscore how the plays resonate with contemporary audiences and invite audience members to share their perspectives and experiences, and, helping to break down stigmas, foster empathy, compassion, and a deeper understanding of complex issues.” Their many past projects include A Streetcar Named Desire (followed by a discussion on domestic violence), scenes from King Lear (the challenges of aging and dementia), and Sophocles’s Ajax (the invisible wounds of war).
Beginning in May, the company started presenting their projects online. Because they want to cultivate “a dynamic space to participate in an ephemeral experience, in which risks can be taken, interpretations shared, and truths told,” the projects are not available afterward for on-demand views. To get an idea of the format they follow and some of the work they’ve done, see the Theater of War trailer below.
As we sit in the year 2020 and struggle to remember what normal even feels like, I’ve been wondering about people’s emotions and how I might capture the painful realities of human existence we all seem to be feeling this year. In this new work, I will explore the pain and anxiety of massive disruption and how we are changed by it. I’ve been thinking about the biblical character Job from the land of Uz. What might he look like, plucked out of the ancient text, and plopped into modern-day? This is my attempt to bring a re-imagined 21st century Job to life in a way that encapsulates not only his experience, but also our own. I’ll be using a combination of found and repurposed objects, multi-media visuals, and incorporating input from the public on multiple panels that measure 8 feet by 5 feet—my biggest project to date.
Next year Brezinka will be taking the completed art on tour across the country in a glass box truck. “The plan is to park at notable cathedrals or churches and community centers in each city. I want to give those who funded this project and the general public an opportunity to pause, interact with the art, and reflect on the last year—the disruptions, the beauty, and the changes it all brings.” He says the art is an invitation for people to feel their sorrow and their grief. Read the interview to find out more about his process and his hopes for the project.
NEW SONG RELEASE: “O Love That Casts Out Fear”: This is my favorite track from the new sacred chamber pop EP by Bobby Krier, Jon Green, and friends, Cast Out All Our Fears. The hymn text was written by Horatius Bonar in 1861, and the music is by Bobby Krier and Justin Ruddy [previously], who collaborated often as musicians at Citylife Presbyterian Church in Boston. (Their retuned version premiered on the 2013 album Castle Island Hymns; they have since moved on from Citylife.) This rendition is sung by Molly Parden.