Advent, Day 5

LOOK: Christmas Tree by Shirazeh Houshiary

Houshiary, Shirazeh_Christmas Tree
Shirazeh Houshiary (Iranian British, 1955–), Christmas Tree, 2016/1993. Temporary installation at Tate Britain, London.

Every year from 1988 to 2012, and again in 2016 after the completion of a massive three-year renovation, Tate Britain commissioned a leading contemporary artist to create a Christmas tree installation inside the galleries. (In 2017 this tradition was replaced with the annual Winter Commission, where an artist is invited instead to decorate the museum’s Millbank facade with lights.)

The Tate awarded Shirazeh Houshiary the Christmas Commission in 1993, and she came up with a novel interpretation of the theme: a live pine tree suspended upside down, its exposed roots coated in gold leaf. She described the piece as “taking earth back to heaven,” and the Tate says it reflects the artist’s interest “in astronomy, mysticism and the interplay between light and dark.”

As Houshiary’s Christmas Tree was so memorable, Tate Britain asked her to reprise it in 2016 down the center of the museum’s new spiral staircase designed by the architecture firm Caruso St John. So in December of that year it could be seen under the glass dome of the rotunda of the museum’s Thames-facing entrance, viewable from three different levels.

Though I didn’t get to see the installation in person, the photos instantly reminded me of the inverted tree that appears in some of the woodcuts and batiks of Indian Christian artist Solomon Raj (see, e.g., here and here). For him this symbol represents the Christian’s being rooted in God and bearing fruit in the world.

Neither Raj nor Houshiary, however, were the first to develop this symbol. The Katha Upanishad, an ancient sacred Hindu text, references something similar: “There is an eternal tree called the Ashvattha, which has its roots above and its branches below. Its luminous root is called Brahman, the Supreme Reality, and it alone is beyond death. Everything that exists is rooted in that point. There is nothing else beyond it” (2.3.1). The inverted tree is also mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita 15.1 and the Rig Veda 1.24.7. Furthermore, in his Timaeus Plato describes man as a “heavenly plant” with its branches on earth and its roots in heaven—and I wouldn’t be surprised to find the arbor inversa present in other religious and philosophical traditions as well.  

Houshiary was not working from an intentionally Christian framework (nor a Hindu or Platonic one), but her installation’s linkage with the season of Christmas welcomes, I’d say, a Christological reading. As already mentioned, she acknowledged in her 1993 statement an interplay between heaven and earth—heaven being evoked through the tree’s gilded root system that towers above the viewer, catching the natural light from above. Our realm, earth, is where the ever-green life enters and expands.

I think of how Jesus Christ, the New Adam, human being par excellence and yet Eternal One who is from the beginning, came down from on high, bringing lushness, grafting humanity into the Divine.

Houshiary, Shirazeh_Christmas Tree
Photo: Guy Bell

LISTEN: “Love Divine” | Words by Charles Wesley, 1747 | Music by Thomas Waller, first published 1869; arr. Wilder Adkins, 2015 | Performed by Justin Cross and Wilder Adkins on Hollow Square Hymnal, 2016; reissued as a single, 2018

Love divine, all loves excelling,
joy of heav’n, to earth come down!
Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
all thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, thou art all compassion;
pure, unbounded love thou art.
Visit us with thy salvation;
enter ev’ry trembling heart.

Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit
into ev’ry troubled breast.
Let us all in thee inherit,
let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be.
End of faith, as its beginning,
set our hearts at liberty.

Come, Almighty, to deliver,
let us all thy life receive.
Suddenly return, and never,
nevermore thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
serve thee as thy hosts above,
pray, and praise thee without ceasing,
glory in thy perfect love.

Finish, then, thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation,
perfectly restored in thee.
Changed from glory into glory,
till in heav’n we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.

“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” is one of my absolute favorite hymns. It’s grand and passionate, tender and communal, and its many invocations have an Advent ring to them: Come down, Love! Make your home in us. Bring all your faithful mercies to a climax. Visit us with your salvation. Enter our trembling hearts. Breathe your spirit into us. Give us yourself. Lead us to ultimate rest. Be Alpha and Omega to us. Liberate. Deliver. Let us receive your life. “Suddenly return” . . . and never, never leave! Finish your new creation. Restore us in you.

Note that the second line appears in some hymnals without the comma following “joy of heav’n” and with a comma for the end punctuation, which, instead of acting as a petition, would indicate that the joy of heaven has already come down. The ambiguity, which different hymnal editors have resolved differently, is a perfectly comfortable one, as Jesus did come to earth once, and we beseech his return.

I know the hymn best from its pairing with the 1870 tune BEECHER by John Zundel, but Wilder Adkins uses a slightly earlier tune from the shape-note tradition that I quite like. It was composed by Thomas Waller (ca. 1832–1862) of Upson County, Georgia, who taught at Sacred Harp singing schools in the mid-nineteenth century.

Come, Weak and Wounded (Artful Devotion)

Kershisnik, Brian_Wounded Saint
Brian Kershisnik (American, 1962–), Wounded Saint, 2002. Oil on panel, 40 × 30 in.

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near . . .

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

—Joel 2:1, 12–13

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

—Psalm 51:8

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

—Psalm 51:17

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SONG: “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy” | Words by Joseph Hart, 1759, with anonymous refrain, ca. 1811 | Music: American folk melody (RESTORATION), published in William Walker’s Southern Harmony, 1835 | Performed by Keith and Kristyn Getty, on The Greengrass Session: Six Hymns from the Old World and the New, 2014

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love, and pow’r.

I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
Oh, there are ten thousand charms.

Come, ye thirsty, come, and welcome,
God’s free bounty glorify;
True belief and true repentance,
Every grace that brings you nigh.

Come, ye weary, heavy-laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall;
If you tarry till you’re better,
You will never come at all.

Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.

The singing-songwriting duo Keith and Kristyn Getty [previously], who are married, are from Northern Ireland and split their time between there and Nashville, Tennessee, in the United States. In 2014 they recorded a medley of the (American) shape-note hymn “Come, Ye Sinners” with a traditional Irish reel tune known as MUSICAL PRIEST, blending the musics of their two homes. The song starts out at a slow, weary pace with spare violin accompaniment and then picks up with a brisk guitar and other strings, including a free-ranging fiddle. The dirge gives way to celebration—this is the movement of Lent.

“Come, Ye Sinners” appears in hymnals with slight variations in verses, sometimes with an additional two, but the text above is one of the most commonly used. The anonymous refrain (“I will arise . . .”), which makes an oblique reference to the parable of the prodigal son, was added to Hart’s text sometime in the nineteenth century; it is a “floating lyric” found in Southern hymnals as early as 1811.

Though I most associate the hymn with the tune RESTORATION (sometimes called ARISE), it has been set to several tunes over the years, both traditional and contemporary. These include BEACH SPRING, GREENVILLE (which uses a different refrain), and ones by Todd Agnew and Matthew S. Smith, to name a few.

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In his painting Wounded Saint, Brian Kershisnik [previously] shows us a young woman with downcast eyes and a bleeding gash in her right arm. This wound, a metaphor for the pain she carries inside, could be self-inflicted or inflicted by others or both, but either way, her child gently leads her forward toward healing, as two angels support her from behind. “Poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore,” the woman returns to her God, whose light emanates faintly from her head. In his arms, as the hymn says, “there are ten thousand charms”—ten thousand graces, ten thousand traits that fascinate, allure, delight . . . and make whole.

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I’ve just published a piece on the Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) blog to mark Ash Wednesday tomorrow. It’s a short reflection on the interactive installation hash2ash by the Warsaw-based art collective panGenerator, which uses digital technology to turn selfies into a pile of ash. “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return,” as the liturgy goes. Visit https://civa.org/civablog/remember-you-are-dust/ to read more.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Ash Wednesday, cycle A, click here.

Come, Energy Divine (Artful Devotion)

Descent of the Holy Spirit
Roman Barabakh (Ukrainian, 1990–), Descent of the Holy Spirit, 2017. Cyanotype print, 54 × 42.2 сm. Available for sale via Iconart.

“I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live . . .”—Ezekiel 37:14

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SONG: “Abbeville” (Come, Holy Spirit, Come) | Words by Benjamin Beddome (published posthumously in 1818) | American folk tune from The Sacred Harp, arr. Elisha J. King (1844) | Performed by Marsha Genensky of Anonymous 4, on American Angels: Songs of Hope, Redemption, and Glory (2005)

You can hear this song—and twelve others—on “Anonymous 4: The Sacred Harp,” a Saint Paul Sunday radio broadcast that aired on American Public Media in September 2006. The entire concert-interview is worth a listen, or you can skip to 7:49.

Anonymous 4’s a cappella version of “Abbeville” is my favorite, but another nice version is the Wilder Adkins–Gabrielle Jones duet with acoustic guitar accompaniment. There’s also Liz Janes’s arrangement, with musical saw, commissioned in 2008 for the album Help Me to Sing: Songs of the Sacred Harp but rereleased in 2016 on Cardiphonia Music’s Hollow Square Hymnal.

Come, Holy Spirit, come,
With energy divine,
And on this poor, benighted soul,
With beams of mercy shine.

From the celestial hills,
Light, life, and joy dispense;
And may I daily, hourly feel
Thy quick’ning influence.

Melt, melt this frozen heart;
This stubborn will subdue;
Each evil passion overcome,
And form me all anew.

Mine will the profit be,
But Thine shall be the praise;
And unto Thee will I devote
The remnant of my days.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Pentecost Sunday, cycle B, click here.