Advent, Day 17: When Morning Dawns

LOOK: Alpha and Omega by Larain Briggs

Briggs, Larain_Alpha and Omega
Larain Briggs (British, 1960–), Alpha and Omega, 2019. Oil over acrylic underpainting on stretched canvas, 100 × 100 cm.

“Behold, I am coming soon. . . . I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

—Revelation 22:12–13

This apocalyptic landscape painting by British artist Larain Briggs was on display at London’s gallery@oxo as part of the 2021 Chaiya Art Awards exhibition “God Is . . .” Briggs says it’s meant to evoke the book of Revelation.

“Although I perceived the painting to be a vision of the end, it is full of light and hope. The end can equally be viewed as a beginning,” she says. In the center of the composition a faint circular form rests on a heavily textured, curved platform of cloud and smoke (“Behold, he is coming with the clouds . . .” [Rev. 1:7]). At this focal point, turbulence resolves into tranquility and darkness gives way to light. This is the earth being transfigured by the arrival of her King.

The body of water at the bottom may be a reference to the “sea of glass mingled with fire” in Revelation 15:2.

LISTEN: “The King Shall Come” | Words by John Brownlie, based on miscellaneous Greek sources, 1907 | Music: American folk tune from Kentucky Harmony, 1816; arr. Minna Choi, 2020 | Performed by Tiffany Austin, 2020

The King shall come when morning dawns
And light triumphant breaks;
When beauty gilds the eastern hills
And life to joy awakes.

Not as of old, a little child
To bear, and fight, and die,
But crowned with glory like the sun
That lights the morning sky.

O brighter than the rising morn,
When He victorious rose,
And left the lonesome place of death,
Despite the rage of foes;—

O brighter than that glorious morn
Shall this fair morning be,
When Christ, our King, in beauty comes,
And we His face shall see.

The King shall come when morning dawns
And earth’s dark night is past;—
O haste the rising of that morn,
That day that aye shall last.

And let the endless bliss begin,
By weary saints foretold,
When right shall triumph over wrong,
And truth shall be extolled.

The King shall come when morning dawns,
And light and beauty brings;—
Hail! Christ the Lord; Thy people pray
Come quickly, King of kings.

“The King Shall Come” expresses hopeful longing for the return of Christ, which will bring about a new and lasting morn and the final passing of “earth’s dark night.” Stanza 2 contrasts Jesus’s first coming in suffering and struggle and sacrifice, his glory mostly veiled, with his second, when his glory will be unmistakable, his rule uncontested. The victory of that day, the hymnist writes, will be even more exhilarating than that of Christ’s resurrection, because it is total.

This hymn was written in the early twentieth century by the Scottish Presbyterian minister John Brownlie (1859–1925), who cites inspiration from the hymns of the Greek Orthodox Church. It was originally published in 1907 in Hymns from the East. In the introduction Brownlie writes, “The hymns are less translations or renderings, and more centos and suggestions. . . . The Greek has been used as a basis, a theme, a motive.” He differentiates this approach from that used in his previous volumes, which contain “truthfully rendered translations from the originals.”

Though the hymn is often attributed to an anonymous ancient Greek writer, most scholars consider it an original text by Brownlie that reflects his wide knowledge of Greek hymnody, as no Greek original has ever been found. It’s possible that the lines are a composite and expansion of fragments found in the Greek, but really, it’s a pastiche that nods to the centrality of light in Orthodox theology. 

This wistful arrangement by City Church San Francisco worship arts assistant Minna Choi is performed by guest artist Tiffany Austin, a Bay Area jazz vocalist. The other musicians are Adam Shulman on piano, Jeff Marrs on drums, Jason Muscat on bass, and Wil Blades on organ. Their version omits stanzas 5–6, as do several hymnals.

For more Advent songs from City Church, see “Come, Oh Redeemer, Come,” “Come Light Our Hearts,” “I Wait,” and (from the kids in the congregation!) “O Come, Messiah, Come.” For Christmas music, see the church’s past Lessons and Carols services on YouTube; last year I did a write-up on the one from 2020.

Advent, Day 11: Waiting Bride

LOOK: Dim Gold (Feast of Brides) by Mandy Cano Villalobos

Cano Villalobos, Mandy_Dim Gold (Feast of Brides)
Mandy Cano Villalobos (American, 1979–), Dim Gold (Feast of Brides), 2022. Miscellaneous found objects, dimensions variable. Installation at Bridge Projects, Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Mandy Cano Villalobos is an interdisciplinary artist whose projects span installation, painting, drawing, performance, sculpture, and video. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Drawing on the archetype of the waiting bride, the found-object installation Dim Gold (Feast of Brides) was commissioned by Bridge Projects for Here After, an exhibition exploring humanity’s hope for paradise. The artist writes,

Dim Gold is an allegory of marital covenant, bodily death, and the hope of love’s consummation in afterlife. The throne heap consists of discarded clothing, broken appliances, old lamps, unwanted toys, bruised furniture, fake flowers, stained curtains, human and synthetic hair, scratched glasses, deflated soccer balls, faded photographs, worn shoes, chipped figurines, kitchen utensils, costume jewelry, yellowed wedding decorations, cracked dishes, Christmas ornaments, mildewed books, and bathtub plugs.

From baby bottles and children’s playthings to a cane and a pillbox, the pile contains a life. (In fact, Cano Villalobos said she acquired most of the items from an old woman’s estate sale.) It’s a full life, but one of brokenness and decay. There is no permanence in this world. The otherworld—the new heaven, the new earth (a transfigured thisworld)—is what endures.

Cano Villalobos, Mandy_Dim Gold (detail)
Cano Villalobos, Mandy_Dim Gold (detail)

The Dim Gold construction is throne-like, all its components leaning in toward a central chair topped by seven white, ribbed shafts that fan out and that are suggestive, with the flame-colored flowers at the terminals, of a menorah. Lace, silk, and draped strings of pearls form the throne’s backing. With its dressed but empty seat that calls forth a presence, the piece evokes the hetoimasia (prepared throne of the second coming) of Eastern Orthodox icons.

The scattered, lit bulbs on shadeless lampstands allude to the burning oil lamps in Jesus’s parable of the ten bridesmaids (Matt. 25:1–13), which signify readiness for the Bridegroom’s return.

Cano Villalobos combines earthly and heavenly imagery in Dim Gold, an Advent ensemble that pictures the church-as-bride’s waiting with lights on, amid the ephemera of this life, for her groom to come take her home, where an eternal feast is spread in bright, delicious glory, and the two of them will become one at last.

LISTEN: “When the Bridegroom Comes” | Words by David Omer Bearden, 1973 | Music by Judee Sill, 1973 | Performed by Judee Sill on Heart Food, 1973

See the bride and the Spirit are one.
Then won’t you who are thirsty invite him to come?
With your door open wide,
Won’t you listen in the dark for the midnight cry?
And see, when your light is on, that the Bridegroom comes.

Into cold outer darkness are gone
Guests who would not their own wedding garment put on.
Though the chosen are few,
Won’t you tarry by your lamp till he calls for you?
And pray that your love endure till the Bridegroom comes.

When the halt and the lame meet the Son,
And he sees for the blind and he speaks for the dumb,
Let their poor hearts’ complaint,
Like the leper turned around who has kissed the saint,
Lift like a trumpet shout, and the Bridegroom come.

See the builders despising the stone,
See the pearl of great price and the dry desert bones.
By the Pharisees cursed,
Be exultant with the rose when the last are first,
And see how his mercy shines as the Bridegroom comes.

Hear the bride and the Spirit say, “Come!”
Then won’t you who are weary invite in the Son?
When your heart’s love is high,
Won’t you hasten to the place where the hour is nigh?
And see that your light is on, for the Bridegroom comes.
See that your light is on, for the Bridegroom comes.

Judee Sill (1944–1979) was an American singer-songwriter whose genre of music Rolling Stone refers to as “mystic Christian folk.” Themes of temptation, rapture, redemption, and the search for higher meaning permeate her work.

Sill survived ongoing physical and verbal abuse in childhood from her mother and stepfather. As a teenager, she committed a series of armed robberies that landed her in reform school, where she learned to play the organ for church and became interested in gospel music. Upon her release, after briefly attending a junior college and working in a piano bar, she got caught up in the California drug culture, developing a crippling heroin addiction and resorting to prostitution and check forgery to fund it.

While she was serving a prison sentence for narcotics and forgery offenses, her only sibling, Dennis, died of an illness, and she was devastated. But this seems to have given her the impetus to pursue a career in songwriting and performing. She gigged in clubs around Los Angeles while living in a Cadillac, and she was eventually signed by the new Asylum Records. Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) produced her first single, “Jesus Was a Cross Maker.” Her two albums, Judee Sill (1971) and Heart Food (1973), received some acclaim but failed to chart. Discouraged, and suffering back pain from a car accident and later a fall, she returned to hard drugs. She died of a cocaine and codeine overdose at age thirty-five.

Why do I rehearse Sill’s turbulent biography? Because songs don’t come out of a vacuum. The longing in “When the Bridegroom Comes”—those piano chords, that voice—is real. Her thirst, her questing, her waiting and hoping. Though she herself didn’t write the lyrics (David Omer Bearden, her romantic partner at the time, did, though she likely gave input), she sings them with fervency, makes them her prayer.

The song melds together the parable of the ten bridesmaids from Matthew 25 with the bridal theology of Revelation. In one, which has more of an individual focus, we are put in the place of the bride’s attendants and warned to be prepared for the imminent wedding celebration, lest we get locked out in the dark; in the other, Christ’s church as a collective is likened to the bride herself, eagerly anticipating the arrival of her groom and the sweet union that will follow.

The song’s primary referent is Revelation 22:17, from the final chapter of the Bible:

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

In this verse, the voice of the bride (the church) through whom the Spirit speaks calls out, “Come.” Because of the interchange of speakers and subjects in the broader passage, it’s unclear whether the addressee of this imperative is Christ or the masses. The church could be crying out for Jesus’s return, as they do in verse 20, or they could be inviting people far and wide to the gospel feast, bidding them come and eat. I think the latter, which would make it continuous with the third and fourth lines, but it could really go either way. Because as sure as there’s the final coming of Christ to the world, there’s also the coming of the world to Christ. He comes to us, and we come to him.

Sill’s whole song is full of biblical references—Jesus’s healing ministry, Jesus as the rejected cornerstone (Matt. 21:42), Jesus as the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:45–46), the Spirit breathing life into dry bones (Ezek. 37:1–14), Jesus’s upside-down kingdom in which the last are first and the first are last (Matt. 19:30). It celebrates divine mercy and grace and encourages us to respond in the affirmative to Christ’s wedding invitation, and to persevere in love while he tarries.

Advent, Day 18

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

—Luke 21:25–36

LOOK: Country Gospel Music by Robert Gwathmey

Gwathmey, Robert_Country Gospel Music
Robert Gwathmey (American, 1903–1988), Country Gospel Music, 1971. Oil on canvas, 40 × 50 in. Private collection.

LISTEN: “I Believe in Being Ready” | Appalachian spiritual, 19th century | Performed by Rising Appalachia on Leylines (2019) [see also this performance at the Yuba River in Northern California]

I believe in being ready
I believe in being ready
I believe in being ready
For the time is drawing near

Brothers, sisters, please get ready
Brothers, sisters, please get ready
Brothers, sisters, please get ready
For the time is drawing near

Oh there’ll be signs and wonders
Oh there’ll be signs and wonders
Oh there’ll be signs and wonders
For the time is drawing near

We’ll turn round and just start over
We’ll turn round and just start over
We’ll turn round and just start over
For the time is drawing near

I believe in being ready
I believe in being ready
I believe in being ready
For the time is drawing near

I believe in being ready
I believe in being ready
I believe in being ready
For the time is drawing near

For the time is drawing near
For the time is drawing near

Folklorist Gerald Milnes gives some context to this religious folk song from the nineteenth-century frontier revival tradition in his book Play of a Fiddle: Traditional Music, Dance, and Folklore in West Virginia:

Whereas the Great Awakening may have brought about the first American break from established religious musical form, the Second Awakening and the rise of evangelical religious fervor, mostly in the Pennsylvania backcountry and southern mountains, left us with the spiritual folk songs, or folk hymns, that have a lingering legacy in West Virginia. This musical form developed during the period from the 1780s to the 1830s. The camp meeting was an old-world form brought by the Scots-Irish to America. The new spirituals that developed along with this form of worship on the frontier directly contributed to the religious fervor generated through the camp meeting.

“One might well remember, for example, that the camp meetings began and remained in nature surroundings, in the wilderness,” wrote [George Pullen] Jackson. Camp meetings in America (also called bush meetings, field meetings, and, today, brush-arbor revival or tent meetings) spawned a new emotion which materialized in song as the spiritual. At this point the chorus was introduced to the songs and became an identifying mark.

Choruses were repetitive, and verses were simplified for easy memorization by illiterate participants and where songbooks were nonexistent. Often only the introduction of a new person, as in mother, father, sister, and brother, differentiated one verse from another. Additional verses suggest more people such as sinner, preacher, playmates, etc. But it is the music—the old folk tunes clinging to all the sensitive and moving traits that attract many to folk music—that has caught the attention and held the fancy of West Virginians for as long as two centuries. These folk hymns are the predecessors to the “gospel hymns” that began about 1870 in the Protestant churches and continue to be sung today.

The song is more commonly called “When This World Comes to an End” and has been recorded under that title in this millennium by, for example, Tim O’Brien, Ashley Cleveland, and David Powell. We know of it thanks to Maggie Hammons Parker (1899–1987) from Pocahontas County, West Virginia, whose family participated in camp meetings in the early twentieth century. Parker sang the song as she remembers it for Alan Jabbour on a 1970 field recording, with the following lyrics. For more information, see the 1973 American Folklife Center publication The Hammons Family: A Study of a West Virginia Family’s Traditions.

I believe in being ready,
I believe in a-being ready,
I believe in being ready,
When this world comes to an end.

Oh, sinners, do get ready,
Oh, sinners, do get ready,
Oh, sinners, do get ready,
For the times is a-drewing near.

Oh, there’ll be signs and wonders,
Yes, there’ll be signs and wonders,
Oh, there’ll be signs and wonders,
When this world is to an end.

Oh, the sun, she will be darkened,
Yes, the sun, she will be darkened,
Oh, the sun she will be darkened,
When this world is to an end.

Oh, the moon, she will be a-bleeding,
Yes, the moon, she will be bleeding,
Oh, the moon, she will be bleeding,
When this world is to an end.

I believe in a-being ready,
I believe in being ready,
I believe in being ready,
When this world is to an end.

Oh, the stars, they’ll all be a-falling,
Yes, the stars will all be falling,
Oh, the stars will all be falling,
When this world is to an end.

Oh, sisters, do get ready,
Oh, sisters, do get ready,
Oh, sisters, do get ready,
For the times is a-drewing near.

Oh, fathers, do get ready,
Yes, fathers, do get ready,
Oh, fathers, do get ready,
When this world is to an end.

Oh, mothers, do get ready,
Yes, mothers, do get ready,
Oh, mothers, do get ready,
For the times is a-drewing near.

For there’ll be them signs and wonders,
Yes, there’ll be them signs and wonders,
There will be them signs and wonders,
When this world comes to an end.

For their 2019 recording of the song, the band Rising Appalachia adapted the lyrics and retitled the song after its first line. “Drawn to its haunting, modal melody and stark lyrics,” they write, “we put the heavy drum pulse of the bodhran behind it to rattle the ribcage. It is both apocalyptic and soothing to call forth and sing these words.”

Rising Appalachia was founded in 2004 by sisters Leah and Chloe Smith, who grew up in Atlanta, absorbing the city’s emerging hip-hop scene as well as traveling with their family to fiddle camps across the Southeast on weekends. Their music is a blend of folk, world, and urban. “Rising Appalachia has come out of this idea that we can take these traditions of southern music—that we’ve been born and raised with—and we can rise out of them, creating all these different bridges between cultures and stories to make them feel alive,” Leah says. “Our music has its foundation in heritage and tradition, but we’re creating a music that also feels reflective of the times right now. That’s always been our work.”

The Smiths are joined on the album Leylines by longtime band members David Brown (upright bass, baritone guitar) and Biko Casini (world percussion, n’goni) and by two new members: West African musician Arouna Diarra (n’goni, talking drum) and Irish musician Duncan Wickel (fiddle, cello). Special guests on the album include singer-songwriters Ani DiFranco and Trevor Hall and jazz trumpeter Maurice Turner.

“I Believe in Being Ready” is one of many songs on the Art & Theology Advent playlist on Spotify. Also check out my Christmastide playlist.

C’mon! (Artful Devotion)

Resurrection of the Dead (stained glass)
The angel Gabriel awakes the dead on Resurrection Day in this medieval stained glass tondo from the Musée de Cluny in Paris. Photo: Spencer Means.

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

—Hebrews 9:27–28

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SONG: “Get Happy” | Words by Ted Koehler, 1930 | Music by Harold Arlen, 1930 | Performed by the Puppini Sisters, on Hollywood (2011)

See also the Judy Garland version from Summer Stock (1950), below, which the American Film Institute ranked #61 in its survey of top tunes in American cinema.

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“The Day of Judgment” by Henry Vaughan

O day of life, of light, of love!
The only day dealt from above!
A day so fresh, so bright, so brave,
’Twill show us each forgotten grave,
And make the dead, like flowers, arise
Youthful and fair to see new skies.
All other days, compared to thee,
Are but Light’s weak minority;
They are but veils, and cypress drawn
Like clouds, before thy glorious dawn.
O come! arise! shine! do not stay,
Dearly loved day!
The fields are long since white, and I
With earnest groans for freedom cry;
My fellow-creatures too say “Come!”
And stones, though speechless, are not dumb.
When shall we hear that glorious voice
Of life and joys?
That voice, which to each secret bed
Of my Lord’s dead,
Shall bring true day, and make dust see
The way to immortality?
When shall those first white pilgrims rise,
Whose holy, happy histories
—Because they sleep so long—some men
Count but the blots of a vain pen?
Dear Lord! make haste!
Sin every day commits more waste;
And Thy old enemy, which knows
His time is short, more raging grows.
Nor moan I only—though profuse—
Thy creature’s bondage and abuse;
But what is highest sin and shame,
The vile despite done to Thy name;
The forgeries, which impious wit
And power force on Holy Writ,
With all detestable designs,
That may dishonor those pure lines.
O God! though mercy be in Thee
The greatest attribute we see,
And the most needful for our sins,
Yet, when Thy mercy nothing wins
But mere disdain, let not man say
“Thy arm doth sleep,” but write this day
Thy judging one: descend, descend!
Make all things new, and without end!

(Related post: “Get Ready (Artful Devotion)”)


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 Proper 27, cycle B, click here.

Jesus comes to Singapore: The New Testament imagery of Eugene Soh

In 2010 Eugene Soh was enrolled in Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design, and Media, on track to becoming a game programmer, when Campus magazine, aware of his photography hobby, asked him if he’d like to contribute a centerfold to an upcoming issue. He said yes but, after combing through his photos, realized he had nothing great to offer—he’d have to shoot something new, something epic. He chose to restage Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper at Maxwell Road Hawker Centre (a “hawker center,” or kopitiam, is what Singaporeans call their open-air food courts), using vendors as models for Christ and his disciples.

The Last Kopitiam by Eugene Soh
Eugene Soh (Singaporean, 1987–), The Last Kopitiam, 2010. Photograph, 140 × 230 cm.

The photo was published but went without much notice until two years later in 2012, when it went viral online. Galleries started contacting him to do shows, not realizing that The Last Kopitiam was a one-off thing. Soh decided to finish out his concentration in interactive media, graduating in 2013, and then to pursue fine art photography as a career.

Encouraged by the interest in his Leonardo adaptation, Soh translated more Western art masterpieces into a contemporary Singaporean idiom, among them the Mona Lisa (renamed Moh Lee Sha), The School of Athens (Food for Thought), The Birth of Venus (Arrival of Venus), Saturn Devouring His Son (Saturn Devouring His Naan), A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Singapore), Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (Arrangement in Grey, Black and Yellow), and American Gothic (Singapore Gothic).

His Creation of Ah Dam, after Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco, shows a wet-market grocer transferring the spark of life to “Ah Dam” via carrot.

Creation of Ah Dam by Eugene Soh
Eugene Soh (Singaporean, 1987–), Creation of Ah Dam, 2015. Photograph, 80 × 120 cm.

It is Soh’s process, as demonstrated in these photos, to shoot his human subjects separately and then stitch them together digitally to create a single composite image. The hawkers in The Last Kopitiam, for example, couldn’t all get away from their stalls at the same time, so this sort of cut-and-paste manipulation was born out of necessity. At first Soh was resistant to using Photoshop in this way, thinking of it as “cheating,” but he quickly became convinced of its legitimacy and artistic potential.

Earlier this year Soh developed a new series called The Second Coming, which reenvisions the life of Christ on Singaporean soil (much like David LaChapelle did, for America, in his 2003 series Jesus Is My Homeboy). Mounted as a solo show in February and March at Chan Hampe Galleries, The Second Coming draws on familiar devotional image types, like the Madonna and Child, the Crucifixion, and the Pietà, as well as invents some new ones, like Jesus answering his cell (Hold Up, Dad’s Calling) or helping one of his hosts prepare dinner (What’s Cooking, Jesus?).

In Happy Birthday & Merry Christmas, Jesus, Jesus blows out the candles on his cake. The mise-en-scène includes a foam crown, maracas, and an umbrella drink.

Happy Birthday & Merry Christmas, Jesus by Eugene Soh
Eugene Soh (Singaporean, 1987–), Happy Birthday & Merry Christmas, Jesus, 2016. Photograph, 140 × 140 cm.

In contrast, the mood of The Last Christmas is gloom and doom. According to the artist, Jesus has just announced that he is going to destroy the world, putting a damper on the birthday festivities (though one attendee chooses to make light of the news). Staged like a Last Supper, this imagined scene takes place immediately preceding Armageddon. It’s everyone’s last Christmas. Continue reading “Jesus comes to Singapore: The New Testament imagery of Eugene Soh”