Christmas, Day 5: Unto Us

LOOK: Nativity by Azaria Mbatha

Mbatha, Azaria_Nativity
Azaria Mbatha (South African, 1941–2018), Nativity, 1964. Linocut, 33.5 × 57.5 cm. Edition of 10.

One of South Africa’s most important printmakers, Azaria Mbatha was a student and later teacher at the Evangelical Lutheran Art and Craft Centre at Rorke’s Drift. In his Nativity linocut he shows a Nguni bull, two bushpigs, an elephant, and an antelope calf paying homage to the Christ child, whom a bald, long-bearded Joseph gestures toward. Three wise men approach on elephant-back from the left, and further to the left, King Herod lurks with lion and spear, waiting to pounce on this perceived threat to his power. The top two registers fast-forward to the beginnings of Jesus’s public ministry, with John the Baptist preaching repentance and baptizing Jesus.

I’m not sure who the figure at the bottom right is supposed to be. Any guesses? It’s possible he’s just a generic worshipper, or someone of local or national significance.

LISTEN: “Sizalelwe Indodana” (Unto Us a Child Is Born) | Traditional South African Christmas song in Zulu | Arranged and performed by Concord Nkabinde, 2019 [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Sizalelwe Indodana
Igama layo nguJesu
Iyo yodwa Umsindisi

English translation:

Unto us a child is born
His name is Jesus
Only he is the Savior

Musical artist Concord Nkabinde writes,

This time of the year always reminds me of my childhood & my years of growing up in Dube, Soweto. The one song that became a soundtrack for the Christmas season at that time was this simple Traditional song that really takes me back there. This is my interpretation of it.

He has overdubbed six vocal parts and multiple percussion parts.

Advent, Day 15

Jesus began his public teaching ministry by reading the following passage from an Isaiah scroll at his local synagogue:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19)

Some theologians call this the Nazareth Manifesto. It’s Jesus’s inauguration speech, if you will, where he lays out his platform, his values, his mission.

The freedom that Jesus came to bring is not just spiritual, although it is at least that. It is also physical. He came to liberate us body and soul—from sin and its many ugly manifestations, both personal and systemic, that prevent us and others from thriving. 

As we await Christ’s second advent, we can look forward to this promise: freedom is coming.

[Related post: “Jubilee (Artful Devotion)”]

LOOK: Freedom Quilt by Jessie B. Telfair

Telfair, Jessie B._Freedom Quilt
Jessie B. Telfair (American, 1913–1986), Freedom Quilt, Parrott, Georgia, United States, 1983. Cotton, with pencil, 74 × 68 in. American Folk Art Museum, New York.

Curator Stacy C. Hollander writes,

When Jessie Telfair invoked the power of a single word repeated over and over in this quilt, she knew the word would reverberate through the history of the United States, back to the “peculiar institution” of slavery and the freedom that she was still struggling to attain in the 1960s at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. The making of the quilt was incited by an incident she suffered in those years, when registering to vote was enough to cost this African American woman her job in a school kitchen. The bitterness of that experience still burned years later, and fellow quiltmakers urged her to express the pain through her art. Worked in the colors of the American flag, the quilt cries freedom. In a subtle metaphor, Telfair has set each repeated letter in its own block; all are visually related, but no two are alike.

LISTEN: “Freedom Is Coming” from South Africa, third quarter of 20th century | Performed by Kate Marks and friends on Circle of Song: Chants and Songs for Ritual and Celebration, 1999

Freedom is coming
Freedom is coming
Freedom is coming
Oh yes, I know!

Jesus is coming
Jesus is coming
Jesus is coming
Oh yes, I know!

This South African freedom song originated during the apartheid era (1948–1994). It’s one of the many songs collected by Swedish musician Anders Nyberg when he traveled with his choir Fjedur to South Africa in 1978 at the invitation of the South African Lutheran Church. Upon his return, “Freedom Is Coming” and other South African freedom songs and hymns were published in Sweden and soon after in the United States in the collection Freedom Is Coming: Songs of Protest and Praise from South Africa (Utryck, 1984), which is still in print. Fjedur’s performance of “Freedom Is Coming” at the Budapest Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation in 1984 was instrumental in disseminating the song around the world, and afterward it started appearing in more hymnals.

Palm Sunday: Sannanina (Hosanna)

Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’” And they went away and found a colt tied at a door outside in the street, and they untied it. And some of those standing there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” And they told them what Jesus had said, and they let them go. And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”

—Mark 11:1–10

LOOK: Betty LaDuke (American, 1933–), Guatemala: Procession, 1978. Acrylic on canvas, 72 × 68 in.

LaDuke, Betty_Guatemala-Procession

In Imaging the Word, vol. 3, the artist describes the inspiration behind this painting:

Before Christmas, at the Mayan village of Chichicastenango in Guatemala, statues of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints are . . . carried aloft in an annual procession. In my painting Guatemala: Procession, Christ appears on a donkey surrounded by the masks worn by the Mayans who dance to honor and celebrate their indigenous roots. They also dance a re-enactment of the brutal Spanish invasion, with satirical masks representing conquistadores. Inside the church many candles are lit and prayers are offered. (181)

So it seems LaDuke has imagined Christ entering this Maya community of Christian celebrants who remember biblical history alongside their history as a people. This isn’t a Palm Sunday image per se, since it visualizes a procession that occurs toward the beginning of the liturgical year, but Jesus’s presence in the center on donkeyback, in a gateway backlit with glorious yellow, flanked by crowds and with angels overhead, evokes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem five days before his death.

LISTEN: “Sanna, Sannanina,” traditional South African

“Sannanina” is a Xhosa derivate of the Greek word “Hosanna,” which is itself a transliteration of a Hebrew phrase that means “Save us, please!” (For more on the word “hosanna” and how its meaning shifted from a cry for help to a shout of exultation—“Salvation!”—read here.) In the first video below, the song is performed by the Africa University Choir. The second video is a demo produced by MennoMedia in preparation for the publication of the Mennonite hymnal Voices Together in 2020.

For more songs for Holy Week, see the Art & Theology Holy Week Playlist.

Siyahamba (Artful Devotion)

Zionists by Charles B. S. Nkosi
Charles B. S. Nkosi (South African, 1949–), Zionists, 1979. Watercolor on paper. Source: Christliche Kunst in Afrika, p. 260.

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God . . .

—Ephesians 6:10–17

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SONG: “Siyahamba” (We Are Marching) | South African folk song | Arrangement by Walt Whitman performed by the Soul Children of Chicago, July 21, 2008, as the finale of “Hope in Action,” a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s ninetieth birthday | For a congregational hymn arrangement, see African American Heritage Hymnal #164

This exultant hymn, which likely originated during South Africa’s apartheid era, consists of permutations of the Zulu phrase Siyahamb’ ekukhanyen’ kwen khos’ (“We are marching in the light of God”), with subsequent verses substituting alternate verbs like “dancing,” “singing,” and “praying.” In 2008 Walt Whitman arranged the song for Soul Children of Chicago, a choir he formed as a means of “encouraging our youth and providing hope and inspiration in a world filled with challenges and despair.” His version is a lot of fun, albeit busier than others, with a more densely textured, orchestral sound. For a more straightforward rendition with clear vocals and simple percussion, check out the University of Notre Dame Folk Choir’s Crossroads of Praise album from 1999.

To learn more about “Siyahamba,” see “History of Hymns: ‘Siyahamba’” by C. Michael Hawn.


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 16, cycle B, click here.

Catching the sun with Frans Claerhout

Boy and Cart by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), Boy and Cart. Oil on canvas laid down on board, 37 × 45 cm.

Father Frans Claerhout (1919–2006) was a Belgian Catholic missionary to South Africa as well as a self-taught artist whose painting sales helped support the church’s work in and around the impoverished towns of Bloemfontein and Thaba ‘Nchu. For him, painting was an extension of his mission, for through it, he said, he sought to communicate joy and beauty. He often depicted the everyday scenes he observed around him—farmers harvesting grain, women carrying water or flowers, children playing, donkeys, chickens, sweethearts. Sometimes he transformed such scenes into biblical ones, such as the Annunciation, the Flight to Egypt, Peter’s denial, or the Good Shepherd.

Claerhout understood himself as having a dual vocation. In a 1999 interview with Esté de Klerk, he said, “I am a priest, but I am also an artist, and I have always combined the two. I am one and the same, Father Claerhout—priest and painter. Not two sides of a piece of bread but the whole piece.” In other words, he saw the two as perfectly integrated. He couldn’t turn over his priestly duties for part of the day to focus on his art, nor vice versa, because they were one and the same. In both roles, he administered the gospel.

With the money Claerhout made from his paintings, he funded the building of twenty churches and several houses for families in addition to the purchase of eight vehicles for the transport of schoolchildren, the sick, and the elderly. He liked to think of himself as “a breadwinner for the church.”

One recurrent motif in Claerhout’s work is what he called the “sun catcher” (sonnevanger): a person cradling the sun in his or her arms or toting it by hand or by cart. “Catching the sun” is a phrase that Claerhout used often in his teaching and poetry in reference to possessing joy—warmth, light—in Christ. It engages a theological wordplay that’s been in use since the earliest developments of the English language: sun/Son. Christ is both.

Sun Catcher by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), The Sun Catcher. Bronze sculpture.

Sun Catcher by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), The Sun Catcher.

Woman with Sun by Frans Claerhout
Frans Claerhout (Belgian/South African, 1919–2006), Woman with Sun. Mixed media on paper, 60 × 42 cm.

Continue reading “Catching the sun with Frans Claerhout”