And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory.
Epiphany, meaning “revelation,” is the capstone of the Christmas season. In this final post of this year’s Christmas series, I leave you with a striking, light-flecked painting from Japan and a slow-tempo Black gospel song from the US. What marvel, that God’s glory fills such places as ours, and that he invites us not only to behold his glory but also to participate in it.
May God’s light continue to guide and enfold you throughout the year, and may you never stop seeking his face.
To view a compilation of this season’s numbered Christmas posts, click here; for Advent, here.
LOOK: Morning Star by Hiroshi Tabata
Born in Takaoka City, Hiroshi Tabata (1929–2014) studied art at the University of Toyama, later moving to France for two years for further art education. He exhibited his work throughout Japan and at Parisian salons. From 1966 to 1972 he lived intermittently in Brazil among the Xingu people, which led to his conversion to Christianity. From then on until his death, he painted biblical subjects. “The Bible is the ultimate theme for me,” he said; its world is “infinitely deeper” than we can comprehend.
In Tabata’s expressionistic Morning Star, starlight falls in a luminescent sheen over the face of the Christ child, whom Mary looks upon in tender adoration as Joseph wonders at the angelic activity above. The tight cropping around the Holy Family heightens the sense of intimacy. A sheep, donkey, and Amazon parrot (the latter a callback to his time in Brazil) crowd into the foreground, while on distant hills shepherds behold the glorious light display, hear the announcement that will propel them to their newborn Messiah. The wise men, too, are on their way. Epiphany is at hand. Heaven’s raining down (Isa. 45:8).
This visual reflection (by me) originally appeared in the Christmas/Epiphany 2022–23 edition of the Daily Prayer Project. Tabata’s art appears on the cover, by kind permission of his son-in-law. To view more biblical art by Tabata, see the beautifully produced, full-color book 田畑弘作品集 一つの星 (Hiroshi Tabata Works: One Star); the text is all Japanese.
LISTEN: “A Star Stood Still (Song of the Nativity)” | Words and music by Barbara Ruth Broderick and Johnny Broderick, 1956 | Performed by Mahalia Jackson with the Falls-Jones Ensemble, conducted by Johnny Williams, on Silent Night: Songs for Christmas, 1962
And we shall share In the glorious light
In Bethlehem The wind had ceased The Lamb lay sleeping On the hill
When all the earth Was stilled with peace Then lo, a star stood still
A star stood still On yonder hill Praise God that star still Shining still
And we shall share In the glory of love Because a star stood still That night a star stood still
A star stood still On yonder hill Praise God that star still Shining still
And we shall share In the glory of love Because a star stood still That night a star stood still
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Tomorrow, January 6, is the feast of Epiphany, commemorating the visit of the magi to the infant Christ, an episode that represents God’s manifestation to the nations beyond Israel. Printmaker John August Swanson visualizes their journey in a starkly vertical composition that was conceived as the right wing of a triptych (three-paneled artwork), the other two panels depicting the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Nativity. In subsequent years he addedA Visit (depicting the Annunciation to Mary), Flight into Egypt, and Presentation in the Temple to the set.
Epiphany depicts the journey of the three Magi as they travel up a serpentine trail. One of the Wise Men is seated as he looks at a map of the constellations with his magnifying glass; his servant holds a lamp so that he can see. Another Magi searches with his telescope into the sky. They look up in search of their beautiful guiding star as angels surround and point to it. They have exotic birds, peacocks, and dogs among their animals. I have tried to capture the details of the many plants, bushes, and trees and to create a variety of colors of green.
I used many symbols within the tapestries draping the animals. These patterns depict the Lion of Judah, the lamp in the darkness, the rain falling on the parched ground, the key to the locked door, the crown and the heart, and the gates to the city.
This is part of a series of three images (triptych). They were inspired by the Mexican tradition that I am familiar with for Christmas. Families will each create a beautiful crèche (nacimiento) with many figures and animals, creating a whole environment with landscaping in miniature around the Nativity figurines.
His other inspirations for this set include the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti and the medieval stained glass windows in Chartres Cathedral.
John August Swanson (1938–2021) [previously] was born in Los Angeles of a Mexican mother and Swedish father. His father died when he was young, and he was raised in a multigenerational Mexican Catholic home. He studied serigraphy under Corita Kent [previously], and it became his primary medium. A serigraph is a type of print in which each color is individually layered by applying ink through a silkscreen onto paper. Epiphany has forty-eight individual colors.
LISTEN:“Bright and Glorious” | Original Danish text (“Deilig Er Den Himmel Blaa”) by Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig, 1810 | English translation by Jens Christian Aaberg, 1927; first stanza adapted by the editors of the Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal, 1958 | Music by Seth Thomas Crissman and Greg J. Yoder, 2017 | Performed by the Walking Roots Band on Hark! A Walking Roots Band Christmas, 2017
Bright and glorious is the sky Radiant are the heavens high Where the golden star is shining All its rays to earth inclining Leading to the newborn king Leading to the newborn king
Him they found in Bethlehem Yet he wore no diadem They but saw a maiden lowly With an infant pure and holy Resting in her loving arms Resting in her loving arms
Guided by the star, they found Him whose praise the ages sound We, too, have a star to guide us That forever will provide us With the light to find our Lord With the light to find our Lord
As a star, God’s holy word Leads us to our King and Lord Brightly from its sacred pages Shall this light throughout the ages Shine upon our path of life Shine upon our path of life
The Walking Roots Band (TWRB) is an acoustic folk/bluegrass-ish music group steeped in Anabaptist hymn-singing traditions and based in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Several of its members are the creative forces behind The Soil and The Seed Project, a liturgy and arts initiative launched in 2021.
Here they’ve retuned an Epiphany hymn from Denmark, which compares the star that led the magi to Jesus to the Bible, God’s word, which serves as a guiding light for spiritual seekers, leading us to Christ himself. Its pages offer countless epiphanies—revelations of God’s glory, opportunities for divine encounter. Its wisdom and truth can illuminate our paths if we let it.
WEBSITE LAUNCH: The Foundation for Spirituality and the Arts: From a September 20 press release: “The Foundation for Spirituality and the Arts is pleased to announce the debut of our new website, fsa.art. Complementing in-person programming in Charleston and New York City, fsa.art functions as FSA’s online curatorial wing. It hosts both commissioned and curated content as well as a selection of features spotlighting significant artists, scholars, exhibitions, and publications from recent decades. We hope this site will be a valuable and inspiring resource that fosters dialogue, community, and innovation in the field of spirituality and the arts.”
FSA is “devoted to nurturing connections between spirituality and contemporary art. . . . By encouraging a mutual flow of creativity and faith from both artists and scholars, we hope to initiate fresh channels of spiritual enrichment from new depths of artistic expression. Nurturing innovative and experimental collaborations between a wide range of communities, we aspire to integrate estranged voices together in a spirit of harmony, openness, and inquisitiveness.”
At the heart of their programming is their annual series of residencies, open to visual artists, performers, composers, choreographers, curators, writers, and theologians. Visit their website to find out more, and follow them on Instagram @foundation.spirituality.arts. Below are four artworks I’ve encountered through their social media postings.
LECTURE: “The New Visibility of Religion in Contemporary Art” by Jonathan A. Anderson: Religion is becoming more visible in contemporary art and more discussable, says artist, art critic, and theologian Jonathan Anderson in his September 17 talk sponsored by Bridge Projects in Los Angeles. Danh Vo, Kris Martin, Andrea Büttner, Deana Lawson, Arthur Jafa, Genesis Tramaine, Hossein Valamanesh, Theaster Gates, Zarah Hussain, Francis Alÿs, Louise Bourgeois, Sol LeWitt, Sean Kelly, Gerhard Richter, James Turrell—these are just some of the many contemporary artists who have engaged substantively with religion in their work, either through form or content or through the ways in which they frame the work’s central questions. Curators and art historians are recognizing this more and more, and it’s being reflected in exhibitions and scholarship. Anderson highlights several such instances from the past two decades, celebrating religion’s increased visibility but also pointing out where there’s room for improvement. The talk starts at 6:36:
At 28:58, Anderson outlines four interpretive horizons, or fundamental hermeneutics, within which religion is becoming visible, intelligible, and meaningful in contemporary art: anthropological (31:00), political (37:43), spiritual (42:51), and theological (48:42). He discusses the problems and possibilities of each—ways in which it has been productive or insightful, and ways in which it’s limiting. The fourth horizon, the theological, is the least developed in the art world and the most contested, he says.
A more concentrated and well-developed mode of theological inquiry has much to contribute to the history, theory, and criticism of contemporary art without being reductive, but instead opening much of what’s going on in contemporary art. And so going forward, I do envision a mode of study that keeps all these horizons in view, and a mode of discourse that keeps all these horizons in view, while especially developing the potential for the modes of critical writing capable of addressing theological conceptualities, genealogies, and implications that are in play in so much of the art being made today. And that involves thinking better from both directions, developing concepts and capacities—skills, really—where art criticism might operate with a more agile, historically sensitive understanding of religion and theology (a richer theological intelligence), and theology might operate with a more agile, historically sensitive understanding of art and criticism (a richer art historical intelligence, or visual intelligence).
As a side note, Anderson teaches two courses at Duke Divinity School, where he is a postdoctoral associate in the DITA program: “Contemporary Art and Theology” and “Visual Art as Theology.” The latter looks at the history of primarily Christian art as a domain of primary theological reasoning and biblical commentary, done in visual-spatial terms rather than in verbal-written terms. His hope is that divinity students—future biblical scholars, theologians, pastors, etc.—will become more literate in the visual-spatial forms of theology. I mention this because it’s what I’m about too!
PODCAST EPISODE: “Jacquiline Creswell: Curating in Sacred Spaces,”Exhibiting Faith: Hosted by critic and art historian David Trigg, this is the first episode of a brand-new podcast about the intersection of art and faith, featuring a range of guests for whom those two elements have played a significant role. First up is Jacquiline Creswell, a visual arts adviser and curator who has, since 2009, organized more than forty-five exhibitions in sacred spaces. She has been central to the development of the visual arts programs at Salisbury, Ely, and Chichester Cathedrals. She discusses some of the projects she has worked on and how they’ve been received by the congregation and the wider public, how the setting of an artwork can alter its meaning and the way people engage with it, the logistical challenges of placing art in historic churches, and more.
I was interested to learn that she is from a Jewish background, even though most of her jobs have been with Christian institutions. Check out the eight objectives she lists on her website, which have guided her curatorial work and which I find exciting; the first is “To present artwork which is engaging, that encourages a spiritual response and may at times challenge conventional perceptions.”
New episodes of Exhibiting Faith are released once a month. The second (and latest) episode is an interview with Dubai-born, Birmingham-based textile artist Farwa Moledina, whose Women of Paradise (2022) scrutinizes the portrayal of Muslim women in the canon of Western art. Moledina also discusses her experience of Ramadan during lockdown and how it resulted in By Your Coming We Are Healed (2020), two sufras (floor mats for communal dining) made up of photographs of plated dishes submitted to her by participants in the virtual iftars she hosted, arranged according to Islamic design principles of symmetry, abstraction, and recurrence.
SHORT FILM SERIES: At the Threshold: Theology on Film, dir. Sean Dimond:At the Threshold is the latest project from UNTAMED, a documentary film studio in Seattle that “pursue[s] stories of spiritual and narrative depth, with a bias for hope, risk, and redemption.” Filmed in Belgium, Germany, and the UK, it profiles six Christian theologians from Europe, each one humble, open-hearted, and reflective.
“The Open Narrative of Love” with Lieven Boeve, Leuven, Belgium: Boeve reflects on how God interrupts people’s self-enclosed stories. Christianity, he says, is itself an open narrative, not a closed one, and it leads us not away from the world but right into it. One of the filming locations in this short is a rural landscape in Borgloon where Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout van Vaerenbergh built Reading between the Lines, an open-air chapel created to imagine a church inseparable from the world around it.
“The Greater Part” with David Brown, St Andrews, Scotland: Brown talks about prayer, the Bible as part of a living tradition, the church’s call to be creatively other, and the only time he ever saw his father cry. He also cites some of the poets, novelists, and composers/singer-songwriters he admires.
“The Radiance” with Perry Schmidt-Leukel, Muenster, Germany: “The fractcal structure of religious diversity” is of deep interest to Schmidt-Leukel, a Christian who draws insights from Buddhism and who was criticized by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger for doing so.
“Danseuse” with Ann Loades, Durham, England: A feminist theologian, Loades is one of only two people ever to be awarded a CBE for services to theology. The Christian tradition is responsible for the devaluation of women, she says, but that tradition also contains resources for its own transformation. She also discusses dance as prefiguring the resurrection body.
“To Imagine That” with Garrick Allen, Glasgow, Scotland: Allen sees the book of Revelation as being about how to live in a system that is unjust. “This is John’s response to an oppressive system, and it gives us space to rethink what a just system would look like in our world—to begin to imagine that.”
“Begin with the End” with Judith Wolfe, St Andrews, Scotland: “We have to take seriously the claim that we do not yet live in the world as it will be, and as we will be, and that we have to live towards an eschaton, a presence of God in the world, which is not only not yet apparent, but is not even comprehensible to us. So how do we live authentically in this life?”
From the studio: “Theology offers a home for the vast and the intimate. No question is foreclosed. Visually immersive, poetic, and global in scale, these narrative and theological short films invite viewers into a conversation about life and its limits which is as vibrant as it is challenging. This series isn’t about promoting theological ideas we necessarily agree with, but rather we are exploring the connections between vulnerable life, big questions, and the diversity of theological work being done today. It’s not that we are on the threshold of discovering God, but that perhaps God is already on the threshold of our lives, knocking to enter through our wounds, deepest desires, and questions.”
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
LOOK: Comet by Antonello Silverini
LISTEN: “May It Be” | Words by Roma Ryan, 2001 | Music by Enya, 2001 | Performed by Voces8, 2018
May it be an evening star Shines down upon you May it be when darkness falls Your heart will be true You walk a lonely road Oh, how far you are from home
Mornië utúlië Believe and you will find your way Mornië alantië A promise lives within you now
May it be the shadow’s call Will fly away May it be you journey on To light the day When the night is overcome You may rise to find the sun
Mornië utúlië Believe and you will find your way Mornië alantië A promise lives within you now A promise lives within you now
At the behest of composer Howard Shore, film director Peter Jackson approached Enya to write a song for his 2001 epic fantasy adventure The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the first in a trilogy. Enya brought her lyricist Roma Ryan on board, and together they wrote “May It Be.” The song, which plays during the movie’s end credits, contains two lines in the fictional Elvish language Quenya that J. R. R. Tolkien invented: “Mornië utúlië” and “Mornië alantië,” which translate to “Darkness has come” and “Darkness has fallen.”
Why am I sharing this “secular” song (inspired by a tale of hobbits, elves, and wizards) on today’s feast of Epiphany, the grand finale of the Christmas season? I could have chosen one of the church’s many beautiful works of music written explicitly for this day (and I have in previous years, such as here, here, and here, not to mention yesterday’s festive feature)—perhaps something louder, brighter, more triumphant—but instead I wanted to cap off the Twelve Days of Christmas with a benediction. It’s from an unlikely source, sure, but it speaks well, I think, to where we’re at in the liturgical year.
According to Christianity, darkness entered the world with humanity’s rebellion against their Creator in the garden of Eden. Sin and death became a reality that, millennia later, we still grapple with. But a promise was spoken in the beginning, was born in a manger at Christmas, walked the dusty streets of Israel-Palestine teaching the Way and performing wonders, was nailed to a cross and buried but then rose from the grave and now lives in the hearts of millions. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God’s promise of salvation and holistic restoration—shalom, the world set right again.
The light of Christ shone on the small Jewish town of Bethlehem at the Nativity and on the wider Gentile world at Epiphany (when the magi traveled from afar to receive personal revelation, an experience they brought back with them to their homelands), and it continues to shine, often in unexpected places.
Advent is a journey through the dark into the light that breaks at Christmas/Epiphany. Although in one sense morning has broken, in another sense this earth is still very much in darkness. Even the “children of light” (1 Thess. 5:5), those who have been reborn in Christ, experience (and sometimes, sadly, inflict) ache and horror as much as anyone else.
But hope has come. The Word has been spoken, redemption won, even if it’s not yet been consummated. We walk in the valley of shadows, but eventually the night will be vanquished, as Enya’s song says, and we will rise and greet the sun—or, to put a Christian inflection on it, the Son!
May we walk forward into 2022 true to our calling as sons and daughters of God. May we welcome God’s light and bear it to others, and trust the Promise that indwells us.
This is the final post in the 2021–22 Advent/Christmas series. Thanks for following! You can find a collation here (Advent) and here (Christmas). I will now return to my regular publication schedule of roughly one post a week.