25 Poems for Christmas

Hawkins, William L._Nativity Scene
William L. Hawkins (American, 1895–1990), Nativity Scene, 1987. Oil on canvas, 48 × 48 in. Newark Museum of Art, Newark, New Jersey.

1. “Remembering that it happened once” by Wendell Berry: For the last forty-plus years, Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry has been writing what he calls “Sabbath poems,” which emerge from his spiritual practice of walking outdoors on Sundays without any to-do’s. “I go free from the tasks and intentions of my workdays,” he says, “and so my mind becomes hospitable to unintended thoughts: to what I am very willing to call inspiration.” This Sabbath poem from 1986 explores how the sacred permeates the mundane and how Christ is, in a sense, always being born. For an SATB choral setting by Doug Brandt, see here.

Source: A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979–1997 (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1998); compiled in This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2014)

2. “BC:AD” by U. A. Fanthorpe: Ursula Askham Fanthorpe (1929–2009), CBE, FRSL, was an English poet who is well loved by both critics and the general public. She was also a practicing Quaker. Each year she wrote a new Christmas poem to send to friends, of which “BC:AD” is the best known. It considers Jesus’s birth as the pivotal point in history, dividing time into epochs, into “before” and “after.” At this nativity, kairos invaded chronos—and we’re still singing about it millennia later.

Source: Christmas Poems (London: Enitharmon, 2002)

3. “Making the House Ready for the Lord” by Mary Oliver: For many of us who succumb to cultural pressures, December is a time of rushing around, making sure the house is decorated like a magazine, the Christmas cards sent out, the cookies baked to perfection, the gifts individually selected and bought and wrapped. But in all this flurry of activity, are we missing “the better part” (Luke 10:42)? The speaker of this poem, Martha-like, is busy making preparations for Jesus, who’s coming to visit, but as she’s cleaning, outdoor critters keep popping in. At first she bemoans their presence—they’re not on the guest list!—but eventually she comes to accept, even welcome, them, surrendering her fussy desire for orderliness to a charitable embrace of whatever is. And on another level, this poem is about how all of creation longs for Christ (Rom. 8:19–22); the animals, too, want to see him, want to join the party.

Source: Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006)

4. [It’s all so messy] by Kelly Belmonte: A haiku for Advent.

Source: https://allninemuses.wordpress.com/

5. “Second Advent” by Anya Krugovoy Silver: Memorializing a friend (Ishiuan Hargrove) who died of metastatic brain tumors, “Second Advent” unsettlingly combines stark hospital-room and anatomical language with language that is soft, gentle, lyrical. Recounting one of Ishiuan’s several neurosurgeries, the poet remarks how her head was nimbed by surgical lights and then swaddled in gauze. The title refers to Ishiuan’s waking up on the second Sunday of Advent, but also to the hope of Christ’s second coming, when pain, disease, and sorrow will be done away with. Anya Silver was herself a cancer patient, an experience she wrote much about in her four volumes of poetry, before dying of breast cancer in 2018.

Source: Second Bloom (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017)

6. “The Nativity” by Henry Vaughan: “Peace!” rang the angels’ song the night of Christ’s birth—and yet what irony, that he who came to bring peace was himself no beneficiary of it in this life, being born among animals in a borrowed stable, then made a refugee, then later disbelieved, betrayed, mocked, tortured, and crucified. The darkness that bred such unwelcome of the Son of God still persists—violence, ignorance. Referencing the Genesis 1 creation narrative as well as the journey of the magi, the poem ends with an invocation for God’s light to manifest once again, leading us to Christ.

Source: Thalia Redivina: The Pass-Times and Diversions of a Countrey-Muse (London: Robert Pawlet, 1678). Public Domain.

7. [little tree] by E. E. Cummings: One of E. E. Cummings’s earliest published poems (it came out in the January 1920 issue of The Dial), “little tree” was intended to appear as one of five “chansons innocentes” in Cummings’s first book of verse, Tulips and Chimneys, but his editor, Thomas Seltzer, cut it (along with sixty-five others!). In it a young child consoles a recently felled evergreen tree—enlisted for the holiday festivities—with promises of glory and love. Though it runs the danger of being read as twee, Cummings remained fond of the poem and even had it printed and sent it as his family Christmas card in 1960, two years before he died.

Source: XLI Poems (New York: The Dial Press, 1925); compiled in E. E. Cummings: Complete Poems, 1904–1962 (New York: Liveright, 2016). Public Domain.

8. “Messiah (Christmas Portions)” by Mark Doty: The speaker of this poem is unexpectedly transported by a local community choir performance of Handel’s Messiah. He marvels at how these ordinary, flawed neighbors of his can produce such beauty with their collective voices. The last line is probably a reference to the accompagnato and air sung by the bass toward the end of the oratorio, taken from 1 Corinthians 15:51–54—about how we will all be changed in a moment at the last trump, and the corruptible will put on incorruption.

Source: Sweet Machine (New York: HarperFlamingo, 1998); compiled in Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008)

9. “What the Body Knows” by Jean Janzen: The anonymous scribes and illuminators of the Book of Kells spent countless hours copying and beautifying God’s word amid Viking raids. In this ekphrastic poem, Jean Janzen reflects on the Gospel-book’s five whimsically painted folios of Luke’s genealogy of Christ, commenting on the continual inbreaking of God into our world and the “wild safety” of God’s love.

Source: What the Body Knows (Telford, PA: DreamSeeker Books, 2015)

10. “Confession” by Leila Chatti: The Tunisian American poet Leila Chatti was raised by a Muslim father and a Roman Catholic mother, and both religious traditions have shaped her faith and her writing. Islam and Christianity hold many sacred figures in common, including Mary (Maryam), whose conception and delivery of Jesus (Isa) are narrated in the Quran 19:16–34. Chatti confesses to being more compelled by the Islamic characterization of Mary as grunting and sweating in the pangs of labor (in contrast to Catholic teaching, which says her birthing experience was effortless, her contractions painless, though the Bible itself doesn’t specify). Chatti finds comfort in picturing Mary not as someone exempt from the effects of the fall and set apart on a pedestal of supreme virtue, but as one who suffered the same physical and emotional toll as other childbearing women—and who probably did have the occasional selfish thought, which, in moments of intensity and vulnerability, she deigned to vocalize!

Source: Deluge (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2020) | https://www.leilachatti.com/

11. “Two Carols” by Evelyn Underhill: An English Anglo-Catholic writer and mystic, Evelyn Underhill meditates in this double poem on how Christ set foot on the long, hard road we travel to be a balm for our wounds and those of the earth. The epigraph to part 1 is from the Latin Vulgate of Song of Solomon 2:12: “The flowers appear on the earth.” What follows are several Catholic titles for Mary: rose without thorn, queen, generatrix. The epigraph to part 2 is a quotation of Romans 8:22: “The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” The refrain, Dominus tecum!, translates to “The Lord is with you!,” words spoken by the angel Gabriel to Mary and, by virtue of the Incarnation, to all humanity. The other Latin phrases translate to “He who is in the heavens,” “A King is born,” and “Let the kingdom come!” Adveniat regnum!

Source: Immanence: A Book of Verses (London: J. M. Dent, 1912). Public Domain.

12. “The Christmas Babe” by Fr. John Banister Tabb: Written by a Catholic priest from Virginia, this simple quatrain marvels at the paradox of God’s simultaneous largeness and smallness.

Source: Poems (London: John Lane, 1894). Public Domain.

13. “Snowflakes” by Jennifer Grotz: When the world is viewed through a sacramental lens, we recognize God in commonplace wonders like falling snow, and such things can be a sort of wordless prayer that we offer back to God through our enjoyment of them.

Source: Window Left Open (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2016) | https://www.jennifergrotz.com/

14. [The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman] by Emily Dickinson: In these two compact stanzas, Dickinson reflects on how kind Jesus was (an understatement!) to have made the far journey to Bethlehem, “a rugged billion Miles” from heaven, especially in the cold month of December, all “for little Fellowmen.” She refers to him as “docile”—obedient, submissive—harking to Philippians 2, to his bowing to the eternal will of the Father, submitting to human limitations, suffering, and death for the life of the world.

Source: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1976)

15. [Wilt thou love God, as he thee? Then digest] (Holy Sonnet No. 15) by John Donne: A self-address to the soul, this poem by the English poet-priest John Donne, first published in 1633, two years after this death, celebrates the Triune God’s salvific workings: we’re adopted by the Father, redeemed by the Son, indwelt and regenerated by the Spirit. The closing couplet, referencing the imago Dei, packs a wallop: “’Twas much, that man was made like God before, / But, that God should be made like man, much more.”

Source: Poems (London: M.F. [Miles Fletcher], 1633). Public Domain.

16. “The Little Towns of Bethlehem” by John Terpstra: All over Canada, Christ is being reborn this Christmas, in the sense that the Story has taken root, is retold, and continues to have impact. The speaker imagines the Christ child “wrapped in cast-off flannel” in a boxcar stopped on the tracks in Esther, Alberta, or feeding at his mother’s breast in a broken-down car on the shoulder of a road in Englehart, Ontario—actual sights that one might encounter today. Localizing the Story can help us to see it afresh, and to see the sacred humanity of families experiencing homelessness or other hardships.

Source: Two or Three Guitars (Kentville, Nova Scotia: Gaspereau Press, 2006) | http://johnterpstra.com/

17. “Song of the Shepherds” by Richard Bauckham: Richard Bauckham, FRSE, FBA, is best known as a biblical scholar—he’s one of today’s tops, in fact—but he also writes poetry! (I featured one of his poems last year.) In this poem, the shepherds on Bethlehem’s hillsides recall an ancient tale about the stars singing at the creation of the universe, which they thought merely a poetic embellishment, until they experienced something of the like for themselves: “a song of solar glory” eclipsing the lesser lights and exorcising the dark, creating the world anew. Unforgettable.

Source: Tumbling into Light: Collected Poems (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2022) | https://richardbauckham.co.uk/

18. “Those Magi” by Kathleen O’Toole: What exactly were the magi seeking? What compelled them to leave their treasure behind in that cattle shed? Whence their strength to defy Herod? Besides musing on these questions, the poem also contains a passing metaphor that I found striking and new: cow breath as incense.

Source: Christian Century, January 18, 2019 | https://kathleenotoolepoetry.com/

19. “Carol of the Brown King” by Langston Hughes: Tradition names one of the wise men who visited the Christ child “Balthazar” and says he’s from Africa. Langston Hughes, a preeminent poet of the Harlem Renaissance, exults that there was “one dark like me—part of His Nativity.” This poem is included in Hughes’s musical play Black Nativity and is one of six Nativity poems by Hughes that make up a children’s book illustrated by Ashley Bryan.

Source: Crisis (Dec. 1958), p. 615; compiled in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Knopf, 1994)

20. “Mosaic of the Nativity: Serbia, Winter, 1993” by Jane Kenyon: I couldn’t find the particular church mosaic program that Kenyon is writing about, but here’s my interpretation. Set inside a Serbian Orthodox church during the Bosnian War, this poem imagines a mosaic of Christ Pantocrator hovering in the dome, lamenting the violence that goes on beneath. Under the gaze of the I AM is another mosaic, portraying Jesus’s birth, but also, in a way, Mary’s, as she herself is being reborn in Christ, her mind increasingly shaped in accordance to his. Nativity icons often show Mary framed by a red blanket that she’s reclining on at the mouth of a cave, which Kenyon reads as embryonic.

Source: Otherwise (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 1996); compiled in Collected Poems (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005)

21. “Breath” by Luci Shaw: This poem reflects on the contraction of the infinite God who breathed the universe into existence into a finite human being needing oxygen, who, as is foreshadowed at his birth, will finally ex-pire (“breathe out” his last) on a cross before entering his “next dark cave,” a prelude to resurrection.

Source: Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006) | https://lucishaw.com/

22. “Mary’s Vision” from medieval Ireland: Mary foresees the future suffering of her infant son and dialogues with him about it in this poem translated from Middle Irish by Eleanor Hull (the same woman who, through her translation and versification, gave us the hymn “Be Thou My Vision”!).

Source: The Poem-Book of the Gael (London: Chatto & Windus, 1912). Public Domain.

23. “Joseph at the Nativity” by Tania Runyan: Staring at the “shriveled pod” that Mary just birthed, Joseph grapples with his complicated feelings—doubt, embarrassment, jealousy, helplessness, confusion, pride—and with figuring out what role he should play in the life of this child going forward.

Source: Simple Weight (Lexington, KY: FutureCycle, 2010) | https://taniarunyan.com/

24. “Waiting in Line After Christmas” by Sharron Singleton: (Scroll down to fourth poem) Rather than exchanges of refunded money for unwanted items, Singleton ponders what a mutually life-giving exchange of intangibles might look like.

Source: Our Hands a Hollow Bowl (Hartford, CT: Grayson Books, 2018)

25. “Burning the Old Year” by Naomi Shihab Nye: Through the act of forgetting, we must destroy the worthless trivialities of the year, and we must let that which is solid, that which matters—the “stones”—be revealed and remain.

Source: Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Portland, OR: Far Corner Books, 1995)

“The Greatest of These” by Tania Runyan

          1 Cor 13

Embraces the woman whose child screams
on the floor of the cereal aisle.
Enters the friend’s new mansion,
lifts eyes to the skylights, gives thanks.
Yields the last word on the Facebook fight.
Looks the frowning barista in the eye.
Takes a breath and thanks God
there is even a zipper to get stuck.
Sends a gift to the wall-punching uncle.
Glances away from the handcuffed boys
on the side of the road and prays.
Smiles and listens to the grandmother complain
about her knees, rubs the knees,
ladles another bowl of soup.
Believes there is a reason that slumped man
in the alley was born. Trusts he’ll believe it.
Endures the quiet, thankless song of work.
Echoes long after the cymbals have died.

This poem is from Second Sky by Tania Runyan (Cascade/Wipf & Stock, 2013), a collection that “intertwines the life and writings of the Apostle Paul with the spiritual journey of a modern suburban woman confronting the broken world.” Used with permission.

Roundup: Philippians set to music, poetry of joy, what Jesus looked like, and more

ALBUM REVIEW: “Let’s Go Down: Joy and Humility in Psallos’s Philippians Album” by Victoria Emily Jones: Psallos’s latest album, a musical adaptation of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, released on Thursday, and, as I’ve come to expect from the collective, it’s a brilliant work of art, with much to discover! In this review I wrote for the Gospel Coalition, I of course couldn’t address all the album’s intricacies, but I trace a few main themes and motifs. This is the New Testament epistle that gives us such memorable lines, phrases, and passages as “Rejoice in the Lord always!,” “Be anxious for nothing,” “the peace of God that passes all understanding,” “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” and the glorious Christ Hymn (“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God . . .”). It’s delightful to hear what Psallos does with these oft-quoted verses and, even more, to be guided in understanding the larger context in which they appear.

It’s near impossible to choose favorite tracks, as they gain impact from being heard all together and in order, but if I had to choose, I’d say “Complete My Joy,” “Hymnos Christou,” “I Am Better Than You” (feat. Shai Linne), and “Will You Go Down?” (feat. Taylor Leonhardt).

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POETS’ PANEL: “Surprised by Joy: Poetry about Happiness,” recorded at the Festival of Faith and Writing, April 2018: In Rewrite Radio Episode 29 (a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing), poets Anya Silver, Tania Runyan, Barbara Crooker, and Julie Moore “discuss the landscape of joy amidst suffering in their personal and public lives. Joy, distinct from happiness, can be a form of religious practice. They explore questions regarding what cheapens joy, how Christians view joy, and how to ‘balance the scale’ of joy and pain in writing.” Zora Neale Hurston, Ælfric of Eynsham, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Christian Wiman, Jane Kenyon, John Milton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thornton Wilder, and the apostle Paul are just some of the additional voices they draw into their conversation. They each read three to four of their own poems, and there is an audience Q&A starting at 57:54. A transcript is provided.

Silver and Runyan are two of my favorite poets, and this is such a rich hour spent with them and two of their colleagues.

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INTERVIEW: “It’s Not a Poem Until You Discover Something: An Interview with Scott Cairns” by Andy Patton: In this conversation, poet Scott Cairns talks about writing as a discipline, the writer as reader (“The writing life is primarily the reading life”), staying conversant with tradition, the fallacy of originality, the one quality shared most between prayer and poetry, and writing not as giving, serving, but as getting, receiving.

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LECTURE: “What Did Jesus Look Like?” by Joan E. Taylor, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, June 2, 2019: Historian Joan E. Taylor, a professor of Christian origins and Second Temple Judaism at King’s College London, discusses the influences on early depictions of Jesus in art and what they tell us about what he did, or definitely didn’t, look like. This talk is a great intro to her research on the topic, but if you want to learn more, I recommend her full-color book What Did Jesus Look Like? (T&T Clark, 2018), which goes into much more detail, examining artistic, literary, and archaeological evidence, including first- and second-century coins, textiles, skulls, and Egyptian mummy portraits. She also dedicates two chapters to the three most famous acheropitae (images “made without [human] hands”): the Veil of Veronica, the Mandylion, and the Shroud of Turin.

In her talk, Taylor shows how most of the visual representations of Jesus in the Early Christian era were based on Greco-Roman imagery of Zeus Olympus or Zeus Serapis (strong, powerful, seated on a throne; this image came after Constantine), Dionysus (young, curly-haired, beardless), or philosophers. These images aim to show us the meaning of Jesus but not necessarily his physical reality.

Interestingly, Taylor points out that while it’s common to picture Jesus in a long robe (stolē, plural stolai) with baggy sleeves, such clothing indicated social privilege in Jesus’s time, and in Mark 12:38, Jesus explicitly denounces those who parade around in such dress! Jesus would have worn a short, simple tunic, probably undyed—which is how he is depicted in the frescoes from the ancient Dura-Europos house church in present-day Syria.

She also identifies a common strain in early Christian and non-Christian writings that describe Jesus as “little and ugly and undistinguished” (Celsus), probably owing largely to the messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53:2: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” However, there were some claims to the contrary—for example, from Origen—that stated that Jesus was the epitome of physical beauty; after all, divinity must be beautiful, right? We often find throughout art history an attempt to backfill the earthly life of Jesus with his resurrected, ascended, glorified form.

Taylor is not suggesting, as far as I can tell, that all artistic representations of Jesus must be historically authentic to have validity. Rather, she says that if we are going to imagine Jesus humanly doing things—healing the paralytic, for example, or preaching the Sermon on the Mount—we will inevitably have to picture him in our mind, and we might as well have as accurate a picture as possible. She reminds us that if we imagine Jesus as supremely beautiful and well kept and richly arrayed instead of as the poor, bedraggled itinerant that he was, there’s a dissonance with his message; he becomes no longer one of the people but apart from them.

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ARTICLE: “Are Images of Jesus a Violation of the Commandments?” by Chad Bird: “Different groups within Christianity disagree as to whether Jesus should be depicted in icons, crucifixes, paintings, or other visual media. In this article, Chad Bird [scholar in residence at 1517] approaches the question from the angle of both the commandments and the incarnation.”

The most pushback I receive on my blogging ministry comes from those who believe it is inherently wrong, even “idolatrous,” to represent Jesus visually. Bird addresses this concern in much the same way I do when asked, and in such a succinct way!

Good Letters roundup

One of the blogs I follow is Good Letters, run by Image journal and authored by a diverse, gifted team of spiritual writers. Updated each weekday, it features short personal essays that make fresh connections between faith and daily life. Here are a few posts from the past month that I particularly enjoyed.

Ballet

“Beginner Ballet” by Melissa Florer-Bixler: Like the author, I too took a beginner’s ballet class at a late age (mid-twenties), and her words capture my felt experience so well:

I assumed ballet would be an interesting and different way to exercise, the chance to try a new fitness routine and to escape the general chaos of my life for an hour each week.

But in this dance class, the ballet one does in socks after work, I discovered that dance offers an aesthetic world, a way for me to discover new possibilities for my body. How strange it was to push my energy down a smooth line as my body sunk to the floor, to wonder over the shape of my fingers, to imagine a string lifting me up, off my toes, to float an inch above the gleaming rehearsal studio floor.

Everything in ballet was strength in the service of beauty. Even the language was beautiful. . . .

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“The Ordinary Time” (poem) by Dana Littlepage Smith: I love Good Letters’ ongoing “Poetry Fridays,” in which a writer will introduce a poem with brief commentary. A few weeks ago Suzanne Nussey introduced this little gem in which the speaker learns through the observance of barnyard creatures how to slow down and be more attentive to life’s ordinary moments, how to enter God’s time. (The title references the liturgical season the church is currently in.) As she considers the birds, she sees how they work with joy, singing as they build, and are content just to be. The poem opens with a beautiful image and a subtle admonition:

Goldfish in the horse trough
nibble at morning’s surface.

They are not busy;
they are breathing.

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“On Writing Odes: Taking Time to Celebrate” by Tania Runyan: Runyan has been doing a Good Letters teaching series on poetic forms—sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, and now odes, which are characterized by praise and celebration. Here she presents the ode “To Autumn” by John Keats as a choice example, and then shares one of her own, “Ode to a Bodhran Player.” (A bodhran is a traditional Irish drum.) She concludes with an assignment: “Find something that you love, or maybe even something you don’t, and regale it with an ode. Give yourself to the true, noble, lovely, and excellent practice of praise.”

“To Autumn” by John Keats

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

[Read the rest on Good Letters]

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This Is Us

“Emmy Watch: This Is Us by Tania Runyan: Eric and I enjoy watching this TV show together and appreciate its complex portrayals of familial relationships: husband-wife, parent-child, and sibling (including siblings-in-law). Even within the parent-child category, different forms of parenthood are explored—biological, adoptive, and foster. Here Runyan writes about the show’s positive portrayal of open adoption, which is now more common in the US than traditional “closed” adoption. When Runyan and her husband adopted their son, Samuel, they chose the open option, which in their case means they deliberately entered into and maintain in-person relationships with Samuel’s biological family. (To read more about Runyan’s experience, see “He Fits Right In: Our Story of Open Adoption.”) Runyan shares a conversation she had with her son’s biological grandmother about the show.

The third season of This Is Us began September 25. It airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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“Leonard Cohen’s Holy and Broken Hallelujah” by Alisa Ungar-Sargon: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is one of the most-covered songs of all time, and it’s full of biblical references. (Like the writer, my first introduction to it was also as a preteen through the movie Shrek!) “The song’s central premise is the value, even the necessity, of praise in the face of confusion, doubt, or dread,” writes Ungar-Sargon, who led her high school English students in an analysis of its lyrics as poetry.

Here’s a cover by the husband-wife duo Gungor (that is, Michael and Lisa Gungor).

Book of Revelation roundup

Over the past year or so, it seems I keep running into artistic responses to the book of Revelation. There was the “Apokalipsa” icons exhibition held in Nowica, Poland, in fall 2016, to which thirty-six artists contributed (see photos, plus this Artful Devotion); then last September there was the release of the book Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia, which I mentioned in an earlier roundup. What’s more, this April, Pillar Church in Holland, Michigan, was awarded a Vital Worship Grant by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship “to enrich worship by collaboratively creating artistic liturgical resources inspired by the book of Revelation in order to promote a rich engagement with Scripture.” I’ll be interested to see what they come up with!

The Angel Locks Satan in the Abyss by Joanna Zabaglo
Joanna Zabagło (Polish), The Angel Locks Satan in the Abyss [Rev. 20:1–3], 2016. Tempera on board, 18 × 10 cm.
Now I see that the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA) is calling for papers on the topic of “Waiting for the End of the World: Eschatology and Art 1850–2000,” for a symposium to be held February 11–12, 2019. Proposals due by September 4.

After 1850, religious subjects became increasingly suspect among modernist artists determined to paint only what the eye can see. Gustave Courbet’s pronouncement, “show me an angel, and I’ll paint one,” exemplified a new, more skeptical orientation. Nevertheless, historical forces and personal motivations compelled many artists, working across a spectrum of materials and visual methods, to directly employ or obliquely reference themes of the Last Judgment and the Apocalypse. Over a century that saw two world wars, economic booms and devastating depressions, the rise and fall of ideologies of left and right, the collapse of colonial empires and the chaos of failed states, the threats of nuclear annihilation and ecological degradation, artists frequently turned to eschatological imagery to visualize the experience of modern life.

The Last Judgment described in the sacred texts of the Abrahamic religions threatens damnation and promises redemption for both the individual and society. This symposium will explore the way that apocalyptic beliefs and imagery—Jewish, Christian, and Islamic—have informed the work of avant-garde artists from all regions of the globe. We invite proposals for 20-minute papers of original research that explore questions such as, but not limited to: What different visual languages have artists used to address the idea of the end of the world? What meanings have they found in the eschatological narrative? How are cultural differences and similarities manifested in their work? To what extent is the teleological narrative of modern art a disguised, secular version of a theological narrative?

Another recent release, from December 2017, is the poetry collection What Will Soon Take Place by Tania Runyan, “an imaginative journey through the book of Revelation” that “offers a poet’s view of the prophetic, not in the sense of seeking out clues to the ‘end times,’ but a means of taking this strange, fantastic book of scripture and letting it read its way into personal lives.” I love Runyan’s poetry (all the poets published by Paraclete are great), so this volume is near the top of my to-read list. Check out “The Angel Over Patmos” and “The Great Throne,” and see the promo video below, with an excerpt from “Vision of the Son of Man.”

Also from 2017, a collage by Nicora Gangi inspired by medieval Last Judgment triptychs. Commissioned by Spark and Echo Arts, Kiss the Son calls on us to love Christ with sincere affection, adorning his feet with kisses like the woman in Luke 7. The left panel shows a heap of humanity’s various “golden calves,” those things we worship that only lead to death. This is contrasted on the right with the New Jerusalem, where the Lion and the Lamb sit atop a cascade of glory. At the bottom of the central panel is the city of destruction, the destination of those who give Christ the betrayer’s kiss; the snake-like forms recall the Evil One who deceived Adam and Eve and plummeted humanity into alienation from God. Above, though, the Son shines brightly, inviting all the reconciled into his loving presence.

Kiss the Son by Nicora Gangi
Nicora Gangi (American, 1952–), Kiss the Son, 2017. Collage, 21 × 33 in.

Lastly, though it was released in 2013, I just recently discovered The Lamb Wins by the Lesser Light Collective, an album of thirty-plus original songs by fifteen-plus artists based on John’s Apocalypse. My favorite song is “The River and the Tree of Life.”

Oh yes, and because I just finished reading the massive Collected Poems of Thomas Merton, here’s a short, thematically relevant excerpt, from “Figures for an Apocalypse: VIII. The Heavenly City” (page 148):

Shine with your lamb-light, shine upon the world:
You are the new creation’s sun.
And standing on their twelve foundations,
Lo, the twelve gates that are One Christ are wide as canticles:
And Oh! Begin to hear the thunder of the songs within the crystal Towers,
While all the saints rise from their earth with feet like light
And fly to tread the quick-gold of those streets . . .

Update: On June 28 and 29, 2018, the Centre for the Critical Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements (CenSAMM) in the UK hosted the conference “Apocalypse in Art: The Creative Unveiling.” All the talks, given by various scholars, have been added to the organization’s media archive. They address the theme in Hans Memling, Albrecht Dürer, William Blake, James Hampton, Keith Haring, Michael Takeo Magruder, David Best, Bob Dylan, and more.

Whore of Babylon by William Blake
William Blake (British, 1757–1827), Whore of Babylon, 1809. Pen and watercolor over pencil, 26.6 × 22.3 cm. British Museum, London.

De/coding the Apocalypse by Michael Takeo Magruder
Michael Takeo Magruder (British, 1974–), The Horse as Technology, modular installation (in view: SLS 3D print). Part of “De/coding the Apocalypse” v1.0 solo exhibition, 2014, Inigo Rooms, Somerset House, London. Photo: Jana Chiellino.