Her Wilderness Like Eden (Artful Devotion)

Bloom Within by Daniel Nevins
Daniel Nevins (American, 1963–), Bloom Within. Oil on wood, 20 × 18 in.

Isaiah 51:3:

For the Lord will comfort Zion;
he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the LORD;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song.

“The Comforter” by Thomas Moore (1779–1852):

Oh! thou who dry’st the mourner’s tear,
How dark this world would be,
If, when deceived and wounded here,
We could not fly to thee!

The friends who in our sunshine live,
When winter comes are flown;
And he who has but tears to give,
Must weep those tears alone;

But thou wilt heal that broken heart,
Which, like the plants that throw
Their fragrance from the wounded part,
Breathes sweetness out of woe.

When joy no longer soothes or cheers,
And even the hope that threw
A moment’s sparkle o’er our tears,
Is dimm’d and vanish’d too;

Oh who would bear life’s stormy doom,
Did not thy wing of love
Come brightly wafting through the gloom,
Our peace-branch from above.

Then sorrow, touch’d by thee, grows bright
With more than rapture’s ray;
As darkness shows us worlds of light
We never saw by day.

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SONG: “The Sun Will Rise” by the Brilliance, on The Brilliance (2010)


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 A, click here.

Art resources for Lent

As you may have noticed, I’ve had to ease up lately on my self-imposed one-post-a-week rule to accommodate other projects. For February and March, I’ve been teaching an adult Sunday school course at my church called “Art and the Church: Seeing the Sacred in Global Christian Art”; I have a really great group of people exploring the topic with me, and I’ve enjoyed seeing which images they respond to most. I’ve also been invited by three separate entities to produce content on their platforms this spring: by a missions organization, to curate an online gallery of Passion art; by a divinity school, to write a post for its blog; and by a Christian ministry at Brown University, to deliver a talk to undergraduates. Moreover, I just returned from a trip to California, where I attended a Biola University–sponsored art symposium called “Art in a Postsecular Age”; I got to meet Matthew Milliner and Jonathan Anderson and hear from a panel of other distinguished speakers.

So, while I had every intention of getting this list out last week to coincide with the start of Lent, slide preparations, permissions e-mails, and travels have claimed my focus. I regret that all this revving up has come during a season dedicated to slowing down. Please forgive the slackness, but I’ve decided to practice the “holy pause” for the next forty days (through Easter Sunday). To fast from my obsession with productivity. I will still honor my obligation to those who have commissioned me for specific tasks, but I will be lightening up on the frequency of blog posts. In lieu of Lent-related Art & Theology content, I lift up the following supports for your journey.

Online devotional with visual art and music: Each Lenten season since 2012, Kevin Greene, an associate pastor at West End Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, has published an online devotional that comprises for each day an art image, a short scripture reading, a prayer, and a music file. I absolutely love this model, with its spare style: because the entries are light on text, they invite silence, contemplation, seeing, listening. Greene’s image selection is stellar. He doesn’t go for the obvious choices but rather aims at something more atmospheric, more slant. Among the painted subjects, for example, you’ll find a stairway, a storm, a dancer, a reaper; day 1, Ash Wednesday, was a sailboat on troubled waters (pictured below). Fine-art viewing isn’t something that’s typically a part of Protestant devotional practice, so in response to questions he’s received, Greene has described how art operates on the imagination and the spirit. I’ve been greatly blessed moving through the first week of Lent with this companion, and I can’t wait to dive into the backlist entries later on. You can sign up via e-mail in the left sidebar, or simply bookmark the website and visit it each morning.

Dark Red Sea by Emil Nolde
Emil Nolde (German, 1867–1956), Dark Red Sea, ca. 1938. Watercolor. Nolde Museum, Seebüll, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.

Lent Photo Challenge: The UK-based Bible Society invites people to take one photo per day throughout the season based on rotating themes (e.g., wilderness, hospitality, ask), then share them on social media using the hashtag #LentChallenge. Today is the sixth day of Lent (Sundays are excluded from the traditional forty-day count), and the assigned theme is “fear.”

#LentChallenge

Essays, short stories, poems, art: Founded in 1989, Image journal seeks “to demonstrate the continued vitality and diversity of contemporary art and literature that engage with the religious traditions of Western culture.” This Lent they’ve curated a selection of literary essays, short stories, poems, and art images from their back issues and their blog, Good Letters, that relate to the season, as well as to Easter. I especially enjoyed “Jeffrey Mongrain: An Iconography of Eloquence.” A few selections might be accessible only to subscribers (you can subscribe here; you won’t be disappointed!). Also available: the book God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter, a full-color devotional with contributions by some of Image’s favorites. Lent is not about becoming lost in our brokenness, the description says, but about cleansing the palate so that we can taste life more fully.

Blood Pool by Jeffrey Mongrain
Jeffrey Mongrain (American, 1956–), Blood Pool, 2006. Plexiglas, 47 × 88 in. Saint Peter’s Catholic Church, Columbia, South Carolina.

“Lent Is Here to Throw Us Off Again: Finding healing in repetition, community, and art” by W. David O. Taylor: An excellent introduction to Lent, addressing unselfing, dying a good death, opening up vacant space, and praying with the eyes. This Christianity Today article is adapted from the foreword Taylor wrote for artist James B. Janknegt’s new book, Lenten Meditations, which features forty of Janknegt’s paintings on the parables of Jesus, along with written reflections. Artists like Janknegt, Taylor writes, “fix before us an image of a world broken by our own doing, but not abandoned by God. They question our habits of sight. They arrest our attention. See this image. See it for the first time, again. See what has become hidden and distorted. See the neglected things. See the small but good things. It is in this way that artists can rescue us from what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge calls the ‘film of familiarity’ and the ‘lethargy of custom.’”

Lenten Meditations by James B. Janknegt

Parable of the Wicked Tenants by James B. Janknegt
James B. Janknegt (American, 1953–), The Wicked Tenants, 2008. Oil on canvas, 24 × 72 in.

Stations of the Cross in Washington, DC: This Lent, Dr. Aaron Rosen and the Rev. Dr. Catriona Laing of the Church of the Epiphany have organized a combination pilgrimage and art exhibition, featuring works located throughout Washington, DC, in places both sacred and secular. Mostly contemporary, some newly commissioned, the works include George Segal’s Depression Bread Line, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial by Glenna Goodacre, Barnett Newman’s Stations cycle at the National Gallery of Art, a video installation at First Congregational United Church of Christ by Leni Diner Dothan, and more. Participants can follow the stations by downloading the app “Alight: Art and the Sacred,” which offers maps and audio commentary (my friend Peggy Parker is a contributor!). (If you don’t have a smartphone, you can view the maps and listen to the commentary through a browser by following the primary link above.) Also check out the accompanying devotional guide.

Vietnam Women's Memorial by Glenna Goodacre
Glenna Goodacre (American, 1939–), Vietnam Women’s Memorial, 1993. Bronze. 5 Henry Bacon Drive, Washington, DC.

Lent by The Brilliance: This 2012 EP by The Brilliance, a duo comprising David Gungor and John Arndt, has seven tracks: “Dust We Are,” “Now and at the Hour of Our Death” (the rerelease on Brother removes the invocation to Mary), “Dayspring of Life,” “Does Your Heart Break?,” “Holy Communion,” “Violent Loving God,” and “Have You Forsaken Me?” Each one is a beautiful prayer, the words organized around a string quartet. Some take the shape of praise, others lament. God is supplicated for peace, mercy, light. The first track well captures the spirit of Lent: “Be still my soul and let it go, just let it go.” Click here to read a 2015 Hallels interview with The Brilliance, or here to listen to a podcast interview by David Santistevan.

Songs about the Flight to Egypt

On the heels of Jesus’s birth came his frantic flight, with parents Mary and Joseph, from the sword of an egomaniacal politician who swore death to all the male children of Bethlehem under the age of two. To secure his own power and advantage, Herod had to squash all potential threats.

Thus the birthday festivities were cut short as the Holy Family packed up what little they had and hit the road running, seeking asylum in another country.

Flight to Egypt by Jean-Francois Millet
Jean-François Millet (French, 1814–1875), The Flight into Egypt, ca. 1864. Conté crayon, pen, ink, and pastel over gray washes on paper, 31.1 × 39.4 cm. Art Institute of Chicago.

Many families are still making this difficult journey today: fleeing home in order to escape persecution and/or death.

Even though the Flight to Egypt is a part of the Christmas story, it’s often omitted from present-day nativity pageants and carol services because we prefer to bask in that which is quaint and cozy and cute and joyful, and we want that happy ending. We don’t want the darkness to rain on all the Christmas light. This is a real shame. By leaving out this event from our retellings of Jesus’s birth narrative, not only do we do a disservice to his memory, we neglect an opportunity to see Christ in our refugee neighbors.

(Related post: “Maria von Trapp, plus seven artists, on Jesus the refugee”)

To help remedy this omission, I’ve compiled a list of songs based on the Flight to Egypt so that churches can consider using them (or be inspired to write their own!) as part of their Christmas observances. I’ve purposely excluded “The Cherry-Tree Carol,” a centuries-old ballad derived from an apocryphal story about the Flight to Egypt from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (chapter 20); I did so not only because the anonymous lyricist reset the episode during the Journey to Bethlehem, when Jesus was still in the womb, but because, though charming, there’s nothing historic, spiritually valuable, or socially conscious about it, and it perpetuates a popular stereotype of Joseph as stubborn and unkind that I believe scripture itself does not bear.

Also excluded are the several carols about the Massacre of the Innocents—the episode that prompted the Flight to Egypt. The two episodes are obviously related, but I want to focus here on the Flight.

CONGREGATIONAL HYMNS

I could find only one song on the topic that was written with congregational singing in mind, and that is “Flight into Egypt” by the Rev. Vincent William Uher III (1963–). It’s made up of four verses and the refrain “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy), a common prayer in Christian liturgies. Because the hymn uses a plainchant tune, it has an irregular meter and may therefore be a little tricky for congregations to pick up right away. But the words are so beautifully crafted and set, and Rev. Uher gives his permission for noncommercial use, as long as credit is given. I put together a printable hymn sheet, reproduced below the lyrics. (Click on the image to open up the sheet as a PDF in a new tab.)

“Flight into Egypt” (1997) – Words: Vincent Uher | Music: Plainchant mode V, 13th century

Lonely travelers from the stable
Out beneath the hard blue sky
Journeying, wandering, hoping, praying
For the safety of their child
While our mother Rachel’s weeping
Fills the streets of Bethlehem.
Kyrie eleison.

Warned by angels moved to save him
Who was born our kind to save
Joseph leads his holy family
Far from Herod and harm’s way
Mary shielding and consoling
Jesus Christ the Son of God.
Kyrie eleison.

Fleeing from the land of promise
They in Egypt find a home
Strange the workings of God’s mercy
House of bondage now God’s throne
But for sons who all were murdered
Sorrow breaks the House of Bread.
Kyrie eleison.

True the tale of flight and exile
Out of Egypt comes God’s Son
Angels tell of Herod’s dying
All is ended, all begun
Jesus will grow up in Nazareth
And the world will all be stunned.
Kyrie eleison.

flight-into-egypt-by-vincent-uher

Because of the scarcity of carols referencing the Flight to Egypt, I took to writing some verses of my own, using already-popular hymn tunes. Each of these verses is intended not as an additional stanza to the carol whose tune it shares (that would render the narrative structure incoherent) but as a standalone reprise of sorts. I envisioned any one of them being sung as part of a Christmas Eve service following the reading, as part of the total Christmas story, of Matthew 2:13–14.   Continue reading “Songs about the Flight to Egypt”

Roundup: Controversial Eve painting, liturgy, protest, visualizing belief, and “Ya Hey”

“Mormon painting of a black Eve draws fire, but not for the reasons you might think” by Peggy Fletcher Stack, Salt Lake Tribune: Early this year a new painting of a seminude black Eve by Mormon artist J. Kirk Richards went on display at Writ & Vision gallery in Provo, Utah. While many Mormons have expressed how captivated and inspired they are by it, a few have insisted it’s wrong for a white man to depict a nude black woman because it conjures up collective memories of sexual brutality and enslavement. The article features some interesting perspectives by black Mormon feminists. In addition to the issue of racial representations (and I’ll just note, black figures are extremely rare in Mormon art), I’m intrigued by how Richards’s painting illustrates a distinctly Mormon view of the Fall, which differs from the orthodox Christian view—a fact he alludes to in his March 14 gallery talk.

Eve and the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge by J. Kirk Richards
J. Kirk Richards (American, 1976–), Eve and the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, 2016. Oil on panel.

“A Conversation about Creativity and the Liturgical Calendar,” panel discussion presented by Brehm Center and Fuller Studio: Moderator Edwin M. Willmington, composer-in-residence at Fuller Theological Seminary, talks with an all-star trio of creatives and liturgists comprising David Gungor of The Brilliance [00:50], on authenticity in songwriting and introducing liturgical practices to the evangelical church he attended; Todd E. Johnson [10:40], on the history, purpose, and major observances of the church calendar; and Lauralee Farrer [26:18], on discovering the Canonical Hours in a New Mexico desert and later developing them into characters for a film project. Questions: [34:02] How has liturgy shaped you? [36:20] Advice for artists on how to bring the church year to bear in their art? [37:11] Have you found that lament is generally embraced or resisted? [39:41] Advice for worship leaders?

“An Art Historical Perspective on the Baton Rouge Protest Photo that Went Viral” by An Xiao Mina and Ray Drainville, Hyperallergic: During a July 10 protest following the fatal killing of Alton Sterling, Reuters photographer Jonathan Bachman captured the moment of twenty-eight-year-old Ieshia L. Evans’s arrest. As heavily armored policemen pressed in, the other protestors dropped back, but Ieshia stood assuredly in the middle of the three-lane highway, prepared to be bound. This article lauds the strength of this image of confrontation by citing compositionally and thematically similar paintings, including Briton Riviere’s Daniel in the Lion’s Den and Giotto’s The Arrest of Christ, and other works of art.

Ieshia Evans arrest photo

Ieshia considers herself a vessel of God, eager to be used by him to bring justice and peace. Here’s what she wrote on her Facebook wall the night of her release from jail:

Ieshia Evans statement

“Things Unseen: Vision, Belief, and Experience in Illuminated Manuscripts”: Running through September 25 at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, this exhibition “explores the visual challenges artists faced as they sought to render miraculous encounters with the divine, grand visions of the end of time, the intricacies of belief, and the intimate communications of prayer.” It includes a September 15 talk, “How Do We Depict Religious Experiences?”—that is, how do we convey metaphysical essence in physical form? I appreciated the Getty’s blog post this week featuring a newly acquired choir book leaf that’s part of the exhibition. Curator Bryan C. Keene writes about the difficulties of identifying the illuminator and about discovering, through an examination of the back and a search on the Cantus database, that the illumination depicts the wiping of tears from saints’ eyes, not, as previously assumed, the healing of the blind.

Christ wiping the tears from the eyes of the saved
Initial A: Christ Wiping the Tears from the Eyes of the Saved, attributed to the Master of the Antiphonary of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, ca. 1345–50. Tempera and gold leaf on parchment, 5 1/3 × 5 1/3 in. (13.5 × 13.5 cm). The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 113, recto. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

“Ya Hey” song cover by The Brilliance: Written by Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, “Ya Hey” is a modern-day psalm that expresses frustration with God’s seeming unresponsiveness—to being spurned and being sought, to brokenness and suffering, to sin and struggle. The title is a play on the word Yahweh, the Hebrew name for God. The chorus references the burning bush of Exodus 3: “Through the fire and through the flames / You won’t even say your name / Only ‘I am that I am.’” The Brilliance’s acoustic cover of “Ya Hey” was released last month as a music video on YouTube featuring four New York City ballet dancers. It abandons the shrill vocoder and heavy percussion of the original song in favor of a softer, purer sound. Read the lyrics and an analysis at Sound: Interrupted.