Advent, Day 15: Great Joy River

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God . . .

It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, . . . and the twelve gates are twelve pearls. . . .

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. . . .

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

—Revelation 21:1–2, 12, 21–25; 22:1–5

LOOK: The New Heaven by Leroy Almon

Almon, Leroy_The New Heaven
Leroy Almon (American, 1938–1997), The New Heaven, 1984. Carved wood, light bulbs, artificial pearls, glue, glitter, plastic letters, paint, 36 × 28 in. (91.4 × 71.1 cm). Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. [object record]

This mixed-media depiction of heaven by African American folk artist Leroy Almon draws on imagery from the book of Revelation, showing centrally a crystal-bright river, the water of life, flowing forth from the mouth of God (Rev. 22:1–2). It courses through the paradisal scene, past the tree with its twelve fruits and healing leaves, and is pumped into twelve fountains, from which Black and white people drink together. Across lines of race, the new-city dwellers unite in worship, fellowship, and play. Notice the group of children with the ball in the bottom register!

For a framing device, Almon has used two wooden doors that bow out, as if the scene in all its fullness cannot be contained; as if the borders of the new city must bend to embrace the multitudes and their joy. The shape communicates an expansiveness that is the heart of God.

God is shown as majestic, mountain-like, and yet bearing a tender expression. The plastic beads on his forehead are printed with letters that read, “THE NEW HEAVEN,” and his eyes (not lit in this photo) are battery-powered light bulbs! He is, as John the Revelator tells us, the unending light dispelling all darkness. 

Almon was born in 1938, so for about the first three decades of his life, he lived in a country where racial segregation was enforced legally in many states and socially in others. By and large, Blacks and whites were made to live in separate neighborhoods, attend separate schools, swim in separate pools, eat at separate restaurants, drink from separate water fountains, pass through separate public building entrances, wait in separate waiting rooms, sit in separate sections of the bus and the theater and even (woe is us) the church, and so on. Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, mandating desegregation, racial prejudices and hostilities continued to persist, as they do today. And because sinful human beings create and run systems (criminal legal, economic, educational, medical, etc.), it’s no surprise that the sin of racism can be found there as well.

Almon longed to see racial justice and (re)conciliation, and he knew Jesus has the power to make it happen. Almon’s preaching ministry went hand-in-hand with his art making. Through both, he shared the good news that Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, calls us to a new way of being in the world, which involves repentance of sin and turning to the divine light of love that knows no bounds. His New Heaven envisions a world saved and transformed by Christ’s love, where power is shared equally, forgiveness sought and granted, and friendship is the order of the day, as is a shared rejoicing in the greatness of God. In The New Heaven, Black and white praise Jesus side-by-side, eat at the tree of life together, and put their lips to the same bubbling fount of living water.

And not only are relationships healed and humanity restored to its original harmony in the new heaven, but also personal sorrows and hardships are no more. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, socially, we flourish in the light of God that never dims.

For more on Leroy Almon, see this Art & Theology Lenten devotional post from earlier this year.

LISTEN: “Great Rejoicing” by Thad Cockrell, on To Be Loved (2009) | Performed by Rain for Roots, feat. Sandra McCracken and Skye Peterson, on Waiting Songs (2015)

There’s gonna be a great rejoicing (2×)

The troubles of this world
Will wither up and die
That river of tears made by the lonely
Someday will be dry
There’s gonna be a great rejoicing

There’s gonna be a great joy river (2×)

Questions of this world
Someday will be known
Who’s robbing you of peace
And who’s the giver

There’s gonna be a great joy river

Someday you will find me
Guarded in His fortress
Open heart and wings
That never touch the ground
Someday we will gather
In a grand reunion
Debts of this old world
Are nowhere to be found
Nowhere to be found

There’s gonna be a great rejoicing (5×)

We are now halfway through Advent! Many of the songs featured in this Advent series, including today’s, appear on my Advent Playlist. I also have a companion Christmastide Playlist, which has been revised and expanded since last year to include some choral selections.

Lent, Day 27

LOOK: It Is Finished by Anthony Falbo

Falbo, Anthony_It Is Finished
Anthony Falbo (American, 1953–), It Is Finished, 2004. Oil and charcoal on paper, 24 × 18 in.

Exaggerated proportions and a sense of humor and play are characteristic of Anthony Falbo’s paintings, including the ones on religious subjects. In It Is Finished, the title is a pun that refers to one of the seven last words of Christ while also affirming that yes, despite half of the paper being unpainted, this artwork is complete as is.

The contrast of minimalist charcoal sketch marks with richly hued oil paints is the painting’s most striking feature. The boxed outline around the Crucifixion and the concentration of color there create the impression of a picture within a picture. But the scene cannot be contained; it spills out, the cross-tree taking root outside the frame, the blood pooling there too. Here is where the mourners—traditionally John and the three Marys—stand, one of them reaching up into the picture. Angels fly about in the margins; one gestures toward the dying Christ as if to tell the viewer, “This is for you.”

The color helps center our attention on Christ’s face and punctuates other details—namely, the three nails, and the blood at the base of the tree. Christ’s figure is painted in some places but line-drawn in others, evoking a sense of fading—but fading out, or in? That is, are we witnessing life giving way to death, or death giving way to life? Is the picture losing color or gaining it? Surely both.

Two rich color fields meet in the background: purple and blue. In addition to royalty, purple is traditionally associated with penitence and mourning and is the liturgical color for Lent. Blue represents heaven and/or truth.

Falbo cleverly uses trompe l’oeil effects to allude to other elements of the Crucifixion narrative. The peeling back of a paint layer references the tearing of the temple veil, a symbolic grant of access for all people to God through the eternal mediating priesthood of Christ. Across from that, an apparent puncture in the picture references the piercing of Christ’s side by a Roman soldier to confirm his death, which unleashed a discharge of water and blood—the symbolic birthing fluids of the church.

Falbo also draws on the traditional tree of life motif, which pictures the cross as a still-living tree, that of Genesis 3:22 and Revelation 22:2. There is art historical precedent for the fusing of Christ’s body to the wood, seen here especially in the hands, suggesting that he himself is life. Uniquely, though, Falbo’s rendition shows hands dangling from the branches, grasping apples, harking back to the Genesis narrative of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Eden and thereby reminding us of the sin from which Christ’s death redeems us.

LISTEN: “’Tis finished! The Messiah dies” | Words by Charles Wesley, 1751 and 1788, with additions by Austin Pfeiffer, 2016 | Music by Austin Pfeiffer, 2016 | Performed by Salem Presbyterian Church musicians at the PCA General Assembly in Greensboro, North Carolina, June 15, 2017 | CCLI #7192481 [Chord chart]

’Tis finished! The Messiah dies,
cut off for sins, but not his own.
Accomplished is the sacrifice,
the great redeeming work is done.
Done, done, done!

The veil is rent; in Christ alone
the living way to heav’n is seen;
the middle wall is broken down,
and all the world may enter in.
Enter in!

[Refrain] When the Messiah took on flesh
and he gave up throne and home to be with us,
the vict’ry we could never grasp
was captured when they cut and cast
his broken body on the altar of the Lord.

’Tis finished!—all my guilt and pain;
I want no sacrifice beside.
For me, for me the Lamb is slain;
’tis finished! I am justified.
Justified!

Refrain

The reign of sin and death is o’er,
and all may live from sin set free.
Satan hath lost his mortal power;
’tis swallowed up in victory.
Victory!

Refrain

The Rev. Austin Pfeiffer (ThM, Duke Divinity School) is an associate pastor at Salem Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, one of whose roles is to oversee music and liturgy. In summer 2017 he led a worship session at the annual business meeting of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) that included a retuned version he wrote, with new refrain, of Charles Wesley’s “’Tis finished! The Messiah dies.” The music really draws out the celebratory aspect of the lyrics and the sense of finality and accomplishment, especially with the accented repetition of each stanza’s end word or two. And the refrain expounds on Wesley’s imagery of sacrifice, in addition to connecting the Crucifixion and the Incarnation.

I’ve embedded a video of the performance above, extracted from the General Assembly livestream footage, with Pfeiffer’s permission. He is joined onstage by fellow musicians from Salem Pres: Hannah Proulx and Elizabeth Ottenjohn on vocals, Jared Meyer on vocals and guitar, Margaret Raney on fiddle, and John Daniel Ray on upright bass.

Pfeiffer, Meyer, and Ray make up the modern folk band The Pharaoh Sisters, whose debut album, Civil Dawn, is excellent. (I mentioned it here.)

I’ve featured Charles Wesley many times on the blog, as he’s perhaps my favorite hymn-writer. This hymn text of his exists in several iterations, as he returned to it with a revisionary touch throughout his life. The earliest version, consisting of two eight-line stanzas, appears in a manuscript he completed in 1751 and was first published in 1762 in volume 2 of his Short Hymns on Select Passages of the Holy Scriptures:

’Tis finished! The Messias dies,
Cut off for sins, but not his own!
Accomplished is the sacrifice,
The great redeeming work is done;
Finished the first transgression is,
And purged the guilt of actual sin,
And everlasting righteousness
Is now to all the world brought in.

’Tis finished, all my guilt and pain,
I want no sacrifice beside,
For me, for me, the Lamb is slain,
And I am more than justified;
Sin, death, and hell are now subdued,
All grace is now to sinners giv’n,
And lo, I plead th’ atoning blood,
For pardon, holiness, and heaven.

But the most commonly reproduced version in hymnals today uses lines 1–4 and 9–12 (slightly altered) of the original, plus two of the four additional stanzas Wesley wrote on his deathbed in 1788, which weren’t published until 1830. (See the final eight-stanza version by Wesley.)

The hymn is often paired with William Bradbury’s tune OLIVE BROW, from 1853. It’s an alright tune, but I much prefer Pfeiffer’s.

Advent, Day 10

LOOK: Tree of Life by Taddeo Gaddi

Gaddi, Taddeo_Tree of Life
Taddeo Gaddi (Italian, 1290–1366), Tree of Life, ca. 1350. Fresco painted for the refectory of the Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence (now a museum).

The Lignum Vitae (Tree of Life) by Bonaventure, an early Franciscan theologian from Bagnoregio, Italy, is a meditational treatise on the life of Christ. It asks readers to picture in their minds a tree bearing twelve fruits (cf. Rev. 22:2), its roots watered by an ever-flowing stream. Standing for specific attributes of Christ or events from the Gospels, “this fruit is offered to God’s servants to be tasted so that when they eat it, they may always be satisfied, yet never grow weary of its taste,” Bonaventure writes. “I call these fruits because they delight with their rich sweetness and strengthen with their nourishment the soul who meditates on them and diligently considers each one.” The chapter outline, organized by “fruit,” is as follows (translation by Ewert Cousins):

PART I. ON THE MYSTERY OF HIS ORIGIN

First Fruit: His Distinguished Origin

Jesus Begotten of God
Jesus Prefigured
Jesus Sent from Heaven
Jesus Born of Mary

Second Fruit: The Humility of His Mode of Life

Jesus Conformed to His Forefathers
Jesus Shown to the Magi
Jesus Submissive to the Law
Jesus Exiled from His Kingdom

Third Fruit: The Loftiness of His Power

Jesus, Heavenly Baptist
Jesus Tempted by the Enemy
Jesus Wonderful in His Miracles
Jesus Transfigured

Fourth Fruit: The Plenitude of His Piety

Jesus, the Solicitous Shepherd
Jesus Bathed with Tears
Jesus Acclaimed King of the World
Jesus, Consecrated Bread

PART II. ON THE MYSTERY OF HIS PASSION

Fifth Fruit: His Confidence in Trials

Jesus Sold through Guile
Jesus Prostrate in Prayer
Jesus Surrounded by the Mob
Jesus Bound with Chains

Sixth Fruit: His Patience in Maltreatment

Jesus Denied by His Own
Jesus Blindfolded
Jesus Handed Over to Pilate
Jesus Condemned to Death

Seventh Fruit: His Constancy Under Torture

Jesus Scorned by All
Jesus Nailed to the Cross
Jesus Linked with Thieves
Jesus Given Gall to Drink

Eighth Fruit: Victory in the Conflict of Death

Jesus, Sun Dimmed in Death
Jesus Pierced with a Lance
Jesus Dripping with Blood
Jesus Laid in the Tomb

PART III. ON THE MYSTERY OF HIS GLORIFICATION

Ninth Fruit: The Novelty of His Resurrection

Jesus Triumphant in Death
Jesus Rising in Blessedness
Jesus, Extraordinary Beauty
Jesus Given Dominion over the Earth

Tenth Fruit: The Sublimity of His Ascension

Jesus, Leader of His Army
Jesus Lifted Up to Heaven
Jesus, Giver of the Spirit
Jesus Freeing from Guilt

Eleventh Fruit: The Equity of His Judgment

Jesus, Truthful Witness
Jesus, Wrathful Judge
Jesus, Glorious Conqueror
Jesus, Adorned Spouse

Twelfth Fruit: The Eternity of His Kingdom

Jesus, King, Son of the King
Jesus, Inscribed Book
Jesus, Fountain-Ray of Light
Jesus, Desired End

Written in Latin around 1260, the Tree of Life became an instant classic, giving rise to many visual representations—first in manuscript miniatures, then in panel paintings and large-scale frescoes, including one by the Florentine artist Taddeo Gaddi.

Gaddi, Taddeo_Tree of Life
Gaddi, Taddeo_Tree of Life (wide shot)

Painted in the mid-fourteenth century in the refectory (dining room) of the Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence, the fresco depicts, in its central register, Christ crucified, with twelve scrolls unfurling from the vertical shaft like branches on a tree. On these scrolls, inscribed in Latin, are all the subheadings from Bonaventure’s treatise—IHS EX DEO GENITUS, IHS PREFIGURATUS, and so on, where “IHS” is an abbreviation for the name Jesus. Leafy roundels bear the names of the twelve “fruits,” and others feature busts of prophets.

At the bottom of the cross is the Virgin Mary supported by three other women; St. John the Evangelist; the fresco’s patron, probably Vaggia Manfredi, kneeling in prayer; St. Francis, hugging the cross; St. Bonaventure, writing, “O crux, frutex salvificus, / Vivo fonte rigatus, / Quem flos exornat fulgidus, / Fructus fecundat gratus”; St. Anthony of Padua; St. Dominic; and St. Louis of Toulouse.

LISTEN: “O Crux (Frutex Salvificus)” | Original Latin words by Bonaventure, 13th century; translated into English by James Monti | Music by Elizabeth Duffy | Performed by Sister Sinjin on Incarnation (2016; reissued 2019)

O Cross, salvific stem,
The watering, living fount,
Whose blossom is fragrant,
Whose fruit is longed for.

Jesus, begotten of God,
Jesus foreshadowed,
Jesus sent from heaven,
Jesus born of Mary.

Jesus with the patriarchs,
Jesus shown the magi,
Jesus subject to the law,
Jesus from your kingdom.

Jesus holy in the womb,
Jesus tempted by Satan,
Jesus wondrous in the signs,
Jesus transfigured.

Jesus the good shepherd,
Jesus sprinkled with tears,
Jesus King of the world,
Jesus Sacred Bread.

The Sister Sinjin song “O Crux (Frutex Salvificus)” layers the sixteen subheadings from part 1 of Bonaventure’s Tree of Life, “On the Mystery of His Origin,” with the first stanza of a poem that appears in different forms in the various manuscripts of Bonaventure’s works, including the Tree of Life. Another translation of this refrain’s source text, by José de Vinck, is “O cross, tree bearing the fruit of salvation / Refreshed by a living stream / Your blossom so sweetly scented / Your fruit so worthy of desire.”

Gaddi, Taddeo_Tree of Life (Bonaventure detail)
Detail from Taddeo Gaddi’s Tree of Life. Contemplating the Crucifixion, Bonaventure pens one of his famous poetic lines, “O CRUX FRUTEX SALVIFICUS” (“O cross, tree bearing the fruit of salvation”).

The melody and stylings of the song are evocative of the Middle Ages. Elizabeth Duffy, Kaitlyn Ferry, and Elise Erikson Barrett sing to their own gentle guitar, mandolin, and banjo accompaniment.

For another Advent devotion featuring Sister Sinjin and an even older Italian fresco, see here.

Whole World in His Hands (Artful Devotion)

Christ in Glory (Gospel-book of Bamberg Cathedral)
“Christ in Mandorla with evangelists,” Reichenau, Germany, early 11th century. BSB Clm 4454, fol. 20v, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich.

Oh come, let us sing to the LORD;
    let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
    let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the LORD is a great God,
    and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
    the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
    and his hands formed the dry land.
Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
    let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!
For he is our God,
    and we are the people of his pasture,
    and the sheep of his hand.

—Psalm 95:1–7

This is the Psalm reading for the last Sunday of the liturgical year, Christ the King Sunday. I’ve paired it with an Ottonian miniature from around 1015, which shows Christ, framed by a mandorla (an almond-shaped aureole), standing in a branched tree of life. The gold-leaf outline of this glory cloud encompasses heaven (Caelus, the top figure) and earth (Terra, aka Terrus, at bottom), two realms connected by Christ himself. (Earth is his footstool! That is, part of his throne.) He holds a globe in his right hand and is surrounded by symbols of the four evangelists (the tetramorph)—each supported by a water nymph representing one of the four rivers of paradise—and Sol (sun) and Luna (moon). I love how this image emphasizes the life-giving nature of Christ’s rule, and how it extends over all of creation.

From our limited human perspective, it can be hard to see the divine reality that this artist is pointing to. It sometimes doesn’t feel like Jesus is on the throne, holding together everyone and everything in love. But I look at that little orb, and I think of all the sin and suffering and love and grace and stress and beauty swirling around in that one small part of the cosmos, and I see that it’s rendered in precious gold, and is gripped firmly by the hand of God, who—zoom out—is “a great King above all,” who made the heights and the depths and who gives us his word and indeed his very self, a tree of life for the healing of the nations. As we head into Advent, may we not lose this vision of the Christ who reigns.

More about the art: In the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Benedictine abbey on the island of Reichenau in Lake Constance in southern Germany was the site of one of Europe’s largest and most influential schools of manuscript illumination, known as the Reichenau school. The painting above is from a Gospel-book produced there, commissioned by Holy Roman Emperor Henry II (r. 1002–24) for the cathedral he founded in Bamberg. The book is now housed at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library) in Munich, along with two other similar illuminated manuscripts from Bamberg Cathedral: the Gospel-book of Otto III (Clm 4453) and the evangeliary of Henry II (Clm 4452). Find out more about this particular manuscript at the World Digital Library. You can also browse the images here by selecting the links in the “Content” sidebar at the left.

For other artworks from Art & Theology that show, in a literal manner, “the whole world in [God’s] hands,” see this medieval Pisan fresco with signs of the zodiac; How God loves his People all over the World by John Muafangejo; Creation of the World by Lyuba Yatskiv; Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci, a common image type; and a Florentine panel painting of God the Father.

Do you know of any good nonliteral images that say to you, “The world is in God’s hands”? That is, a visual artwork that helps you sense God’s sovereignty? I often fall back on traditional visual conceptualizations of theological teachings like this, but I’d like to expand my repertoire!

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SONG: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” African American spiritual

There are hundreds of professional recordings and live performance videos of this traditional song. It was first published in the paperbound hymnal Spirituals Triumphant, Old and New in 1927 and became an international pop hit in 1957 when it was recorded by thirteen-year-old English singer Laurie London.

First off, I want to feature a fairly recent two-part video compilation released by TrueExclusives. Back in March, as the first wave of the coronavirus hit the US, Tyler Perry posted a video of himself singing one verse of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” to provide a word of assurance in the face of rising death tolls and social isolation. He called on his fellow musicians and other friends to likewise video-record a verse or two, in whatever key or style they wished—just a simple, unpolished phone recording—tagging it #tylerperrychallenge. These were then collected into two videos, a string of contributions from people like Mariah Carey, Usher, Patti Labelle, Jennifer Hudson, Shirley Caesar, LeAnn Rimes, Aubrey Logan, Israel Houghton, and many more. For a list of all the singers with time stamps, see the comment by YouTube user benzmusiczone for the first video and the comment by The Cherie Amour Show for the second.

Some participants sing in other languages—for example, Nicole Bus in Dutch, Jencarlos Canela in Spanish. Others adapt the lyrics to more specifically address the context of our global pandemic. Kelly Rowland, for example, sings, “He’s got the doctors and the nurses in his hands.” Stevie Mackey names specific countries and virus hot spots. And not only does God have the itty bitty babies in his hands, Ptosha Storey reminds us; he also has the elderly. BeBe Winans spans the cosmic to the small in his verse, emphasizing that God’s sovereign care is both expansive and intimate: “He’s got the moon and the stars in his hands / He’s got Pluto and Mars in his hands / And as I’m sitting in this car, I’m in his hands / He’s got the whole world in his hands.”

I love me some harmonies, so I particularly enjoyed hearing sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey (2:32) and The Walls Group (16:54).

What follows are a handful of other renditions I want to highlight.

Jeanne Lee [previously], 1961:

Ruth Brown, 1962 (classic gospel):

A live 2006 performance in Johannesburg—with hand motions!—by the African Children’s Choir:

A lush choral and orchestral arrangement by Mack Wilberg, featuring Alex Boyé [previously] and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, from 2010:

Similarly lush, a duet performed by operatic sopranos Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle, backed by the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, the New York Philharmonic, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. The performance was conducted by James Levine at Carnegie Hall in 1990 and is included on the album Spirituals in Concert (1991). The arrangement is by Robert de Cormier:


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 29 (Reign of Christ), cycle A, click here.

Roundup: Ecotheology, “Kadosh,” black church music, and more

I didn’t post an Artful Devotion this week, as I struggled to satisfactorily put together image and song for any of the readings, but I’ve now cycled through all three lectionary years on the blog, which are stored in the archives. For content on Sunday’s lectionary reading from the psalms, Psalm 133, see “When Brothers Dwell in Unity (Artful Devotion)” (featuring a Chicago mural by William Walker and a joyful new psalm setting from the Psalter Project); see also the poem “Aaron’s Beard” by Eugene Peterson.

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NEW ALBUM: Quarantine Sessions by Eric Marshall: Eric Marshall is the frontman of and songwriter for the meditative art rock band Young Oceans. During the COVID-19 quarantine he recorded eleven of the band’s old songs acoustically in his home studio—just his voice and guitar—and has released them digitally on Bandcamp. Several music artists have been making lo-fi records during this season, and I’m digging it!

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ART COMMENTARIES from ART/S AND THEOLOGY AUSTRALIA

Art/s and Theology Australia is an online publication that aims to provoke public reflection and promote research on conversations between the arts and theology, predominantly in Australian contexts. Here are a few articles from the recent past that I particularly enjoyed.

Galovic, Michael_Creation of Light in the Heavens
Michael Galovic (Serbian Australian, 1949–), Creation of Lights in the Heavens, n.d.

^^ “Jesus Dreaming: A Theological Reaction to Michael Galovic’s Creation of Lights in the Heavens by Merv Duffy: Creation of Lights in the Heavens by contemporary artist and iconographer Michael Galovic is an authentically Australian reading and rewriting of one of the Byzantine creation mosaics at Monreale Cathedral. Like its visual referent, it shows the Logos-Christ seated on the cosmos, hanging the sun in place (medieval artists tended to show God the Son, who is depictable, as Creator), but the gold background, used in icons to represent the eternal uncreated light of God, is replaced with dots, curves, and circles that represent the Dreamtime of Aboriginal theology, the origin of time and eternity.

Dunstan, Penny_Sixteen Earth Bowls
Penny Dunstan, Sixteen Earth Bowls, 2018. Installed at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Merriwa, for the Festival of the Fleeces.

^^ “Sixteen Earth Bowls” by Penny Dunstan: Soil scientist and visual artist Penny Dunstan has crafted bowls out of topsoil from rehabilitated coal mines in the Hunter Valley in Warkworth, New South Wales, which she exhibits in churches, among other places. “Making earth bowls is a way of thinking about my ethical responses to soil use in a post-mining landscape,” she writes. “It is a way of thinking with my heart and not just my head. As I work with each Hunter Valley topsoil, I come to understand each as an individual, a special part of God’s creation. Each soil behaves according to its own chemical nature and historical past when I fashion it into a bowl shape. . . .

“These soils, full of tiny lives, are responsible for growing our food, making our air and storing atmospheric carbon. Our very lives as humans on the earth depend on them. By fashioning these soils into bowls and placing them in sacred places, I hope to remind us to honour the earth that we stand upon, that earth that speaks to us by pushing back at our feet.” (Note: See also Rod Pattenden’s ArtWay visual meditation on Dunstan’s work.)

Finnie, Andrew_The Body of Christ, the Tree of Life
Andrew Finnie (Australian, 1957–), The Body of Christ, The Tree of Life, 2014. Pigment print on Hahnemuhle paper, 78 × 182 cm.

^^ “The Cross and the Tree of Life” by Rod Pattenden: “One of the pressing questions for the Church is how we see Christology being renewed in the face of climate change and the potential for the quality of life on this planet to decline,” writes art historian Rod Pattenden [previously]. “Who is Jesus for us in the midst of the profound changes that are occurring to the earth, water, and air of our world? . . .

Andrew Finnie’s image The Body of Christ, The Tree of Life”—a large-scale ecotheological digital collage—“is an attempt to re-imagine the figure of Christ in conversation with the earth and the networks that sustain human life in all its thriving beauty. Here, the traditional figure of the cross has become entwined in the roots of the tree, a tree of life that is giving form to the variety and beauty of the natural world.”

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SONG: “Kadosh” by Wally Brath, sung by Nikki Lerner: The Kedushah is part of the Amidah, the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy. Its first verse is taken from the song of the seraphim in Isaiah 6:3: “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Kadosh means “holy.”) In this original composition for voice, piano, and string quartet, Wally Brath [previously] has combined this Hebrew exclamation from the book of the prophets with an English excerpt from the Lord’s Prayer taught by Jesus in Matthew 6:10: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” [HT: Multicultural Worship Leaders Network]

The performance captured in this video, featuring Nikki Lerner, took place at Winona Lake Grace Brethren Church in Winona Lake, Indiana, on July 11, 2020. A full list of performers is given in the YouTube description.

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CONCERT FILM: Amen! Music of the Black Church: Recorded before a live audience at the Second Baptist Church in Bloomington, Indiana, and airing April 26, this PBS special explores the rich traditions, historical significance, and meaning of black church music. Dr. Raymond Wise leads the Indiana University African American Choral Ensemble in twenty-one spirituals, hymns, and gospel songs, showing how black church music is not monolithic. He demonstrates the stylistic spectrum you can find among black church communities using a song text derived from Psalm 24:7–10 (“Lift up your heads . . .”): one performed with the European aesthetic preferred in more affluent congregations, one a classical-gospel hybrid, and one pure gospel. One thing I learned from the program is that there is a tradition of shape-note singing in the black church! (See, e.g., The Colored Sacred Harp.) [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Music of the Black Church

Here’s the set list:

  • “We’ve Come This Far by Faith” by Albert Goodson
  • “Kumbaya”
  • “Run, Mary, Run”
  • “Oh Freedom”
  • “What a Happy Time” by J. M. Henson and J. T. Cook
  • “Amazing Grace” by John Newton
  • “Ain’t Got Time to Die” by Hall Johnson
  • “I’ve Been ’Buked”
  • “Lift Up Your Heads” by Emma Louise Ashford, arr. Lani Smith
  • “Lift Up Your Heads” by Clinton Hubert Utterbach
  • “Lift Up Your Heads, All Ye Gates” by Raymond Wise
  • “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah”
  • “Jesus on the Mainline”
  • “I Need Thee Every Hour” by Annie S. Hawks and Robert Lowry
  • “You Can’t Beat God Giving” by Doris Akers
  • “Come to Jesus” by E. R. Latta and J. H. Tenney
  • “We Shall Overcome” by Charles Tindley
  • “Lord, Keep Me Day by Day” by Eddie Williams
  • “Lord, Do It for Me” by James Cleveland
  • “Oh Happy Day” by Edwin Hawkins
  • “I’ve Got a Robe” by Raymond Wise
  • “Hallelujah, Praise the Lord, Amen” by Raymond Wise

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INTERVIEW: Last September The Cultivating Project interviewed Malcolm Guite [previously] on his latest poetry collection After Prayer, the poet-priest George Herbert, the life of a writer, art as faithful service, doubt and despair, his Ordinary Saints collaboration with Bruce Herman and J.A.C. Redford, his friendship with Michael Ward (author of Planet Narnia), the blessing of seasons (both earthly and liturgical), and making room for joy. The interview includes three of Guite’s poems: “Christ’s side-piercing spear,” “A Portrait of the Artist,” and “St. Augustine and the Reapers.”

Herman, Bruce_Malcolm Guite
Bruce Herman (American, 1953–), Malcolm Guite, 2016. Oil on panel with gold leaf, 30 × 30 in.

Roundup: Advent art, songs, poems

So much to share today! Be sure not to miss “Psalm 126” by Drew Miller (a new favorite Advent song) and Matthew Milliner’s excellent presentation on the Virgin Mary in art, which opened an exhibition that’s running in Southern California—both below. (If you only have time to take in a few items from this post, those are the ones I’d recommend.)

PODCAST EPISODE: “A Time for Wanting and Waiting: An Advent Conversation with W. David O. Taylor”: In this recent episode of The Road to Now, hosts Bob Crawford and Chris Breslin interview liturgical theologian David Taylor [previously] about the season of Advent: what it is, its history and how it fits into the wider church year (see especially 43:29ff.), the canon of Advent and Christmas songs, and the gift the Psalms offers us during this season. Referencing his 2015 Washington Post article, Taylor says our picture of Christ’s coming, especially as expressed through our hymnody, tends to be unidimensional and far too sanitized:

We should permit the Nativity stories to remain as strange and bizarre and fantastical and difficult as they in fact are, rather than taming and distilling them down to this one nugget or theme of effusive joy. There is effusive joy in that—it’s simply that that’s not the only thing that characterizes these stories. Unfortunately, most of our canon of Christmas carols or hymns tends to focus on what I would argue is only 50 percent of the Nativity stories. Everything that begins with Elizabeth and Zechariah and goes all the way to, say, Anna and Simeon and the visit of the Magi and the flight to Egypt . . . it really is one whole story that is being told with these subplots.

I would love to see us create . . . new music that either retells portions that we are already telling but not the whole of it, or we need to tell parts that have not yet been told. . . . Let’s ask ourselves how God is at work in all the minor-key or difficult or dissonant parts of the Nativity stories, not absent from—those are not extraneous to God incarnating himself in Jesus Christ. Those are essential parts of it. And so how can our hymns become ways of praying ourselves into these stories so they can sink deeply into the fibers of our hearts and minds and bodies, and for us to say, “Oh, all the weird and difficult and dissonant parts of our lives are part and parcel of God’s good work,” not, again, on the margins of it, or things we should eschew.

To help deepen and expand the church’s repertoire of Christmas music, Taylor founded, along with a few others, the Christmas Songwriters Project. The Psalms are an inspiration in this task, as they express a joy that is at times quiet and at others raucous, as in the Nativity narratives, and that exists as part of a dynamic constellation of emotions and postures that praise can encompass. Most of us don’t recognize the pure, undistilled happiness that is marketed to us throughout December, Taylor says, and we shouldn’t force ourselves to try to feel it but rather should take a cue from the Psalms and also see the same emotional complexity at work at the beginning of the Gospels:

The Psalms, and I think Christian faith at its heart, can make space for joy and sorrow to exist alongside each other in a way that happiness, as we commonly understand it, cannot, or only with great difficulty. . . . What the psalms of praise do . . . is that in one movement, there’s this effusive joy or a shouting joy or a convivial joy, and then it segues to a quieter joy or a contemplative joy or a yearning, painful kind of joy. . . .

So in the season of Advent, when we look at the characters in scripture—you know, Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth and the shepherds and Anna and Simeon—every one of them has this moment, perhaps, of which we could say, “That sounds like joy.” . . . But immediately before or immediately after, it transitions to something else. So does that mean that joy is negated? Is joy squashed? Is joy extinguished? Or is joy able to continue to exist side by side, to subsist, with a continued experience of longing or a sudden moment of sadness?

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ART BY SCOTT ERICKSON: This month Portland-based artist Scott Erickson has been posting on Instagram Advent-themed images he has made, along with thoughtful meditations. Some emphasize the bodiliness of the Incarnation, which often gets overlooked, presumably out of a sense of propriety. But “grace comes to us floating in embryonic fluid . . . embedded in the uterine wall of a Middle Eastern teenage woman,” Erickson writes about With Us – With Child, to which one Instagrammer responded, “This is trajectory changing. Thank you for this. Nipples, vaginas, and Jesus CAN coexist!” Another mentioned how she had never seen Mary with a belly button and a linea nigra before. The image reminds us that Jesus was indeed “born of woman” (Gal. 4:4).

Erickson, Scott_With Us, With Child
Scott Erickson (American, 1977–), With Us – With Child, 2016 [purchase as poster]
Another imaginative image suggests that Christ came to set the world on fire, so to speak. God, who is of old, gives himself to earth as a Jewish babe (“Love has always been FOR GIVENESS,” Erickson writes), sparking a revolution.

Erickson, Scott_Advent
Art by Scott Erickson

View more art by Scott Erickson @scottthepainter.

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LECTIONARY POEMS FOR ADVENT: This year Englewood Review of Books launched a new feature on their website: a weekly post of four to six poems that resonate with the Revised Common Lectionary readings for that week. “We will offer here a broad selection of classic and contemporary poems from diverse poets that stir our imaginations with thoughts of how the biblical text speaks to us in the twenty-first century. We hope that these poems will be fruitful not only for preachers who will be preaching these texts on the coming Sunday, but also for church members in the pews, as a way to prime our minds for encountering the biblical texts.” I’m really enjoying these stellar selections, several of which are new to me.

Continue reading “Roundup: Advent art, songs, poems”

Haitian “hungertuch” by Jacques-Richard Chery

I wrote this week’s visual meditation for ArtWay, on a painting on cloth that Haitian artist Jacques-Richard Chery realized as part of Misereor’s hunger veil project: http://www.artway.eu/content.php?id=2108&lang=en&action=show.

Tree of Life by Jacques-Richard Chery
Jacques-Richard Chery (Haitian, 1928–), The Tree of Life, 1982. Acrylic on cloth. Misereor Lenten veil © MVG Medienproduktion.

Click through to find out what a hunger veil is (sometimes also called a “fasting sheet” or “languishing rag”) and to be guided through the nine scenes.

Misereor has been carrying out this tradition for the last forty years, commissioning artists from all over the world. You can view nineteen of the twenty veils in their collection at https://www.misereor.de/fileadmin/publikationen/publikation-die-misereor-hungertuecher-begleitheft-ausstellung.pdf, along with German commentary, and last year’s veil can be found at https://www.misereor.de/mitmachen/fastenaktion/hungertuch/. Some of these are available for sale as large-scale prints on cloth at the organization’s online shop.

Here are a few examples of hunger veils that were in use during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The liturgical purpose for all but the last one has been recovered.

Millstatt hunger veil
Lenten veil by Oswald Kreuselius, 1593, Millstatt Abbey, Carinthia, Austria.

Freiburg hunger veil
Lenten veil, 15th century, Freiburg Cathedral, Baden-Württemburg, Germany.

Gurk hunger veil
Lenten veil by Konrad von Friesach, 1458, Gurk Cathedral, Carinthia, Austria. Photo © Pressestelle/Eggenberger.

Zittau hunger veil
Lenten veil, 1472, Church of the Holy Cross (museum), Zittau, Saxony, Germany.

Three Resurrection paintings by Indian artist Jyoti Sahi

The chocolate bunnies and plastic grass may have moved to the out-of-sight discount racks of stores, but Easter isn’t over! Because the Resurrection is a truth that’s not easily plumbed or quickly exhausted, the liturgical calendar designates fifty days for its celebration, a season known as Eastertide. In this period we are invited to linger over the gift of Jesus’s Resurrection—to spend time admiring it and becoming familiar with it and letting its power infuse our lives. So through May 14, the content at Art & Theology will focus on this bright season.

First up: three Resurrection paintings by Dr. Jyoti Sahi, who runs an art ashram in Silvepura Village, Karnataka, in India, just outside Bangalore. Of all the painters of biblical themes active today, Sahi is definitely one of the most inventive. An artist since the late 1960s, he has been instrumental in developing a visual gospel language that’s contextualized to Indian culture and in fostering Hindu-Christian dialogue. Here are three different approaches he’s taken to depict that notoriously difficult-to-depict subject: the Resurrection of Christ.

Jesus as the Greater Jonah

This is an example of an image that rewards deep looking, being so chock-full of symbols. I encourage you, before reading on, to just gaze at the image for one full minute, and see what you see.

Resurrection by Jyoti Sahi
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Resurrection, 2007. Oil on canvas, 178 × 122 cm.

First I notice the outstretched arms of Christ—a pose that deliberately references the Crucifixion. Here, though, those extremities are not pinned down to a cross. They are utterly open and free, embracing the world in risen glory. It’s common for artists to hint at the Crucifixion in Resurrection images. There’s a theological reason for that: the Crucifixion and Resurrection are two sides of the same coin, one great unified event, neither of which can be understood in isolation from the other. Sahi strengthens this link by including a human figure on each side of Christ. In Crucifixion images, these spots are traditionally occupied by the Virgin Mary and the apostle John, but here the abstracted figures double as two of the Marys at the tomb. They look down to where they had laid the body two days ago but find only an empty stone bench. They have yet to encounter the enormous presence behind them.   Continue reading “Three Resurrection paintings by Indian artist Jyoti Sahi”