This Sunday marks the start of Passion Week, with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, where he is greeted by palm branches and Hosannas. By Thursday, though, these shouts of praise will devolve into “Is it I?,” “I do not know him,” and “Crucify him!”
In a series of simple verses, Hiram Ring’s blues-inflected song “My Lord” moves from Jesus’s triumphal entry to his agony in the garden (where he drinks heavily the bitter draft of suffering) to his crucifixion. The final two verses shift then to his resurrection and his exaltation in heaven.
I’m compelled by the Gospel narrative paintings of contemporary Australian artist Nathan Simpson. These are a few I saved from his website a while ago before it went under construction. In Simpson’s Agony in the Garden, Christ’s anguish is palpable. The image combines the Gethsemane narrative with all the suffering that lies ahead, culminating in death. A row of olive trees forms the horizontal beam of a cross, while a rooster (alluding to Peter’s betrayal) forms the vertical; Christ’s head, with swollen eyes and gaping mouth (“My God, my God . . .”), is the point of intersection.
Simpson’s Resurrection painting, by contrast, shows a Christ who’s victorious over death, his face serene. The artist plays with the popular “tree of life” motif, fusing Christ’s body into this flowering, bird-filled plant. An arborescent Christ! See how the nail wound in his left foot is also the tree’s hollow.
In their latest blog post, SALT Project suggests a simple at-home Holy Week ritual for families that I really like: a Tenebrae Wreath (tenebrae means “shadows”).
Imagine . . . a sort of Advent Wreath in reverse: four candles in a circle with a Paschal candle in the middle, extinguished one by one. Sunday night: beginning with only the Paschal candle lit, read Luke’s story of Palm Sunday, and then light all four candles in joy, hope, and thanksgiving. Thursday night: read Luke’s story of the Last Supper, and extinguish one candle; then read Luke’s story of Gethsemane, and extinguish a second. Friday night: read Luke’s story of Peter’s denials and desertion, and extinguish a third candle; then read Luke’s story of Jesus’ suffering, and extinguish the fourth; and then finally, read Luke’s story of Jesus’ death, and extinguish the Paschal candle. Saturday, the wreath remains unlit and bare, perhaps shrouded with cloth. And Sunday morning, the shroud is gone and all candles are lit, with a few more candles added—along with some flowers and Easter sweets! Read Luke’s story of the empty tomb, and sing your favorite Easter hymn (or two).
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 Palm Sunday and the Liturgy of the Passion, cycle C, click here and here.
Released in 2015, the album Last Days by the Brothers of Abriem Harp features twelve original indie-folk songs for Holy Week that tell the story of Christ’s passion, from the thundering voice of the Father affirming the Son but also presaging judgment, to the glorification of Christ in the Resurrection. One of its major draws is its quiet, understated conveyance of the week’s drama through several different voices: Jesus, of course, but also Mary, Peter, Judas, and other unnamed disciples who reflect on the events they witness, especially in light of their past histories with Christ.
Approaching Jesus’s last days primarily through the lens of story—plot, character, mood, etc.—rather than the lens of doctrine makes the listening experience more immersive. That’s not to say theology is absent from the album; it’s very much there. But it is not heavy-handed or abstruse, and neither is it reduced to clichés.
The songs are written and sung by Joe Kurtz (pseudonym: Abriem Harp) and Josh Compton (Josh Harp), with Matt Kurtz (Matthew Harp) on percussion and John Finley (Hezekiah Harp) playing many of the other instruments. On the band’s Facebook page they describe themselves as “Gospel-shoutin’ melody makers from the Rust Belt,” and among their musical influences are field recordings, the Sacred Harp tradition, and mountain music.
In the video below, the Brothers have set the entire album to altered footage from Vie et Passion du Christ (Life and Passion of the Christ), a forty-four-minute silent film released in France in 1903. The album is also available for streaming and purchase at https://harpfamilyrecordings.bandcamp.com/album/last-days.
Here’s a rundown of the songs.
A voice arose, a voice arose
A voice arose, a voice
It sounded like thunder, pounded like thunder (×4)
It said, “I’ve glorified it, and again I’ll glorify it”
Yeah, “I’ve glorified it, and again I’ll glorify it” (×3)
This is an unconventional starting point for the passion narrative, which typically begins with Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Instead, the Brothers have chosen a lesser-known episode from John’s Gospel, which occurs just after the triumphal entry—and what a beautiful passage to highlight. (I actually was not familiar with the references in the song and had to look them up—a great example of how the arts can stimulate renewed engagement with the Bible!)
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. . . .
“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”
Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”
Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.
“It’s time.” That’s essentially what Jesus is saying. And then in the middle of this discourse with the disciples, Jesus gets real with the Father. “I’m scared! But what can I do? This is my destiny; I can’t avoid it.” And then, his words of acceptance, of surrender: “Father, glorify your name.” It’s unclear whether this prayer was audible to the disciples or was expressed merely internally. Whatever the case, the Father’s response was heard by all—though some attributed it to natural phenomena, or to an angel.
As this passage clarifies, the “it” in the song is the Father’s name: God says that he has glorified it in the past, and he will glorify it again, when Christ is lifted up for the salvation of the world.
John uses the words glory and glorified a lot in his Gospel, especially in relation to Christ’s passion. In John 13:31, after the Last Supper, where Jesus has just identified Judas as his future betrayer, Jesus says, “Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him.” Later that night, in Gethsemane, Jesus prays, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you. . . . I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:1, 4–5).
The opening song on Last Days, therefore, though just three allusive lines, repeated, is packed with meaning, much of it concentrated in that dense word glorify, a word that orients the whole album. Much like the opening sequence of a movie sets the movie’s tone and hints at what you’re in for, so do opening songs on albums, and this one is somewhat portentous, leaving us wondering, “How will God’s name be glorified?”; it also gives the Father a speaking role and thus situates him as a main character in the story. Continue reading “Album Review: Last Days by the Brothers of Abriem Harp”→
For Christmas 1999 my parents bought me, a sixth grader at the time, the newBest of Simon and Garfunkel album released by Columbia. I was already familiar with about half the songs, which played frequently on Oldies 100.7, the station to which my family’s radios were always tuned. (Even so, who hasn’t heard “Mrs. Robinson” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water”?) The other half I taught myself through repeated listening on my boombox, following along with the lyrics printed in the CD insert. I’m grateful to my parents for educating my musical tastes beyond Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears.
It wasn’t until after college that I ventured into the duo’s lesser-known discography. That’s when I discovered their debut album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. “Exciting new sounds in the folk tradition,” the cover boasts. Released October 18, 1964, to lukewarm reviews, it was a commercial failure, selling only one thousand copies in the first eight months. Even today critics say it pales in comparison to their subsequent work. But I actually love this album—it’s one of my favorites not only of theirs but of any artist. I was pleasantly surprised to find it chock-full of biblical references, many of them explicit.
Its seven covers include an upbeat gospel song, a Negro spiritual, a Renaissance canticle (adapted), a visionary antiwar song, an atom-bomb lament, a traditional Scottish ballad, and the Dylan classic “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” The five originals include a fable about loving the immigrant, an elegy for a civil rights martyr, a farewell song (in the voice of a criminal), and two poetic expressions of urban loneliness.
1. You Can Tell the World. [Listen] A joyous blast of praise, this traditional black gospel song begins,
Well, you can tell the world about this
You can tell the nation about that
Tell ’em what the master has done
Tell ’em that the gospel has come
Tell ’em that the victory’s been won
He brought joy, joy, joy, joy, joy, joy
Into my heart
It then goes on to extol Jesus’s preaching and testify to the personal revelation God gives.
2. Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream. [Listen] In this song, written by Ed McCurdy in 1950, the speaker dreams about a treaty being signed by all nations to put an end to war. As the signers hold hands and pray together, the people toss their guns, swords, and uniforms into trash heaps, for they have been rendered obsolete. A call for world peace, “Last Night” has been recorded in seventy-six languages, and the Peace Corps adopted it as their official theme song in 1980. It’s a little too singsongy for my tastes, but I support the dream 100 percent!
3. Bleecker Street. [Listen] The first original song on the album, “Bleecker Street,” typifies the melodic grace and themes (e.g., alienation, discontent) that Paul would come to be known and praised for. Its title is the name of one of the famous avenues of Greenwich Village, a haven for artists of all types and a major hub of 1960s countercultures. But Paul doesn’t characterize it as a place of salvation. Quite the opposite: he says, “It’s a long road to Canaan / On Bleecker Street.”
It sounds to me like Paul (assuming he’s the speaker here) is voicing his disillusionment and trying to come to grips with the fact that humanity is innately flawed. For all the lofty ideals born and preached there, the Village is no paradise. People were coming there looking to receive and help effect freedom, enlightenment, beauty, and change, but loneliness and suffering persists. Fog covers Bleecker “like a shroud,” blanketing homeless men asleep in alleys and “hid[ing] the shepherd from the sheep.” (Most residents were so self-involved, they couldn’t see God.) There’s a spiritual emptiness, and a loss of real human connection (“I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand”).
The poets write, and “holy, holy is their sacrament” (a reference, perhaps, to Allen Ginsberg). But their rhymes are “crooked” (dishonest?), and they sell them for thirty dollars’ rent, a reference to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus.
And yet on the other side of this moral desert, “a church bell softly chime[s],” beckoning seekers to a higher and truer hope, to a promise that will not fail. Its “melody sustain[s]” the human spirit like nothing else can.
4. Sparrow. [Listen] This sung fable, written by Paul Simon, tells the story of a little sparrow “who’s traveled far and cries for rest.” She seeks love but is rebuffed at every turn. The oak tree denies her shelter in his branches, not wanting to lend his strength to such an unworthy creature; for fear of derision from her peers, the beautiful swan declines to speak a kindly word; and the self-interested wheat refuses the sparrow food, preferring to keep all his resources to himself: “I would if I could but I cannot I know. / I need all my grain to prosper and grow.” Continue reading “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. by Simon and Garfunkel (album review)”→
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem the week of his death—a day that the church commemorates each year as Palm Sunday—he entered to a throng of people shouting “Hosanna!” (“Hooray for salvation!”) and carpeting his path with their cloaks and with palm branches. The Pharisees, still not seeing Jesus for who he was, told him to rebuke the crowds for their blasphemy. To give high praise to anyone other than God, they insisted, is a grievous sin. That’s true enough, but the disciples’ praises were not misplaced. Jesus defends their hosannas and their postures of worship, retorting that “if these [my disciples] were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40). This is one of several times throughout his ministry in which he equates himself with God.
The Westbound Rangers, a bluegrass band from Nashville, has a song inspired by this episode: “Rocks Cry Out,” from their 2013 album Gone for Way Too Long. It was written by Graham Sherrill, an old high school friend of mine, who also does vocals and banjo for it. Fellow bandmates—Mike Walker on mandolin, Read Davis on guitar, and Wes Burkhart on bass—helped write the instrumental bridge. I’ve embedded the song here with the band’s permission. Continue reading “Don’t let the rocks cry out”→
Unaccustomed to her burden, she knows not
That never beast bore such a Man as this,
Who meekly rides to His appointed lot,
A crown of thorns and a betrayer’s kiss.
And never man will carry such a weight
As He bears now in this, His day of power,
Ascending toward a strait and narrow gate,
His agonizing last and finest hour.
She bravely struggles on, despite her fear
Of cheering men, whom He as gravely views
As an admiral watching distant storms draw near
To lash bright waves to dark and deadly hues;
He knows the death decreed in ancient psalms,
The Tree that looms beyond these scattered palms.