Roundup: “O Children, Come”; the Christmas story through news photos; Messiaen and the Incarnation; art from Bethlehem; nativity musical soundtrack

SONG: “O Children, Come” by Keith and Kristyn Getty: The Gettys are an Irish married couple who are major contributors to the modern Christian hymn-writing movement. I really enjoyed singing this song of theirs at church last week (CCLI 7036340); it was my first time hearing it. The acoustic performance below is from the Gettys’ 2015 Christmas concert. They’ve also recorded it with Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

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PHOTO ESSAY: “Alternative Nativity”: Kezia M’Clelland works with children affected by conflict in the Middle East and raises public awareness through her blog, Kezia Here and There. In 2015 she compiled news photos that document the refugee crisis and set them to excerpts from St. Matthew’s account of Christ’s birth and the prologue to St. John’s Gospel—a very powerful pairing that gives impetus to our Advent cry, “Come, Lord Jesus!” This is not a generic mashup; each photo was carefully selected to amplify a corresponding scripture text.

Alternative nativity1
“About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for.” (Photo via Reuters. Displaced Yazidis escape across the Syrian border by foot, fleeing violence from the Islamic State militants who have taken over their home town of Sinjar.)
Alternative nativity2
“So Joseph went to Bethlehem. He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was obviously pregnant by this time.” (Photo via Al Jazeera. A refugee father with his pregnant wife and daughter asks for permission to enter into Hungary near Roszke as the border fence with Serbia is closed by Hungarian police.)

For each subsequent Advent, M’Clelland has released something in a similar vein: the video “Hope Is on the Way” in 2016 (embedded below), and this year, daily scripture verses, mainly from the Old Testament prophets, emblazoned across photos from today’s Middle East (to go to the next entry, scroll to the bottom of the link and click “Advent Day 2”). “This year again these Advent pictures and words will speak of a hope that is now and not yet,” she writes. “I am grateful that Advent gives us the freedom to weep and to hope, to rejoice and to grieve, to wait for and to recognise the Christ who is already here among us.”

Marrying the Christmas story with contemporary photojournalism can teach us to “pray with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other,” as the popular adage goes. As we see the world’s brokenness, it should intensify our fervor for Christ’s shalom and impel us to action.

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UPCOMING MUSIC & ART EVENT: “Messiaen and the Incarnation,” December 20, 8 p.m., St. Mary’s Addington, London: Next Wednesday evening, Dr. Edward Forman will be performing three movements each from the French avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen’s organ suite La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord) and piano suite Vingt regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty Contemplations on the Infant Jesus). Messiaen was a committed Christian who sought to express theological truths in a fresh, modern idiom. Like much of his output, these two works reject the Western conventions of forward motion, development, and diatonic harmonic resolution, so they can be difficult for first-time hearers. But this complexity, this sense of the unexpected, is appropriate for the mystical content they seek to convey.

Inspired by the unique palette of sounds, textures, and rhythms of Nativité, British artist Sophie Hacker translated these into visual form. After deeply studying the music, in 2007 she created nine mixed-media panels in response—one for each movement—using slats of wood, nails, lead, wire, tree bark, and other found objects; you can see some of her process in the video below. These premiered at Winchester Cathedral in 2008. Then again in 2015 Hacker participated in another Messiaen-inspired artistic collaboration, under the direction of pianist Cordelia Williams, with poets Michael Symmons Roberts and Rowan Williams. This project is called “Between Heaven and the Clouds: Messiaen 2015.”

La Nativité du Seigneur by Sophie Hacker
Sophie Hacker (British), La Nativité du Seigneur (The Nativity of the Lord), 2007. Mixed media on nine canvases, 60 × 60 cm each. Photo: Mike J. Davis.

To guide us through the listening experience, St. Mary’s will be projecting Hacker’s artworks onto a screen during the playing, and interspersing it with poetic reflections on the theological themes—from the Bible, Messiaen, Roland Riem (Icons of the Incarnation), and other sources. “We think it is equally pointless to try to explain Messiaen’s music in words as to attempt a sensible account of what it means for God to become human,” writes Forman in the booklet that will be provided to attendees. “We hope that the visual effects, words and music will enhance each other in ways that are inspiring and provoking.”

Messiaen’s compositions are definitely more challenging than the standard Christmas music fare, so I am grateful that St. Mary’s has the boldness, vision, and talent to offer them to the public, and in the meaningful context (which you likely won’t get in the concert hall) of meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation.

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ARTIST PROFILE: Zaki Baboun: Zaki Baboun is a Palestinian Christian artist living in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem. He paints religious scenes in oils on olive wood, which you can browse and purchase here—either the originals or reproductions on Christmas cards.

The first video below contains a short, two-minute interview with Zaki and shows him painting The Journey of the Magi; the second shows him painting The Good Shepherd.

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ALBUM: The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby by Waterdeep: I saw the world premiere of this nativity musical last summer in New York (read my review here), and it really helped shepherd my imagination into a deeper understanding of Mary and Joseph’s social and emotional realities. Now the album is out! The songs express the many ups and downs the Holy Couple likely underwent in their faith journeys to bring the Messiah into the world, with the theme of deliverance standing in highest relief. (Mary’s opening song, “I Want to Be Delivered,” is what spurs, much to her shock, the Annunciation, and the finale, “Walk Through the Sea on Dry Land,” draws everyone into a joyful reminiscence of God’s mighty hand in ages past, manifest in the present through the birth of the Christ child.) Comedy is provided through invented characters like Joseph’s friend Benjamin, the innkeeper and his wife, and a shepherd named Naphtali.

The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph's Baby album cover

The most poignant scene, for me—and hence probably my favorite song—is the “Magnificat.” The biblical account doesn’t tell us much about Mary’s state of mind at this point, so the writers imagine her coming to Elizabeth filled with fear, and Elizabeth building her up, preaching truth to her (and sharing her own story of shame), helping her move from doubt to confidence. Elizabeth’s song is what emboldens Mary to sing. Their “Magnificat” is later reprised by the full cast immediately following Christ’s birth, concluding part 1.

The new album is not an original cast recording; instead the songs were recorded by their writer, Don Chaffer, and his wife, Lori, and released under the Waterdeep moniker. Stream on Spotify; sample and purchase at Amazon or iTunes.

New folk musical: The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby

This December hundreds of churches around the world will no doubt bring to life onstage the unusual tale of Mary and Joseph’s baby. Most of the characters will be played by little kids dressed up in robes and star-tinsel garlands, and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is sure to make the song list. A beloved tradition—but one that has perhaps made Jesus’s birth too familiar to us, rendered it not unusual or shocking at all.

The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph's Baby poster

Into this milieu comes Don Chaffer and Chris Cragin-Day’s new musical, The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby, to shake things up. Running December 8–18 at River and Rail Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee, the play retells Matthew and Luke’s nativity accounts with a modern imagination, focusing on the hopes and fears of the young couple chosen to bear God into the world. My husband and I attended its world premiere this August at the New York International Fringe Festival, produced by Firebone Theatre, and loved it. (We’re still singing “Hel-looo! Hel-looo!” to each other—the catchy angelic greeting.) Far from the tired, pious storytelling of many a Christian-penned pageant, The Unusual Tale bursts with energy and even surprises, inviting believers and nonbelievers alike to consider anew the meaning of the Incarnation.

The show has a cast of four: Mary, Joseph, and two multirole characters (one male, one female). Mary and Joseph are humanized and given dimension. They are at times angry, scared, hurt, frustrated, confused, happy, tired, skeptical, or insistent. Their personalities sometimes clash—Mary is plucky and passionate and refuses to accept the way things are, whereas Joseph is mostly content and prefers to play it safe. When they are confronted with the outrageous news that Mary is to give birth to the son of God, they are forced to exercise a degree of trust in God and in each other that they had not been required to previously, and it doesn’t come easy. But they grow together into God’s plan in their own different ways as they learn more and more how to do the work they’ve been called to.

One of the most enthralling possibilities that the play opens up is that the Incarnation was triggered not just by God’s feeling that “now’s the time” or by some generic devoutness on the part of Mary but by a spoken vow of hers. Fed up with how the Roman authorities have been roughing up her fiancé at work, Chaffer and Cragin-Day’s Mary starts sermonizing about how God raised up stuttering Moses to deliver their people from slavery in Egypt, and little ole David to conquer a Philistine giant, and why couldn’t he do the same today?

“You know what I think? I think God is just waiting for someone to step up and say, ‘I’ll do it. Choose me.’ Like David did. So you know what I’m gonna do?” Mary says, stepping onto a crate, despite Joseph’s objections.

“I’ll do it, God. I’ll slay Goliath. I am available and willing.”

“One of these days, God’s gonna call your bluff,” Joseph says.

“I’m not bluffing.”   Continue reading “New folk musical: The Unusual Tale of Mary and Joseph’s Baby