Advent, Day 3: Come Christmas

LOOK: Home by Olya Kravchenko

Kravchenko, Olya_Home
Olya Kravchenko (Ukrainian, 1985–), Home, 2012. Egg tempera on gessoed board, 29 × 39.9 cm.

This painting shows a cottage on a snowy hillside at night. Inside, a fire is lit in the hearth, casting a warm glow and sending smoke rising up the chimney. There’s a cat in the window and a sled on the lawn.

On all sides, the sky is populated by a mystical swirl of birds and flowery tendrils and angelic beings. Two of those angels, represented by large golden heads, hold wisps of snow in their hands and embrace the house, offering a protective presence.

Sadly, this cozy winter idyll is elusive for many this year, not least those in Ukraine, where this painting comes from. Many Ukrainians have had to flee their homes to evade the encroaching Russian troops. Others are dealing with the trauma of having lost family members in the war, or the fear of having loved ones on the front line.

Kravchenko told me this month that the situation in her country is “terrifying and unfathomable,” and she alerted me to a few of the recent icons she has painted in response to the war, including Air Defense, The one who protects the sky above the city, Crucifixion in War, and The Virgin of Peace and Victory. Follow her on Instagram @olyakravchenkoart.

LISTEN: “Jul, Jul, Strålande Jul” (Christmas, Christmas, Glorious Christmas) | Words by Edvard Evers, 1921 | Music by Gustaf Nordqvist, 1921 | Performed by Zero8 on A Zero8 Christmas, 2011 (YouTube: 2016)

Jul, jul, strålande jul, glans över vita skogar,
himmelens kronor med gnistrande ljus,
glimmande bågar i alla Guds hus,
psalm som är sjungen från tid till tid,
eviga längtan till ljus och frid!
Jul, jul, strålande jul, glans över vita skogar!

Kom, kom, signade jul! Sänk dina vita vingar,
över stridernas blod och larm,
över all suckan ur människobarm,
över de släkten som gå till ro,
över de ungas dagande bo!
Kom, kom, signade jul, sänk dina vita vingar!

English translation by Michael A. Lowry:

Christmas, Christmas, glorious Christmas: shine over white forests,
heavenly crowns with sparkling lights,
glimmering arcs in the houses of God,
hymns that are sung throughout the ages,
eternal longing for light and peace!
Christmas, Christmas, glorious Christmas, shine over white forests!

Come, come, blessed Christmas: lower your white wings,
over the battlefield’s blood and cry,
over the sighs from the bosoms of men,
over the loved ones who’ve gone to their rest,
over the daybreak of newborn life!
Come, come, blessed Christmas: lower your white wings!

“Jul, Jul, Strålande Jul” is one of the most widely sung Swedish Christmas songs. It personifies Christmas as a luminous winged being, asks it to descend over our wooded neighborhoods and over our songs and our longings, dispensing blessing; to extinguish our wars and raging and spread its comforts over our anxieties and losses; and to cradle the new lives that have been born this year, reminders of innocence and signs of hope for a future.

Advent Prelude: What Happens

LOOK: Norwegian Wood by Yuri Yuan

Yuan, Yuri_Norwegian Wood
Yuri Yuan (Chinese American, 1996–), Norwegian Wood, 2020. Oil on canvas, 63 × 73 in.

This painting by New York–based artist Yuri Yuan shows a woman in a belted brown trench coat, her back to us, standing at the edge of a frozen pond. A small gust of snowy wind whips her hair and scarf. Though her face isn’t visible, she appears to be deep in thought.

Reflected on the pond’s surface is a man dressed in black. We don’t see his physical form, and his features are indistinguishable in the mirroring ice. Who is he? Does he wish to speak to the woman? Does he come with news, or an invitation, perhaps? Or simply to wait with her in silence?

There’s a mystic quality to the image that’s heightened by the incongruity between the environment and its reflection. In the upper left, the trees are barren and dusted with the white of winter, and indeed the woman is dressed for the cold. And yet in the trees’ reflection in the pond, they are in full foliage, leafy green, as if it were summer.

It’s as if two worlds are converging here in this wood. Or the woman foresees, with the eyes of her spirit, a lushness that has not yet come to pass.

Notice how the snowbanks piled up along the water’s edge could almost double as clouds, particularly in the bottom left, where the white mass meets the sky’s reflection. The heavens and the earth becoming one.

I chose this image to kick off the Advent season (which begins tomorrow) because it captures the sense of longing that the church leans into most especially during these four weeks, but also the sense of promise, the possibility, that’s just as characteristic of the season. In the eschatological reality that Israel’s prophets foresaw, the barren becomes verdant and the dead come to life. “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom” (Isa. 35:1).

Strangely, Norwegian Wood is a painting of both absence and presence, distance and nearness.

If you like, imagine Yuan’s mystery man as God coming close—which is what the Incarnation is: God coming closer than close!

What invitation might God have for you this Advent? What heartache from the past year, or even further back, do you need to bear to the Healer? What hopes do you need to speak out loud?

LISTEN: “When God Comes Close” by Tara Ward of Church of the Beloved, on Adventus (2010)

We wait, we hope
We yearn, prepare
For who or how or what or where?
Maybe the changing of the tide
Maybe the turning of someone’s eye
Maybe the falling of the snow
Only heaven knows
What happens when God comes close

We wait, we hope
We yearn, prepare
For who or how or what or where?
Maybe the healing of a heart
Maybe reunion of a drift apart
Maybe a child’s coming home
Only heaven knows
What happens when God comes close

We wait, we hope
We yearn, prepare
For who or how or what or where?
Maybe the song, a place to belong
Maybe some faith, just a touch of grace
Maybe love, it’s rarely what we think of
Only heaven knows
What happens when God comes close

For another Advent song by Tara Ward, see https://artandtheology.org/2021/12/19/advent-day-22/.

This is the first post in a daily series that will extend to January 6. You are welcome to subscribe via email or RSS, but posts are optimized for viewing on a web browser. (And note that Gmail sends WordPress posts to your Social tab, unless you create a filter to tell it otherwise.) Links will be shared on Facebook and Twitter.

Advent, Day 1

LOOK: At Dusk (Boston Common at Twilight) by Childe Hassam

Hassam, Childe_At Dusk (Boston Common at Twilight)
Childe Hassam (American, 1859–1935), At Dusk (Boston Common at Twilight), 1885–86. Oil on canvas, 42 × 60 in. (106.9 × 152.4 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

LISTEN: “Psalm 25” by Poor Bishop Hooper, 2020 [free download]

Nobody who waits for you will see disgrace
Teach me all your righteous paths
Make known your ways to me, Lord

Lead me by your truth, my God
And teach me now
I’ll wait for you the whole day long
You are the God of my salvation

You’ve shown your love from ages past
It existed from antiquity through history
Forgotten of my sinful youth
For your goodness, God
My eyes are always on you

Psalm 25 is not a common Advent text, but it is one of the readings assigned for today by the Revised Common Lectionary. Advent is a season of waiting, penitence, and promise—themes reflected in this psalm of David’s.

Jesse and Leah Roberts, whose musical alias is Poor Bishop Hooper, adapted Psalm 25:3–7, 15 last year as part of their EveryPsalm project, an initiative to release one original psalm-based song every Wednesday. They are currently up to Psalm 100.

I’ve paired the song with a painting by turn-of-the-century American Impressionist Childe Hassam, of a rosy dusk on the outskirts of the central park in downtown Boston. The sun is descending behind the elm trees, the gaslights have been lit, and the ground is blanketed in snow. On Tremont Street on the left, trolley cars and carriages wheel busily past, while on the adjacent walkway a mother and her two young daughters have stopped to feed the birds.

Moodwise, the painting and song complement each other, the twinkling of Roberts’s piano corresponding to the play of pink light on Hassam’s canvas—and both bespeaking God’s goodness. I present the image here as an invitation to, like this family, find moments of quiet enjoyment and reflection amid the bustle of December.

The scene evokes warm memories for me, as my husband and I, then newlyweds, walked this path every Sunday to church for the five years we lived in Boston. Ten minutes from Park Street Station to the hotel where our congregation met, crunching through the snow in our insulated boots in wintertime, the natural sights and sounds of the Common preparing us for worship.

Advent, Day 1: Wonder

For each day of the first week of Advent I will publish one art-and-song pairing as an invitation for seasonal reflection.

LOOK: Francisco Collantes (Spanish, 1599–1656), Winter Landscape with the Adoration of the Shepherds, 1630–50. Oil on canvas, 72.2 × 105.7 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid. (Click on image to zoom in.)

Collantes, Francisco_Winter Landscape with the Adoration of the Shepherds

LISTEN: “Wonder (Advent)” | Words by Pedro de la Cruz | Music by Colleen Nixon | Performed by Marian Grace (Colleen Nixon and Jimmy Mitchell), on In the Bleak Midwinter, 2013

O blessed Mary and dearest Joseph
Allow me to journey with you
To Bethlehem
I am a lowly pilgrim making my way
To the center of history
The birth of Christ the Lord
With unspeakable awe and expectant wonder
I long to behold
I long to behold
I long to behold
The promised Messiah
Time will stand still forever
Divided by the entry
Of the Creator into his creation

“To a Snowflake” by Francis Thompson

Snowflake
Photo © 2013 Eric James Jones/ArtandTheology.org

“To a Snowflake” by Francis Thompson

What heart could have thought you?—
Past our devisal
(O filigree petal!)
Fashioned so purely,
Fragilely, surely,
From what Paradisal
Imagineless metal,
Too costly for cost?
Who hammered you, wrought you,
From argentine vapor?—
“God was my shaper.
Passing surmisal,
He hammered, He wrought me,
From curled silver vapor,
To lust of His mind—
Thou could’st not have thought me!
So purely, so palely,
Tinily, surely,
Mightily, frailly,
Insculped and embossed,
With His hammer of wind,
And His graver of frost.”

This poem was originally published in New Poems by Francis Thompson (London, 1897) and is now in the public domain.