The image above is Van Eyck's majestic The Mystic Adoration of the Lamb as seen when the altarpiece is closed. At the bottom are the donors who paid for this masterpiece. In the center is the scene of the Annunciation, with the Angel Gabriel on the left and the Virgin Mary with a dove hovering over her head on the right. At the uppermost tier are two Jewish prophets, Zechariah and Micah. The surprise, however, is the two well-dressed women with scrolls unfolding who are positioned at the very top and center: the Cumaean and Erythraean Sibyls. The Sibyls were pagan oracles of the ancient world, whose prophecies were viewed by St. Augustine as predicting the coming of Christ. To read more about the fascinating history of these women of wisdom, click on the link to my paper which was presented at the 2012 Pacifica Institute Symposium for Myth:
One of the Sibylline prophecies, Judicii Signus, was set by Provencal songwriters into a Gregorian-chant like melody that became a foundational element of the Christmas Eve liturgy in southern France and Spain. Below is Anonymous 4's ethereal rendering of this haunting music:
Today, a pairing of Flemish art and music inspired by Virgin Mary: the magnificent detail of a detail from Van Eyck's masterpiece The Adoration of the Lamb ( the Ghent Altarpiece), with an exquisite polyphonic setting by Josquin des Prez of the Alma Redemptoris Mater, the traditional antiphon for Advent. Enjoy!
The 15th century painting "The Adoration of the Lamb" is truly one of the world's great artistic marvels: a masterpiece of technical precision and profound symbolism. I'll be spending the next few days pointing out some of the details- today, I want to begin with the angelic chorus, found in the upper left in between Adam and Mary. For all their richly adorned pearl and ruby crowns, these are such human angels! One of the singers has her brow knit in confusion as she tries to find the pitch. Even in heaven, only one of the singers seems to be looking at the conductor ( in this case, the raised hand of God Almighty).
Every Christmas, millions of people joyfully gather in church, cathedral and cafe to belt out "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!". What they don't know is that this beloved carol is the unlikely lovechild begotten from the marriage of the lyrics of a sombre English Methodist clergyman with the buoyant and joyous secular music of a German Jew.
Charles Wesley penned his hymn ( one of over 600 ), imagining a slow and austere musical accompaniment (more like the gorgeous plainchant "O Come , O Come Emmanuel"). His original verses emphasized his belief in the nature of Jesus as Atonement for Original Sin, as the references to the serpent in the Garden of Eden make clear in the oft-discarded fourth verse:
Come, Desire of nations come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the Woman's conquering Seed,
Bruise in us the Serpent's head.
Adam's likeness now efface:
Stamp Thine image in its place;
Second Adam, from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Wesley penned this hymn (with the far less catchy first verse lyrics, "Hark, how all the welkin rings") in 1739. Almost exactly one hundred years later, the brilliant Felix Mendelssohn (grandson of Germany's most famous Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn) wrote a secular cantata in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg's printing press. The Festgesang made quite an impression in Leipzig as 200 men, 16 trumpets and 20 trombones crowded into the town market square and deafened the ears of all around with its resounding chorus.
A few years later, a young Brit named William Hayman Cumming appeared as a choirboy in the premiere of Mendelssohn's Elijah in London. It's not clear how William first heard the catchy tune written to extol the virtues of moveable type, but Cumming had the brilliant idea of substituting Wesley's modified lyrics, and the one of the world's most popular Christmas carols was born.
Outside my foggy window, torrents of rain cascade down. A fire burns near the piano, candles are lit, soup is bubbling on the stove. It is a perfect for a day of practicing Bach and learning Schubert. The storm that has descended upon Northern California has swollen the streams and rivers, and the roads that lead from my house to anywhere else are flooded. My mind turns to other women who were housebound in the past- none, I think, so happily as I am. In particular, I think of Christina Rossetti who left school at the age of 13 to care for her ailing father. As the Rossetti family struggled to make ends meet, young Christina was left alone at home in order to tend for the almost- blind man in a relationship that was at best emotionally painful and quite likely sexually abusive. Within a few years, Christina's own health had collapsed, leaving the teen-aged girl mired in depression and morbidity. As the inner landscape of this once spirited and cheerful child became haunted, Christina's only consolation was her growing spiritual devotion. Eventually, she came to believe that the only thing truly worth pursuing was the connection with the Divine, a theme she explored for the rest of her life in novels and the poetry which poured out prolifically from her slender white fingers. One of her poems, "In the Bleak Midwinter" was used as the basis for Gustav Host's gorgeous hymn for this season. I wish she had been able to hear it during her own lifetime: perhaps it would have brought a ray of sunshine into her own all too-bleak life.
"In the Bleak Midwinter"
BY CHRISTINA ROSSETTI
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
The Christmas Star
by Gabriela Mistral (tr. Maria Giachetti)
A little girl
she caught and carries a star.
She goes flying, making the plants
and animals she passes
bend with fire.
Her hands already sizzle,
she tires, wavers, stumbles,
and falls headlong,
but she gets right up with it again.
Her hands don’t burn away,
nor does the star break apart,
although her face, arms,
chest and hair are on fire.
She burns down to her waist.
People shout at her
and she won’t let it go;
her hands are parboiled,
but she won’t release the star.
Oh how she sows its seeds
as it hums and flies.
They try to take it away–
but how can she live
without her star?
It didn’t simply fall–it didn’t.
It remained without her,
and now she runs without a body,
changed transformed into ashes.
The road catches fire
and our braids burn,
and now we all receive her
because the entire Earth is burning.
Johann Sebastian Bach spent about five years writing a musical meditation every single week for his post as Kantor in Leipzig. Known as "Cantatas", these sung dramas used the liturgical readings (Psalm, Old Testament, New Testament and Gospel texts) as a springboard for reflections on the spiritual life and prepared the congregation to hear the sermon by the priest which followed immediately afterwards. Comprised of orchestral introductions, chorales, vocal solos and duets, the surviving cantatas are a staggering testimony to Bach's dedication of offering his best, his all to God no matter what the circumstances. The care, attention, brilliance and effort he lavished on these musical masterpieces, some of which were performed only ONCE for an indifferent or occasionally openly hostile audience is an astonishing form of personal prayer, akin to the exquisite sand mandalas created by Tibetan monks that are created as an offering to the holy without any thought of posterity or permanence.
Lucky for us, there are some 200 of these gems that survive. Two of my favorites, Cantatas BWV 61 and BWV use "Nun Kom, der Heiden Heilland", a hymn with lyrics penned by Martin Luther. Bach weaves this familiar Advent hymn into his works in different ways. Listen to the Renaissance setting of this hymn by Michael Praetorius to fix the tune firmly in your mind, and then listen to what Bach does with this melody. Marvel how he creates a richly elaborate tapestry of sound, both dark and joyous, brilliant and full of hope and expectation, particularly as the pieces are performed in the two stunning recordings by John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir. My admiration for John Eliot Gardiner knows no bounds: if you want to truly pamper someone beloved with a gift they can grow into for the rest of their life, buy them the complete set of Cantata recordings for Christmas.
Yesterday's post on John the Baptist brought this lovely poem in response from one of my readers that I just had to share. It captures beautifully the choice that is before us all in this age of wanton commercialization.
Dear Readers, do you have an Advent poem you have written that you would like to share as well?
by Oranne Lee Eichorn
They are getting ready. They rush and push and spend their coin.
They honk their horns to claim spaces for the chariots,
So that they may scurry into the throngs of the marketplace
Where they worship the glitter, the piles of plastic,
The latest energized icons of destruction to inundate
upon the children.
To prepare. To prepare?
I know a man who went instead into the wilderness today.
He walked among the trees, sought out the geese
Who were alighting upon the pond swollen now
From yesterday's rain
and watched two does bring their growing fawns to
the seemingly silent meadow.
I know a woman who sat sipping tea, delighted that 20 doves
came to feast upon her seeds, scattered beneath the oak
In last night's winds.
Gazing in wonder at the three mock pear trees ablaze with golden leaves
and the bushes with winter's red blossoms hung by God for the solstice.
Sit quietly, my friend, and travel the path of John today.
Today in churches all over the world, the prescribed reading for Advent is the story in the Gospel of Mark about John the Baptist. Of all the gospel stories, Mark is the oldest, pithiest, most direct and to the point. His story of Jesus is also the most human. His story does not begin with supernatural tales of Virgin births and angels (like Luke), or of long Jewish genealogies to establish a divine numerological relationship between King David and Christ (as Matthew does), nor does it stretch into mystical cosmological dimensions of space and time (as John does with "In the beginning was the Word"). This is how Mark begins his story of Jesus:
"The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:` Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." (Mark 1:1-8)
In the Gospel of Mark, the story begins with the prelude of Jesus's cousin, John, calling for a change of heart and a return to nature. John is the wild man of the gospels, and artistic depictions of him throughout the centuries have underscored this by painting him clothed in fur ("camel's hair") , with matted hair that often resembles dreadlocks and an unkempt beard. He's an odd character and strong medicine: a fearless truthteller who won't be quiet, even if it means risking his life. He is ultimately jailed, and executed, because he won't turn a blind eye when he sees corruption. Rather, he has a habit of making enemies in high places by his propensity to blow the whistle. In many ways, John embodies the raw, elemental force of nature: unadorned, unmitigated by social niceties and conventions. In Europe, the feast day of John the Baptist was so important in the Middle Ages that cease-fires were called for during times of war. For one day, armies put aside their weapons to go into the forest, sing and dance around enormous bonfires, celebrating the return to nature
The placement of John 's proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark suggests that this elemental, primal nature is one that "prepares" the way for the divine. How might shedding the conventions of society be necessary for you to encounter the divine? How can returning to the wilderness and an immersion in nature prepare you to experience the holy?
One of the primary themes for Advent is preparation. What do you need to do in order to make more room for the holy in your life? In this poem by Mary Oliver, it may be as simple as adopting a welcoming presence and deep sense of gratitude,
Making the House Ready for the Lord
by Mary Oliver
Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of miceit is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrancesbut it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.