‘Midnight, Christians‘: the most radical Christmas song ever written

‘Midnight, Christians‘: the most radical Christmas song ever written

In my previous post I didn’t have many good things to say about the Christmas song, Mary Did You Know. So I thought I’d balance things out by reflecting on my favourite carol. O Holy Night was written in 1847 by two very unlikely songwriting partners. Placide Cappeau was an irreligious French wine merchant and part-time poet. He also had one hand, having lost his right one in a shooting accident. In 1843, he was commissioned to write a Christmas poem to celebrate the recent renovation of the local parish church organ in his home town. Cappeau was happy to do it but, being an irregular church attender, he had to reread the gospel of Luke to brush up on the nativity story. Nonetheless, he completed it in time for a reading at midnight mass on Christmas Eve. That’s why, in French, the piece was called Minuit, chrétiens (Midnight, Christians) after the opening line in the first stanza: Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour,  When God as man descended unto us To erase the stain of original sin, And to end the wrath of His Father.  The entire world thrills with hope On this night that gives it a Saviour. Some years later, Adolphe Adam, a French composer best known for the opera Giselle, set Minuit, chrétiens to music. Adam

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Is this the least biblical, most sexist hymn ever written?

Is this the least biblical, most sexist hymn ever written?

I’m sorry if you really like it, but I think Mary, Did You Know? is the least biblical, most sexist Christmas song ever written. Least biblical because if you reeled off the 17 patronizing questions contained in the lyrics of that song to the real Mary, she might have thrown a rock at you. The real Mary, who had tramped heavily pregnant 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem to give birth in a stranger’s home, and who then hauled her child 400 more miles to safety in Egypt, well, she wasn’t one to be trifled with. More than that, she was under no illusions as to who she had just given birth to. Listen to the song of praise she sings upon discovering the enormity of the task that has befallen her: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty

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Four paintings for the four weeks of Advent

Four paintings for the four weeks of Advent

It will soon be Advent, the most beautiful of church seasons, celebrated over the four Sundays preceding Christmas. You might not be part of a liturgical church tradition, but marking each Sunday with a reading and the lighting of a candle can be a rich way to prepare yourself, your family, your congregation for the true meaning of Christmas amidst all the tinsel and commercialism of the season. You might like to use these four paintings, each from different eras, as stimulus for thinking about the well-known story. Here’s how you might do it: Light the candle (you’ll need three purple and one rose candle, and a white one for Christmas). Read the Bible text. Take time to examine the picture. Read the reflection below each picture. This could be done in your Sunday service, or around the family meal table, or as a personal devotional practice. I hope this small resource helps to focus your heart and soul on the true things of Christmas – hope, faith, joy and peace – and forms a brief respite from shopping mall Santas and Jingle Bells and gluttony and avarice. Oh, and merry Christmas. __________________________________________ WEEK 1 — HOPE Light the Prophets’ Candle (purple), symbolizing hope Reading:  Luke 1:26–38 Artwork:  The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner  (1859-1937) In Henry Ossawa Tanner’s depiction of

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Advent Reflection 10: Yes, Jesus WAS a refugee

Advent Reflection 10: Yes, Jesus WAS a refugee

The final entry in my series of reflections based on ten of the greatest Christmas artworks of all time. Merry Christmas to you all! 10 THE FLIGHT TO EGYPT   Artwork: Rest on the Flight to Egypt – Orazio Gentileschi, Birmingham Art Gallery Reading: Matthew 2:13-23 Reflection: This isn’t a very well known Christmas painting, but I really like it. During their escape from the murderous King Herod, the holy family rests in what looks like a derelict building. Their donkey waits on the other side of a broken wall as Joseph takes a nap and Mary feeds her child. There are dark, foreboding clouds on the horizon. The setting reinforces the appalling situation they find themselves in. Destitute, alone, and taking brief shelter in a ruin. Orazio Gentileschi’s picture is a strange composition. But it beautifully portrays the utter exhaustion of the holy family’s hurried escape from Bethlehem. They look like a modern day refugee family fleeing Aleppo. Joseph has collapsed in sheer exhaustion. Mary’s feet are dirty and she appears too tired to even cradle her hungry child, who looks furtively in our direction. Gentileschi obviously related to the refugee status of the holy family. He painted five versions of this picture. As a young painter he had become caught up in the licentious and violent world of fellow

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Advent Reflection 9: How deep is your love?

Advent Reflection 9: How deep is your love?

Ten of the greatest pieces of Christian art ever created. Ten Advent reflections. A bit like the ten stations of the Christmas story. Here’s No.9. 9.  THE ADORATION OF THE MAGI   Artwork:  Adoration of the Magi – Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi Gallery, Florence Reading:  Matthew 2:7-12 Reflection: Botticelli was commissioned to paint this astonishing work in 1475 by Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama, a wealthy Italian banker connected to the Medici family. The holy family are positioned aloft in a derelict outhouse of yawning rafters on the brink of collapse. Below them, the Magi and their attendants have come bearing gifts for the Christ child. It’s a lush, dramatic, altogether beautiful nativity. That much is obvious to the uninformed viewer. What you might not know is the sly and artful way Botticelli has portrayed the images in the foreground. The three Magi are portrayed by patriarchs of the powerful Medici family. The magus kneeling before Christ and pompously touching his feet is Cosimo de’ Medici, the first of the Medici political dynasty. The second magus in the center with the red mantle is Cosimo’s son, Piero, who succeeded him as lord of Florence. And the third magus beside him is Piero’s brother Giovanni. They seem to be in conversation, perhaps disagreement. It was well known that Cosimo had intended for Giovanni to

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Advent Reflection 8: Where is Jesus?

Advent Reflection 8: Where is Jesus?

My Advent devotion series, based on the 10 greatest paintings of the Christmas story ever produced. Look carefully at the painting. Read the Bible text. Read the reflection. Recite the prayer. 8. THE MAGI SEARCH FOR THE CHRIST   Artwork: The Procession of the Magi – Benozzo Gozzoli, Medici Riccardi palace, Florence Reading: Matthew 2:1-10  Reflection: The Medicis were an Italian banking family that came to exercise such supreme control over the affairs of Tuscany and Florence that they became first a political dynasty and later a royal house. Wealthy and powerful beyond all reckoning, they transformed Florence into a stunningly beautiful and excessively luxurious city of the finest architecture and art. Medici money seemed to be inexhaustible. One Medici or another was patron to Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, Rubens, and even Galileo. Four Medicis became Pope, a host of others cardinal, and two went on to rule France. So, when in 1459 Piero de’ Medici commissioned Benozzo Gozzoli to paint a series of frescoes of the procession of the Magi, Gozzoli knew exactly which side his bread was buttered on. His painting is a monumental exercise in sucking up! Instead of depicting just three wise men riding camels in the desert, he painted 33 kings parading in a cavalcade of excess and grandeur, every one of them a

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Advent Reflection 7: Outliers no longer

Advent Reflection 7: Outliers no longer

This is the seventh in a series of ten reflections looking at the Christmas story through the eyes of some of the greatest artists in history. 7.  THE ADORATION OF THE SHEPHERDS   Artwork: The Adoration of the Shepherds – Giorgione, National Gallery of Art, Washington Reading: Luke 2:15-20  Reflection: This is such a daring way to compose a nativity scene. Nearly every other Renaissance painter places the Holy Family smack-dab in the center of their composition. Lesser characters like shepherds, wise men, angels, sheep and other figures get arranged around them. Not Giorgione. He places the shepherds right in the middle of his frame. Dressed in worn and ragged clothes, the shepherds kneel like contrite pilgrims, bare-headed before the Christ child. To their left our eye is drawn off down a winding road through the town and out to the mountains in the distance. These men don’t belong here among the civilized folk. They are fringe-dwellers, outliers, wild men from the hills beyond normal society.  In 1st Century Israel, shepherds were despised. They were considered second-class citizens and untrustworthy. They were not permitted to fulfill judicial offices nor be admitted in court as witnesses. Joachim Jeremias says of shepherds at the time, “Most of the time they were dishonest and thieving; they led their herds onto other people’s land and

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Advent Reflection 6: Don’t be afraid of the light

Advent Reflection 6: Don’t be afraid of the light

From Bruegel and Botticelli to Fra Angelico and Giorgione, I’m writing a series of devotions based on the greatest Christmas art of all time. Each devotion includes a picture, a Bible reading, a reflection and a prayer. Take your time. Look deeply. Breathe. Relax. Be with God. 6 ANNUNCIATION TO THE SHEPHERDS   Artwork:  Annunciation to the Shepherds – Taddeo Gaddi, Church of Santa Croce, Florence Reading:  Luke 2:8-15 Reflection: It’s the light that gets me. Look again at this picture, at the way the figures are lit. It’s quite remarkable really. It’s still evening. We can see that from the sliver of night sky beyond the brow of the hill. But the hill itself and the figures on it are bleached by a piercing light that bathes the sleepy shepherds and their flock. It’s as if the whole scene is being washed clean in light. Pure light. How extraordinary that this effect is created by paint and a brush. The artist Taddeo Gaddi is hardly known at all these days. In fact, most bios only discuss him with reference to his much more famous teacher, the grand master, Giotto. He’s usually referred to as “the pupil of…” or “a follower of…” One entry describes him as, “A capable artist, although lacking his teacher’s comprehensive aesthetic vision.” Ouch. But he

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Advent Reflection 5: That radiant place between worship and intimacy

Advent Reflection 5: That radiant place between worship and intimacy

This Advent, I’m writing a series of devotions, based on ten of the most beautiful paintings of the Christmas story ever created. Take some time to look carefully at the painting above. Read the Bible text. Read the reflection. Recite the prayer. 5.  THE BIRTH OF CHRIST   Artwork:  The Nativity – Federico Barocci, Prado museum, Madrid Reading: Luke 2:6-7 Reflection: You’ve looked at a thousand nativity scenes in your life, right? They range from the sickly, sentimental kind seen on greeting cards through to the melodramatic iconography of Catholic religious art. But not many are as intimate or as tender as Federico Barocci’s depiction of Mary and her newborn infant. She kneels, her hands outstretched and open, as if in the posture of worship. But at the same time her face shines like a young mother full to overflowing with love for her child. She adores her boy. And the child gazes back. In the otherwise darkened room, light plays across both their faces. The radiant child illuminates the exquisitely loving face of Mary, the whole composition emphasizing their mutual bond. Barocci was a sensitive soul. Deeply religious, often unwell, emotional but quite playful. As an expression of his eccentricity, in many of his religious paintings he included cats. Yep, cats. Here are two of his paintings of the

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Advent Reflection 4: Christ the Overlooked

Advent Reflection 4: Christ the Overlooked

Look carefully at the painting. It’s one of history’s truly great pieces of Christmas-related art. Then read the Bible passage that inspired it. Then read my devotional reflection. Finally, there’s a prayer you can recite at the end. 4.  ARRIVAL IN BETHLEHEM   Artwork:  The Census at Bethlehem – Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels Reading: Luke 2:1-4 Reflection: Pieter Bruegel the Elder loved to paint peasants. Although a relatively well-off artist, he was known to dress in peasant clothing and surreptitiously mingle among the poor at their weddings and other social events in order to more accurately depict their day to day lives. For this he received the nickname “Bruegel the Peasant”. His pictures of the rituals of village life in his native Belgium are earthy and unsentimental. But he painted the ordinariness of peasant culture – including farming scenes, hunts, feasts and festivals, dances and games – in vivid and touching detail. He seemed to love them. Typically, then, for his depiction of Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem, he contemporizes the scene and sets it in a frozen Belgian streetscape. Mary and Joseph are just two more poor peasants trudging through the freezing air to line up for the ruthlessly imposed census. Finding them in this picture isn’t easy. They are

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Advent Reflection 3: The Sacrament of Being Helpful

Advent Reflection 3: The Sacrament of Being Helpful

Look carefully at the painting. It’s one of history’s truly great pieces of Christmas-related art. Then read the Bible passage that inspired it. Then read my devotional reflection. Finally, there’s a prayer you can recite at the end. 3.  THE JOURNEY TO BETHLEHEM   Artwork:  Mary and Joseph on the Way to Bethlehem (Portinari Altarpiece) – Hugo van der Goes, Uffizi Gallery, Florence Reading: Luke 2:1-5 Reflection: On the road to Bethlehem, Joseph gently assists the pregnant Mary down a steep incline. She has left the donkey, presumably because it would be too perilous to ride down such a slope. Often portrayed in the background or ineffectually to one side, Joseph is presented to us here as a gallant and caring partner to Mary. One hand on her arm. The other guiding her from behind. He’s being a typically helpful partner. Hugo van der Goes’ depiction of their journey appears in the background of a much larger three-paneled work (that dome in the bottom left corner is the bald head of St Anthony, depicted in the foreground). The full Portinari Altarpiece is an extravagant depiction of the nativity, including the adoration of the angels and the shepherds, the visit of the Magi, various patron saints (including the aforementioned bald Anthony), and even a portrait of Van der Goes’ patron and his family. That’s

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Advent Reflection 2: Don’t screw this up, God

Advent Reflection 2: Don’t screw this up, God

This Advent, I’m writing a series of devotions, based on ten of the most gorgeous paintings of the Christmas story ever created. From Bruegel and Botticelli to Fra Angelico and Giorgione. Look carefully at the painting. Read the Bible text. Read the reflection. Recite the prayer. Breathe.   2  THE ANGEL APPEARS TO JOSEPH   Artwork:  The Dream of St Joseph – Philippe de Champaigne, National Gallery, London Reading:  Matthew 1:18-25 Reflection: The French Baroque painter Champaigne is one of very few artists to bother depicting Joseph’s story, but he does so in an unlikely way. He manages to make a painting of Joseph be almost entirely about Mary. Note the way the arrangement of the sleeping Joseph and his angelic visitor create a sideways V shape that actually accentuates Mary’s presence between them. Note also the angel’s sign language. One finger pointed to heaven. The other to Mary. As if indicating the supernatural link between them. As if to say, “She belongs to God now.” And note Mary’s posture. She waits. Her arms are folded across her chest, like she’s holding herself together. And she’s focused on the angel. It’s as if she can see right into Joseph’s dreams. She knows that everything hinges on the angel getting this right. Should Joseph reject her, forcing her back to her father’s home

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