For 2021’s Advent season, we’ve shared curated collections of art, short essays, music, and more each Monday. This final week’s Advent collection includes a short essay from Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson called “That Holy Thing;” a painting called “Incarnation” by Tim Joyner; and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” from Page CXVI.
“That Holy Thing” by Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Emmanuel” (which means “God with us”).—Matthew 1:22-23 (NIV)
They all were looking for a king—George MacDonald, hymn, “That Holy Thing”
to slay their foes and lift them high;
Thou cam’st, a little baby thing
That made a woman cry.
The bone-chilling sea-damp is what I remember most from our first Christmas Eve service in Scotland. That, and the singing.
Romantic on paper: a fishing village, an ancient stone church, the bells . . . but reality included huddling together for warmth. As we shivered the congregation rose for a hymn new only to us: “That Holy Thing.”
“That Holy Thing” is not a typical Christmas carol; MacDonald reminds us that holy is not comfortable, let alone predictable. We want holiness to sweep away all ills and be cozy and Christmasy too. But holy does not avoid pain or difficulty, even while making way for good. It facilitates vulnerability; it usurps assumptions; it invites—sometimes even causes—tears.
Here is real flesh-and-blood, breaking forth via real sweat-and-tears, into this real dust-and-mud world of his own Triune making.Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson
The Child comes and instead sweeps away our ideas of triumph. A “little baby thing,” the long-awaited Messiah is born into a low-income, scandal-threatened, displaced family. This seed of royal lineage is destined to become a border-crossing refugee before he is old enough for school. Instead of conquering the opposition and asserting the rights of his people, he arrives as a helpless infant that makes a woman cry.
Here is real flesh-and-blood, breaking forth via real sweat-and-tears, into this real dust-and-mud world of his own Triune making. Woven into the pain of his unglamorous arrival is the promise of goodness beyond conception, but not in the way that even those who expect challenges expect. Christ asks not for political strength or financial security or even familial ease. Rather he asks that we welcome weakness, embrace the uncomfortable, step into that which may hurt—and promises that throughout he will be with us.
The invitation is into an unpredictable holiness that is sometimes joyful and sometimes hard. But Emmanuel’s chosen identity pledges also, always, this: that even when huddled against cold or tears, we are never, ever, alone.
Emmanuel, make us ever more aware of your abiding loving presence; may that give us courage this Christmas to be humble servants of your love in spaces we might otherwise avoid. Amen.
“Incarnation” by Tim Joyner
Foraged pigment on board-mounted paper
Every year my family picks out an ornament for our Christmas tree to represent a big moment or theme from the previous months. Last year’s ornament was a laser cut wooden dumpster, emblazoned with the dreadful numbers 2020 and spewing cheerful flames from an inferno within. This seemed funny at the time because, yeah, it had been an awful year, but we’d made it. We had cried and mourned and prayed, but now we were arriving on the other side of hope. And the Advent season had seemed the richer for it. In what year had we needed the light, warmth, and inevitability of Christmas more?
And then there was 2021.
I know I’m not alone in experiencing this past year as even more difficult than the one before. I could spend a few paragraphs examining why that is, but we’ve all lived it together. You already know.
And so this Advent has been kind of weird, right? I’ve felt disengaged from the season. I’ve been dragging my feet decorating. I’ve struggled to enjoy the traditions that I usually cherish.
Setting out to create a piece for this year, I started by trying to develop my standard Advent themes. I love painting for this season. Themes of arrival, hope, joy at the other end of sorrow, healing at the other end of brokenness—this is good stuff.
But this year, I was having trouble seeing it. I was trying to convince myself of a truth I couldn’t feel. So I let the brush take over.
The painting that I wound up with is pretty dark for an Advent piece. It’s primarily Lamp Black (a pigment that I associate with longing and prayer because I make it from the discarded stubs of vigil candles), with some even darker Jet Black. There’s some white from Jingle Shells and a bit of Verdigris, but those are there mostly to make the black pigment look even blacker. Even the orb of gold leaf in the very center of the painting is obscured enough that it mostly just draws attention to the rising movement of dark pigment.
This painting is a reminder to myself that, yes, at the end of all this waiting there is an arrival. But it’s not me arriving at the other end of darkness or doubt, brokenness or betrayal. It is the Christ Child who arrives. He meets us here. And rather than chasing away all that it means to be human—including the pain and the longing unfulfilled—and banishing it forever, He wraps Himself in it. We find Christ not on the other side of our longing, but within it.
“Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” from Page CXVI
Come, thou long expected Jesus
Born to set thy people free
From our fears and sins release us
Let us find our rest in thee
Israel’s strength and consolation
Hope of all the earth thou art
Dear desire of every nation
Joy of every longing heart
Born thy people to deliver
Born a child and yet a king
Born to reign in us forever
Now thy gracious Kingdom bring
By thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone
By thine all-sufficient merit
Raise us to thy glorious throne