The Christian world enters the season of Advent on Sunday. It's the annual time of rich and expectant waiting to commemorate the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day.
For this Advent, I have found a moving work of art, "Nativity Triptych," (pictured above) on which I plan to focus. And even if you're not Christian, I'd like to commend it to you as special art worth seeing and studying.
The artist, glass sculptor Hasna Sal (pictured at left), has had a remarkably varied career, and Kansas Citians may know her because a recent work of hers was dedicated this fall in Lykins Square Park in Kansas City's northeast neighborhood.
That multi-panel work, done in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity of Kansas City and the Lykins Neighborhood Association, is described as the first exterior memorial in the nation for victims of human trafficking. To see a short video about it, click here. A much longer video in which the artist explains the work can be viewed here. The photo at right shows one of the panels in Lykins Square Park.
But back to the other work shown above.
First, here is a link to an hour-long (or so) talk the artist gave last year about what she was trying to say through the sculpture, which depicts, at the bottom, a traditional, if extended, manger scene, and at the top the figures of Christ (in the middle), with Joseph (on the left) and Mary.
And here is how the artist describes the work, created in 2015:
"This sculpture installation is a freestanding construct, and consists of an ensemble of three panels, which are lighted. Each panel is 34 inches wide, 7 feet, 9 inches tall and 6 inches deep. Hence, the entire composition would be 8 feet, 6 inches in length, 7 feet, 9 inches high and 6 inches deep. The material is glass on metal frame. Each panel weighs approximately 200 pounds. It is very sturdy.
"Thematically, this sculpture is a combination of iconology and allegory. The top two-thirds shows the three biblical figures -- each with a message to the world. I'm showing Saint Joseph in shepherd's clothes, with a stick in his hand as all shepherds have. He is portrayed as a simple man standing by Christ's side, symbolically giving him support. His face is stoic. Blessed Mother Mary stands on her son's other side, in a white veil, her face shadowed in pain, her eyes downcast, her hands at her sides, clenched. I sculpted her as I see her; as any mother would identify with pain and peace. And Jesus Christ in simple clothes pertaining to that era, wearing a crown of thorns and, in his arms, he holds close to his heart a dove or lamb, embracing the being in his strong warm chest. This is a symbolic message that Christ protects the innocent, whoever they may be, whatever they may be.
"The bottom one-third is an allegorical unfolding of the birth of Christ. Growing up in a Catholic school, I was always very moved by the hymn "Away in a Manger." It still brings tears to my eyes when I hear it or play it on my cello, and it translated into my sculpture. I show the birth of Christ in a manger, the animals looking in, the angels gathering above in the skies, the stars twinkling, the three kings coming from afar crossing mountains and the city of Bethlehem a silent spectator to this miracle. My message to the world is that when something beautiful happens, it brings the world together."
Here is a pdf about the triptych written by Kevin Vogt, director of sacred liturgy, music and art at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Parish in Leawood: Download DIVINE COMMISSION A Story of Art (Kevin Vogt).
This year Advent seems somehow different, given what 2020 has dumped on us. My own pastor, Paul Rock of Second Presbyterian Church, offered some thoughts about that recently in a letter to congregants. Here's part of what he wrote:
"Until this year, it (Advent) always seemed a little bit made up, to be honest, these four Sundays of not really doing anything but waiting, watching, expecting the inevitable arrival. It felt fabricated because we know Christmas will come. We know we’ll light the candles and sing the carols and open presents and celebrate the fact that God became one of us and in so doing, solidified our hope and salvation.
"But this year, this long, different and awful year, we have been forced into postures of waiting and wanting and yearning for months -- without knowing exactly when and even if news of salvation will come. And that’s where real hope comes into play. Dark and dirty, weary and tenacious hope."
What Paul wrote is in deep harmony with thoughts from the 20th Century French Reform theologian Jacques Ellul. In Ellul's book Hope in Time of Abandonment, he writes this: "Hope comes alive only in the dreary silence of God, in our loneliness before a closed heaven, in our abandonment. . .Man is going to express his hope that God's silence is neither basic nor final, nor a cancellation of what we had laid hold of as a Word from God. . .The hope is that this Word of God might once again be spoken, might again be born and might again be decisive. But it is more than that. It is not only expectation or certitude. It is demand. When God is silent he has to be made to talk. When god turns away, he has to be made to turn back to us again. When God seems dead, he has to be made to exist."
Some of that willful hope is what I see in Hasna Sal's work. It seems to put humanity in touch with divine possibilities -- and divine possibilities are always possibilities. Hasna says this about the art work she does now: "I have created work for money, for fame, for charity. But I am at this point where I now create for honesty. Truth is the most powerful tool; it makes the work authentic and it is here to impress no one. It is just to be."
(For now, the Nativity Triptych is housed at the Savior Pastor Center, a retreat and conference center in Kansas City, Kansas. It's not on public display, but you can call 913-721-1097 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays to arrange a time to see the artwork. Hasna says she hopes a Catholic church, school or hospital will become its permanent home.)
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HOW MUSLIMS HAVE 'DEPICTED' MUHAMMAD
As many of you know, from time to time there's conflict -- sometimes violent -- over display of pictures or cartoons purporting to represent the Prophet Muhammad. The most recent example has been in France, where a teacher was brutally murdered (beheaded) after showing such depictions to students. The website The Conversation, where scholars write about current events, has this interesting piece about the different ways that Muslims themselves over the centuries have imagined what Muhammad looked like. As the author, , assistant professor of classical Islam at Brandeis University, writes, "The prophet’s earliest surviving biography, written a century after his death, runs into hundreds of pages in English. His final 10 years are so well-documented that some episodes of his life during this period can be tracked day by day. Even more detailed are books from the early Islamic period dedicated specifically to the description of Muhammad’s body, character and manners. From a very popular ninth-century book on the subject titled 'Shama'il al-Muhammadiyya' or The Sublime Qualities of Muhammad, Muslims learned everything from Muhammad’s height and body hair to his sleep habits, clothing preferences and favorite food. No single piece of information was seen too mundane or irrelevant when it concerned the prophet. The way he walked and sat is recorded in this book alongside the approximate amount of white hair on his temples in old age." The author's conclusion is that "These meticulous textual descriptions have functioned for Muslims throughout centuries as an alternative for visual representations." It's helpful to have this kind of context when rigid views on anything turn to violence. The question for France now is whether it will react to the latest controversy in a way that makes sense. This Atlantic piece raises that very question.