Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Creating Holy Week: Weaving together theology, poetry, and music

Art has long been understood as being able to convey emotion in deep and creative ways. Holy Week is a week full of emotion: love, loss, suffering, redemption, hope, guilt; it's all there. After hearing the story many times it runs the risk of losing its sting. Last year I came up with the idea of creating my own Holy Week--not just participating in the services--the active remembering as a church--but in using art--poetry and music in particular--to help me experience Holy Week anew.

Holy Week is the time in the Christian calendar that celebrates the final week of Jesus' life: his triumphant entrance into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday); the last supper he shared with his disciples and arrest in the garden (Holy/Maundy Thursday); Jesus' death on the cross (Good Friday); and, his resurrection from the tomb (Easter morning). Holy Week is certainly somber--as Christians reflect upon the death of Christ and how their sins are in some way responsible for the brokenness of creation that lead Jesus to the cross. But at the same time, Holy Week brims with hope: hope in the resurrection, promise of the forgiveness of sins, and promise of new life. And, perhaps, the most overwhelming emotion of the week is love: the love in John 3:16 (For God so loved the world...), the love of Jesus for the disciples as he washed their feet, the love of the New Commandment that Jesus gives his disciples, the love Jesus had for humanity that lead him to the cross, but also the heart-wrenching love of the women and the beloved disciple who watched Jesus die, the mourning love as the women came upon the empty tomb.

This exercise can be done with any art form: visual art, performance art, pop music. I chose to narrow it down to poetry and classical music, but I encourage you all to identify artwork that is meaningful to you and helps deepen your understanding, and feel free to comment below with your own suggestions. Some of these are intended by the author for theological/liturgical use, most are not. But they all communicate the emotions of Holy Week in deep ways that allow me to create my own Holy Week, my own deep encounter with love, loss, and redemption.

Just a note: some of the poems I only included excerpts as they are still protected by copyright. In those instances, I provided a link so you may read the entire poem.

 Jean Langlais' Suite Francais, No 6 "Arabesque sur les flutes"
This is a beautiful piece of music. To me, it communicates a jovial, playful love, tinged ever so slightly with melancholy.  

Kathleen Jaime's "The Wishing Tree"
And though I’m poisoned
choking on the small change

of human hope,
daily beaten into me

look: I am still alive—
in fact, in bud.
(See the full poem here.) 

 This is my favorite poem of all time. It communicates deep sacrifice, being in bud in spite of the human hopes "daily beaten into me."  

Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring
Stravinksy's The Rite of Spring is a ballet about a pagan sacrifice. Thus, the themes of new life, spring, sacrifice, loss of innocence, and rebirth are all present in this magnificent piece.  

Rajzel Zychlinska's "God Hid His Face"
All the roads led to death,
all the roads.
All the winds breathed betrayal,
all the winds.
At all the doorways angry dogs barked,
at all the doorways.
All the waters laughed at us,
all the waters.
All the nights fattened on our dread,
all the nights.
And the heavens were bare and empty,
all the heavens.
God hid his face.

I first encountered this poem in a volume of collected poetry called The Last Lullaby: Poetry from the Holocaust. This poem... yeah. I'll just leave it as is.  

Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet Suite 3 No 6: "The Death of Juliet"
Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet is a masterpiece. I only linked to the final song, "The Death of Juliet," which communicates the deep heartache that is felt after the loss of one you love. I recommend the entire ballet, as the piece brilliantly shows how maddening, passionate, sexual, and despairing love can be.

Craig Czury's "Morning"
Crossing barbed wire
I cut my face
and taste you everywhere.

A short, beautiful poem. Love, loss, pain--it's all there in those three short lines.  

Matthew Harris' "Fear No More" (Shakespeare)
This is the only musical piece that is also a poem, in fact, it is a setting of William Shakespeare's "Fear No More the Heat o' the Sun" from his play Cymbeline. Why I chose to use this particular musical setting (as opposed to letting the poem stand on its own) is because Harris' music brings out the emotion of the piece in really profound ways: the somber introduction to the build in the middle, finally ending in a lullaby, all the while using Shakespeare's beautiful and almost peaceful description of death.  

John Keat's "Faery Song"
Shed no tear! oh, shed no tear!
The flower will bloom another year.
Weep no more! oh, weep no more!
Young buds sleep in the root's white core.
 Dry your eyes! oh, dry your eyes!
For I was taught in Paradise
To ease my breast of melodies,
-- Shed no tear.

Overhead! look overhead!
'Mong the blossoms white and red--
Look up, look up! I flutter now
On this fresh pomegranate bough.
See me! 'tis this silvery bill
Ever cures the good man's ill.
Shed no tear! oh, shed no tear!
The flower will bloom another year.
Adieu, adieu -- I fly -- adieu!
I vanish in the heaven’s blue,
-- Adieu, adieu!

Resurrection--shed no tear, I flutter now on this fresh pomegranate bough. Simple, perfect, beautiful.
Eric Whitacre's "Alleluia"
This piece encapsulates the entire mood of the Easter Vigil more than any other piece I have encountered. It begins with a solemn "Alleluia," that is slowly joined by the full choir in a melancholy, pastoral melody that slowly builds into a joyful acclamation, yet, all the while never fully reaching the true triumphant joy that we often hear in other settings (think Handel's "Halleluia Chorus").  

Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise"
Out of the huts of history's shame
 I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
(view the full poem here.) 

This poem is one of redemptive self-love of a black woman; a love that is strong in spite of oppression. It is a poem of resurrection in spite of persecution. This poem captures the emotion of redemptive love more than any other poem I know.


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