Author: Stephen Holmgren

I have been an Episcopal priest for thirty eight years, having served in parishes and in academia. My interests include art and theology, liturgy and spirituality, and I love to go sailing whenever I can.

The Holy Innocents


Peter Bruegel the Younger, The Massacre of the Innocents, late 1500’s


During these twelve days commemorating biblical events that we associate with Christmas, we return to another winter image from Peter Bruegel, in this case probably by Peter the Younger. Like the Bruegel painting of the Census at Bethlehem, shared with you previously, this is another favorite of mine.

Today, December 28, is the day on which the western Church remembers the event recorded by Matthew in his Gospel (2:13-18), wherein the wicked King Herod turned his fearful wrath upon the children of Bethlehem in Judea.

Herod was rightfully insecure about his throne and reign, having been propped up in the role by the Romans and others, and apprehensive about potential rivals. Imagine his anxiety when apparently wealthy astrologers arrived from a foreign land bearing reports regarding one who would be born “King of the Jews,” especially when these visitors expressed a desire to worship this anticipated newborn.

Once again we marvel that in our calendar for the 12 Days of Christmas the Church should commemorate those, like St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents, whose death gave tribute to the Lord of Life and the King of kings.

From the Book of Common Prayer:

“We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”


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Glory to God in the Highest

James B. Janknegt, Glory to God in the Highest


Luke’s Gospel portrays the birth of Jesus in the context of literal good news for the poor and those who are outcast. In Luke’s telling, angels announce the arrival of the Messiah to shepherds sleeping out in the fields or in caves with their flocks. As we shall note soon, Matthew casts these events in a more worldly and political context, with visiting Magi from the East, and Herod’s anxiety about a challenge to his propped-up throne.

Jim Janknegt is a painter whose thoughtful and creative engagement with the Scriptures I have admired for years. He paints in a style that some might describe as ‘primitive.’ Yet, in my view, he is an artist whose work often displays a highly sophisticated engagement with multiple dimensions of the biblical texts that shape our worship in both this and in other liturgical seasons. As the above image suggests, he also demonstrates a sensitive and wide-ranging color palette.

On this third day of Christmas, which is also the feast of St. John, the Apostle and Evangelist, I am grateful for Janknegt’s portrayal of the shepherds receiving and rejoicing over the witness of the holy angels.

As we sing in a favorite hymn:

Angels we have heard on high,
singing sweetly through the night,
and the mountains in reply
echoing their brave delight.

Gloria in excelsis Deo.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.

Shepherds why this jubilee?
Why these songs of happy cheer?
What great brightness did you see?
What glad tidings did you hear?

[repeat chorus]

Come to Bethlehem and see
him whose birth the angels sing;
come, adore on bended knee
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.

The Hymnal 1982, #96

To learn more about the artist, James B. Janknegt, and his work, click this link:

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… On the Feast of Stephen

Music and Illustration related to the Christmas Carol, Good King Wenceslas, from 1913


For our brothers and sisters ‘across the pond’ in the U.K., today is Boxing Day. The name comes from the tradition of giving boxes or baskets of Christmas gifts to family, friends, and employees, on December 26. Today is also the feast of St. Stephen, my patron saint. We have a familiar Christmas carol associated with this day.

From Wikipedia:

“Good King Wenceslas” is a Christmas carol that tells a story of a Bohemian king who goes on a journey, braving harsh winter weather, to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of St Stephen. During the journey, his page (or helper) is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king’s footprints, step for step, through the deep snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (907–935).

The fact that the Church, in its historical liturgical calendar, would remember the first of the martyrs on the second of the 12 Days of Christmas bears some reflection. Here, below, is a panel of a compelling contemporary triptych painting by the gifted British painter, Peter Koenig, depicting the martyrdom by stoning of Stephen (see Acts, Chapters 6 – 7). Against the backdrop of the spires and walls of an image of the new Jerusalem come down from heaven (in the upper left), we find Stephen holding a chalice of the ‘the blood of the new covenant’ outside the walls of the ‘old city,’ the world in which we presently live.


And the Word Became Flesh

Giotto, The Nativity


“Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

The master pre-Renaissance painter, Giotto (1267-1337), produced a remarkable series of paintings in Padua’s Scrovegni Chapel. One of the most memorable is this image of the Nativity of our Lord. Giotto’s paintings are noted for his sensitive portrayal of distinguishable human figures, moving away from the Byzantine style of icon-like painting characteristic of the era in which he began his work.

Some verses from Phillips Brooks’ beloved hymn (O Little Town of Bethlehem) provide a fitting prayer for this day:

How silently, how silently, The wondrous gift is given!

So God imparts to human hearts The blessings of his heaven…

O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us, we pray;

Cast out our sin, and enter in, Be born in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels The great glad tidings tell:

O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel!

May our Lord, who was and is, and is to come, bless us and our loved ones during this holy time.

Arrival at Bethlehem

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Census at Bethlehem, 1566


In one of my favorite paintings for this time of year, we find the Holy Family arriving at Bethlehem just at sunset on what might have been Christmas Eve. Mary on a donkey, in the center foreground, is led by Joseph toward what appears to be a crowded inn, a likely location for where the census was taking place. (See Luke 2:1-7.)

We approach this holy feast time like Mary and Joseph, with anticipation, yet not fully aware of the glory that is to be revealed to us.

May our Lord, who was and is, and is to come, bless us and our loved ones during this holy time.

Annunciation to Joseph

Alexander Ivanov, Joseph’s Dream


Here I begin sharing a series of images for the 12 days of Christmas, including two prior events as well as some that follow the Nativity. Christmas Day, Dec. 25, is officially the first of the 12 days. Yet, as we anticipate the holy season ahead, it is appropriate to remember and consider what prepared the way for the miracle we are soon to celebrate.

In this new Revised Common Lectionary year, which focuses on Matthew’s Gospel we hear of an Annunciation to Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25), less familiar to most of us than the Annunciation to Mary as recorded by Luke. Joseph was as attentive to his Annunciation as Mary was to hers. And like her, he was equally trusting and obedient.

May our Lord, who was and is, and is to come, bless us and our loved ones during this holy time.

The Beauty of a Promise

Charles Blakeman’s portrayal of Isaiah and King Ahaz


In one of the oldest churches in London, St. Etheldreda’s, we find a series of evocative stained glass windows by Charles Blakeman, modern but medieval in style. The window shown above depicts the prophet Isaiah’s encounter with King Ahaz (Isaiah, Chapter 7), which contains a quote from Isaiah’s prediction of a promised child, a prediction fulfilled in Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 1.)

This window portrays persons from very different times and places, side by side in the same scene. The prophet Isaiah, in gold, stands alongside King Ahaz, robed in royal purple. Both look ahead – literally and figuratively – to a later realization of Isaiah’s promise. That moment of realization occurred about seven hundred years later when an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. And standing with, but behind, Isaiah and Ahaz, we see the boy David, who lived three hundred years before Ahaz. For David was a common ancestor both to the wicked King Ahaz, and to the later righteous King Jesus.

Freed from the constraints of geographical space and linear time, Charles Blakeman has portrayed the content of a vision. It is a spiritual perception not bound by our usual orientation toward objective data and factual information. The prophet and the king, if they are open to it, can apprehend the vision pictured in black and white, a revealed sign of something real, but not yet seen by human eyes.

There are fewer visionaries and seers in our world today, and this is no accident. We are overwhelmed by competing and high-quality visual images on electronic screens everywhere around us. And I value some of them like many others do. But they can lead us to be blind, blind to the important connection between what we see and what is yet unseen. By not appreciating the power of signs and dreams, we are not likely to look beyond what is literally ‘at hand.’

The Collect or focussing prayer for this past 4th Sunday of Advent mentions “God’s daily visitation.” This refers to a pattern we can see in Scripture. Through love, God is always revealing signs ~ signs of truth, signs of goodness, and signs of beauty. But, whether by reading Scripture and or through prayer, we can open ourselves to perceiving these signs. So that (as the same prayer says), at his coming, Jesus “may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.” In the final week of this season of anticipation and hope, this can be our Advent prayer.

The above window by Charles Blakeman, portraying the prophecy of Jeremiah (Chapter 23) regarding a promised righteous king. Below, Blakeman’s depiction of the visionary prophecy of Ezekiel (Chapter 47.)

The Beauty of Mosie Burks


One of the most beautiful women in America is someone you may never have heard of. By saying this, I am referring to a concept of beauty that transcends the contemporary, much too usual, sense of beauty that is shaped by outward appearance. What I have in mind here is a deeper sense of that word, one that is anchored in goodness and truth, and in a personal and vibrant faith.

Mosie Burkes reminds me of my Swedish-descended grandmother. On the face of it, that seems like a ridiculous statement. Yet, to my knowledge both women have shared the same deep faith, while having very different cultural ways of expressing that truth. For sure, there is a world of difference between Mosie, an African-American Church of Christ woman born of sharecropping parents in pre-Civil Rights rural Mississippi, and my own forbear, Lydia, who grew up in an 1890’s immigrant family in Minneapolis in a Swedish Baptist church. Yet, both women are faith-shaping for me, but in varying ways. There is a truism that can help me and others parse this: if we have grown up as persons of faith, a grandmother often has been a significant part of the picture. And, for many, Mosie Burks may be that substitute grandmother.

Paradoxically, it may be my Swedish great-grandfather who perhaps also accounts for my appreciation for Mosie Burks. He left Sweden in the 1890’s to come to America as a dissident Baptist – not only from the Anglican Communion-friendly Church of Sweden, but from his own fellow Baptists. Why? Because, as best as we can discern, his proclivity toward Pentecostal experience. After founding a Swedish language newspaper in Minneapolis, and in pursuing local ministry, he then engaged in missions to South America.

As much as my own spiritual and liturgical instincts run in an old-fashioned Anglican direction (“Let all mortal flesh keep silence…”), preferring reflective and mystical forms of worship, I am stopped in my tracks by Mosie Burks and her singing with the Mississippi Mass Choir. When I watch her sing, along with that magnificent choir, I have the sense that the spirit of my great grandfather rises up within me. Yet, I do not want to deny the universal appeal of her talent and that of the ministry of her choir. YouTube even has a comment, in French, from a self-identifying Muslim, who adores Mosie’s singing.

I think that the power of Mosie Burks’ singing with the Mississippi Mass Choir has a lot to do with her unrestrained and unselfconscious authenticity. In several of her videos we see moments where, ‘slain by the Spirit,’ Bernini’s Baroque sculpture, ‘St Theresa in Ecstasy,’ becomes transposed through a music video into contemporary Jackson, MS.

As she gives herself to her music – and this is a key point – Mosie unconsciously embodies in her voice and movement the heartfelt significance of the words she shares with us.

Wouldn’t we – self-restrained as we usually are – want to give ourselves to Jesus in such a self-revealing way? Well, as a descendent of far-northern European immigrants to America, I know my usual answer to that question! And this is why – for me – Mosie’s approach to singing the Gospel and in demonstrating her faith is so compelling. Watching her sing, with such power, finds me saying to myself, I want to go to her church!

God bless you, Mosie Burks!


Look for Mosie Burks and the Mississippi Mass Choir on YouTube. The images above are stills taken from music videos available through that medium.  I especially recommend among her repertoire these: “When I Rose this Morning;” “I’m Not Tired Yet;” and “They Got the Word.” Some of her videos were recorded when she was in her 80’s!

The Beauty of Reconciliation


This past weekend I had the joy of being present at the ordination and consecration as Bishop of Virginia of my former student, faculty assistant, and later colleague in ministry, Mark Stevenson. He brings many gifts to his new diocese and to the wider Church, among them his deep spiritual grounding, his capacity as a professional administrator, and his ability in nurturing and sustaining relationships. His consecration was a beautiful liturgy, enhanced by the powerful words and prayerful leadership of our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry.

Bishop Curry’s sermon focused on the reconciling power of love, and he drew our attention to a monumental statue in the downtown area of Richmond. Given the recent removal of Civil War-related statuary from Monument Avenue in that city, this was an auspicious reference for him to make. Then, through what he shared, we learned that there are three such statues: this one in Richmond; another in Liverpool, England; and the third in Ghana, the source point for many of the slaves transported to the New World during the slave trade.

Making Bishop Curry’s reference to these three statues more meaningful was his brief elucidation of the the ‘Triangle,’ the classic slave route wherein slaves from central west Africa were removed from their homelands; their transport to Richmond and similar New World ports for sale; the subsequent loading of those ships with crops such as sugar, cotton, and tobacco; the transport of those goods to ports in the Old World like Liverpool; and then upon the sale of those goods, another trip down to Ghana and the Benin coast for a further shipload of slaves. And underscoring the significance of these facts was the presence at that consecration by the Bishop of Ghana and the Bishop of Liverpool.

The offering collected at that liturgy was designated for the benefit of a compelling new fund to enable young persons to retrace the steps of the Triangle, for the sake of insight and learning.

The Richmond version of the Reconciliation monument sits in a location that seems incongruous at first. It is tucked into a relatively small plaza, with large downtown buildings behind it, and a freeway overpass and the historic Richmond rail depot across the street from it. But then, upon looking at the additional background information provided by interpretive plaques and signs, a visitor discovers that the placement of this monument was deliberate, putting it on the trail that slaves in the process of being sold would have walked, from the James River bank, to the markets where their fate would be determined.

Note, in the above photo of a marker set in the concrete pathway, how the slaves on their way to market are portrayed chained together by the neck. And how in the photo at the top, the slave ships and their human cargo are depicted on a lower panel of the monument.

Bishop Curry added a significant insight about these three Reconciliation monuments. The most important thing they communicate, though rooted in particular histories of particular peoples, is that the figures represented cannot be categorized by race or ethnicity, nor by biological sex or gender identity. Instead, they portray what it means to be human in the most basic and best sense. And how we make our selves and our communities more whole when we practice reconciliation through loving one another.

Here it is important to remember that love and reconciliation are not just the fruit of feelings; they are rooted in choice and in a decision to enact what one comes to know is true. A paraphrase from St. Augustine: ‘Do you know what you love?’ ‘Do you love what you know?’

Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending (The Beauty of His Return)

Jim Janknegt: I will make all things new (2005)


The title of this post comes from Charles Wesley’s hymn-text adaptation of words from Revelation that refer to the Second Coming of Christ in glory: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him” (Rev 1:7). In this first week of Advent, and perhaps having sung Wesley’s hymn on Sunday, we need to explore what this ‘wailing’ may involve.

Many people today regard the Second Coming as something prompting fear about a Final Judgment. This may be one cause for the wailing that Wesley anticipates. Though texts in Revelation, as well as in the Gospels, certainly involve this theme, Revelation’s author is also very clear in expressing a faith that Christ’s return will involve restoration, the fulfillment of promises, and the beauty of shared glory. Hence, the wailing may also reflect holy sorrow stemming from a deepened awareness of personal sin, accompanied by ‘tears of joy’ over being forgiven.

Wesley’s verse 2 of his hymn predicts the first dimension of wailing: “Every eye shall now behold him, robed in dreadful majesty; those who set at nought and sold him, pierced, and nailed him to the tree, deeply wailing, … shall the true Messiah see.” Verse 3 describes the second dimension: “Those dear tokens of his passion still his dazzling body bears, cause of endless exultation to his ransomed worshipers; with what rapture, … gaze we on those glorious scars!”

Words in Revelation, preceding and following its prediction about how “all tribes of the earth will wail,” provide a foundation for hope. The author says at the beginning of this last book of the Bible (1:4-5), “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from … Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead…” And then (in 1:8) we find, “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come…’”

These words are echoed near the end of Revelation, where we find a description of the New Jerusalem and a renewed Creation. Among them are these: “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new'” (21:5).

Jim Jaknegt’s painting, I will make all things new, expressively captures the positive dimension of these themes and the ground for hope that lies in the beauty of the Lord’s return. All things! That is a phrase worth exploring in terms of quite a number of biblical texts, especially Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

In the first chapter, Paul writes, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (1:16-17). Paul then indicates (1:19-20) the ground for hope regarding “all things,” which Janknect suggestively depicts: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven…”  God’s ultimate goal in all this is reconciliation rather than condemnation, even though people who dismiss God’s ongoing work of reconciliation may find themselves brought to sadness.

Notice the pronounced swirling motion in Janknegt’s painting, as all things are caught up into the returned Lord’s orbit. But all people? For unlike flora and fauna, as well as inanimate objects, human beings made in God’s image and likeness possess the freedom of will either to accept or to refuse God’s initiatives to reconcile us into divine intimacy. This is why there may be at least two dimensions to the wailing that the Lord’s return is likely to initiate. For grief over sin may bear fruit in repentance.

We should therefore note the words of invitation at the end of Revelation: “‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20)


Jim Janknegt is a painter who is based in the Austin, Texas, area, who has produced a remarkably large body of work based on biblical themes and imagery. The website featuring his work can be found at I have admired, and with his permission have featured, his images for many years. Lo! He comes with clouds descending appears as Hymn 57 in The Episcopal Church’s The Hymnal 1982.