The Visitation: An Interview with Artist James Janknegt

This Advent I have been captivated by Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary. I am drawn to her circumstances, but also very much to the wisdom and mystery of her. I know what it is to struggle with infertility and then to be surprised by Life. The other things? The patience, kindness, and strength...they elude me. I have spent this season asking God how to lean into Elizabethness, and the asking brought a delightful gift.

I discovered this painting by James Janknegt aptly titled The Visitation. Every time I look at it I make a new discovery and I find that this story is settling into my bones. The painter describes his work as "contemporary icons," scriptural truth in a modern setting. I asked him if I could interview him for this blog. I wanted to share his work with you. It is my deep pleasure to invite you into my conversation with James Janknegt:

The Visitation  by James B. Janknegt • oil/canvas • 18”x36” • 2008

The Visitation by James B. Janknegt • oil/canvas • 18”x36” • 2008

Michelle: Why do you paint?

James Janknegt: I always wanted to be an artist. I feel like being a painter is my vocation. I originally struggled with the idea when I first became a Christian when I was 17. I didn’t know of any contemporary artists who were Christians and I wasn’t sure that being a painter was a valid pursuit. I had a mystical experience while browsing through a Salvador Dali book in a mall bookstore. I opened the book to his painting of St. John of the Cross and I felt God speak to me in that clear, inaudible voice that to be a painter was my vocation. Ever since then I have pursued that with all my heart.

M: Why paint icons?

JJ: I don’t think to be a Christian and an artist one must paint religious work. Any kind of expression of creativity is a participation in the creative work of God. But around 2000 I decided that I would only paint religious work. I think it was a bit like, “If you were going to die and could only paint one painting what would you paint?”  I admitted that my faith was the center of my life that everything else revolved around, so why wasn’t I making paintings about that? I mean, it is the “greatest story every told” and I think every generation deserves to have that story told in the vernacular of their own time. So that is what I set out to do: paint religious paintings in the spirit of the great religious painters of the medieval world but in a contemporary way.

Art is about incarnating ideas, putting flesh and bones on stories.
— James Janknegt

M: I think that was what first captured me about this painting, the story is told in the vernacular of my time. The personalities are recognizable but made even more familiar by the setting. I notice that you have several different pieces on the topic of The Visitation. What is it about this event that continues to captivate you? 

JJ: The visitation is one of the first powerful windows looking into the incarnation. As soon as Jesus is conceived, Mary goes to her cousin Elizabeth who is already six months pregnant with John. Both John and Elizabeth acknowledge the presence of Jesus as the Messiah, John by jumping in the womb of Elizabeth and Elizabeth by prophesying full of the Holy Spirit, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” That the Creator of the universe consents to spend nine months in the womb of a woman is mind boggling. It reminds me of the passage in Philippians 2:

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

M: Your work is so impacted by your faith, do you find the reverse to be true? How does art impact your faith?

JJ: I love art history and love going to museums. I also love looking at art books. I used to go to the art library when I was in school and just roam up and down the aisles pulling out art books and looking at them. I particularly am drawn to religious art. Just as the visitation speaks so powerfully about the incarnation, likewise art is about incarnating ideas, putting flesh and bones on stories. When I see a work of art that takes the abstract forms: lines, colors, shapes and values and weaves them into a composition that visually speaks the same thing that the story is telling, I am deeply moved. One of my favorite artists is Ben Shahn who wrote a book called The Shape of Content. His point is that the formal elements of a work of art are what tells the story. The shapes, lines, color and composition are what speak on a deep level to the viewer. If the artist is just concerned with “ telling the story,” without telling the story through the visual elements what you end up with is bad Sunday School illustrations.

M: What role does contemplation, observation or paying attention play in your work?

JJ: I hope that my work is a combination of deep study of the scripture, informed by the teaching of the Church along with a deep visual understanding of the world around me. I am not trying to recreate 1st century Jerusalem in my paintings. I try, through prayerful study of the scripture, to understand it in the context of the original culture in which it was written. Then I attempt to translate that into contemporary visual American life. So, the paintings end up being a blend of the objective truth of scripture and the subjective experience of my life.

Thank you James!

James Janknegt is a prolific painter! Many of his paintings (including the one above) are available as prints. Do visit his website:

If you would like to use James' work as a starting point for worship, choose a time and place free of distractions. It can be helpful to some people to journal during this exercise. If you are one of these people, be ready with paper and pen (but also be willing to put your pen down when needed). Scroll through his various pieces (click here to find them) and notice which one you are drawn to. Click on it to enlarge and then prayerfully consider the piece. Use the following questions as a guide as long as they serve you:

Why am I drawn to this piece?

Consider/journal what it is about this work that draws you to it at this moment.

Ask the Holy Spirit to make connections for you, to form a prayer in you.

Listen. If you find that your mind has wandered, take a moment to offer that stray thought to the Lord, and then settle back into a listening posture.

Give yourself some time to ponder the experience. Give yourself at least 24 hours. Then consider these questions:

Was this a new experience for you?

Did you notice any resistance to the exercise? Where do you think that came from?

In what ways were you called?

Can you use this technique of noticing what draws your attention, asking the Holy Spirit what He might have for you, in another context during your day?

Once you start to practice noticing and listening, it will become a habit. It will become a way of "praying without ceasing."

Homing Instinct

Is it faith
In the stories
Passed through generations,
One freckled butterfly
To the next
That carries them brave
Over seething seas?
Is it hope
In the fragrant fields or
The promise of nectar
Sweet for their children
That steers their purposeful wanderings?
Is it devotion
That tethers the bee to her hive,
That enables her to carry
Four miles of heathered hills,
lilac and clover
inside her brain the size
of a grass seed?
How do Jews always know where Jerusalem is?
How do Muslims know which way to turn
To face Mecca?
Most of the time, I don’t even know where I am or
Where I’m going
Let alone the direction of
My hidden home.
                              —Michelle Winter

O Rod and Root of Jesse

This is the third night of candle lighting and those three candles are starting to drive the darkness back. We can see by them now. The first candle was lit on the 17th, the candle for Wisdom. The second, the Lord candle was lit on the 18th. The third candle is for the Rod and Root of Jesse. Traditionally these are both sung on the same day. We like to separate them so that we can ponder each one a little longer.

The Rod of Jesse and the Root of Jesse are two sides of the Messiah. He will be the Jewish Messiah, coming through the lineage of Jesse. He will be a branch on that family tree. Isaiah uses the Hebrew word netzer for branch in Chapter 11:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord
 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.

As I understand it, the word netzer+the feminine ending designated by the letter Tav, is the word Nazaret (or Nazareth). This is a sign to the Jewish people. Your God will deliver you. He is sending you a Branch of Jesse's tree to save you.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse's stem
From every foe deliver them
That trust thy mighty pow'r to save,
And give them victory o'er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

The Root of Jesse's Tree is the Source, God Himself. Messiah will be Before All Ages, the Root. This is Messiah for the Gentiles. Those who do not understand the lineage come to Messiah because He is also the Root. God of all. He will be a banner for all peoples, calling them to Himself. And this Root will also reclaim His lost remnant in the same way, calling them to their Source.

In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious. In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the Mediterranean. ~Isaiah 11: 10-11

And so tonight and tomorrow, we call to Him who is the Beginning and the End. Come soon!

O come, Thou Root of Jesse's tree,
An ensign of Thy people be;
Before Thee rulers silent fall;
All peoples on Thy mercy call.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

O Adonai

Yesterday was the First Day of the Last Week. It was the night we cried out for the Messiah to come, calling Him by His Name, Wisdom From On High. Tonight we call him by His Name, Adonai, Mighty Lord. We also thank him for giving us The Law. Why would we do that? Why celebrate The Law when the One Who Set Us Free is so close?

My family hangs apples on our Christmas Tree. Each year each person takes an apple, to symbolize his or her sin. Each one asks the Holy Spirit to bring to mind sins we need to confess. We discuss The Law. It is important to know. It was given to us so that we could see more clearly the difference between the holy and the secular. We need this yardstick to measure our distance from God so that The Bridge can be appreciated. We then each hang a Melba toast, one for each of us, to symbolize The Bread of Life. The apple is death, the bread is Life.

Tonight we will light the second candle and sing:

O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai's height
In ancient times once gave the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

This stanza reminds us of God's unfathomable power. He brought then and brings still, the slaves out of captivity. It also reminds us that God keeps His Promises:

 “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and … he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God.” ~Isaiah 9:6
Behold the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch; As king he shall reign wisely, he shall do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord Our Righteousness.” ~Jeremiah 23:5-6
"The Lord will be our Mighty One; for the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king, it is he who will save us." ~Isaiah 33:22


The Last Seven Days

During the Dark Ages, well before 800 AD, a monk reading in Isaiah was inspired to write some poetry. He wrote seven stanzas of longing for the Messiah. Each stanza addresses the coming Messiah by one of the names recorded in Isaiah. Monks began to chant his poem. Eventually, each stanza became associated with one day of the last seven days before Christmas. To this day, they are sung each night from the 17th to the 24th around the world. They are often called the O Antiphons, because each stanza begins with O. In the 1800's the poem was set to music and we know it as the beloved "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," the most ancient Christmas carol that still survives.

Today we enter the final phase of Advent. The waiting is almost over, and we begin to rise. The King is close, oh, so very close. Our yearning for Him is more insistent. We beg him to come. And the O Antiphon for today is:

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orders all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

Isaiah often calls the coming Messiah "Wisdom."

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and … he will be called Wonderful Counselor.” ~Isaiah 9:6
"The spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord." ~Isaiah 11:2-3
“All this comes from the Lord Almighty, wonderful in counsel and magnificent in wisdom." ~Isaiah 28:29

Tonight we will light one candle against the darkness. That flame will stand for our hope in the Promise of God, that He will send Himself, that He will be the Lamp. That lone flickering candle that gives us just enough light to ask for Wisdom enough to follow Him. For His Presence to grow in us a thirst for more Presence. O come Wisdom from on high!

And He Was Filled With the Holy Spirit

Nine months of silence. That's a long time. That's enough time to stop struggling against it, and accept it. It's enough time to go beyond acceptance to appreciation. It's enough time to learn to listen, and to observe. Yes, that's enough time to allow the silent exterior to permeate the noisy interior. It's enough time to settle your spirit and become silent in your soul.

And what evidence do we have that Zechariah did just that?

Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God.

~Luke 1:64

Zechariah's first words after nine months of silence? Praise. And his next words? Blessing. He blessed the nation and then he blessed his son.

Today I feel my heart turn towards my children. I want to intentionally bless them this Advent season so that they, too, are prepared to enter Christmas. I want to build them up, encourage them towards the way they should go. My list for this week: listen, observe, bless.



When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and gripped with fear.

Yep. That would be me, too. My stumbling faith, my inconsistent trust, it is hard for me to imagine that I wouldn't be startled at the sight of an angel of the Lord. Hard to imagine being fearless before him. And I don't think I could immediately toss aside my fear when told: "Do not be afraid." No, I'm pretty sure I don't know how to do that.

Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this?"

And there I am again. The angel of the Lord saying that God has heard my impossible prayer and is many times I have seen God answer impossible prayers, and I find those answers to be terrifying. Terrifying in power. Terrifying in what the answered prayer requires of me. I too prayed for children. For nine years we begged God to send us children. When He answered I was overwhelmed with the gift but also the weight of responsibility. He gave us three children in 18 months and I wasn't sure how I would survive all this blessing. Of course, the only way was on my knees, but I feel for Zechariah. I would have questions too. Questions about details, about outcomes, assurances and I'd wonder what exactly I had just signed up for.

"And now you will be silent and not be able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time."

I used to think that the angel was punishing Zechariah, the way this sentence is constructed seems to imply that silence is a consequence for unbelief. But now I think differently. I think that silence is an antidote for unbelief. Big things come out of silence. In the beginning, Light and Life were born out of silence. Silence is not Nothing. Silence is Presence. Creation was not birthed from Nothing, it was birthed from His Presence. God is giving Zechariah a chance to keep silent, a chance to experience His Presence. He is preparing him for the Gift. The gift of fatherhood, as well as the gift of the coming Messiah. Just like the season of winter is not a season of Nothing, but a season of flickering life deep within the ground, so silence guards that flickering Life, that flickering Faith, and allows the Spirit to breathe it into flame.

Listen to the rest of the song and album here.

The End of the World

This is the season of the Little Apocalypse. The word apocalypse means "unveiling," and for a few weeks at this time of year the readings in many churches revolve around the end times. Even churches that do not use a prescribed reading program often preach sermons on the End Times during this season. Not everyone notices that, but it is purposeful. We end the year with the end in mind, with our eyes on the far horizon. I love that the American holiday of Thanksgiving falls at the end of the Church Calendar. The metaphors are so fitting, and I am a lover of good metaphors. We gather together and share a feast just as we will gather in Heaven around the Wedding Feast. We speak aloud our gratitude for the mercies of the previous year, just as we will be overcome in the Presence of the Beautiful One and shout aloud our gratitude and praise. 

And it will be good.

This morning I opened my eyes to a new day and a New Year. It is the first day of Advent. But this day is also a part of the Little Apocalypse. The readings for this day are from Jesus' last discourse:

Jesus said to his disciples: Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch. Watch, therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: "Watch!"

So, we start with the end, with an unveiling. Really, isn't everything an unveiling? God is always opening our eyes, always connecting dots for us. Our lives are filled with endings, that turn out to be beginnings, that turn out to be unveilings. I know (and love) so many people who have struggled this year with endings, truly devasting endings, and I have seen God unveil Himself to them, I have seen the green shoots of beginnings growing through the ashes. This turn of the seasons reminds us to hope.

And speaking of watching and gatekeepers, there was a gatekeeper assigned by blood to keep the watch at the temple gate. He was a righteous man. When it fell to him to burn incense and offer up the prayer for the nation of Israel, he took his job seriously. He entered in and fervently prayed for his people and begged that the Messiah would come. To this prayer he joined his wounded heart. He was childless and he knew the ache of desire for a son. He prayed from his belly, from the very depths of himself. He cried out for them all, "Send us a Child!" I don't know if Zechariah knew he was praying two prayers, one for himself and one for his people, but God answered both of them.

I am fascinated by this Advent-man, this Preparer of the Way. We know from Psalm 50 (among many others) that a man the Bible calls "righteous" has offered his heart to God along with  obedience and gratitude. I read through several chapters in First Chronicles to see what Zechariah's duties might have been. Here are some of them: he was to keep watch at the gate, to share duties with his brothers, to burn the incense, to hold the key, to take care of the linens, care for the flour, wine, oil, incense and spices, to mix the spices, bake the bread, and sing day and night. I see many of my daily chores in this sacred list.

What if I who am also called out of my endings to keep watch, what if I also blessed each moment? What if I said Grace, or said a blessing before getting out of bed, before washing the laundry or the dishes, before baking and cooking? What if I sought to make each moment sacred by offering up my thanks and praise throughout the day? What if I sang day and night, the song of longing, the song of the redeemed, a song of sorrow, a song of hope and thanks. Would my heart then be prepared to receive the Gift that is coming? This is my intention this Advent season. I will fail often, but I am overwhelmed with need for the Beautiful One to unveil Himself and make a beginning from my endings, so I look forward to this Advent, following in the steps of Zechariah.

Lectio Divina

It is my practice to prepare for Advent by reading through the beginning of Luke, specifically everything leading up to and including the birth of Christ, before Advent actually begins. The kind of reading that I do is called Lectio Divina. I thought this might be the time and place to discuss it.

There are so many books written about this ancient practice. Theologians of many denominations and God-followers for well over 2,000 years have engaged in and attempted to teach lectio divina. I suspect that might be the problem. Lectio Divina is very simple but it is remarkably deep and I think that theologians with over 2,000 years on their hands have perhaps given the impression that this technique is either difficult or irrelevant. It is neither.

So here it is, all you need to know about lectio divina:

In order to successfully engage in lectio divina it is necessary to believe these things:

  1. The Word of God is alive.
  2. God has something to say to you.

And it is necessary to do these things:

  1. Read with alert attention.
  2. Listen for God's heart speaking to your heart through His Words.

This type of reading is different from studying in that the goal is not to pick apart the text, to analyze or explain it. The goal is to listen. When I start, I settle myself prayerfully. I let go of distractions so that I can listen with alert attention. I bow my heart and whisper, "Speak Lord, your servant is listening." Then I begin to read. I am reading with alert attention, looking for something that jumps out at me. Christine Valters Paintner says, "listen for a word or phrase that beckons you, addresses you, unnerves you, disturbs you, stirs you or seems especially ripe with meaning--what I describe as a word or phrase that 'shimmers.'"  I am asking the Lord to teach me this Advent by giving me some aspect of the season on which to focus, meditate and grow.

When I am finished reading, I usually sit silently before the Lord waiting for Him to make connections for me. Then I read the text a second time and tuck the stirrings into my heart to ponder throughout the season. Henri Nouwen says, "A listening heart therefore means a heart in which we stand open to God with all we are and have." This is how I want to spend my Advent, standing open to God with all I am and have so that on Christmas Day my heart will be a manger-throne.

At this point, I commit myself to learning the lesson I am asking the Lord to teach. Throughout the season I will go back often to that part of the story that called to me to see if I notice anything new. I will live alert to any lessons He might have for me. I will also consider ways to incorporate what God is teaching me into Christmas this year (as decor? family devotions? gift­ giving? in interactions with family?).

Everything else written about lectio divina is extra stuff meant to help define the experience, or help you to enter in and process the experience more fully. It's all good stuff. St. Benedict organized the practice into 4 steps that basically emphasize the give and take of divine conversation. He (and many theologians after him) recommend reading the text 4 times and listening in a different way each time. Perhaps we will look at those in the future.

For now, the bottom line is that:

  1. Lectio divina=reading with a listening heart.
  2. Advent=readying my heart to receive God-With-Us.

To Everything There is a Season

To Everything there is a season, and though the seasons repeat, there is an opening and a closing to each cycle. There is a rhythm, a breathing in and a breathing out. I am grateful for the rhythm and the repetition. Each time through, I learn something new, I grow in a new way.

The Church Calendar begins with Advent--the expectant waiting for the Promised One. It is a time for opening arms wide so that we can hold the Christ Child close when He arrives. The Church Calendar ends in November with the emphasis on remembering those who have come before and gone on ahead. This is the time to think about what we need to let go. The year has been full and now we remember that the striving and the establishing were not the goals--no, they were never the goals--but merely the work of a season. Now we bow to the Mystery, to the One who has a plan we can't yet see clearly, to the One we trust anyway. It is a time for opening hands and arms wide so that we can hold God's Hands as He extends them to us.

Opening arms wide. When we do that we expose our hearts and leave them vulnerable. So, here in this last month of Ordinary Time, at the end of the Church Year, we practice vulnerability and letting go. Then we enter Advent, the beginning of the Church Year and practice waiting with hands and arms open, we ready and expose our tender hearts to receive Him.

Here is a poem for this season:

The Armful by Robert Frost

For every parcel I stoop down to seize
I lose some other off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns,
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once.
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.
With all I have to hold with hand and mind
And heart, if need be, I will do my best.
To keep their building balanced at my breast.
I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;
Then sit down in the middle of them all.
I had to drop the armful in the road
And try to stack them in a better load.

We can't carry it "all." That's not what we were made for. We were not built as beasts of burden but as light and graceful dancers. We can't even hold all the blessings that God pours out upon us. Perhaps it's time to let the Lord carry the hard things, drop some of the material things, thank Him for the good things and then ask Him what things can be released to make room for Him. He is coming. Soon.