In Isaiah 61:1-3 the poet prophet writes that he has been anointed “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor . . . to comfort all who mourn . . . to give them a garland instead of ashes”.
You may recognize some of these words from Luke 4:18ff where Jesus incorporates them into his first sermon preached from the synagogue in Nazareth. He receives a rather mixed reaction from that congregation, some of whom spoke well of him and were amazed at his words, while others drove him out of town, ready to hurl him off the cliff. Tough audience!
It’s the last phrase from Isaiah’s quote, not included in Jesus’ sermon; that catches my eye and ear this week: a garland instead of ashes. This is an image of hope.
When the bible speaks of ashes it is usually in the context of despair, loss, and mourning. A distraught person pours ashes over their head, or sits in the ash heap, unable to move forward. Ashes are symbolic of defeat – the end. Think cremation – think “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.
In contrast, a garland was symbolic of victory. The garland was placed upon the head of the victor. Used as a crown for a king, this wreath like trophy was worn with pride. In the Olympic and other games, a wreath of garland was awarded the winner of the race. This symbol is one that dates well back to even Isaiah’s day.
Could there be a more contrasting pair of images? It’s transformational. The poet prophet says the good news comes to us as an exchange – a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantel of praise instead of a faint spirit. All of this coming to those who are with little or no hope – the oppressed, brokenhearted, captives and prisoners. And the one who brings it – who makes it possible – is God with us, Emmanuel.
When I became a pastor I began to receive an education. My formal training done at the seminary, I was schooled by those of my congregation and community – many of whom taught me that this time of year is often a hard time because of a loss they have known, and of which they find so many reminders. For some hope is distant. Hope is fleeting. They may feel more like sitting in the ash heap than joining the carol sing or Christmas party.
Others of us might look at the news headlines of our day and conclude there is little that brings us hope. Every day, multiple times a day, there is more news of violence, corruption, and despair. And it comes at us, over and over us, in waves through so many more mediums than we used to know. Ours is a noisy world, which can leave us feeling numb if not a bit tone deaf to all that clamors for our attention.
To proclaim hope, then, is to swim upstream – to run up the escalator that is so quickly moving you back down. It’s easier to join the ash heap. But God has not called us to dwell there. God offers an exchange – a garland instead of ashes. Hope instead of despair. God offers a new perspective, good news for a change, for all – for you.
It’s a wonderful life. Let us hope in it through Christ.