For Christians, Isaiah 61 is famous because Jesus reading the Isaiah scroll at the synagogue in Nazareth is one of the opening moments of his ministry (see Luke 4:16-22). As described in Rabbi Telushkin's excellent book, Jewish Literacy, there is a long tradition in synagogues to cycle through the Bible (Torah) systematically through public readings. How amazing that Jesus received the Isaiah scroll when he was invited to come up and read! The passage in Isaiah 61 begins:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor...
Jesus wraps up the passage there, since these are the sections that he applied to his ministry, saying, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."
Christians interpret the remainder of the passage as applying to his second coming:
...and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve in Zion--to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.
The entire chapter is a beautiful passage of hope, redemption, and renewal, and there is plenty in these first 3 verses alone to home in on.
I've usually read this passage as applying to other people--I think of Christ's first and second coming as mentioned above or I think about how Christ's ministry modeled for us how to care for the poor and downtrodden. I know that I'm part of what he came to redeem and renew, but somehow this passage reminds me primarily of 1st century Israel and then a future point when all will be made right. And it's true that this is what this passage is about.
But when one has been through a year like I have, there is cause for personalizing this passage even further. There are many of us who have been brokenhearted these past few years, and it is important to acknowledge that, as well as acknowledge the Source of our healing. There are also many today in captivity to something that is not in our best interests, things that we need to be released from.
I have spoken to a handful of people in the past few weeks where we mutually acknowledged that God brought deliverance to us in the strangest way possible, and yet it is impossible to deny that great good came out of the terrible circumstances. For me, prayers to be established in a new community and to embark on what God has in store for my family to do were answered by a cancer diagnosis through which remarkable things just started to happen. A friend predicted that my family would be brought even closer together, and it was so. A prayer partner told me about the spiritual experience that praying for my daughter brought about. Every conceivable Christian denomination as well as people who don't identify with any religion or denomination contributed to months of concerted prayer on our behalf. It was humbling to recognize this and exciting to hear of what this level of activity did for the people who were participating. God was using this moment for renewal.
Through this, I didn't have the strong sense of God's presence that I sometimes have. A numbness sets in with a cancer diagnosis. And yet, we received gifts of the Spirit. Peace. Joy. Patience (for the most part!). Gentleness. Self-control. I was able to be more open to hearing the concerns of others, even if I was prevented from doing much beyond praying. Even in this, I learned the wise lesson that there is a time for everything, and sometimes one is in a time when one needs to receive rather than give, even though we don't often talk about this. Interestingly, I think some people wondered if we were for real--if our peace was legitimate or put on. I can say truthfully, it was the real deal and the peace wasn't mine. It was gifted. Although--and I'd strongly recommend this to others--I'd had years of practice of stilling my mind and quieting my spirit through meditative practice and focus on Scripture. Seriously, it works! And God gifted us to continue this sense of peace even when we didn't have the mental focus to put in the time to meditate for long periods. Isaiah 61 says that His people will be called "oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor." Yes, that.
Trees are another one of those go-to metaphors that Isaiah loves. We've seen many kinds of trees throughout this book. As the site, Banner (https://www.thebanner.org/features/2020/04/the-spiritual-significance-of-trees), says, Isaiah is the "Bible tree guy"! He's the Biblical author who mentions trees the most frequently. And now we have oaks of righteousness in this passage. The righteousness is truly not anything we can do on our own--we have to be planted by the Lord. Funny how He often gets us in circumstances in which the choice is only to submit to the planting and receive the blessing or rail against it and harm oneself. This time, we chose the former, thank You, Lord!
And it all is for the display of his splendor and glory. That may seem self-serving and a little masochistic--that is, that God allows us to go through terrible things so that He may be glorified. But here's the thing. We have no idea how our lives interweave with one another, all butterfly-effect like. A teenage girl with cancer sparks spiritual renewal in others, puts her friends and family on a path to bring about their highest good, builds prayer communities in a spirit of concerted unity across every conceivable belief system...these things are not inconsequential. Our lives matter, not just so that we have happy, pleasant times, but in order to matter collectively. As one of my favorite authors, Steve Garber, frequently says, our lives are "implicated" in the lives of others. We do not live to ourselves, even when we don't at all acknowledge this truth. There is indeed a butterfly effect, and we have no idea how all the inter-weavings work and, yes, He is taking a meta-view to all of this and seeing what is the ultimate good of all and directing things to happen in that way. Along the way, He does see the individual pain and can give comfort and care either directly or through others or both.
Elevation Worship has a song, Graves Into Gardens (https://youtu.be/KwX1f2gYKZ4) that has elements from Isaiah 61, particularly verse 3: "crown of beauty instead of ashes." Much of my early academic research was on grief and loss (note: yes, education can be incredibly helpful in everyday life when you study topics like that!) including cultural practices, and many in the ancient world (and some today) put ashes on their heads as a sign of grieving. In some ways, I wish some of these markers of grief were more mainstream in American society. In our constant denials and avoidance of illness, suffering, pain, and death, we have no idea to what extent people are suffering privately because they are expected to "buck it up," put on a smile, and show up at work. Putting ashes on your head would communicate to others that while you are resuming life, the pain is fresh and you are still grieving. Many of us need some kind of a sign on ourselves to communicate that we could use some special care right now. Ashes as mourning are the reason why Catholics put ashes on their foreheads for Ash Wednesday, to begin the season of Lent in humility, with a reminder of our own mortality.
There is a time for mourning.
And yet, Isaiah 61 tells us that the good news of the Messiah's coming results in beauty for ashes. And, beyond what the Elevation Worship song says, some translations say that it's a "crown of beauty" or a "garland of beauty." The context, in Hebrew, is to replace imagery of mourning with the imagery of a bridal procession, starting with a garland as for a bride, and culminating in new bridal garments in verse 10.
We don't find our own garland or crown of beauty. It's bestowed. My name (Stephanie) in Greek means crowned one, and it's so encouraging to personalize this and say that He gives me a crown of beauty in place of my ashes. We also have a hint here in verse three of the bridal garments coming. He'll give us a "garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair."
When I first read that verse, I just sat with it and let it sink in. I again love the NRSV translation: "the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit." It was the word that I needed in that moment. I had been given the grace to persevere in peace and patience for four months straight, not to mention that life wasn't exactly a cakewalk prior to that diagnosis. But I enjoy feeling the Lord's presence. As discussed in my other blog entries, I read across the entire Christian spectrum routinely, not to mention across other faith traditions. For the past 5 years or so, I've veered toward the contemplative tradition in my private devotions. I think they offer something that we've lost in modern Christianity that is such a Biblical idea: union with God, communion with the Lord, abiding in Him. Just sitting and meditating and worshipping Him. Letting psalms and prayers of others wash over you. Looking at nature and letting that inspire thoughts, words, and one's reception of what the Lord is saying. I'm convinced that Christ engaged in contemplative prayer--He did what so many contemplatives do in waking up to pray through the sunrise, in a high spot looking out at nature, spending significant hours just basking in the Lord's presence.
These things I love. And yet, when one's body is physically reeling from a difficult situation, it's like all the emotions get turned off. And while our human emotions may often be suspect, we are told to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37), which includes emotions. Cutting off that that valve is like living in a tunnel. The echoes are weird and certain sounds are not getting in. You have to just move forward with your last known directive, because the only options are to stay put, go back, or go forward.
Reading Isaiah 61 the weekend after my daughter's tumor surgery made me feel like I was coming out of the tunnel. I saw light twinkling at the tunnel exit. And I prayed verse 3 to the Lord:
Please give me a garment of praise instead of a faint spirit.
I am weak right now, but I am a person who is typically inclined toward joy and music and life. I need my song to be restored, and for it to be draped across my body which has been physically and emotionally weakened.
Because, in addition to my own and my family's healing, there is the need for much work to be done. We've come back to the "oaks of righteousness" phrase that was mentioned earlier. The rest of the passage talks about what these restored people will do, things like:
Rebuild ancient ruins
Restore places long devastated
Minister before the Lord
God's restoration is not just that we live blessed lives (#blessed!) but that we be a blessing to others. In between Christ's first and second comings, we are His hands and feet here. We are in His image to do His work. How are we doing with that? As we look toward the Year of the Lord's favor (the NIV title for Isaiah 61), are we living out the ministry that He began while He was living here physically?
To Christians, Isaiah 61 is about the onset of Christ's ministry and the conclusion of it as well. But in a year when I decidedly felt that I was absolutely not existing in a year of the Lord's favor, I think I actually was. He is the Source to gift us with comfort, beauty, gladness, and praise for our highest good and to equip us to participate in His renewal and redemption of all things.
May it be so, Lord. May we participate in Your renewal of all things and may we indeed be fertile ground for Your planting, Your well-planned time of renewal.