“Moses saw that the bush was on fire, but it was not burning up.” (Ex 3:2) Then, that fire of God’s Spirit began to burn on in Moses to free God’s people and bring them to a new land. This is God’s way.
Recently another devastating summer bushfire came close to where I live when more than 2000 Ha (5000 acres) of forest and farmland (including four homes) were literally reduced to ashes. All leaves, twigs, branches and bushes have been consumed. The ground is bare and white as snow. The ash creates an eerie background for the black statuesque tree trunks and the naked black skeletons of taller shrubs. One thing is certain following such an all-consuming fire: after the winter rains (May to September), from August to December (spring and early summer), the white ashes will be replaced by green shoots on the bushes and trees and a vast variety of blue, white, orange and red spring flowers will emerge from the devastation. The bush will bloom with “wreathes of flowers instead of ashes” (Is 61:3). There is nothing surer!
The church year begins with Advent (looking forward to the coming) which gives way to Epiphany (a time of uncovering the meaning of the coming) which yields to Lent (a time of strengthening and preparation for our participation in the Coming One’s death and resurrection). The ‘beauty from ashes’ theme has caused me to think about the place of ashes and beauty in the times of Advent, Epiphany, Lent and Easter based on Isaiah 61:3 (CEV) “The Lord has sent me to comfort those who mourn… He sent me to give them flowers in place of their sorrow (“to give unto them beauty for ashes” AV/KJV)”. He will do this. There is nothing surer!
Fire & Loss
Ashes can only form as a result of a fierce, destructive fire – less intense fires leave charcoal. I first noticed the presence of ‘fire’ in the Lectionary readings for Advent when the fiery preaching of John the Baptist (Luke 3:1-20) heralded the advent and epiphany of the Messiah. John’s preaching foretold the two types of fire that would accompany the coming servant in his kingly status and mission: an all-consuming, destructive fire of judgement and a purifying, creative fire of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
John fulsomely explains the fires of judgement that would accompany the advent of the Messiah, “An axe is ready to cut the trees down at their roots. Any tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into a fire…” for the Messiah’s “threshing fork is in his hand, and he is ready to separate the wheat from the husks. He will store the wheat in his barn and burn the husks with a fire that never goes out” (Luke 3:9,17). John predicted that, when the Messiah came, the fires of judgement would rage and destroy all that is not from God. It doesn’t sound like John, at that time, would have chosen the themes of “hope”, “peace”, “joy” and “love” as themes to characterize the coming of the Messiah!
The ‘ashes’ of Lent following these fires of Advent and Epiphany seem to be a necessary prelude to the beauty of the new life of Easter followed by the growth of Pentecost. In Jesus’ day ashes represented mourning and are associated with loss, lament and shame. The Bible records mourners as expressing their grief by tears, tearing their clothes and covering their heads with ashes. When Job’s family were killed, he lost his property and his body became leprous, he “sat on the ash-heap to show his sorrow” and when his empathetic friends visited him on the ash-heap they too, “in their great sorrow, tore their clothes, then sprinkled ash on their heads and cried bitterly” (Job 2:8,12). Tamar, after being raped, “tore the robe she was wearing and put ashes on her head. Then she covered her face with her hands and cried loudly as she walked away” (2 Sam 13:19). For Tamar, wailing, torn clothing, and ashes all expressed her shame and grief at what has happened. Today Tamar would probably have been diagnosed with PTSD, for, despite being taken in by family, her trauma meant “she was always sad and lonely.” Ash was probably used as a symbol for mourning because ashes signified mortality. When God told Adam “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen3:19) the Hebrew word is “ash,” as in the above references. Insofar as death and suffering are seen to be ‘judgement,’ ashes are also associated with sin and guilt, but this is not a common association. In the past, Lenten practices have over-emphasized guilt, sin and repentance rather than our human task of facing up to our own and others’ suffering and mortality. Ashes signify the suffering and death that are our participation in this passing-away world. In addition, the theme ‘beauty for ashes’ well summarizes Jesus’ Lenten, testing journey to the cross. The question of Lent then becomes ‘How can we turn the ashes of our lives to beauty?’ Answer: we can’t, God can.
To replace ashes with beauty was Jesus’ mission. The phrase “beauty for ashes” comes from Isaiah 61:3 and this is part of the “Servant Song” that Jesus chose to read when he began his public ministry. Luke records that in the synagogue at Nazareth Jesus “was given the book of Isaiah the prophet.” He unrolled it and read from Isaiah 61 “The Lord’s Spirit has come to me, because he has chosen me to tell the good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to announce freedom for prisoners, to give sight to the blind, to free everyone who suffers, and to say, ‘This is the year the Lord has chosen.’” (Lk 4:17-19). Then he sat down to begin his sermon on that text. Living in an aural culture meant few men could read (Jesus was apparently among them) so, instead, large portions of Scripture were ‘learned by heart.’ Those who heard Jesus would have recalled the words that follow the section that Jesus read… “The Lord has sent me to comfort those who mourn, especially in Jerusalem. He sent me to give them flowers in place of their sorrow, olive oil in place of tears, and joyous praise in place of broken hearts.” (Is 61:3). Then Jesus preached a very short sermon: “What you have just heard me read has come true today.” If we assume that the congregation knew the contents of all of this Servant Song, then Jesus was claiming the Servant’s role to “comfort those who mourn” as his task. The Servant’s comforting, healing role was central for Jesus. He said later, “Blessed are those who mourn – they shall be comforted” because he knew that this was his role and he would do it. So still today Jesus’ Spirit brings forth beauty from the ashes of your life and mine. This is her task.
Isaiah 61 speaks to a deeply traumatized nation whose capital has been destroyed and whose people had become refugees. Here we see the three traditional mourning responses: Tears flowed from their broken hearts. Ashes enshrouded their heads as a sign of their grief and, as a sign of their sadness, dull, heavy, coarse garments weighed down their bodies. Isaiah predicts that the Lord will appoint a Servant who will “comfort their mourning.” There will be no more tears, instead they will be anointed with the joyful oil of celebration. Their drab clothes will be gone, and the Servant will dress them in colorful robes for the coming party. Instead of ashes, the Servant will adorn their heads with a beautiful crown of flowers. In faith we believe Jesus is the servant who will do this for us. Not in some hoped-for future, but here and now in our lives as they are. How?
Ashes and Beauty, Death and Resurrection
Jesus is the link between Ashes and Beauty, Lent and Easter. Jesus could take his Lenten journey to the cross and beyond because he was “focused on the joy that was set before Him.” It was obedience to his Father that led him to the cross and faith in his Father that empowered him to see beyond the cross to “the joy set before him.” The comfort of the Servant Jesus (the party robes, anointing with joy, and a crown of beauty) is given to those who join, and only those who join, Jesus in his Lenten journey.
This will involve ashes, for comfort can only be given to those who mourn. We will suffer, such is our humanity, and following suffering, we will grieve and mourn our losses. This is the only soil in which the seeds of beauty in us can sprout, grow and flower. Mourning is therefore our necessary Lenten journey to the cross. When Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die,” he was repeating Jesus’ call to “take up your cross and follow me.” The intense fire that produces ash is our death to all that belongs to our false self. Such a consuming fire, as Jesus’ experience shows, is essential to uncover our true self ‘hidden in Christ with God’ (“For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” Col 3:3). Viewed in this way, suffering in its myriad forms (including death) are the essential ‘loss of all things in order to gain Christ’ (Phil 3:8). Remember, it is only the resultant ash heap of our lives (Paul calls his ash heap ‘garbage’) that can yield “wreathes of flowers instead of ashes” and that there is only one person who can die to your false self – you! This process of ‘dying to self’ begins now, but it is a ‘becoming’ which is not complete until our bodily resurrection. Meanwhile, in this ‘vale of tears’, we are always learning, daily focusing on, and catching more glimpses of, the beauty and joy which awaits us. Resurrection can only be given to those who join Jesus on his Lenten journey to the cross and then we also join Jesus as he shares with us God’s gift of beauty and joy in resurrection to life.
The gift of beauty for ashes is pure grace, and, though faith and obedience are always present, and comfort a sure promise, beauty revealed to us and in us – is God’s gift alone. And the timing of this gift is not ours to engineer. The gift of beauty for ashes is what John calls our baptism in the fire of the Holy Spirit – the fire that does not consume but renews and regenerates. The journey from Advent, through Epiphany and Lent and on to Easter and Pentecost represents, not only the path that Jesus walked but also the journey we must continually make if we are to follow him. We pass through the fires of loss, then are given the comfort of Spirit and glimpse the beauty, joy and hope that calls us on.
- In Isaiah’s time three rituals were used to signify mourning and receiving the gift of joy in place of grief: adornment of the head (ashes to flowers or ‘crown’) clothing of the body (sackcloth to colorful robes) and ritual actions (weeping or wailing to singing and dancing). What adornments, clothing and actions could your family or community use to ritualize and enable the mourning of Good Friday to prepare for the gift of joy on Easter Sunday?
- How do you respond to these sayings on beauty?
- “When we see Beauty she always introduces her companions: joy and love.”
- “Beauty, Truth and Goodness form a divine triad. No one of these can exist without the presence of the others.”
- “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty – that is all you know on earth, and all you need to know” (John Keats).
- The tree in the photo is a desert tree called a “gimlet” (EUCALYPTUS salubris) from Kalgoorlie (Western Australia). The gimlet has a smooth copper colored trunk and branches which reflect the glow in the setting sun. When I photographed this one I thought of the bush that Moses saw ‘which burned but was not consumed’.