From the Rev: Beauty for Ashes
With the season of Lent beginning in a just a week and a half, my calendar for Wednesday, February 18 is marked “Ash Wednesday.” It is on this particular day that much of the Christian world sets aside a time to receive ashes. It is on this particular day that the themes of repentance are brought to the forefront of Christian minds. The tradition of ashes going back into the ancient times when people would wear sackcloth and places ashes on their forehead as a sign of mourning. But while there is an appropriate time and place for mourning and grieving, Scripture reminds us that there is a time that comes when we are graced with an exchange – His beauty, for our ashes. God’s goodness for our messiness.
Beauty for Ashes: Receiving Beauty
The season of Lent is the ideal time to consider and reflect on the text from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah which reads,
To all who mourn in Israel,
he will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
a joyous blessing instead of mourning,
festive praise instead of despair.
In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks
that the Lord has planted for his own glory. (Isaiah 61:3, NLT)
This particular text has deep meaning for Christians around the world as it follows the early (and scandalous) words read by Jesus of Nazareth early in his ministry. It was to those gathered in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth that he reads Isaiah 61:1-2,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.
After reading the scroll and returning to his seat in the synagogue he spoke,
The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!
Coming in Luke 4, Jesus’ rejection in his hometown of Nazareth wasn’t the typical start to an effective anything (business, movement, ministry). Usually, you win over your friends, family, and neighbors and influence them in order to start up a successful following or tribe. But for the place where Jesus’ had grown up and amongst the people that knew him best, there was nothing but anger and a raging mob to try and kill this blasphemous rabbi.
The crowd couldn’t believe – which means they couldn’t receive – that anyone could claim to bring the Good News, to proclaim release and freedom for the prisoner and oppressed. These were words only to be spoken by the Messiah, the Promised One of Israel. And hadn’t they watched this boy, Jesus, grow up the son of a carpenter? How could he be the Messiah?
Sometimes among the people that I work with – whether the professional athletes, coaches, or executives – there is a disbelief. That there could be freedom, that there could be salvation from the ugliness and messiness of life is beyond their comprehension and belief and sometimes they turn on those who might be trying to encourage them and show them that there is another way; that they can exchange the ashes of their lives for God’s beautiful grace.
Beauty for Ashes: Mourning Comes to an End
The beauty of Scripture is often reflected in the grace of God evident throughout the pages of the entire narrative. I have recently been reading Eugene Peterson‘s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work and Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.‘s Grief and Pain in the Plan of God and have been reminded through the book of Lamentations that part of the purpose and design of this book of descriptive suffering is to remind the reader that there is an end to mourning, there is an end to pain.
This is difficult for anyone to see – whether losing someone you love to sudden death or a long battle with cancer; whether getting cut from a team or facing retirement from a job or career that you love and aren’t ready to give up – there are many pains and griefs that we go through. There are many storms and dark nights that we seemingly cannot find our way out of, but there is the promise of an end. David captures it in Psalm 30:5,
Weeping may endure for a night,
But joy comes in the morning.
While there is a night, there is a coming morning. And the joy that comes with dawn’s light is not because of the sun, rather it is because of the Son. C.S. Lewis spoke of it this way,
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
When we see things in the light of the Son it changes our perspective. When we see things in the light of eternity rather than just the light of day – our whole world and life is changed and transformed. When we see things in the light of Christ, we can understand that our ash heaps can be exchanged for something better, something greater and grander. This is why with CrossTraining we emphasize Pauls’ words to Timothy (I Timothy 4:8) as our motto,
Physical training is of some value but spiritual training is for this life and the life to come.
Beauty for Ashes: Marking and Turning
The distinct moments of Ash Wednesday including marking one’s forehead or hand with ashes and involves contemplating and beginning the movement of repentance. It is a respond to the call of the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’ (Isaiah 40:3). The work of preparation – the way in which we make our selves ready to exchange our ashes for God’s beauty is found in two particular actions.
First, there are holes and gaps to be filled and, second, there are boulders and obstacles to be removed. The roadworks necessary to make smooth and safe the passage of the king in ancient days involved the work of filling the potholes and for removing the rocks that had covered the roadways. In doing this preparation work, the people were ready to receive the king. Any place where the road was found in disrepair – there were severe consequences for the local inhabitants. The herald announced the soon arrival of the king and it was beholden for all to make ready to receive the king.
Perhaps for yourself, in this fast approaching season of Lent, you need to reflect on the act of turning. What are the things in your way with a relationship with God? What are the places in your life that need to be filled with Him? Where are the places of brokenness and hurt and pain that you have carried in your life? Know that you can exchange those things with God and that He will, in its place give you beauty, and freedom, and peace, and joy.
Rev. Brad Kenney