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Beauty from Ashes

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Beauty from Ashes

The Lord has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners . . . 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. (Isaiah 61:1, 3)

The phoenix was a legendary bird of Egyptian and Greek mythology. It was a large and beautiful bird at least the size of an eagle, with brilliant gold and reddish-purple feathers. As the most common form of the legend goes, every five hundred years, when it came time for the phoenix to die, it would build itself a nest that was also its funeral pyre, set the nest on fire, and be consumed in the flames.

However, that ending was also a new beginning. Out of the ashes of the bird that had been consumed by fire, a new phoenix, young, strong, and beautiful, would arise and begin its five hundred year life cycle. So the phoenix symbolized immortality and spiritual rebirth. It also represented the sun, which dies in its flames each evening, and emerges new and powerful each morning. The sun, in turn, has from ancient times been seen as a symbol of the Creator God, from whom all life comes.

The prophet Isaiah was sent by God with a similar message of spiritual rebirth and new life to a people whose future captivity and exile under the Babylonian empire he had already prophesied. In effect, he said, "You will be destroyed as a people and driven from your land. But in your misery, the Lord will visit you, and restore you to joy and gladness in your own land." In figurative language, he said that the Lord would "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."

Beauty instead of ashes. For the ancient Israelites, ashes carried a greater meaning beyond being the remains after something had been destroyed by fire. Ashes had taken on an additional symbolic meaning. Whenever the Israelites were in mourning, or some great disaster had fallen upon them, or they had received a message of punishment from God because of their disobedience and waywardness, they would show their sorrow and repentance by putting ashes on their head, and also by wearing coarse sack cloth (fabric derived from burlap) in place of their usual comfortable garments; so the sprinkling of ashes became a symbol of sadness and mourning. While we tend to hide our sorrow and mourning from others, the ancient Israelites were very public about theirs. No one could miss someone who was in mourning! And needless to say, people who walked around wearing sackcloth, and with ashes all through their hair, were not the most beautiful sight. In a time of great national catastrophe, nearly everyone would be walking around in sackcloth and ashes, and it was a pitiful sight.

So the promise of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair had a wonderful feeling. It spoke of catastrophe and pain being lifted off their shoulders, and replaced with the joy of freedom, the warmth of love, and the richness of life.

As always, the Bible is not talking only about events that took place thousands of years ago among a people who have long since ceased to exist on this earth. It is also talking about our lives today. We all have our times of pain and struggle, of grief and sadness, of depression and despair. Like the mythological phoenix, we all come to times when our life as we have known it is going up in smoke; when it seems as if everything is at an end. We all have times when we feel that there is no use continuing, because there is nothing left to live for. And these times seem to come around a lot more often than every five hundred years!

For the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, the legend of the phoenix gave precious hope in times of despair. For the ancient Israelites, Isaiah's beautiful prophecy gave a similar hope when it seemed as if their nation had been destroyed and they would never again know gladness. As Christians, when we are at the low points of our lives. we have an even greater source of hope, and an even greater promise of new life and joy. It is the event that we celebrate today: the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

With nearly two thousand years worth of hindsight, as we read the

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