Beauty For Ashes

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A Lenten Journey to Shalom and Jubilee
By Michael J. Christensen, Director, Communities of Shalom

This year on Ash Wednesday in Berkeley, CA, I plan to carry on the mission of Jesus by offering “beauty for ashes” in the morning on the street at the BART station in downtown Berkeley, CA.

Inspired by Sara Miles, a priest at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, I invited members of the local United Methodist Church I pastor in Berkeley to come on out at between 7-8am to support the ministerial staff as we robe for the occasion, process silently on the street, pray in public, and offer the opportunity to “get your ashes downtown.”

On Ash Wednesday, wherever you are, I encourage you to remember the vision of Shalom in the prophesy of Isaiah and the mission of Jubilee in the teaching of Jesus.

And whether you receive your ashes on the streets or inside a church,

“Remember, child of God, from dust you were made, to dust you shall return, turn around, believe the good news, and participate in the mission of God.

On Ash Wednesday, March 5, Christians begin a 40-day journey called the Season of Lent. In the spirit of Shalom and Jubilee, it’s a time to refocus on the mission of Jesus, which has become our mission, too, in the world (See Luke 4:16-21).

Lent is an old Middle English word meaning “springtime”—the renewal of life. Since the 4th
century the Church has observed a 40-day period (in Spring) of self-denial and preparation for Holy Week and Easter. During this time, Christians seek to follow Jesus into the desert of denial, detachment, displacement, and devotion, resisting temptation and returning to God in prayer and right action.

As a sign of our mortality and devotion, many of us receive ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. The imposition of ashes is a sign of mourning in II Samuel 13:19 and of repentance in Job 42:6. Ashes represent fervent prayer in Daniel 9:3 and deep anguish in Jeremiah 6:26. Ashes symbolize human mortality in Psalm 103:13-16 and true fasting in Isaiah 58:5-8.

Beauty for Ashes

Immediately after his 40 days of temptation in the desert (Luke 4:1-13), filled with the power of the Spirit, Jesus returned to Galilee to begin his Jubilee mission of spiritual and social transformation. When he arrived in his hometown of Nazareth, he went to the local synagogue to teach (Luke 4:16-19). There he read from the scroll of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the oppressed. He has sent me 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 all who mourn in Israel he will give: beauty for ashes…” (Isa. 61:1-3)

When Messiah comes, the prophet Isaiah had announced, it will be the “year of the Lord’s favor” (also called The Year of the Jubilee) when debts are canceled, prisoners set free, wealth is redistributed, and the land reverts to its original owners (Numbers 25).

Rather than just ‘one day to humble yourself and put on sackcloth and ashes’, it will be the Year of true fasting in order to “loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free…to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless into your house;” (Isa. 58:5-7).

The Year of the Lord’s Favor will be a time of healing when sorrow will turn to joy, sadness to gladness. Tears of mourning will become the oil of gladness. The downcast soul will receive a mantle of praise. Instead of ashes on our forehead, a crown of garland will be put on our head (Isaiah 61:1-3).

I like the way verse 3 is translated in The Living Bible: “To all who mourn in Israel he will give: beauty for ashes…” And I like the way The Message renders this verse: “To care for the needs of all who mourn in Zion, instead of ashes, messages of joy instead of news of doom, a praising heart instead of a languid spirit.”Ash-Wednesday JPG

God’s people will be called “oaks of righteousness” or justice, according to Isaiah. Ministers of Shalom and Jubilee, we might say. Together, they will build houses and plant gardens to display God’s glory (verse. 3b).

 “Then they shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastation; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastation of many generations” (Isa. 61:4).

This, of course, is the work of Communities of Shalom! And a continuation of the Jubilee mission of Jesus.

On Ash Wednesday, wherever you are, I encourage you to remember the vision of Shalom in the prophesy of Isaiah and the mission of Jubilee in the teaching of Jesus. And whether you receive your ashes on the streets or inside a church,

“Remember, child of God, from dust you were made, to dust you shall return, turn around, believe the good news, and participate in the mission of God. [God will] give them bouquets of roses.”

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