Beauty from Ashes

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, April 15, 2001
Easter Sunday


Isaiah 61:1-3 Beauty instead of ashes

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 broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor 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.

Mark 16 The Resurrection

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?"

But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were frightened. "Don't be frightened," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'"

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.

Afterwards Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country. These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either.

Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.

He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well."

After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.

Arcana Coelestia #2405 The Lord's resurrection in us

"Morning," in its genuine meaning, symbolizes the Lord and his coming, and therefore the coming of his kingdom. So it is clear what else is meant by "morning," namely, the rise of a new church; for that church is the Lord's kingdom on earth.

The Lord's kingdom is meant both generally and in individual cases, and even in specific instances. The kingdom of the Lord comes in a general way when any church on earth is re-established on a new basis. It comes individually when we as individuals are spiritually reborn and become new people, for the Lord's kingdom is then being established in us and we are becoming the church. And it happens specific instances as often as the goodness that flows from love and faith is at work in us, since this is what the Lord's coming consists of.

So the Lord's resurrection on the third morning embodies in an individual and specific sense the truth that the Lord rises in our minds daily, and even every single moment, when we have been spiritually reborn.


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 (think: burlap) in place of their usual comfortable garments. So ashes symbolized 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 (oil was used as an aid to beauty), 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 story of the crucifixion and the women going to the tomb to anoint Jesus' body, it is hard not to be thinking of what came next. But when those women actually went to the tomb, they had no expectation of finding anything other than the dead body of the one they had called Lord and Master. Their hopes had been crushed; the one who gave them joy and salvation was dead; and all that was left to do was to give him a proper burial.

This is the very same state of mind we are in when disaster has struck in our lives. When we have lost someone we dearly love; when we have experienced the breakup of a relationship or a close friendship; when serious physical illness has stricken us; or when we have come to a crisis point in our lives for any other reason, all we see is an ending and a death. It is the death of the life we have been living up to now. And like those women who went to the tomb of Jesus to anoint his body, we expect the ending and the death to be final. We cannot see any life beyond our present pain and grief. We see only the end of what was.

At that point, it is not certain that we will have new life. There are some unfortunate souls who become stuck in their grief and pain. They spend many years--sometimes even the rest of their lives--mourning their loss, unwilling or unable to move on.

Spiritually speaking, what set Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome apart was that even in their grief and despair, they turned to the Lord. Even when they believed that the Lord was dead to them, they turned their minds and hearts toward him to see what they could do for him--even if it was the last thing they could do for him.

In our times of grief and despair, we, too, may feel that the presence of the Lord is dead within us. We may feel that God is no longer present--that God could not be present if something so terrible has been allowed to happen. And yet if, like those three women, we can still turn our minds toward the Lord, still try to do what we can for God even when we feel there is no hope left, something wonderful happens!

When we turn to the Lord after our hope has died, we experience within ourselves the resurrection of the Lord. When we turn toward the Lord at our lowest times, we find that he is not dead in the tomb as we expected. Where we thought we would find only death, we instead find new life in our souls. Where we expected our sorrow to continue forever, we find comfort and a growing sense of spiritual peace. Where we expected only mourning, we find new reasons for joy growing out of the very ashes of our sorrow. This is the story of the Lord rising again in us. Though we may not believe it at first, God has in store for us a rich new life of happiness, joy, and love--even when the old pain lingers.

There is a deeper resurrection that takes place in us, too. When our old self dies in flames and ashes, the new person that arises from those ashes is different from what we were before. From the pain of loss and grief comes the warmth of love and compassion for others who have gone through similar dark passages. From the questioning of God, the questioning of the church, the questioning of life itself comes a new and deeper understanding of God's purposes and Gods love, a deeper appreciation of the church's healing message, and a renewed sense of purpose in our lives.

The loss we experienced defines more clearly for us what is important and what is not. Buildings are not important; people are. Being right is not important; understanding others thoughts and feelings is. Money is not important; human love is. This world is not important; the Lord's deeper presence in our lives is. As we focus more on the things that truly matter--love, sharing, understanding, and giving happiness to one another--there is another resurrection that takes place in us. It is the resurrection of our true spiritual self: the one that is moved by love, and lives in God's light.

This is the wonderful message and promise the Lord Jesus gives to each one of us today. Our old self has died. Now our new self is ready to be born from its ashes, young, strong, and beautiful in spirit. This is the resurrection that we can experience not only once in a lifetime, but every day, and even every moment, as we turn to the Lord and open up our hearts and minds to the presence of the Lord's comforting, powerful, enlightening, and beautiful presence. Amen.

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Music: Alleluja