A Garland

By Jennifer Woodruff Tait

December 13, 2023

Scripture — Isaiah 61:1-3 (NRSV)

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    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
    and the day of vengeance of our God,
    to comfort all who mourn,
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.

Focus

Sometimes, in a dark world at a dark time, we need to hold onto the promise, not just of salvation, but of feasting.

Devotion

As I said when I wrote about this passage during Advent three years ago, if I had to take one book from the Biblical canon to a desert island, it would be Isaiah. And, though I’d hate to be limited to one chapter, it might be this chapter if I had to choose.

Isaiah 61 was a beautiful message to its original hearers. Then Jesus himself proclaimed that he ministered in this way and fulfilled this prophecy when he read this passage to his hometown synagogue congregants and told them “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). And on a very personal level, it is a scripture that has been powerfully important to my own spiritual journey.

Not quite thirty years ago, as a young seminary student preparing for the Christian ministry, I entered on a difficult time of darkness, depression, and discernment. The details are unimportant now; what is important is the way I identified so deeply with those in this passage who are referred to as brokenhearted, captive, wounded, mourning, and faint. While everyone around me seemed to have their lives together and a clear conception of where Jesus was calling them, I felt lost. And into that lostness, this Scripture spoke.

Through this Scripture, Isaiah told me of a God who loved the brokenhearted, captive, wounded, mourning, and faint. And—as happens so often in Isaiah—it was not simply that God knew and understood the suffering of the brokenhearted; Isaiah 61 made it clear that God planned to _feast _the brokenhearted.

Not only was there hope that someday I would not mourn: _I was going to get a party hat. _I don’t know why I always pictured it this way when, as a matter of fact, you can wear and drape garlands any number of ways, but I always thought of this particular garland as being on my head – a crown of flowers instead of a crown of ashes.

Now, every three years in Advent, the lectionary gives me the gift of this passage. When I was younger, I was also much more a member of the Advent Police: always doing things in candlelight, contemplating the Second Coming and the final judgment, avoiding Christmas carols, focusing on the “not yet” rather than the “already” of the Kingdom.  But as I’ve gotten older—and especially as we’ve all been through the collective trauma of the last few years—I have become much more willing to see Advent as a time of joy, too.

Sometimes, true, to paraphrase a late pundit, we need to stand athwart the wall of Christmas commercialization and yell “Stop.”  But sometimes, in a dark world at a dark time, we need to hold onto the promise, not just of salvation, but of feasting. Instead of ashes this Advent, may you, if you need one, find a party hat.

Reflect

Where do you not yet see the Kingdom?

Where do you see the Kingdom already?

Act

“Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” one of my favorite hymns, is based in part on this passage. Here’s a modern “retuning” which I really like—not least because of how festive it sounds. (Lyrics to the full hymn are here.) Listen and rejoice in the coming King.

Pray

Hail to the Lord’s Anointed; hail to you, O Lord, bringer of good news. Amen.

Banner image by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Blessed Are Those Who Mourn.


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Jennifer Woodruff Tait

Editorial Coordinator

Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the

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