Isaiah | Slow reading | The oil of gladness

Last night we marked All Saints with a quiet gathering in the hall. We remembered some special folk, lit a few candles, said a few prayers, and savoured a sweet supper together. Why? Because many of us are grieving the loss of loved ones this year, and God promises comfort to those who grieve. This does not mean that the grief is negated or vanishes, simply that we have companions in our sadness, that there are moments of gladness, and that we can be assured that death does not have the last word.

The prophet Isaiah knew a thing or two about grief. He was writing to a people who had known the devastation of military invasion and a nation torn apart, and the trauma of forced exile. But through the prophet God offered a vision of hope: one day, your broken hearts will be healed. One day, the prisoners will be liberated and the captives of war set free; one day, the work of restoration will be complete. One day, your despair will transmute into praise; and the people will reflect God’s way and God’s glory.

Isaiah’s vision is highly attentive to grief. Yet it’s not just personal, but corporate; and it’s not just about the heart, but about head and hands, too. For the work of restoration here is not just spiritual and emotional, but points to economic, physical, even concrete realities. The oppressed will receive good news; prisoners will be released; streets will be restored: and healing seems to mean getting involved. We here at Sanctuary are good at making spaces for vulnerability, prayer and similar healing spaces. But are we called to more practical work? And if so, what is it? I wonder.

1. PREPARE: Make yourself comfortable. Uncross your legs; relax your body; uncomplicate your heart. Ask God to help you surrender to whatever it is that God wants to do in you or say to you today. Breathe slowly and deeply in, then out.

2. READ: Read the following passage aloud at least three times through, slowly. Listen carefully. Notice anything which captures your attention.

The Spirit of the Sovereign God is upon me,
because the Holy God has anointed me;
God 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 favour …
to comfort all who grieve;
to provide for those who grieve in Zion–
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of grief,
the garment of praise instead of spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Holy God, to display God’s glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins … (Isaiah 61:1-4)

3. REFLECT: Allow a word, phrase or image to speak to you. What do you notice? What emotions do you feel? What questions are bubbling up? Reflect in silence. You may notice that one line has been omitted. Following Jesus’ example in Luke 4:18ff, when he riffed on this passage, God’s vengeance has been edited out.

4. RELATE: Now wonder: What promise do you most need to hear? What might you need to let go of to make room for joy? Now imagine the oil of gladness: what fragrance fills you? Imagine God massaging you with this oil with strong and gentle hands.

5. RESPOND: Do you have any sense of an invitation, comfort or challenge? Pray about this, and tell God about anything which is emerging. If you feel called to action, ask God to show you/us the next step.

6. REST: When you feel ‘done’, rest awhile. Savour the conversation you are having with God, and God’s loving presence. Close with a gesture of thanks: perhaps a simple bow. As you prepare to leave this space, if any word, phrase or image persists, let it guide you. Or if nothing in particular arises, remember this:

  • God has sent me to provide for those who grieve … 

If you have something with the fragrance of your imagined oil of gladness, why not put it where you can smell it often over the next few days. And may the God who brings good news to the heavy-laden, binds up the broken-hearted, and comforts all who grieve, bless you with beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of grief, and in place of your spirit of despair, a garment of unending praise. In the name of Christ, I pray: Amen.


Emailed to Sanctuary 2 November 2022 © Sanctuary, 2022. Photo by Chelsea shapouri on Unsplash. Sanctuary is based on Peek Wurrung country. Acknowledgement of country here

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