It seems safe to assume that John the Baptist had dreams. And if he had dreams, it seems likely that he sometimes dreamed about the prophecies of Isaiah, with which his own ministry would become so closely linked, as the “voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord!’”
I think that John the Baptist had a recurring dream, in which he found himself out in the wilderness trapping rabbits, not so that he could eat them, since they were not a part of his diet, but so that he could take them (in his dream) to a small stone altar that he had set up near a tree, and sacrifice the rabbits to God. The dream was recurring and unsettling to John, because after he had ritually killed the rabbit (in his dream) and burnt its body on the stone altar as an offering to God, he found himself sitting there, staring at the small pile of ashes that was all that was left of the rabbit and the wood from which the fire had been made, after the flames had burnt out. And every time he had the dream, at the very end, when he hoped for some sign that his sacrifice was accepted by God, instead, a small breeze came along and scattered the ashes, and whispered in his ear: “... a garland instead of ashes...”
Now, John immediately got the reference in his dream to the prophecy of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
Because he 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.
But it brought John sadness, to say the least, that every time his sacrifice was offered, it seemed to be found wanting. For what else could John give to God, having already given his life over to the Lord? What more could he do as he prepared himself for holiness, but make the sacrifice of an animal? What access did he have to the divine, outside of his prayers? What means was at his disposal to wring from his sacrifice a garland instead of ashes? Or to bring the promise of such a thing to others? And why did God insist, in the deep corners of John’s sub-conscience, on suggesting that there was something he wanted that John could not produce - a garland instead of ashes?
“A garland for ashes” is how some older translations put the text, or in the words of the King James Version, “beauty for ashes.” It is shorthand for something green rather than something grey; for hope rather than despair; for mercy rather than punishment; for loveliness rather than spite; for grace rather than sternness; for softness rather than sharp edges; for celebration rather than mourning; for life rather than death.
I imagine that John would wake from his dream in the middle of the night with a start, in a bit of a sweat. For he knew in his heart that God was sending his anointed to fulfill the prophecy. And he knew that he had been called to prepare the way of the Lord. But this dream left him feeling inadequate and uncertain about himself. He was not even certain that he knew the identity of the One whose Way he was supposed to prepare. He had his suspicions, but he did not know for sure; and the dreams didn’t help.
I suspect that people in those days were no less uncertain about the world they lived in than we are in our own time. I suspect that they were frustrated with their rulers, concerned about the availability of resources, wary about the threat of war, and troubled by the disparity between the rich and the poor. We know that there was political squabbling every bit as petty, nevertheless consequential, as the political squabbling today. We know that the voices of the poor were ignored and their dignity trampled upon, just as the poor are sidelined and ignored today, in favor of those who are already rich but seek to amass more for themselves. We know that there were powerful men then who thought that if you could get away with it - whatever it was - then it must not be wrong. This is not a new script.
So the promises of the prophet that good news would come to the oppressed, hope would come to the broken-hearted, prisoners would find release, mourners would find comfort, and that God would give to his people a garland instead of ashes - these were not idle promises of only casual interest to John. Nor might they fall on our ears as mere poetic phrases that describe how things might be some day in another universe far, far away. A garland instead of ashes would signal the beginning of God’s reign in a world ruled by petty tyrants who were only out for themselves. But in John’s dreams, where he hoped his spirit was being prepared for the work he was called to do, over and over again he was left with nothing but ashes... and the clear message that the ashes were not what was called for.
At Bethany, across the Jordan, where John was baptizing, he remained full of uncertainty. A company of priests and Levites came to question John: “Who are you? What do you say about yourself?” they demanded. And John found his voice stuck in his throat, for he wondered if he was a sham, a fake, a nobody, whose dreams told the real truth: that there was no garland, only ashes. But he looked up from his doubt, as he had when he’d been tutored as a boy by his father, and he answered them: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!’”
That same night John had a dream: the same dream with the rabbit and altar and the fire and the ashes. He sat there (in his dream) and let the ashes cool. And before the breeze could come along to scatter them, he scooped up the ashes into a white linen cloth, and made a little bundle of them. And he tucked them into his shirt and went off in search of his cousin, Jesus, whom he suspected and hoped was the object of his ministry.
Still dreaming, John finds Jesus, and he goes to him, the little bundle of ashes held close to his breast. The two embrace without exchanging so much as a word. Then Jesus, still close, touches his head to John’s head in that odd way of embracing, with his hand holding John’s head close, his hand on the back of John’s neck, just at the base of the skull, so they can still hold each other’s gaze in moment of silent intimacy.
Now John reaches into his shirt to retrieve the bundle of ashes. He pulls away from Jesus to hold them out to him, and John is crying, ashamed of himself and of the ashes. Jesus takes the tied-up bundle from John, and holds it in both hands, he brings it up to his lips, and he kisses the bundle of ashes, places it back in John’s hands and then begins to untie it. When he does, the bundle no longer contains ashes to be blown on the breeze to the winds, but now, a garland of delicate green boughs, which Jesus takes and passes over his cousin’s head, around his neck, and drapes it down over his shoulders, as he kisses John on the forehead.
We live in world of ashes. Everything is destined for ashes, whether in the grave, or as a result of a nuclear war, or because what else will become of all the piles of money that we have placed at the center of our universe: they can become nothing but ashes in time. So much of the time it seems that nothing will ever become of us except the ashes for which we are destined. What hope is there, really, in this world that good news will come to the oppressed, hope will come to the broken-hearted, prisoners will find release, mourners will find comfort, and that God will give to his chosen people a garland instead of ashes? There is no hope if it’s up to us. In the end we will produce nothing but ashes, and we have no ability of our own ever to do anything more than that.
But the prophecy of Isaiah that was passed on to John has, in fact, been fulfilled, the acceptable year of the Lord has been proclaimed, and the anointed One has come. Just because we may be filled with uncertainty and self-doubt does not change this marvelous truth. Thank God that John has marked out the Way, and shown us where to go.
In this last week before Christmas, among all the other things that we are wrapping, we might take the time to wrap up: all the proverbial ashes of our lives that we are sure can amount to nothing. Let us bring them to Jesus and pray that he’ll kiss them for us.
And let us be ready, in the face of that love, to discover that we have been given a garland instead of ashes: something green rather than something grey; hope rather than despair; mercy rather than punishment; loveliness rather than spite; grace rather than sternness; softness rather than sharp edges; celebration rather than mourning; life rather than death. A garland, instead of ashes.
“There was a man sent by God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world." A garland for ashes.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
17 December 2017
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia