Reflection for Advent 3: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
by Jennifer Henry
“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.”
61:1 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;
61:2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;
61:3 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.
61:4 They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
61:8 For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
61:9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the LORD has blessed.
61:10 I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
61:11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Geneviève, Hélène, Nathalie, the two Barbaras, the two Anne-Maries, Maud, the two Maryses, Sonia, the two Annies and Michèle
These are names engraved on my heart. I was 22 on December 6th, 1989 when 14 women were killed at l’École Polytechnique de Montréal. I had no connection to any of the women who died that day, but as a woman, a feminist young woman studying at a Canadian university, it was impossible to be untouched. This dramatic act of gender-based violence and what followed changed my understanding of the world and compelled me to join others in action to end violence against women. Now, in my busyness, I don’t always make it to a memorial on December 6th, but I never forget.
Jaime, Donna Marie, Maxine, Pamela Jean, Janet, Victoria, Monique, Joanne, Ginger Lee, Cara, Jessica…
These are but a few of the at least 582 missing and murdered Indigenous women whose stories cry out for the attention of our country. This is not a past but current crisis as 115 of these women remain missing. In only 53 per cent of the cases involving Inuit, Métis or First Nations women a person is charged in their homicide compared to an average of 84 per cent for Canada as a whole. I am awed by the persistence of Families of Sisters of Spirit and Walk 4 Justice who raise their voices for their sisters, mothers, and daughters, demanding accountability and justice. Write these names upon your heart and do not let our country forget.
I am similarly inspired by those the world over, who stand up for the women and girls killed in gender-based violence. We hear of tremendous acts of courage, where women, seeing their friend killed in the work of defending women’s rights, steps into her shoes and continues her vocation. In Colombia, Yolanda Bercerra and other women of the OFP (Popular Feminist Organization) do just that, continuing the work of their colleague and sister Esperanza Amaris Miranda after she was killed by paramilitary. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, women victims of rape overcome their own fear to help and support other women victims in their pursuit of accountability and human rights. They will not let anyone forget.
Weaving through these stories is the common thread—we mourn and we organize. These words are used explicitly to speak of the Canada’s Day of Remembrance and Action to End Violence Against Women (December 6th), but they also resonate with the global struggle, 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women (November 25 to December 10). Remember and act, mourn and organize—it’s a wholistic call that is both personal and political. It’s a reminder to honour each life, say each name, grieve each lost future and comfort those who mourn. We are invited to do this with our whole heart, and then, to pick ourselves up, to pick each other up, and organize. Act to expose the specific acts of violence, but also the values, beliefs, ideas, structures that allow violence against women to continue unabated. Act so it does not happen again. Persistent work to honour the women and girls who have died brings change, something new out of sorrow.
The Hebrew scripture for the 3rd Sunday of Advent may very well be my favourite text in the Bible. The imagery is beautiful– “a garland instead of ashes”, “oaks of righteousness”, “earth [that] brings forth its shoots”– but what is most significant for me is the wholistic vision of restoration. It’s a promise that is both personal and political or perhaps better put, both pastoral and prophetic. In the first lines the writer invokes the “year of God’s favour”, a societal restoration through the “turn the world upside down” practice of Jubilee. Liberation of the captives and good news to the oppressed, ancient ruins raised up and cities restored. But there is also the promise of decidedly personal, spiritual restoration, binding up the broken hearted and comforting those who mourn. God’s healing is individual and social, inclusive of body and spirit, city and nation—the whole of people and community.
If we look closely at this text, we see that it is the mourners who become the healers, the restorers. Those who mourn become “the oaks of righteousness.” It is they who “shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities” (61:3,4). God transforms acts of mourning to acts of restoration for the whole community. Planted in their very sorrow is new life, new possibility. Through God’s promise, the wounded ones offer restoration to all.
When we pay attention to the deaths of women and girls, in our own country, or around the world, we feel like our hearts will break. To say their names, in vigil and in prayer, mourns each unique life. Action together to end violence against women binds our broken hearts, brings comfort to our mourning, and opens the possibility for a world transformed in their memory.
Loving God, may our remembering be a garland of honour and our comfort be an oil of healing. Embolden our faint spirits so that through Your promise hope and new life might take root in our sorrow.