Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, Advent 3: Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11
When I made my trip to Rome several years ago, one of the things that fascinated me was the presence of ruins. The Eternal City offers a layered landscape; everywhere we went, the strata of history were visible to us. Past and present inhabit the terrain as companions. I had more than one occasion to wander around the Forum, where there’s a particularly high concentration of ancient ruins: basilicas, triumphal arches, temples of gods and goddesses, the House of the Vestal Virgins.
I’ve been mentally revisiting those ruins as I’ve contemplated this week’s passage from Isaiah 61. The text overwhelms with its imagery of repair and restoration; the author lavishes the reader with his stunning litany that lists the ways that God will bring healing and release to those in captivity of various kinds. To those who have lived with imprisonment, oppression, and grief, the writer offers a prophecy of how they will receive garlands instead of ashes, the oil of gladness, the mantle of praise. He tells of how God has garbed him with the garments of salvation and covered him with a robe of righteousness like a bridegroom decked with a garland, like a bride who adorns herself with jewels. There is further visual fare: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots,” he exults, “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 the nations.”
In the midst of this dizzying litany, the writer tells of how those whom God heals and frees “shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.” It was this image, amongst the many that he drenches us with, to which I kept returning as I pondered this passage. And it was the Roman ruins that I thought of, those leavings that persist in the present landscape, reminding their visitors of what has gone before.
I wonder what it does to a person’s psyche to live in a place that’s old enough to have ruins, how it is to be perpetually reminded that we humans are part of a pattern of history. And I wonder what it does to a psyche, and to a soul, to live in a landscape that is largely devoid of ruins—in the typical sense of them, at least—as those of us living in the United States largely do. The absence of ruins makes it more challenging to remember how we inhabit our history, and to recognize and reckon with what haunts us. The ruins we do have, we tend to hide: the burned-out buildings, the falling-down dwellings, the places not considered worth building up. We route traffic around them, or sometimes construct walls along the freeways so those who pass by don’t have to see them.
It’s easy to become romantic about ruins when they are ancient, when they are lovely, and when we have a less immediate sense of the events that brought about their ruination. In the absence of really knowing those who first lived among them, it’s tempting to project our own ideas and imaginings onto what is left behind and to smooth away the sharp edges of memory. Largely removed from the visible past, we don’t have to wrestle with it so much.
But there are plenty of ruins that we carry inside, individually and collectively. It’s sometimes harder to see them, more difficult to discern the interior terrain of people and families and communities and churches marked by loss, abandonment, struggle, private battles, migration.
What does it mean to rebuild those ruins? When it comes to the losses and devastations that we harbor within us, how do we discern what God might be inviting us to restore?
Rebuilding a ruin, literal or metaphorical, doesn’t allow for much nostalgia. Doing the work of restoration—redeeming a place instead of living with its remnants—gives us little room to hold on to the way things were, or how we thought they were. Reclaiming a ruin—tangible, intangible—challenges us to go into the rubble and to see clearly what yet remains: to discern what is yet solid, to find walls that can bear weight, to sort through the debris and retrieve what we can use. Rebuilding a ruin calls upon our imagination in a deeper, sharper way that romanticizing it does. To restore what has been destroyed, we have to resist seeing the landscape only the way it was, and learn to imagine what is possible now.
Isaiah has gotten me thinking about what has fallen into ruin in my life, and what God might be inviting me to rebuild. How about you? Is there a broken relationship, an abandoned project, a dream you left behind? How do you discern where God might be calling you to begin the work of restoration? Not all ruins are meant for redemption, after all; some are best to flee. How do we tell the difference? What helps us see the ruins clearly and to resist the hazards they may hold: the overabundance of nostalgia that keeps us from imagining what is yet possible in that place (or some better place), or the enchantments that deter us from moving on, or the pain that clouds our vision?
Luke tells us in his gospel that when Jesus got up to speak in the synagogue, he opened the scroll to this passage from Isaiah and, after reading it, told his hearers that on this day, the scripture had been fulfilled (Luke 4.16-30). In this season and beyond, may you know the presence of the one who came as the embodiment of redemption and restoration. Blessings.