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Ashes, Ashes

by Tim O'Hearn

Sometimes it seems that certain thoughts hang in the air, and when one songwriter grabs one, everybody takes it up. In Christian music over the past couple of years, one of those motifs seems to be ashes. Several songs make reference to ashes. Unfortunately, most of them either go outside the scriptures for their figures of speech, or else they twist the scriptures.

Several songs make reference to “rising from the ashes,” or some variation on that theme. It makes one wonder, though, why they have to use a picture from Graeco-Roman lore to make a point in a Christian song, when none of the scriptures do so.

The phoenix was a mythical bird that lived for up to 1,400 years. Only one, apparently, existed at any given time. When it knew it was about to die it built a pyre and burned itself. Out of the ashes of the dead bird arose a young phoenix, which then grew in place of the former bird. Some early Christians (notably not any in the canon of scripture we call the New Testament) used this as a picture of the resurrection or of the new birth one receives at baptism. It is actually a very good metaphor, if one chooses to use pagan symbology for Christian concepts. And yet, this is not usually what seems to be on the mind of the authors of current songs.

One of the popular songs, performed by Shawn McDonald, pictures someone rising from the ashes of the “trouble I have found” by contemplating suicide. It is a very clear reference to the legend of the phoenix. Other than a vague reference to “he who is in me,” which could as easily be interpreted as the dreams and ambitions of the singer as a reference to the Christ, it has little to recommend it to Christians.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with using the legend of the phoenix to represent Christ, there may be some concerns. The chief one is that it reduces the resurrection to another mere fable. The resurrection becomes nothing. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul warned against those who would intimate that the resurrection never actually happened. He says that if we believe that, our whole faith is worthless.

To be fair, some other songs speak of rising from ashes with no apparent thought about the phoenix legend. While dictionaries of idioms relate the phrase to the phoenix, biblical scholars might think or the passages that talk of “sitting in sackcloth and ashes.” (Esth 4, Job 2, et al) Since ashes were a sign of mourning, to come out of the ashes would indicate that the reason for mourning no longer existed. Such may be the thought behind some of these songs (perhaps including the one previously mentioned). Because of God’s forgiveness, we no longer mourn over our sins. Because of the greatness of our God, mourning is turned to joy.

That, in fact, is the thought in Isaiah 61:3. “[The Lord has anointed me] To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.” The majority of modern English translations use the phrase, “instead of ashes,” which is the accurate meaning. At least one current song, though, speaks of “beauty from ashes” instead of “beauty for ashes.”

Some might not see a significant difference, but it is there. Isaiah was to give beauty (or a crown or garland) to replace the ashes. When one sat in sackcloth and ashes, one frequently poured ashes on the head. “And Tamar put ashes on her head, and rent her garment of divers colours that was on her.” (2 Sam 13:9) Isaiah contrasts mourning and joy, saying God will replace the one with the other. The song that talks about “beauty from ashes” is stating that even the worst things that happen will result in good. Sometimes bad things happen because of bad choices, and one never sees good come from those choices. While some generic good may come from the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, the victims and their families may never see specific good results, even if they turn to God for help. The rejoicing that Isaiah promises may replace the sorrow, but there is no guarantee that it will result from that sorrow.

Ashes generally represent mourning. We can choose to arise from the ashes and continue living. We can choose God, and in that choice we can rejoice.