Beauty for Ashes

As I prepared to say Mass today of the Feast of St Nicholas of Myra, three little words came into my mind and filled all my thoughts – Beauty for ashes. They come from Isaiah 61.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord hath anointed me to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to them that are bound, to comfort all the mourn; to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.

Today, I felt troubled from three nights of extremely vivid dreams, including being in the midst of the Blitz of 1940. The war was over fourteen years before I was born, but I feel the grief and loss of so many souls, servicemen killed in action, civilian victims of the Blitz and those who died in the concentration camps and other massacres. Why would I dream about the war, since I had not watched a war film or read anything recently on the subject? I could venture a theory, but it would be better if I remained silent.

Beauty for ashes. We Christians are called to render good for evil, to forgive and wish for light to fill the darkness. This brief phrase summarises what the west tried to do: give the dead a decent burial with the prayers of the Church, console the bereaved, rebuild the churches, public buildings and lodging for those who lost everything. I have seen the results of this reconstruction work in London, Rouen, Caen, Le Havre and so many other devastated places. The latter half of the 1940’s, 1950’s and 60’s and up to about 1975 were called in French Les Trente Glorieuses, the Baby Boomer years. Two of the most harrowing experiences in my life were pilgrimage-visits to Dachau in Germany and Oradour-sur-Glane where the Nazi butchers murdered the entire population of the village in 1944. The latter inspired the French film Le Vieux Fusil. It is a hard film to watch. This story of bitter revenge is easy to understand given the extremity of inhumanity to which Dr Julien Dandieu was a witness, including seeing his own wife burned to death with a flamethrower.

We are not living in those dark days of 1944 when the worst atrocities were committed and so many Allied servicemen sacrificed their lives on the beaches just a couple of hours from where I live. The Victory was a combination of joy and intense grief for the loss of lives and our cultural monuments. Have we learned the lessons? This grief still impregnates our earth and our souls. I feel it as intensely as those who were living in those days.

Beauty for ashes. I am brought to think of that book of Alan Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943, Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis. Jacobs wrote about five intellectuals who lived in those dark years, but he seems to have written this with a thought about the time between the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and the events of 9/11. It seemed that democracy had finally achieved peace, only to find it widely rejected.

Beauty for ashes. These words resound in this work of Vaughan Williams founded on the words of Scripture, Shakespeare and Rudyard Kipling. I am especially moved to hear the war-weary children sing the words of hope by Kipling:

Teach us the strength that cannot seek,
By deed, or thought, to hurt the weak;
That, under thee, we may possess
Man’s strength to comfort man’s distress.
Teach us delight in simple things,
The mirth that has no bitter springs;
Forgiveness free of evil done,
And love to all men ‘neath the sun.

There is hope – if we want it…

SOPRANO SOLO AND CHORUS
Blessed art thou, O Lord God of our fathers; and to be praised and exalted above all for ever.
And blessed is thy glorious and holy Name; and to be praised and glorified above all for ever.
Blessed art thou in the temple of thine holy glory; and to be praised and exalted above all for ever.
Blessed art thou on the glorious throne of thy kingdom, and to be praised and glorified above all forever.
Song of the Three Holy Children, vv. 29, 30, 31 & 33

SPEAKER
O God, thy arm was here,
And not to us, but to thy arm alone
Ascribe we all. Take it, God, for it is none but thine.
Henry V, Act IV, Sc. 8

CHORUS
Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power and the glory.
Thine is the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heaven and earth is thine.
Thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and thou art exalted as head above all.
I Chronicles XXIX, v. 2

SOPRANO SOLO
O give thanks unto the Lord because he is gracious:
For his mercy endureth for ever.
Song of the Three Holy Children, v. 67

SPEAKER AND CHORUS
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord hath anointed me to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to them that are bound, to comfort all the mourn; to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.
Isaiah, LXI, vv. 1, 2, 3

CHORUS
Go through, go through the gates, prepare ye the way of the people; cast up, cast up the highway; gather out the stones.
Lift up a standard for the people.
Behold, the lord hath proclaimed unto the ends of the world,‐say ye,
“Behold thy salvation cometh, Behold, his reward is with him and his work before him.”
And they shall call them the holy people, the redeemed of the lord: and thou shalt be called “Sought out,” a city not forsaken.
Isaiah, LXII, vv. 10, 11, 12

SPEAKER
And they shall build the old wastes, they shall raise up the former desolations. And they shall repair the waste cities, the desolations of many generations.
Isaiah, LXI, v. 4

SPEAKER
Violence shall be no more heard in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders; but thou shalt call thy walls Salvation, and thy gates Praise.

CHORUS
But thou shalt call thy walls Salvation, and thy gates Praise.
Isaiah, LX, v. 18

CHILDRENS’ VOICES
Land of our birth, we pledge to thee
Our love and toil in the years to be;
When we are grown and take our place
As men and women with our race.
Father in Heaven who lovest all,
O help thy children when they call.
That they may build from age to age
An undefiled heritage.

CHORUS
Teach us the strength that cannot seek,
By deed, or thought, to hurt the weak;
That, under thee, we may possess
Man’s strength to comfort man’s distress.
Teach us delight in simple things,
The mirth that has no bitter springs;
Forgiveness free of evil done,
And love to all men ‘neath the sun.

ALL VOICES
Land of our birth, our faith, our pride,
For whose dear sake our fathers died;
O Motherland, we pledge to thee,
Head, heart and hand through the years to be.
Rudyard Kipling

SOPRANO SOLO
The Lord shall be thine everlasting light,
And the days of thy mourning shall be ended.
Isaiah LX, v. 20

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