Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert (Isaiah 43:18-19).
On a walk through my neighborhood park, I was rather disheartened to see that the trees were still bare from winter. Springtime for Boston seems delayed: the flowers come to bloom much later than the February roadside wildflowers in Texas. The excitement of distinct seasons and colorful autumn leaves becomes less exciting as freezing temperatures linger.
The longevity of the Lenten season might also begin to weigh on us. The habits and sacrifices we have made may be hard to reconcile with the temptation to look to the “former things” best left behind, be it something as simple as sugar or as impactful as relationships. Again and again through the Bible, God’s people turn away from new promises and covenants. Breaking away from old patterns and understanding that there are new and better modes of living and being are perhaps the key challenges of the Christian life.
In Isaiah, God asks, “do you not perceive it?”. Although there are extremely visual accounts and lessons in the Bible, such as Mary anointing oil on Jesus’ feet in John 12, other promises of peace are harder to imagine. The new “way in the wilderness” described in Isaiah 43, however, is hard for me to see as much more than an Eden-like setting that is far removed from how we live our lives right now. And in other lessons of faith, as with the depictions of angels, we reduce challenging truths to simple mantras or cherub-like angels and forget their power. Even with the commandment “to love thy neighbor,” the conflicts and inequality that plague our world result in simplification without fully realizing the power that a neighborhood at peace could create. Yet it’s recognition of the strife and injustice that should encourage us to hold to an image of a better future. That hope is crucial to achieving change.
A more equal and loving world can be hard to visualize. The places we live in seem stuck in their ways of oppression. Finding solutions to solve greed, racism, exploitation result in pushback today, just as they did in Jesus’ time. Offering up an alternative can mean pushback — Judas would rather Mary sell oil and give the money earned from it to the poor than honor Jesus with a ritual. Generosity was and continues to be a shift from how we’d like to go about our lives. But it’s Mary’s generosity combined with relationship and intimacy that moves us closer to the new reality God promises.
The promises of God aren’t always easy to visualize, but narratives like Mary’s can illustrate a future otherwise too abstract. The Bible offers numerous ways of hope, but the American Christian narrative is often simplified in the cultural zeitgeist to Christmas-Easter, one-and-done saving by Christ. Finding more perspectives and stories can connect us to a future otherwise unseen or voices otherwise unheard. Author Chimamanda Adichie cautions us to reject a single story that provides a singular image of people and places. In considering more narratives, we grow closer to understanding each other, and “we regain a kind of paradise.” We can still discover new ways to imagine the world rebuilt to a more heaven-like place — and in those paradises, discover an abundant joy from Christ.
Be comforted by tradition but unafraid of starting again. Adopt new models. Do a new thing, imagine something different and creative. See how God makes a way in the wilderness. Spring will bloom.
Sarah Henkel is finishing her Masters of Public Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.