“A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench”
Having experienced the deaths of my parents and in the aftermath dealing with their personal possessions, I know all too well the oscillation between tedium—what do I do with all of these rubber bands?—and fresh feelings of heartache—such as finding a dusty photo of myself with my dad when I was a baby. One day two decades ago while I was mourning my mother’s untimely death, I set out to clean her desk not knowing what I might find.
Taped inside the main drawer of her desk was a note in her loopy and diagonal-leaning handwriting—there’s something profound about the handwriting of the dead. She had scrawled a verse from Isaiah 42:3, which was repeated by Christ himself in Matthew 12:20: “A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench.”
My mother had married my father in the Orthodox Church where he had been baptized as a baby, and then she converted to the faith some25 years later. Though she might have been slow to warm up to the Church, once she converted, she became a devout Orthodox Christian. In many ways, Orthodoxy gave her a way to channel and understand her own innate warmth and sense of compassion. Over the years, she blossomed as an Orthodox Christian, and she truly radiated the light of Christ wherever she went.
I was intrigued that this passage meant enough to her that she would carefully write it out only to place it in a private place, which she—in all likelihood—encountered multiple times a day. Though she was no longer around to ask, I couldn’t help but speculate why she chose this particular verse from scripture?
A few years earlier, she had shared with me that she had been abused as a child by her father. The very real and very harsh effects of childhood abuse are now known and talked about today in a way that was not possible in the 1950s. Still, she had worked hard later in her life to heal from this trauma. It became clear to me that I had found an example of how her encounter with scripture had been part of her healing process.
In Isaiah, the verse: “A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench,” refers to what the Messiah will be like. Implied is the thought that our Savior will inflict no further pain on those who are suffering, and will in fact protect them and treat them with the gentle care. We see this enacted in Christ’s teachings and actions; in his care and protection of the poor, the marginalized and the enslaved. Christ’s promise to protect and care for her must have meant a great deal to my mother, who had endured suffering, both in her childhood, and in her recent trial with lung cancer.
I find it interesting that she did not copy down the rest of the sentence. The whole quotation reads, “A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench, but he will bring forth judgment in truth.” The “judgment in truth” is often understood to imply that this gentle care of the suffering will continue until the end of time. However, she might have understood the last phrase—and knowing her, she was more interested in compassion than she was in any final judgment.
Stumbling upon this passage was an interruption from the tedium of sorting out rubber bands, but it also evoked fresh feelings of heartbreak—I still missed my mom, and I was lamenting her loss and the fact that she had suffered in her earthly life.
Moments later, when I looked down again at her handwriting, I saw that I had smudged it with my own tears—which seemed appropriate as it reminded me that I, too, was a bruised reed that would not be broken, thanks to the tender love of Jesus Christ.