One of the familiar sounds that herald the onset of summer is the surging drone of electric mowers, as keen gardeners give their lawns the horticultural equivalent of a short back-and-sides. Townies (of whom I am one) prefer their turf tame and trim. Thus, references in the writings of the prophet Isaiah and the Apostle Peter to grass withering and going to flower may be lost on some of us. But in the valleys surrounding Jerusalem and on the mountains of Asia Minor, where the early readers of the prophet’s and Apostle’s texts lived, it grew wild, tall, and old. They’d have seen the grass germinate, develop into a tender shoot and a supple blade, and come into full fruition, before its sun-parched leaves drooped and the bloom dropped.
Those who’d pondered this natural cycle were likely to have been struck by the thought that this was true of their own lives too: they’d been born, had grown up and reached maturity, and would inevitably decline. It’s this realisation that the prophet and Apostle wanted their readers to reflect upon: ‘All Flesh is as grass, and the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away’, said Peter. You don’t have to be religious to give a reluctant grunt of assent. This a matter of fact rather than of faith. Like grass, ‘All flesh’ (in other words, everybody’s body) withers; none of us endures forever.
There’re basically three types of grass: annuals, biennials, and perennials. Annuals germinate, go to seed, and perish within a year; biennials do the same over two years, while perennials persist for several years. We’re like grass in this respect too. Some of us are annuals; due to disease and infirmity, we decline even while they’re very young. Others are biennials; we endure, but only into their middle years. And yet others are perennials; we enjoy a long life before our body starts to breakdown. The withering takes many forms: creaking joints, aching limbs, brittle bones, shortness of breath, palpitations, and the onset of incurable disease. We lose our hair, hearing, sight, might, appetite, memory for faces and places, sanity, and joie de vivre. And there’s little that we can do about it.
Some years ago, scientists at The Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS), Aberystwyth University developed a so-called ‘super grass’. They said it was the greenest, hardiest, most efficiently grown, and highest-yielding grass in the world. But no one claimed that this grass would last forever. No matter how much they tinkered with its genes, eventually the plant died. Likewise, taking vitamins and exercise, having face-lifts and surgery, and applying hair dye and skin creams, can do no more than enhance our appearance temporarily and forestall our deterioration briefly. Inevitably ‘the glory of man [is] as the flower of the grass … and the flower thereof falleth away’.
Humans are indeed glorious; we’re made fearfully and wonderfully, in the image of God, and little lower than the angels. We can be resplendent with achievements in science, art, and sport, magnificent in acts of sacrifice and kindness, wonderful to be with, and beautiful to behold. Each of us has the potential to be an astonishing flower. But our glory is temporary; ‘Blows the wind, and it is gone’, wrote one hymnist. In time, it ‘falleth away’.
Isaiah and Peter weren’t denigrating the human body by calling attention to its impermanence. Our bodies aren’t worthless because they’re here today and gone tomorrow. Neither were they gloating — in the manner of some sour-faced, life-denying religionists — but, rather, poeticising this transience with melancholy and regret. In their worldview, this dreadful situation ought not to have been. Humankind’s physical impermanence, they believed, was the consequence of God’s curse on Adam’s disobedience. Like ‘the herb of the field’ … unto dust shalt thou return’.
Had Isaiah and Peter said nothing further, then theirs would be a most disconsolate sermon indeed. However, both proceeded to offer life-affirming hope. Having compared the relative brevity of their readers’ lives with the fleetingness of grass, they contrasted the grass with the Judeo-Christian scriptures. Isaiah said: ‘The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand forever’. Likewise, Peter wrote: ‘the grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: but the word of the Lord endureth forever.’ ‘Change and decay in all around I see’, wrote another hymnist. But the Word, like ‘God [,] endures unchanging on.’
It endured not like some mountain or monument — silently and dispassionately while the centuries rolled and generations came and went. The Word’s glory resided not only in its longevity but also (and more importantly) in relation to its author. Like God, the Word was full of compassion, and beckoned. Moreover, wrote the Apostle, it ‘liveth’ – because God’s life was in it. Indeed, Peter went on to compare the Word to a living thing: a seed. Some seeds are small, hard, shrivelled, and give the appearance of being utterly lifeless. But when they’re sown in fertile soil, shoots and roots emerge, and from them arise either herbs or flowers or mighty trees.
Christ spoke of the Word as a seed sown by the farmer, finding root in the good soil of a hearing heart and bearing much fruit. Those prepared to receive that seed, would yield a spiritual renaissance. But this seed would not check their morality, for ‘It is appointed unto men once to die.’ Nevertheless, Christ promised, those in whom this enduring seed grew would live forever, even though they died.