The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.
For most of a year now, we’ve all been withering under the force of pandemic and division. Yet through it all, the Church has done her best to hold before us the Word of God that stands forever.
For this reason, I think, the season of Advent comes with particular sorrows as we look to Christmas. And yet, in truth, they are the same old sorrows, the perpetual sorrows of a world in need of a savior beyond our making.
Today Advent asks us to remember we are grass, the same way Lent asks us to remember we are dust. Advent means to ground us all in the humble truth of our own lives, there to look for the miracles of God.
To admit we are grass is to accept that other people are also grass — the plans we make: grass — made of stuff that falls apart or doesn’t turn out like we planned. And the more desperate we are to deny this truth about being human, the more damage we do to others — to the world and to the earth.
Richard Rohr has it we can measure how alienated we are from the grace of God and the communion of others by how often we’re offended, whether by other people or by the world itself. When things don’t go our way, we often forget we are grass.
“All people are grass,” according to the Prophet Isaiah. Our constancy, our holding on to anything, is “like the flower of the field.” Which is to say, here today, gone tomorrow. It’s why we need prophets who get in our way, who grass us upand name our failures in front of God and everybody, calling us to confess the desperate ambitious emptiness of our lives, how in the end we got nothing to hold onto without the promises of God.
And the good news is God can work with our emptiness.. It’s an Advent gift, really: as essential in the life of St. John the Baptist as it was in the life of St. Mary the Virgin. Offered to God, emptiness makes room for the coming of Christ; makes room, too, for God to heal and mend us.
For a long while now, I’ve been adding wooden figures to a Christmas crèche I set out in Advent. I aim all the figures toward an empty manger: Mary and Joseph, the ox, the donkey, assorted other animals, shepherds and sheep, kings on their way. This year, I added a ram with curly horns and a mother hen. And last year I added a wolf and a lamb, and set them side by side, turning them with all the other figures toward the emptiness of the manger. Among them, too, is the figure of St. Nicholas, not there with a bag of toys, but grassed up like the others, waiting for what he cannot give himself.
So far, though, I have no prophets to set out among them. No John the Baptist either, and that’s a shame because, again, prophets ground us in the hard truths of our own grass, ground us in the need to surrender to God all that we are or claim to be.
I’m guessing that’s why St. Mark began his gospel the way he did. If you’ll notice, he doesn’t give us an Infancy Narrative. Instead Mark clears away the sweet clutter of the Christmas crèche and gives us John the Baptist with an echo of Isaiah crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord.
And here’s the truth he’s after: prophets ask us to get ready for God because they know most days we’ve lost our way and are running on empty. And we’re not the only ones. We are surrounded by the lost.
As the gospel tells it, all of Jerusalem went out to meet John the Baptist. All of Jerusalem left home and went out to confess their sins. That’s the invitation today: to stand in the wilderness of your own life and admit you are grass, by confessing your sins to God.
Those ancient people who went out to meet John the Baptist didn’t know what to pray. But they knew they were lost and knew their own lives were part of the problem. And in the end, they trusted their own weakness for God to save them.
That’s what Advent is in the Gospel according to Mark. Not the herald of miraculous birth, but the herald of failed effort, broken life, needy people, entering all together the waters of repentance. It’s how we make room to receive him: by confessing our need for him in the first place. By admitting we are grass.
Advent tells us we’re unable to save ourselves, and calls us to put our trust in the one who’ll descend with us: Jesus Christ, our only mediator and advocate.
Through him, and in him, by the mercy of God, the grass of our lives becomes the frail straw we place in the empty manger – it’s all we need to receive him with joy.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
“Grass us up” is slang in the UK, where to grass someone up is to inform on them to the police, i.e., to tell the truth about them.