Yesterday, we had one of our midweek services, using the readings from Advent 2. I hadn’t previously noticed quite so clearly the shift of tone in the first reading (Isaiah 40.1-11), where we go from ‘Comfort, comfort my people’ to ‘All flesh is grass’. In the midst of triumph and consolation, we are ephemeral.
But I was also thinking of the use that Brahms made of ‘All flesh is grass’ in A German Requiem. The sombre, hieratic progression of Denn alles fleisch gives way, not to the triumphant affirmation of good news, but to ‘Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains’ (James 5.7). A more provisional, perhaps non-commital response, more likely to speak to our sceptical age?
We wait with hope and trust that all will be in the end be well, but we take too much on ourselves if we seek to predict and control the end. There is an extraordinary website here which tries to do just that. If we take too literally the imminence of the end, then there’s no need to bother about peace, the environment, elimination of poverty, disease and hunger, for we (the elect, of course) will be saved, and the rest can go (literally) to hell.
Like the writer of the article on the site I’ve linked to above, we need to be alert to the signs of the times, but not in this literal, catastrophist sense, but rather by being alert to needs of other people and the world; and alert to how we fall short of our best selves. ‘The meaning is in the waiting’ – patiently, as the agnostic Brahms reminds us.