The Word and the Flesh

“Something is always going. Something is always disappearing.”

Those words of a friend, still young, still near the beginning of adult life, have haunted me for years. They haunt me now, in this time of lockdowns and empty shelves. Our news and conversations are full of graphs and hotspots and contradictory advice, contagion, quarantine, sickness, death. We are experiencing the unpredictability of life with a new intensity. But although the threat is vivid, things haven’t changed as much as we might think.

In early adulthood, so much of life is flux: jobs, relationships, housemates, houses. Friends drift into and out of our lives. They move cities and they get married and they have kids. The relationship changes. Ambitions are frustrated, dreams die.

In middle life, hair greys, skin starts to sag, waistlines expand, illness hits, parents die. Decades pass like years. Muscles wither, joints stiffen, bending down becomes a major chore. Friends die, siblings die, spouses die, children die.

All flesh is grass (Isa 40:6).

Whenever the Bible speaks of humans as grass, the image is always the same. Life is short. Life is fleeting. You flourish. And then you’re gone.

In Isaiah 40:6-7, the prophet pairs the image of grass with the beauty of flowers: a carefully planted garden in the spring; a forest carpeted with bluebells; a meadow shimmering with wildflowers. Full of beauty, full of promise, full of life.

Life’s frailty wrenches at our guts, because human lives are beautiful. The people around us—with their youth and vitality, their energy and imagination, their voices and eyes and smiles and laughter, their kindness and affection—soon they will be gone.

The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it (Isa 40:7)

We try to stave it off: eight hours sleep every night; eight glasses of water every day; salad instead of Five Guys for lunch; CrossFit after work. Social distance; self-isolate. And so we lose muscle mass a little slower, and our hearts beat just a little longer. The risk of infection for ourselves and others is reduced. And then the Lord will breathe, and we will be gone. Like a scorching summer wind turning fields from green to brown, the breath of God’s Spirit blows and carries us away.

Zadie Smith, in an essay originally published in the New York Review of Books, pinpoints how important this is for artists (Christian artists, take note), and how out of sync it is with our culture:

A persistent problem for artists: How can I insist upon the reality of death, for others, and for myself? This is…a part of what art is here to imagine for us and with us…Elsewhere, death is rarely seriously imagined or even discussed—unless some young man in Silicon Valley is working on permanently eradicating it.1

We live in an Epicurean age, where our response in the face of death is to sooth and dull our anxious thoughts. But, as Smith insists, “a world in which no one…can imagine themselves as abject corpses” is a “world of illusion”.2

The reality of death is, historically, one of art’s great themes. Rembrandt’s extraordinary series of self-portraits, from 1628 to 1669, are stark explorations of the effects of time: from youthful beauty to somber old age. Shakespeare wrestles with it in various of his sonnets. As he gazes on his beloved, he imagines early beauty turning to ravaged old age and death. Passing years “dig deep trenches” in the beloved’s brow. He pictures “deep-sunken eyes”. He speaks of “devouring Time”, “swift-footed Time”, “wasteful Time” debating with death, “to turn day to night.” “Never-resting Time leads summer on / To hideous winter…”

In a more popular idiom, Dana Gioia urges us to Pity Pity the Beautiful,3 given where their lives will end:

Pity the faded,
the bloated, the blowsy,
the paunchy Adonis
whose luck’s gone lousy.

Pity the gods,
no longer divine.
Pity the night
the stars lose their shine.

All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades…surely the people are grass.

And yet…this profoundly discomforting truth is part of our God’s tender message of comfort for his people (Isa 40:1-2). In the midst of life, we are in death. But hear God’s strong and gentle promise: in the midst of death, we are in Life.

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isa 40:8)

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isa 40:5)

“Behold your God!” (Isa 40:9)

Here, says Calvin, is all our comfort, the “sum of our happiness, which consists solely in the presence of God,” and which “brings with it an abundance of all blessings”. Behold your God! The Lord will come to his people!

The Lord has come. He has revealed his glory. Not in clouds and majesty and awe, but in the humble self-emptying of his Son, who is himself the Word who stands forever. He is the eternal and unchanging Word, who was with God and who was God from the beginning (Jn 1:1-2), who is Life and has life in himself (Jn 1:4; 5:26; 14:6) and who, at the Father’s gift, gives life to whom he pleases (Jn 5:21).

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory (Jn 1:14).

God’s eternal Word has taken to himself our frail flesh, born as one of us. He has embraced as his very own our weakness and fragility, our transience and loss, our sorrows and our griefs. In his flesh, he has entered the deepest depths of our experience. For, having taken our frail flesh, he took it to the cross, and in that flesh he bore our guilt and died our death. In our flesh, and in its fleshy death, the glory of the Lord was revealed in all his power and his might, in all his pity and his love.

Flesh is grass, and grass withers. But the Word of our God will stand forever. This death was the death of the eternal Word in the flesh he had assumed. And therefore, on the third day, in the darkness of the tomb, our God spoke again:

Comfort, comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. (Isa 40:1-2)

And the Word of the Lord rose to stand forever.

[1] Zadie Smith, “Man versus Corpse”, in Feel Free (s.l.: Hamish Hamilton, 2018), 366-80, at 371.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dana Gioia, “Pity the Beautiful” in Pity the Beautiful (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012), 45.