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    Humble Grass

    Wayside Conversations on the Jerusalem Road

    By Maureen Swinger

    March 31, 2021
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    What might the stones have cried out, had the people been silent on the road to Jerusalem? Perhaps the reeds tossed beneath the donkey’s feet also had a song to sing. A child in that jubilant crowd might have wondered such things, as she scrambled along, trying to keep pace with the man who loved children.

    During Holy Week, there is one simple, lovely song heard at almost every Bruderhof church service, and it’s often suggested by a child.

    “Tell me, O humble Grass, what makes you sigh?”
    “I dream of One who was humbler than I.”

    “Tell me what gave you, Rose, beauty so rare?”
    “The love of One who grew tenfold more fair.”

    “What glory yours, O Reeds, singing so sweet?”
    “We were strewn down before His donkey’s feet.”

    “And you, O bitter Thorns, sing you with them?”
    “Yea, for we crowned Him King on His tall stem.”

    “Tell Me, O Humble Grass” found its way into the Bruderhof's Easter canon in the early 1960s, when composer and music director Marlys Swinger was searching for new songs for the children’s choir. She came across Hymns for Children and Grownups to Use Together, anthologized in 1953 by Harold W. Friedell and Lee Hastings Bristol Jr. The latter, a preacher, organist, and president of Westminster Choir College in Princeton, had included one of his own compositions – written just that year – in the hymnal.

    We don’t know how Bristol came across these four exquisite stanzas by Dominican-American poet Rhina Espaillat. That detail would be fascinating to discover, but Bristol died in 1979 at age fifty-six after an extended illness, and Espaillat only recalls a brief exchange of permission letters from 1953. She would have been twenty-one at the time.

    The feather-light A minor harmonies are so attuned to Espaillat’s words that I’d like to go find the seven other hymns Bristol composed. But we do have Rhina’s memory of the poem’s birth. She recalls:

    My Easter hymn was composed when, as a convert to the Episcopal Church, I was in charge of arranging the altar flowers for the Sunday service, and also teaching simple precepts to the six-year-olds at a very lovely, welcoming small church named St. Stephen’s, in New York City.

    While not a strict believer or an observant churchgoer, I loved St. Stephen’s for its sense of community, its open-mindedness and concern for the poor, the old, the sick, and the isolated. I was moved, above all, for its respect for other Christian denominations, as well as for other religions, no matter how different from Christianity, and its acceptance of doubt as a healthy outcome of thought, not to be equated with evil or moral indifference. I’ve always been interested in comparative religion, and curious about the many similarities among all faiths. It strikes that there’s a great deal of wisdom in the Buddhist saying that “There is only one mountain, but many paths to the summit.”

    The poem came out of my admiration and love for Yeshua ben Yusef, the young Jewish carpenter who was far, far ahead of his time, and paid with his life for his humanity and unfailing sense of identity with human beings everywhere. His life and words tell me that we are all one family, and his insistence on how that fact matters more than any dogma, ritual, or command has guided me all my life. My poem presents Jesus as part of nature, linked by his humility to the world’s grasses, by his spiritual beauty to flowers, by the sweetness of his words to reeds that sing in the current, and by his acceptance of pain and death to the thorns that crowned him. Poetry is the closest I get to prayer.

    Lyric video for the song Tell Me O Humble Grass

    When words leave a poet’s pen, who knows how they may light? Poetry may beget prayer, as question begets answer. Now an international church community knows this song by heart, from the youngest to the oldest; a quiet conversation between a wayfarer and wayside plants unfolds the story of Holy Week in humble, true words.

    The Bruderhof is a singing church, rich in hosanna songs – too many to fit into a Palm Sunday service. In my own season of doubt, I could hardly sing them. Five days didn’t seem an awfully long time for an honest voice to pass from shouting for one kind of coronation to another. (It took me a little time to see that sitting in judgment on fickle biblical crowds might be a waste of scorn, while my own heart wavered between praise and betrayal every day.) But the songs of grasses, of hedge roses – those were around me wherever I walked, and they still praised.

    A child might wonder (this child did): Do the thorns have any right to speak? Can the symbols of savagery know anything of mercy and meekness? But there, too, an answer came. The hands that tore them from their roots to weave a crown were cruel. One can imagine fingers scratched and bloodied in their frenzy to injure and shame.

    The thorns themselves, unable to be anything but ruthless in their design, will still acknowledge a crowned king – their king, the one who brought all into being, thorn and flower, the tree that became a cross, the blood-spattered grass below, those kneeling in grief and those turning away, the hill, the world, the universe that shook at a death that should not have happened – and yet had to.

    Contributed By Maureen Swinger Maureen Swinger

    Maureen Swinger is a senior editor at Plough and lives at the Fox Hill Bruderhof in Walden, New York.

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