William Blake plays with the image of Christ the Lamb in his children’s poem yet the image of Jesus as the Lamb of God, so often used in our Communion liturgies, is rather more sacrificial.
St John 1: 29-37
The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’ The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.
Little Lamb who made thee Dost thou know who made thee Gave thee life & bid thee feed. By the stream & o’er the mead; Gave thee clothing of delight, Softest clothing wooly bright; Gave thee such a tender voice, Making all the vales rejoice! Little Lamb who made thee Dost thou know who made thee
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee, Little Lamb I’ll tell thee! He is called by thy name, For he calls himself a Lamb: He is meek & he is mild, He became a little child: I a child & thou a lamb, We are called by his name. Little Lamb God bless thee. Little Lamb God bless thee.
Blake’s “The Lamb” poem was published in his book “Songs of Innocence”. That collection was later combined with his “Songs of Experience” to form a joint publication – illustrated by Blake – “Songs of Innocence and Experience”.
The poems are pairs. “The Lamb” is not really meant to be read without also reading “The Tyger”. A child asks the cuddly lamb who lives in a nice green field, “little lamb, dost thou know who made thee?” The poet asks the scary, wild, dangerous tiger who lives in the shadows of the forest, “what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?”
Essentially the same question. What kind of God could have created the cute and cuddly, nice, gentle, “innocent” things of life but also the wild, scary, untamed, dangerous things of our actual “experience”. Songs of Innocence and Experience.
John introduces Jesus as “the lamb of God”. Perhaps in their “innocence” the people imagined a God who had fashioned a salvation for them that would bring warm, fuzzy feelings of wooly tenderness; a gentle, meek, non-threatening salve for the ills of the world – a lamb.
Maybe, being fanciful for a moment, John’s portrayal of John the Baptist is from the “Songs of Innocence”. Matthew’s portrayal is from the “Songs of Experience” – he speaks of axes wielded and tree roots chopped, unquenchable fire, winnowing forks and chaff – much more like the scary tyger.
Blake intended the truth to be in the whole rather than the part. The book of revelation pictures Jesus as the “Lion of Judah”, this would work better if it said “tiger of Judah” – but it’s close enough! Jesus is both lamb and tyger, both tame and wild, both winsome and terrifying, and absolutely real and present to us in gentle fields and dark forests. Thanks be to God.
Lamb of God whose gentle spirit would not break the bruised reed; Lamb of God who lovingly took the Gethsemane cup; Lamb of God who forgave his torturers from a cruel cross; have mercy on us.
Tyger of God who roamed the shadows of the desert; Tyger of God who dazzled on the mount of transfiguration; Tyger of God who roared at injustice and smashed temple tables; have mercy on us.
The Rev’d Phil Nevard, Minister of Kingsteignton URC and Synod Odd Job man.