Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Christmas 2017
Start Date 1st Jan 2017 11:15am
Description

The Reverend Mark Birch, Minor Canon and Chaplain

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee,
gave thee life and bid thee feed
by the stream and o’er the mead?

So begins one of William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’, which many of us will have heard sung at Christmas carol services to that haunting, not to say slightly creepy, setting by John Tavener. In the poem, a necessarily one-way conversation between a child and a bright, woolly lamb, Blake reflects on Christ’s birth as a human child, who is also named ‘Lamb of God’ The child and the lamb are mysteriously united in Christ, who both makes and blesses them.

‘I a child and thou a lamb,
we are called by his name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee.’

In the Songs of Innocence, Blake often employs pastoral images of sheep and shepherds, and finds in the lamb a readily comprehended image of absolute purity and quintessential innocence.

Today, as last Wednesday, the feast of the Holy Innocents, we heard in the gospel about innocent lambs put to the slaughter. The historical veracity of a massacre in and around Bethlehem, as King Herod tried to reassure himself that there would be no rival King in Judea, is contested, but we need look only into the year that is passed to know that such monstrous acts against the most vulnerable have always been possible. It is a sickening story, but none the less believable for that.

Blake wrote his Songs of Innocence in 1789, and a few years later added to them a new collection, Songs of Experience, seen as a social critique of his own times, and the corruption, as he saw it, of all that is natural and good – a corruption sanctioned by religious and secular authorities alike. Although Blake was buried as a non-conformist and not here in Poet’s Corner, if you are sitting in the south transept you will find his bust glaring, rather disturbingly, from one of the pillars.

The story of innocence and innocence corrupted, betrayed, destroyed by bitter experience, has a deep, sacred resonance. Innocence feels like such a fragile thing; delicate as china; easily smashed by the careless realities of a fallen world. Innocence is found to be untenable, impossible to maintain, in the arena of grim experience. Innocence is always doomed; like the Lamb, it exists only be slain and devoured, with or without mint sauce.

For many people 2016 felt like a loss of innocence, especially those dedicated to liberal politics in Europe and in the United States. What felt, to many, like a settled consensus of reasonable and progressive thought faced two almighty checks. The innocents met their respective Herods.

But of course it wasn’t really innocence. The liberal consensus turned out to be a distinctly middle-class phenomenon (I suspect we always knew that); a political correctness for those who could, to be blunt, afford it. Which isn’t to say that liberal values concerning identity and inclusion are wrong (far from it), but significant numbers of people clearly have not felt included, or that their identity is respected. The liberal project, by its own terms, needs to do much better if it is to survive. If this last year has been a loss of innocence, a heavy dose of hard experience, then perhaps it couldn’t have come too soon.

Blake’s ‘Song of Innocence’, The Lamb, seems at one level to be a sentimental little poem about a child’s delight in a freshly-laundered and blow-dried lamb—the work of a true Romantic. But on closer inspection, this is a long way from Wordsworth and his daffodils. The child, somewhat precociously, makes the link between the innocent lamb and the innocent Christ, and then between the lamb, the Christ, and himself. This poem is, in fact, incredibly dark—as John Tavener draws out so chillingly in his music. If this is a song of innocence, then it is innocence singing its own death-sentence, because lambs, like Christ, are for sacrifice. If it is a song of innocence, we hear it (as Blake wrote it) through the prism of experience; experience of a world where vulnerability and naivety don’t last for long. It is the song of a Holy Innocent as Herod’s soldiers approach.

We feel sorry for the child. We wish the world were not such a barbarous and cruel place. We wish his innocence could be protected, and yet we also know that such innocence is of limited use to us in the world as it is. An innocence that cannot face the darker stuff, the stuff of experience, becomes childish rather than child-like—a refusal to grow, to engage.

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews saw very clearly that a heavenly Christ—a pure, angelic messenger, who disappeared back to heaven as soon as the going got tough—would be of little use to us; us for whom things can be quite tough, quite a lot of the time.

So, It was fitting, he wrote, that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.

And the reading concluded, because Jesus was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Christ’s innocence was not just a kind of nostalgia, a fragrant memory of something pure and wonderful and delicate. It was in his innocence the Christ walked steadfastly into the most terrifying darkness; into rejection and suffering and death. His innocence was fully tested, tried in the fire of experience, and vindicated in his resurrection.

The Holy Innocents, the children slaughtered like lambs in the gospel story, are not innocent because they are infants per se. Their innocence, like ours, is Christ in them; Christ who, in Blake’s words ‘calls himself a Lamb’; who does not separate himself from those who suffer in his name and for his sake; Christ whose innocence didn’t need to be preserved and protected from the viciousness of the world, but which was proved precisely by engaging with it. So we might well say of the new-born Christ: Little Lamb, God bless thee.

In Christ, innocence turns out to be something incredibly strong and durable. Innocence is proved to be in no sense unworldly or detached from the vicissitudes of experience, and anything that is so detached is not worthy of the name.

In all innocence then, in the innocence of the Christ who, by his incarnation, unites himself to human experience, perhaps we can face this New Year less in wistful longing for a more innocent past, before EU migration, before truth was post-... . Perhaps we can face this New Year as Holy Innocents, offering our lives in the hope of a more innocent future; in the belief that innocence will be perfected, and innocence will be triumphant, whatever experience this New Year may throw at us.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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