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Pastimes >

Word from Wormingford

Ronald Blythe muses on lambs in the fields and the Lamb of God

EACH year, I alternate the Sundays after Easter with sermons on Emmaus and the image of the Lamb. So this year it is Shepherd Sunday, the divine pastoral. All week, expensive altar lilies have been trumpeting their deathliness, and a sumptuous mortality fills the nave. Nothing can approach the liturgical sequence of odours in a country church.

A news item rocks — wrecks — what I have to say, however. The Sophoclean tragedy of Katyn. And that this should have been staged in Poland, the most Christian nation in Europe. So what to say? Say nothing. Say: “Let us remember Poland in silence before God.” Which we do, and at both matins and evensong. During the latter, a great tit sang clearly and repetitively near by. For Poland, an appalling crime, one of the worst in history, would in future be overlaid with a banal crash.

On Easter Two the Gospel is — or was — “Jesus said, I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” The creature most identified with our faith is the lamb. Suffolks are pastured in the meadow below St Andrew’s, leaping, crying, thrusting against their mothers in the cold April air. And in what would become Palestine, a tribe of herdsmen, always moving on to fresh grass, would eventually settle and produce shepherd-kings.

The lambs have children’s voices when they cry, which can be un­settling. How at our mercy they are, these Christ-symbolising animals. How can we escape the questions they pose? Living creature, altar symbol, the Word.

It was the Lord’s cousin, John, who challenged the old lamb-sacrificing religion by calling out in his grown-up voice, “Behold the Lamb of God!” The paschal lamb provided a feast. It was sacrificed in the temple on the afternoon of 14 Nisan, or mid-April, ritually offered to God, then taken home and eaten for supper. All this to remind a pas­toral nation of its freedom from servitude.

St Paul is referring to this when he tells his Corinth friends: “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast. Not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

What does the Lamb himself say, this second Sunday after Easter? “I am the good shepherd who gave his life so that you can live. I never ran away when the sacrificial moment came. I am constancy. You left me. But now you are returned to the shepherd and bishop (overseer) of your souls.”

“No sheepdogs in the Bible,” David says. His has been in the pond, and is scattering water over us. The white cat, used to him by now, sits cautiously aloft all the same.

After the pastoral people stopped wandering, their shepherds still had to lead their flocks from feeding-ground to feeding-ground on the hills, making pens, fires, and, in­evitably, poems. For when you lie dreaming on your back under the stars, you think of the strangest, most beautiful things. Which is how we got the Psalms. And the names for the stars. And mystics. And writers such as Thomas Traherne and Richard Rolle.

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