Sunday 30 June 2024

Jubilate Agno: the praise of creatures - a sermon on the singing of Britten's 'Rejoice in the Lamb'

'Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the

Lamb. Nations, and languages, and every creature in which is

the breath of Life. Let man and beast appear before him, and

magnify his name together'.




There are two Hebrew words that come to mind when I hear

Britten's 'Rejoice in the Lamb' and that remarkable text of

Christopher Smart


I'll be honest that there aren't many more Hebrew words I know!

The words are 'hallel' meaning 'praise', from where we get the

word 'Hallel-ujah': praise (hallel) God (Jah).


'Rejoice in the Lamb' captures a sense of exuberant praise and

glorification of God by all creatures: it's an alleluia!


And that leads to my second Hebrew word which is 'nephesh'.


This word literally means 'breath' or even better 'life force', or, as

Smart refers to it, 'the breath of Life'.


This life force is the breath of life that suffuses all creatures,

animals as much as humans.


'Rejoice in the Lamb' is an assertion of the life force in all

creatures and so reminds we human beings that we share

creatureliness with all creatures.


Smart takes this as far, but no further, than the Creation

accounts of Genesis, in which of course God declares that 'it is



Again, Smart goes as far as, but no further, than the great matins

canticle the Benedicite, Omnia Opera, 'O all ye works of the

Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise him and magnify him for ever'.


The Benedicite suggests that 'angels', 'waters', 'sun and moon',

'stars of heaven', 'showers and dew', 'fire and heat', 'whales and

all that moves in the waters', 'fowls of the air', 'beasts and cattle'

in other words, all created things - animate and inanimate - are

created to bless, praise and magnify the Lord, their Creator.


Admittedly cats aren't named in the Benedicite, but there is no

reason why they shouldn't be!


The point is that all things in the cosmos are created things, as

am I, as are you, as was Jeoffry, Christopher Smart's cat.


Created things ultimately are created to worship and honour the



This is where theology begins, and ends: God is not a thing, not

an element of creation, but the Creator, the originator, the



That is what Genesis 1 so carefully sets out: the sun and the

moon are creatures, not deities; the earth and trees and animals

of all descriptions are creatures not deities; last of all we

humans, we are creatures, not deities.


Even whilst sharing the image and likeness of the Creator, we

are creatures too who reflect the Creator's glory: in that way we

are like the moon which has no light of its own, but reflects the

light of the sun.


So, for Smart, for all his alleged madness, is touching deep and

important things.


In 'Rejoice int he Lamb' Smart names many weird and wonderful

creatures that praise their Creator, and is most evident in

Jeoffry, his cat. What Smart sees in Jeoffry is wonderful and to be celebrated: a

cat who 'at first glance of the glory of God in the East he

worships in his way'.


'Worships in his way' is not a statement of personal taste - in the

sort of way that people shop around for styles of worship, in a

consumerist, preference-based way - this is deeper: 'worships in

his way' means that Jeoffry is a cat who glorifies God in all that

it is to be a cat; to be feline.


It's what the second century African theologian Tertullian

recognised when he wrote that, 'birds, when they awake, rise

toward heaven and in place of hands lift their wings which they

open in the shape of the cross, chirping something that might

seem to be a prayer'.


In Smart's assertion of the feline nature of the cat and

Tertullian's of the avian nature of the birds is the question the

Scriptures insistently ask us: what is the worship and honour

due to God in the human nature of men and women?


In his 'elegant quickness' Jeoffry is inhabiting his creatureliness

in all its feline elegance. What Smart observes is a cat being

truly a cat.


Tertullian, even with his somewhat florid interpretation is

observing birds being birds, flying and chirping.


Our fellow creatures in God's creation inhabit their

creatureliness and who they are all made and called by God to



Their 'nephesh' issues in 'hallel'; their 'breath of life' issues in



The one creature that can't achieve - this is the one that sits in

an exalted place in the creation, declared to be made in the

image and likeness of God - and that's us.


So Smart sees in Jeffrey a cat that is truly a cat, just as a tree is

truly a tree, and is moved to contemplate his own nature.

Psalm 8 asks the question: 'What is man that thou art mindful of

him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him? (Psalm 8.4)


This is where we can state that Jesus Christ is the true human,

hence why St Paul calls him the New Adam, the new humanity.


Christ Incarnate, shows how the human person should live to

glorify God and reflect his image and likeness. Christ

demonstrates humanity in all its human-ness as sons and

daughters of the Most High, rather than the distorted, violent,

envious, competitive, brittle way we live our lives: we spend too

much of our lives living lives that are not fully human, we are



The fullness of humanity is when we bless, worship and magnify

our Creator in worship that sets our sights on the true 'hallel',

the praise that channels our nephesh, our 'breath of Life' to God.


Smart's cat, Jeoffry, points us to authentic praise, as do those

gathered in Bethlehem at the birth of Christ. Christ is

surrounded by representatives of the Creation: a star - creature

not deity; ox and ass - creatures not deities; and then the

devotion of people who become more themselves in worship

and adoration of Christ, and are in no way diminished.


'Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the

Lamb. Nations, and languages, and every creature in which is

the breath of Life. Let man and beast appear before him, and

magnify his name together'.

No comments:

Post a Comment