Ash Wednesday; the tale of the goat and the tiger

Sermon for Ash Wednesday by Fr James Heard

 There is a lovely fable from a nineteenth century Hindu guru, Ramakrishna. It’s the story of a tigress who attacked a flock of goats. As she sprang on her prey, she gave birth to a cub and died. The motherless tiger cub was adopted by the goats and brought up by them to speak their language, to emulate their ways, eat their food, and in general to believe that he was a goat himself.

Then one day a king tiger came along and all the goats scattered in fear. The young tiger was left alone to confront him, afraid and yet somehow not afraid. The king tiger asked him what he meant by his unseemly masquerade, but all that the young one could do in response was to bleat nervously and continue nibbling at the grass.

So the tiger carried him to a pool where he forced him to look at their two reflections side by side and draw his own conclusions. When this failed, he offered him his first piece of raw meat. At first the young tiger recoiled from the unfamiliar taste of it. But as he ate a little more he began to feel it warming his blood, the truth gradually become clear to him. Lashing his tail and diggings his claws into the ground, the young beast finally raised his head high, and the jungle trembled at the sound of his exultant roar.

Whilst there are profound differences between Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Islam, they largely agree with Christianity on one fundamental and basic point: human beings as they exist in this world are not what they were created to be. The goat isn’t really a goat at all – he is really a tiger – except that he doesn’t know that he is. Or, to describe this in Christian language, we were created in the image of God, but something has gone awry. Like a mirror with a crack down the middle, we reflect a badly distorted image.

We were created to serve God and each other in love but we tend to serve ourselves. Like Adam, we have lost Paradise and yet we carried Paradise around inside us. We carry it in the form of a longing, almost a memory of something that perhaps one day will become real again. To return to the language of the fable, we are not content with our goathood. We eat grass, but it never really fills us.

A Christian is someone who has seen the tiger. T.S. Elliot wrote, ‘In the juvenescence of the year comes Christ the Tiger’ (“Gerontion”, 1920). We look at him and we see what a tiger looks like, we see what a human being fully alive looks like.

We get a picture of true humanity might be by looking at Christ. In Christ, as we reflect about him, read about him, we might ask, if this is true life then what is the life I am living? In Lent we are invited to take a closer look at ourselves. And as we look at do so, our immediate response might well be ‘Woe is me’. And that is the part of the Lenten journey and of recognising that we are but dust.

But the important thing to remember this Lent is that Christ doesn’t come to condemn. From his birth and throughout his life, he is announced with the words, peace be with you. Don’t be afraid. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Perhaps he would say to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram-addicted society, come unto me all who labour and are weary by the burden of social media. Come to me all who are weighed down by the images that attempt to define who we supposedly should be – glamorous, beautiful, successful. That’s the image of the goat speaking. That is not life in abundance.

But we believe in the Christ who can turn goats into tigers. We believe in the Christ who came to give life to the half-alive, even to the dead. And when Jesus says, ‘follow me’ he has the power to transform, to energise. And what he gives us is ourselves. He tells us our true names and who we really are – God’s beloved children. And he offers us food and drink to warm our blood and make us drunk with the mystery and joy of it.



Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

Fr James Heard