Friday, April 6, 2012

John Donne, "Good-Friday, 1613, Riding Westward"

Let man's soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
Th' intelligence that moves, devotion is;
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motion, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey;
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirl'd by it.
Hence is't, that I am carried towards the west,
This day, when my soul's form bends to the East.
There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die;
What a death were it then to see God die?
It made His own lieutenant, Nature, shrink,
It made His footstool crack, and the sun wink.
Could I behold those hands, which span the poles
And tune all spheres at once, pierced with those holes?
Could I behold that endless height, which is
Zenith to us and our antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood, which is
The seat of all our soul's, if not of His,
Made dirt of dust, or that flesh which was worn
By God for His apparel, ragg'd and torn?
If on these things I durst not look, durst I
On His distressed Mother cast mine eye,
Who was God's partner here, and furnish'd thus
Half of that sacrifice which ransom'd us?
Though these things as I ride be from mine eye,
They're present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and Thou look'st towards me,
O Saviour, as Thou hang'st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity;
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I'll turn my face.

John Donne has always been my favorite poet as well as being a person I could relate to at an existential level.  For some reason, on 2 April 1613—two years before, at the urging of King James I, he was ordained into the ministry of the Church of England, and eight years before being appointed Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral—Donne found himself having to travel westward from London to Wales, thus preventing him from participating in Good Friday services which were, of course, better attended than such services are today.  Donne turns this unfortunate circumstance, via a simple, metaphorically-transferred geographical reflection, into a powerful theological meditation on the mysterious yet profound significance of the events which had occurred on Calvary hill some 580 years earlier.

I don’t have the time or the expertise, as a mere theologian, to provide a full exegesis of this poem.  For that I will defer to my niece, Rachel Doll, MFA.  Nevertheless, I would like to reflect on three theological themes that clearly come to the fore in this masterpiece.

The first is Donne’s sense of his own sinfulness.  Indeed, at the beginning of the poem Donne appears to portray his westward transit as a metaphorical journey away from Jerusalem due to culpable distraction caused by “pleasure or business,” similar to planets and stars whose somewhat less-than-circular orbits manifest disobedience to their “natural form” by virtue of being “subject to foreign motion.”  Even at the poem’s end, Donne pictures his westward journey as a turning of the back away from the crucified Christ, which is, so he reflects, the proper stance from which to receive the Lord’s corrective discipline and restoration of the corrupted imago dei.

Secondly, Donne correctly grasps the significance of the cross as the necessary means to ransom human beings from sin. 

There I should see a Sun by rising set,
And by that setting endless day beget.
But that Christ on His cross did rise and fall,
Sin had eternally benighted all.

Here Donne, by means of the somewhat obvious word play between the sun and Jesus as the “son” of God, metaphorically compares Christ’s ascent upon the cross and descent in death with a sun that paradoxically sets in the very act of rising—and, no less surprising, whose setting begets the endless day anticipated for the New Jerusalem in Revelation 22:5.  Note as well the insight that this death of the Sun (an allusion to the “sun of righteousness” of Mal 4:2?)/Son was necessary in order to rescue humankind from sin.  God could not have willy-nilly forgiven human beings their sin by sheer fiat and remained just (as implied, e.g., in Romans 3:25-26).  What was needed, and what God consequently provided out of sheer grace, was a “sacrifice” (cf. Rom 3:25; 8:3) that “ransom’d us” (Mark 10:45 et par.) from both the guilt and enslaving power of sin.

Finally, Donne profoundly grasps both the paradox and the glory of the truth of what Luther shockingly called “the crucified God.” 

Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees Gods face, that is self-life, must die;
What a death were it then to see God die?

Christians are well aware of the famous story in Exodus 33, where Moses petitions God to show him his glory.  In reply, God says, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”  Donne reflects on this, even rationalizing that gazing upon the cross would have been a “spectacle” too “weighty” for him to behold.  Donne, of course, knew the Gospel of John as well as the classic Trinitarian orthodoxy based largely on it, and so he is merely setting up his major theological meditation.  The Jesus who hung on the tree, as St. John said, was the eternal Logos who on the first Christmas “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14).  As a result, even though “no one has ever seen God,” “the unique One, himself God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18 [trans. JRM]).  Jesus, in other words, is the embodiment of the eternal Word/Wisdom of God and, as a result, as John says, “we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Jesus’ was a divine glory that we humans could see.  But his was a glory not manifested by blinding, life-destroying light, but rather a glory manifested in “grace and truth.”  Where is this glory seen?  Supremely—so John argues—on the cross, the “hour” (John 2:4; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 17:1) when Jesus was “lifted up”/exalted (John 12:32) and “glorified” by the Father (John 13:32; 17:1).  Here we have in a nutshell the gracious condescension of the eternal God, the God whom to see is, for sinful mortals, to die.  The latter is indeed a terrifying thought to imagine.  But Jesus Christ demonstrates that such a vision is not the only or last word.  Jesus, as the eternal Word, is God in his self-revelation.  His is the human face of God.  And that means that Jesus hanging on the cross—Deus crucifixus—is the definitive revelation of God.  In other words, if you want to know and understand God as he has revealed himself to us, look at this Jesus.

It is always salutary for us who know Christ as our Lord and Savior to reflect on these glorious, life-giving truths.  Indeed, life is ultimately meaningless, indeed hopeless, apart from them.  For those who may not yet know this Jesus—and this God—please ponder the claims of Christ, the Son of God who "condemned sin in the flesh (Rom 8:3) in order to “ransom” us from its eternal consequences.  And look in faith to him.  In John 3:14-15, the author alludes back to a story found in Numbers 21:4-9.  There, in response to the covenant people’s faithless complaints against God and Moses, the Lord sent venomous snakes among the people, as a result of which many were bitten and mortally wounded.  The people then, as one might imagine, had second thoughts and repented, in response to which God told Moses to make a bronze serpent which, if looked at, would result in the preservation of the beholder’s life.  Jesus, in John’s view, serves a similar role for all of us born of “flesh” and living in “darkness”: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”  Soli Deo Gloria.

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