Sunday, April 22, 2012

John Donne on the Resurrection of Jesus

John Donne (c.1572-1631), was born into a Roman Catholic family and educated at Oxford, Cambridge and Lincoln's Inn. He switched to the Church of England around 1594 and aimed at a career in government. He joined with Raleigh and Essex in raids on Cadiz and the Azores, and became private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton. In 1601 he secretly married Anne More, Egerton’s 16-year-old niece, whose father had Donne imprisoned. Then followed years of poverty, debt, illness, and frustration, until, in 1615, he was ordained. 

Donne became well known as a preacher. From 1622 until his death he was Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, London. Huge crowds flocked to hear him, both at the Cathedral and at Paul's Cross, an outdoor pulpit nearby. His style is now outdated, but his readers are still drawn to his published texts, which have as their theme "the paradoxical and complex predicament of man as he both seeks and yet draws away from the inescapable claim of God on him." 

Long before his ordination, and probably beginning with his marriage, Donne’s thoughts turned toward holiness as he saw in his wife Anne a glimpse of the glory of God, and in human love a revelation of God’s love. His metaphysical poetry, for which he is best known today, was mostly written before his ordination, and includes poems both sacred and secular, full of wit, puns, paradoxes, and (often for us) obscure allusions. 

Here is a passage from his sermon on the resurrection of Jesus (published as Sermon XVI), preached at St Paul’s Cathedral in the evening of Easter Day, 1623. (For the convenience of the modern reader, it has been broken into smaller paragraphs): 

Acts Ii. 36. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord, and Christ. 

Now, if the resurrection of this Jesus, have made him, not only Christ, anointed and consecrated in heaven, in his own person, but made him Lord, then he hath subjects, upon whom that dominion, and that power works, and so we have assurance of a resurrection in him too. 

That he is made Lord of us by his resurrection, is rooted in prophecy; It pleased the Lord to bruise him, says the prophet Esay; But he shall see his seed, and he shall prolong his days (Isaiah 53:10); that is, he shall see those that are regenerate in him, live with him, for ever. It is rooted in prophecy, and it spreads forth in the Gospel. To this end, says the apostle, Christ died, and rose, that he might be Lord of the dead, and of the living. 

Now, what kind of Lord, if he had no subjects? Cum videmus caput super aquas (Pope Gregory the Great), when the head is above water, will any imagine the body to be drowned? What a perverse consideration were it, to imagine a live head, and dead members? 

Or, consider our bodies in ourselves, and Our bodies are temples of the Holy Ghost; and shall the temples of the Holy Ghost lie for ever, for ever, buried in their rubbish? They shall not; for, the day of judgment, is the day of regeneration (Matthew 19:28), as it is called in the Gospel; Quia caro nostra ita generabitur per incorruptionem, sicut anima per fidem (St Augustine): Because our body shall be regenerated by glory there, as our souls are by faith here. 

Therefore, Tertullian calls the resurrection, Exemplum spei nostra, The original, out of which we copy out our hope; and Clavem sepulchrorum nostrorum, How hard soever my grave be locked, yet with that key, with the application of the resurrection of Christ Jesus, it will open; and they are all names, which express this well, which Tertullian gives Christ, Vadem, obsidem, fidejussorem resurrectionis nostrae, That he is the pledge, the hostage, the surety of our resurrection: so doth that also which is said in the school, Sicut Adam forma morientium, ita Christus forma resurgentium"; Without Adam, there had been no such thing as death, without Christ, no such thing as a resurrection: but ascendit ille effractor, (as the prophet speaks) The breaker is gone up before, and they have passed through the gate (Theophylact), that is, assuredly, infallibly, they shall pass. 

Here is one of Donne’s most famous poems: “Death be not proud”. A “Holy Sonnet”, it was written around 1610 and first published posthumously in 1633: 

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.


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