Poetry for Good Friday: The Annunciation and Passion by John Donne

THE ANNUNCIATION AND PASSION.
by John Donne

TAMELY, frail body, abstain to-day ; to-day
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur ; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away ;
She sees Him nothing, twice at once, who’s all ;
She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall ;
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead ;
She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha ;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen ;
At once a son is promised her, and gone ;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John ;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity ;
At once receiver and the legacy.
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one—
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God’s Court of Faculties,
Deals, in sometimes, and seldom joining these.
As by the self-fix’d Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where th’other is, and which we say
—Because it strays not far—doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to him, we know,
And stand firm, if we by her motion go.
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar, doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud ; to one end both.
This Church by letting those days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one ;
Or ’twas in Him the same humility,
That He would be a man, and leave to be ;
Or as creation He hath made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes ; He shall come, He is gone ;
Or as though one blood drop, which thence did fall,
Accepted, would have served, He yet shed all,
So though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords.
This treasure then, in gross, my soul, uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.

Upon the Annunciation and
Passion Falling upon One Day.
1608

Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came and went away;
She sees Him nothing twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall,
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive yet dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity,
At once receiver and the legacy;
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angels’ Ave and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God’s court of faculties,
Deals in some times and seldom joining these!
As by the self-fixed Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where the other is and which we say
(Because it strays not far) doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know
And stand firm, if we by her motion go;
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud, to one end both.
This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one:
Or ‘twas in Him the same humility
That He would be a man and leave to be:
Or as creation He had made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating Spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone:
Or as though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords;
This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.

– John Donne


Passion Falling upon One Day.
1608

Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came and went away;
She sees Him nothing twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall,
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive yet dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity,
At once receiver and the legacy;
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angels’ Ave and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God’s court of faculties,
Deals in some times and seldom joining these!
As by the self-fixed Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where the other is and which we say
(Because it strays not far) doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know
And stand firm, if we by her motion go;
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud, to one end both.
This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one:
Or ‘twas in Him the same humility
That He would be a man and leave to be:
Or as creation He had made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating Spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone:
Or as though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords;
This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.

– John Donne

The Cross and the Lynching Tree: Words from James Cone for Good Friday

To understand what the cross means in America we need to take a look at the lynching tree in this nation’s history–that “strange and bitter crop” that Billie Holiday would not let us forget. The lynched black victim experienced the same fate as the crucified Christ and thus became the most potent symbol for understanding the true meaning of the salvation achieved through “God on the Cross.” Nietzsche was right: Christianity is a religion of slaves. God became a slave in Jesus and thereby liberated slaves from being determined by their condition.

The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst. Faith that emerged out of the scandal of the cross is not a faith of intellectuals or elites of any sort. This is the faith of abused and scandalized people—the losers and the down and out. It was this faith that gave blacks the strength and courage to hope, “to keep on keeping on,” …. The cross and the lynching tree interpret each other. Both were public spectacles, shameful events, instruments of punishment reserved for the most despised people in society. Any genuine theology and any genuine preaching of the Christian gospel must be measured against the test of the scandal of the cross and the lynching tree…..

As I see it, the lynching tree frees the cross from the false pieties of well-meaning Christians. When we see the crucifixion as a first-century lynching, we are confronted by the re-enactment of Christ’s suffering in the blood-soaked history of African Americans.

Thus the lynching tree reveals the true religious meaning of the cross for American Christians today. The cross needs the lynching tree to remind Americans of the reality of suffering-to keep the cross from becoming a symbol of abstract, sentimental piety. Before the spectacle of the cross we are faced with a clear challenge: as Latin American liberation theologian Jon Sobrino has put it, “to take the crucified down from the cross.”

Yet the lynching tree also needs the cross, without which it becomes simply an abomination. It is the cross that points in the direction of hope, the confidence that there is a dimension to life beyond the reach of the oppressor….

Though the pain of Jesus’ cross was real, there was also joy and beauty in his cross. This is the great theological paradox that makes the cross impossible to embrace unless one is standing in solidarity with those who are powerless. God’s loving solidarity can transform ugliness–whether Jesus on the cross or a lynched black victim–into beauty, into God’s liberating presence.

James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree

Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward–John Donne

GOOD-FRIDAY, 1613, RIDING WESTWARD.
by John Donne

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.

God’s Silence: A Homily for Good Friday, 2014

“Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

We have come together today as Christians do each year on Good Friday, to remember Jesus’death, to hear again the reading of John’s story of the crucifixion, to remember our sins, the broken-ness of our world, and above all to remember the great love of God in Jesus Christ that comes to us through God’s self-giving. Continue reading

Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward, by John Donne

GOOD-FRIDAY, 1613, RIDING WESTWARD.
by John Donne

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.

Good Friday

So when we bend and venerate the cross on Good Friday, there are several things that I think we must be clear, if John’s gospel is right, that we are not doing. We are not assenting to ongoing injustice, violence, or abuse in our world: that would be negligence or cowardice. We are not voting for a passive acceptance of the misuse of power: that would be masochism. We are not saying that human agony and suffering are alright after all, or that by some magic of mind-over-matter I can grit my teeth and see them through to the other side: that would be stoicism.

No, when we make this bodily obeisance each year, we are saying in the only way we can – not just with our mind (which is often confused and doubting) but with our whole being – that all our hope resides in something already done, done by the God/Man on a dark hour long ago and once for all. Often we cannot feel it for the darkness, let alone see it. Often we are overwhelmed by our own pain and that of others, our own sin and that of others. But God has done what only God can do, and in the eye of the storm there is already that still place of triumph which John calls Jesus’s cosmic “glory,” and which he holds out to us also. It is the “finishing” that Jesus does, which is not just a finishing but the reaching of the goal.

–Sarah Coakley

Some words from Auden for Holy Week

“Just as we were all, potentially, in Adam when he fell, so we were all, potentially, in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday before there was an Easter, a Pentecost, a Christian, or a Church. It seems to me worth while asking ourselves who we should have been and what we should have been doing. None of us, I’m certain, will imagine himself as one of the Disciples, cowering in an agony of spiritual despair and physical terror. Very few of us are big wheels enough to see ourselves as Pilate, or good churchmen enough to see ourselves as a member of the Sanhedrin. In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all-too-familiar sight — three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, “It’s disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can’t the authorities execute criminals humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?” Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the nature of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.” W. H. Auden, in A Certain World: A Commonplace Book

Source: Alan Jacobs

Love was His meaning: A Homily for Good Friday, 2013

Is there any symbol more ubiquitous in our culture than the cross? We see it everywhere. Although the crosses here in the church are veiled, we can detect their outlines behind the veils. We wear them on pendants around our necks; we see it in ads; some even have crosses tattooed on their bodies. Most of the time, when we see a cross, we don’t give it another thought. It may not even have religious significance for the one who wears it as jewelry. Continue reading

Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward

GOOD-FRIDAY, 1613, RIDING WESTWARD.
by John Donne

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.

Anti-Judaism and Holy Week

One of the central issues facing Christians during Holy Week (in fact it’s central to Christianity itself) is the pervasive anti-Judaism in the Christian tradition and in parts of the New Testament. It’s particularly prevalent in the Gospel of John and reaches its highest intensity in the passion narrative (John 18 and 19). It’s traditional that John’s Passion Narrative is read on Good Friday. The raw power of the story of Jesus’ betrayal, trials, and crucifixion that culminate with the silence of the tomb, combines with the larger liturgical context to confront worshipers with the enormity of the crucifixion and with human culpability in it. The concluding prayer includes this sentence:

we pray you to set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death

As much as the overall liturgy seeks to make us participants in the drama of Good Friday, John’s Passion Narrative seems designed to leave us in the audience, observers of a drama in which the main actors are only Jesus, Pilate, and “the Jews.” Pilate declares Jesus innocent of the charges against him, saying three times, “I find no case against him” (Jn 18:38, 19:4, 6). Each time, “the Jews” protest and force Pilate to reconsider. In the end, Pilate hands Jesus over to them for crucifixion (John does not explicitly state that Romans were involved in the crucifixion. “Pilate handed Jesus over to them to be crucified” 19:16).

While the presence of “the Jews” as Jesus’ opponents is especially prevalent in the passion narrative, throughout John’s gospel, Jesus comes into conflict with “the Jews.” On one level, such a term is utterly meaningless because Jesus and his disciples were Jews just like those who opposed him. But John’s gospel reflects a later stage of historical development when it seems that opposition between some Jews and those Jews who had come to believe Jesus was the Messiah had become especially pronounced. Thus in 9: 22-23, the parents of the blind man whom Jesus healed were “afraid of the Jews” because they had already decided “that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”

On careful reading, it becomes apparent that only “some Jews” were so opposed to Jesus that they sought his death. Others supported him; some of the latter were people like Joseph of Arimathea, who John says was a disciple of Jesus, but only secretly, “for fear of the Jews.”

Our preaching, liturgies, and reflection in Holy Week should include a healthy dose of repentance for Christian anti-Judaism. Whatever the historical context that gave rise to John’s portrayal of “the Jews” in his gospel, that portrayal has had a long and evil afterlife. Over the centuries, Christians have used the charge of “Christ-Killer” to oppress and persecute Jews. In the European Middle Ages, for example, Holy Week often meant increased incidents of anti-Judaism, including the blood libel and riots.

For more on John’s portrayal of “The Jews” read excerpts from Raymond Brown’s postumously published Introduction to the Gospel of John

The 20th and 21st centuries have seen many efforts by Christians to deal with past Anti-Judaism. An article on Christian philosemitism among Evangelicals is helpful.

A recent book examines the long history of Christian Anti-Judaism. R. I. Moore reviews David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition here:

The enduring legacy of the early Church, Nirenberg makes clear, was far more than the familiar stereotype of anti-Semitism: it was a language and a set of oppositions and associations in which any conflict could be framed, or any community, party or position attacked or defended by contrasting it with Judaism—irrespective of the presence, still less the participation, of flesh-and-blood Jews.

Martin Marty reflects on the Anti-Judaism in John and in Bach’s St. John’s Passion here:

but the Gospel of John, which provides the framework for Bach’s work, poses extremely harsh and judgmental accusations which turn “the Jews”—some Jews, since Jesus and his followers were all Jews—into primal and enduring villains. Being a Christian and a Lutheran, whose faith-communities include horrible records against Jews and Judaism—records finally being addressed with penitence and resolve in recent decades—I must deal with the “shadow” of this Passion. So: do we shun or evade the dark side, and make a big show of how uniquely righteous “we” and our contemporaries are? Or do we note the central, focal stream in Bach’s work, where in the classic Chorales and Arias the emphatic and even obsessive concern is for the contemporary disciples of Jesus to see that it was and is “they” who by their faults were and are guilty—until his death freed them from guilt. That’s Bach’s “bright side,” part of the allure of this transcendent musical work.