John Donne: Good Friday

Tom Wright declares, in The Prison Letters (fr. his series Paul for Everyone):

As you look at the incarnate son of God dying on the cross the most powerful thought you should think is: this is the true meaning of who God is.  He is the God of self-giving love. (103)

In Holy Week at the Small Group we looked at some of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, and Easter Week we perused George Herbert.  Donne’s poetry is available via Luminarium, and the sonnets we read were numbers X, “Death Be Not Proud,” XI, “Spit in My Face, You Jews, and Pierce My Side,” XIII “What If This Present Were the World’s Last Night,” and XIV, “Batter My Heart, Three-person’d God.”  Herbert’s were “Good Friday,” “Sepulchre,” “Easter,” and “Easter-Wings,” all available at Luminarium save “Good Friday” somehow.

Today let us consider John Donne’s, “Spit in My Face, You Jews.”  All of the above-mentioned poems are worth reading several times.  Indeed, we read them all aloud twice each.  Here is John Donne’s eleventh Holy Sonnet.  Read it to yourself a few times, especially aloud, even in company.

Spit in my face, you Jews, and pierce my side,
Buffet, and scoff, scourge, and crucify me,
For I have sinn’d, and sinne’, and only He,
Who could do no iniquity, hath died.
But by my death can not be satisfied
My sins, which pass the Jews’ impiety.
They kill’d once an inglorious man, but I
Crucify him daily, being now glorified.
O let me then His strange love still admire ;
Kings pardon, but He bore our punishment ;
And Jacob came clothed in vile harsh attire,
But to supplant, and with gainful intent ;
God clothed Himself in vile man’s flesh, that so
He might be weak enough to suffer woe.

Part of the appeal of this poem is its provocative first line.  I think it’s supposed to make you think that Donne is being racist.  Only he’s not.  I don’t know if he was in real life, but this poem is not racist.  Read it again if you thought it was.  That first line is calling the Jewish people of the first-century to spit in Donne’s face.  Why?  Because these people killed the sinless one, “who could do no iniquity.”  And Donne?  Oh, Donne’s a sinner.  Read his un-holy sonnets.  Donne is the one who deserve buffetting, scoffing, scourging, and crucifying, not Jesus.  He is calling on the Jews to turn their attentions to himself instead of to Christ.

This fact is central to the mystery of Good Friday, the glory of the Cross — we sinners who deserve death are spared, while the livegiver who has done no wrong dies on our behalf.  Jesus on the Cross is showing us the upside Kingdom of God’s mercy — not simply pardoning as an earthly king, but bearing our punishment.  And yet we surpass the impiety of the first-century Jews.  We, by our sins, crucify Jesus daily.  What impiety!  What sin!  Should we not feel sorrow and seek to amend our ways?

Finally, we see that God, YHWH, who is impassible, who cannot suffer, has “clothed Himself in vile man’s flesh” — in order to “be weak enough to suffer woe.”  Christ, who is himself perfect God, tasted all there is to taste of humanity, including suffering, including woe, including death.  All of these things are now taken up into God through the Incarnation and Crucifixion.  Our pain is known to the Almighty, and he shall not remain silent forever.

If you’ve been following my posts on the Cult of the Cross (here and here), I would argue that poetry such as this is part of the early seventeenth century’s Protestant “Cult” of the Cross — devotional poetry reflecting upon the Cross and upon Christ and how Christ might be made real to me, and I might change my ways.

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