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Diving into the deep end

19 December 2014

John Donne's poem 'Nativity', provides theology, emotion, and spritual insight, says David Bryant


"Stars and wisemen": The Adoration of the Magi by Antonio Vassilacchi

"Stars and wisemen": The Adoration of the Magi by Antonio Vassilacchi

FOR a Dean of St Paul's, John Donne had an impressively racy background. Born into a recusant family, he saw close friends and family suffer torture, exile, and death. His brother died of bubonic plague while in prison for sheltering a priest. Donne's youthful womanising, reckless expenditure, and lust for travel have echoes of St Augustine's Confessions.

He served a spell in the Fleet Prison, thanks to the furious Sir Thomas Egerton, whose daughter he had seduced. Three of his 12 children died before they were ten, and his anguish was so great that he contemplated suicide.

The disillusioned Donne wrote a fiery polemic against the Roman Catholic Church, as a result of which King James I became his champion. The King took him in hand, appointed him a Royal Chaplain, and swiftly advanced him through the higher echelons of the Church of England, and he became Dean of St Paul's.

Out of this seething cauldron emerged a poet whose love lyrics and erotic verse raised more than a few lay and clerical eyebrows. In his latter years, he mellowed, and turned to religious poetry, whose hallmarks are powerful imagery, sensuality, provocative God-talk, and pithy epigrams. His poem "Nativity" is a marvel of punchy theology, emotion, and spiritual insight.

The opening lines are an unforgettable paradox.

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov'd imprisonment.

Addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, this throws us straight into the spiritual deep end. God in his vastness lies beyond human comprehension, hidden in a cloud of unknowing. He is the "Light inaccessible, hid from our eyes", in the hymn-writer's words. At the same time, God is immanent, entwined like a thread through every atom of the universe.

This omnipresence of God opens a wide field for different approaches to prayer. It speaks to those who respond to a holy, elusive, transcendent God through silence and contemplation, and paves the way for a more earth-based spirituality, centred on the humanity of Jesus exemplified in the Christ-child.

FORGET the frivolities of Christmas, mistletoe, mince pies, and silver glitter. What follows is heavyweight theology. God has intentionally chosen to enter the world homeless and vulnerable.

This is kenosis - God emptying himself, so aptly described by St Paul in Philippians: "Christ . . . though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself." This concept had its genesis 2500 years earlier, when Isaiah proclaimed a God who was revealed as a suffering servant.

Donne is not depicting the nativity as a charming, nostalgic scene. It is an unravelling of the very nature of God. It implies that, from the very inception of time, God has been and remains at the heart of all that is.

Then comes hurdle number one. "But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?" To put it bluntly, much of the world is uninterested in, or antagonistic to, the divine presence. The Christmas Gospel sums it up: "He came to his own home, and his own people received him not." This is a bleak, but sadly realistic picture.

We still fight wars, act inhumanely, disregard minorities, and lead lives that are ethically stunted or distorted. Godless regimes abound, and religion is confused with political idealism. It seems as if darkness has won the day.

Not so, Donne says. There are two glimmers of hope. The star that embodies the entire cosmic realm travels through the emptiness of space to rest over the stable, drawing the entire world with it. So do the Wise Men, who bring gifts and humility to the crib instead of rejection and destruction.

Just as the light is growing brighter, another malign event surges up. Herod is planning an appalling infanticide. At the last moment his murderous hand is forestalled, and the Bethlehem family is spared. The Magi complete their long journey, and the star arrives in the nick of time before the bloodshed starts. "Stars and wise men will travel to prevent The effect of Herod's jealous general doom."

THEN the poet urges us to contemplate in silent wonder the child in the manger, who represents both the God from the eternal realms of light, and the God centred in our world.

As if to underline the potency and sheer thrill of this message, Donne turns to irony. The nativity has a twist in the tale. God's pity is so profound that he chooses to up-end the equation and lie in a draughty stable, thereby bringing about a scenario in which we feel sorry for him rather than vice-versa.

So there is a reciprocity written into the Christmas event. Divine love shines out on humankind with a potential to kindle a flame of love in us. This flame, John Wesley states, can "burn with inextinguishable blaze, and trembling to its source return . . .". The God-humankind circle is complete.

The closing lines come as a vast reassurance. If we gear ourselves up to take a great leap of faith in the face of the world's secularity, if we are prepared to go on our knees, and kiss him, we can metaphorically travel with Joseph and Mary to the safety of Egypt.

There, with the Holy Family, we will be able to rest in the presence of the universal Christ, the Lord of glory, who shares our existen- tial angst and co-suffers with the world.

Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.

Donne's message is universal, and beyond time. It rides high over the secular Christmas with its Santa, winking lights, canned music, and electronic tills.

In all its poetic splendour, it proclaims that God is ever present - not only in the glory of heaven and the joyfulness of life, but in the sordid, hopeless caverns of human existence as well.

And that is quite something to celebrate this Christmas.

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in Yorkshire.



Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov'd imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wisemen will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod's jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith's eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes  thy woe.

John Donne

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