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
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
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
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
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
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
And that is quite something to celebrate this Christmas.
The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in
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