The Bishop of Fulham on John Donne and the date of Easter

In the year 1608, a remarkable alignment occurred in the Calendar. Easter Day fell early: not quite as early as it possibly might, but early nonetheless, on Sunday 27 March. As a consequence, Good Friday (25 March) was also Lady Day – the Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

This coincidence of two of the most important observances in the Christian year struck the imagination of John Donne, then thirty-five, just as – as most scholars agree – he was completing a lengthy and tortuous journey of conversion from his cradle Roman Catholicism to the faith and practice of the Church of England. Jack Donne, the wit, womaniser, and composer of dazzling and erotic lyrics (‘Busie old foole, unruly Sunne’, for example) was on his way to becoming Dr Donne, Dean of St Paul’s, preacher and divine. The Holy Sonnets, most of which were probably composed around 1610-11, constitute something of a spiritual biography reflecting that journey from a recusant upbringing to conformity and Establishment; the long prose polemic Ignatius His Conclave is from the same period. So too is the poem prompted by the rare liturgical collision of the commemoration of the Lord’s Conception with that of his Cross: Upon the Annuntiation and Passion: Falling Upon One Day.

In typically paradoxical and riddling fashion, and in verse whose syntax and composition is stretched almost to breaking point, Donne reflects on this day which is marked both by Christ’s coming (the Annunciation) and his leaving again (his death on Calvary.) The day is ‘doubtfull’, both ‘feast or fast’; it is the day ‘Christ came, and went away’. In one couplet, Christ is compared to a tree, planted and felled at the very same moment: the ‘Shee’ at the beginning of each line is the poet’s ‘soule’, by which the mystery is perceived and apprehended:

Shee sees him nothing twice at once, who’is all;
Shee sees a Cedar plant it selfe, and fall.

The part played by the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Lord, is central. Donne weaves together the first chapter of St Luke’s Gospel and the account of the Crucifixion in the Gospel according to St John, with its description of the mutual entrusting of the Blessed Mother and the Beloved Disciple. Mary, in one moment, is both the young girl of Nazareth in her confinement, and the mature mother suffering the public anguish of the loss of her Son:

She [the soul] sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclus’d at home, Publique at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoyc’d shee’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fiftie, and at scarce fifteen.
At once a Sonne is promis’d her, and gone,
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John.

The entire mystery of salvation is encompassed in the double commemoration. Like a map in which east and west appear to be extremities separated by great distance, but in reality meet one another, the angelic salutation and the cry that is both dereliction and triumph from the Cross cannot be kept apart:

All this, and all betweene, this day hath showne,
Th’abridgment of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plaine maps, the furthest West is East)
Of the’Angels Ave, and Consummatum est.

The imprint of the recitation of the Angelus and the Mass in Latin have not been erased from the mind of the poet who is painfully embracing the new religion.

Donne’s mind turns, in the next section of the poem, to the temporal Church, the Church Militant, and how it should guide the lives of Christians on earth:

As by the selfe-fix’d Pole wee never doe
Direct our course, but the next starre thereto,
Which shows where th’other is, and which we say
(Because it strayes not farre) doth never stray;
So God by his Church, nearest to him, wee know
And stand firme, if wee by her motion goe;
His Spirit, as his fiery Pillar doth
Leade, and his Church, as cloud; to one end both.

As John Stubbs has written:

God himself was like the northern celestial pole, definite and immoveable, the ultimate reference point for all those navigating their way through his Creation. But on earth, people had to take their bearings by the sign that showed where the Pole was, the Northern Star, which, although its position did change minutely over the centuries, still appeared constant… The Church, although to all intents and purposes unchanging, was nonetheless subject to its own ‘motion’. Like all other things visible to humanity, the Church existed in time and space, and although its shifts were minimal, it still moved. Donne was suggesting here that Christians could only stay close to God if they kept in step with his Church… which could not be motionless, but could certainly prevent believers from veering off track. [John Stubbs, Donne, The Reformed Soul, London: Penguin (2006), 239]

The preacher who would dwell again and again on mortality, and whose final sermon would be entitled ‘Death’s Duel’, can be glimpsed in the next couplet:

This Church, by letting these daies joyne, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one…

Not only are the beginning and the end of life brought together in a personal and individual sense, but, cosmically, the beginning and the ending of time and space are all of a piece:

Or as creation he hath made, as God,
With the last judgement, but one period…

The poem ends with the startling observation that Christ might have shed just one drop of blood (which would have served for the salvation of mankind) but chose instead to shed it all. Likewise, meditation on one aspect of the suffering of Christ, or one deed or word of his, would suffice for a lifetime; but, on this day, the Church has given all, set forth the whole mystery of salvation, as it were, in one go:

This treasure then, in grosse, my Soule uplay
And in my life retaile it every day.

Alert readers of New Directions will, of course, have understood straightaway why an article on this poem of John Donne’s might be appropriate this month. 2016 is, in this sense, a repetition of 1608: Lady Day coincides with Good Friday. Although this year’s liturgical commemoration of the Annunciation is transferred to Monday 4 April, we are nevertheless invited, by this rare but theologically and devotionally fruitful collision, to reflect more deeply on the relationship between Our Lord’s conception and his Cross; a relationship which Tradition encourages. At least as far back as Tertullian, Christians have believed that Our Lord died on the Cross on the eighth day before the calends of April, that is to say, 25 March – the very day on which, by later reckoning, he had been conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin.*

There has been some talk lately (and surprisingly, to say the least) of the possibility of the Church Universal coming to a common mind on the date of Easter. The Archbishop of Canterbury has speculated that this might happen ‘in five to ten years.’ Perhaps this would be the ultimate triumph for the Bishop of Willesden’s simplification task force. No doubt, were the great Churches of East and West to agree on a single date for the annual celebration of the Resurrection of Our Lord, such a world-wide Easter feast would make for an impressive witness to the Gospel in every part of the globe. But a fixed date, and a farewell for ever to the capacity for God to surprise and delight us through the loops and curves of sacred time? Theology and liturgy are poetry as much as prose. The palette of our faith would surely be less colourful if this generation turned out to be the last, following in the line of Jack Donne, poet, lawyer, lover, husband, and priest, to make the connexions offered by the Annuntiation and Passion: Falling Upon One Day. ND

* I owe this point to Fr John Saward in the introduction to his book The Mysteries of March (Washington, 1990), which explores, through the lens of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the wider web of relationships that unites the Annunciation with Easter. Fr Saward also notes that in the churches of the Byzantine family, when the Feast of the Annunciation falls on Good Friday, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated in honour of the Incarnation, in addition to the celebration of all of the offices of Good Friday.