From “Death’s Duel” (1631)
It is good to dwell here in this consideration of Christ’s death, and therefore transfer we our tabernacle [our devotions] through some of those steps which God the Lord made to his issue of death that day. Take in the whole day from the hour that Christ received the Passover upon Thursday unto the hour in which he died the next day. Make this present day that day in thy devotion, and consider what he did, and remember what you have done.
Before he instituted and celebrated the sacrament (which was after the eating of the Passover), he proceeded to that act of humility, to wash his disciples’ feet, even Peter’s, who for a while resisted him. In your preparation to the holy and blessed sacrament, have you with a sincere humility sought a reconciliation with all the world, even with those who have been averse from it, and refused that reconciliation from you? If so, and not else, you have spent that first part of his last day in a conformity with him.
After the sacrament he spent the time till night in prayer, in preaching, in psalms. Have you considered that a worthy receiving of the sacrament consists in a continuation of holiness after, as well as in a preparation before? If so, you have therein also conformed yourself to him. So Christ spent his time till night.
At night he went into the garden to pray, and he prayed in prolixity; he spent much time in prayer. How much? Because it is literally expressed, that he prayed there three times, and that returning to his disciples after his first prayer, and finding them asleep, said, “Could ye not watch with me one hour,” it is collected that he spent three hours in prayer. I dare scarce ask you whether you went, or how you disposed yourself, when it grew dark and after last night. If that time were spent in a holy recommendation of yourself to God, and a submission of your will to his, it was spent in a conformity to him.
In that time, and in those prayers, was his agony and bloody sweat. I will hope that you did pray; but not every ordinary and customary prayer, but prayer actually accompanied with shedding of tears and in a readiness to shed blood for his glory in necessary cases, puts thee into a conformity with him.
About midnight he was taken and bound with a kiss. Are you conformable to him in that? Is not that too literally, too exactly your case, at midnight to have been taken and bound with a kiss? From there he was carried back to Jerusalem, first to Annas, then to Caiaphas, and (as late as it was) then he was examined, beaten, and delivered over to the custody of those officers from whom he received derision, violence, the covering of his face, the spitting upon his face, the blasphemies of words, and the smartness of blows which that gospel mentions.
And during this time came the “gallicinium,” the crowing of the rooster which called up Peter to his repentance. How you passed all that time, you know. If you did anything that needed Peter’s tears and have not shed them, let me be your rooster; do it now. Now, your master (in the unworthiest of his servants) looks back upon you; do it now.
In the morning, so soon as it was day, the Jews held a council in the high priest’s hall. And agreed upon their evidence against him and then carried him to Pilate, who was to be his judge. Did you accuse yourself when thou woke this morning, and were you content even with false accusations, that is, rather to suspect actions to have been sin, which were not, than to smother and justify such as were truly sins? Then you spent that hour in conformity to him.
Pilate found no evidence against him, and therefore to ease himself, and to pass a compliment upon Herod, tetrarch of Galilee, who was at that time at Jerusalem (because Christ, being a Galilean, was of Herod’s jurisdiction), Pilate sent him to Herod, and rather as a madman than a malefactor. Herod remanded him (with scorn) to Pilate, to proceed against him. And this was about eight of the clock. Have you been content to come to this inquisition, this examination, this agitation, this pursuit of your conscience; to sift it, to follow it from the sins of your youth to your present sins, from the sins of your bed to the sins of your table, and from the substance to the circumstance of your sins? That is time spent like your Saviour’s.
Pilate would have saved Christ, by using the privilege of the day in his behalf, because that day one prisoner was to be delivered, but they choose Barabbas. He would have saved him from death, by satisfying their fury with inflicting other torments upon him, scourging and crowning with thorns, and loading him with many scornful and ignominious insults. But they regarded him not; they pressed a crucifying. Have you gone about to redeem your sin, by fasting, by alms, by disciplines and mortifications, in way of satisfaction to the justice of God?… We press an utter crucifying of that sin that governs you. And that conforms you to Christ.
Towards noon Pilate gave judgment, and they made such haste to execution as that by noon he was upon the cross. There now hangs that sacred body upon the cross, rebaptized in his own tears, and sweat, and embalmed in his own blood alive. There are those bowels of compassion which are so conspicuous, so manifested, as that you may see them through his wounds. There those glorious eyes grew faint in their sight, so as the sun, ashamed to survive them, departed with his light too.
And then that Son of God, who was never from us, and yet had now come a new way unto us in assuming our nature, delivers that soul (which was never out of his Father’s hands) by a new way, a voluntary emission of it into his Father’s hands. For though to this God our Lord belonged, these issues of death, so that considered in his own contract, he must necessarily die, yet at no breach or battery which they had made upon his sacred body issued his soul. Rather, he gave up the ghost. And as God breathed a soul into the first Adam, so this second Adam breathed his soul into God, into the hands of God.
There we leave you in that blessed dependency, to hang upon him that hangs upon the cross, there bathe in his tears, there suck at his wounds, and lie down in peace in his grave, until he vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that kingdom which he has prepared for you with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood.
John Donne (1572-1631) was an English cleric, poet, and scholar, acclaimed as one of the finest preachers of his day. He is widely considered the preeminent metaphysical poet, prized for his inventiveness in the use of metaphor and his dramatic, vigorous style. He was ordained after a political and military career, serving as chaplain at Lincoln’s Inn, and for the last ten years of his life, as dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. He preached this, his final sermon, before King Charles I at Whitehall Palace in London just over a month before his death. Donne is commemorated on the liturgical calendar of several Anglican churches on March 31.