My wife, Susanna, passed this along to me: John Donne’s 1608 poem, “Upon the Annunciation and the Passion falling upon one day,” which I thought deserved to be remembered here. After 2016, these stars will not align for more than a century. The poem deserves several readings.
Some brief reflections.
One of the paradoxes of liturgical time is that sometimes events get aligned and compressed in ways that defy linear narrative, but possess a reason all the same. These are the kinds of correspondences that John Keble loved: mimesis in time, as the Blessed Virgin both receives her Annunciation and relinquishes her unborn Son. It is just this kind of slant bending of space-time that the Metaphysical poets loved to riff on (Donne, recall, wrote often on liturgical time — his “Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day,” the day both darkest and brightest, being another gem).
It is hard enough trying to explain the significance of the calendar to my Protestant friends, let alone to keep the feasts and fasts myself in a way that is not overly fastidious or artificial. It is not simply a question of communal identity, in a sociological kind of register: the Holy Spirit “speaks” through the calendar, and this becomes a form of proclamation or kerygma of the purest sort, the kind that the “heavens” rather than the Reformed pastors “declare.” It is a form of preaching that is stronger for its own passive or accidental character: symbol in the fourth dimension. And, sadly, it is a word that is jumbled by the intrusions of the Revised Common Lectionary, the translation or non-translation of feasts, the division between the Eastern and Western Churches — in short, by the whole history of schism and all the ways that the private wills of parish and denomination silence with white noise the universal proclamation.
At the risk of ruining things, a few words on Donne’s words. The poem begins:
Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
As though it were actually possible to receive the host from two Masses simultaneously, Donne’s soul (and words) travel between these parallel universes of Annunciation and Passion, the herald of Emmanuel and the sign of God’s seeming absence. Something of the eternity of God is present in the “today, today” that the speaker experiences: God’s eternal present rendered tangible to the homo liturgicus in a way not accessible to non-symbolic postmodernity. And despite the abstinence, there is food.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came and went away;
The confluence becomes a chance of speaking the Chalcedonian mystery, of “God made.” Rightly, Donne focuses the feasts through the eyes of Mary the Theotokos. It is her vision that mostly (only) can make sense of these things.
She sees Him nothing twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall,
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive yet dead;
Mary’s vision of the Cedar, born of the Psalms and Donne’s imagination, is perhaps one of the most riveting and original images in the poem. Christ is not hung on the tree; he is the tree, the raw material of the tabernacle or the temple snuffed out before it is even hewn. Everything in Mary’s world is colliding: her 15- and 50-year-old selves, Luke’s Gabriel and John’s Passion:
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
She sees, that is, herself, as though she has become a trans-scriptural persona, capable of looking in from some eternity on her own two most harrowing days and seeing them merging slowly like heavenly bodies.
How well the Church, God’s court of faculties,
Deals in some times and seldom joining these! […]
This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one:
Or ‘twas in Him the same humility
That He would be a man and leave to be.
It is the Church, not the Reformed pastor, who speaks through the calendar and its hesitancy to let this strange alignment occur too frequently. The figure is polysemous: “in my beginning is my end.” Humility accomplishes kenosis and crucifixion.
He shall come; He is gone.
This is the most pressing convergence, the terror of conception and the empty tomb that veers cavalierly toward nihilism and at the last minute portends (but does not speak) its own reversal and resolution (Listen, you can hear it: He is gone; He shall come).
Treasure this. It will not happen again for over a century.