Skip to main content
R-20100510-0024.jpg

Advent and Christmas Poetry: Awe – John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 15”

Editor’s Note:  Holly Ordway is Professor of English and Director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Massachusetts Amherst; her academic work focuses on imagination in apologetics, with special attention to the writings of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams.

By Holly Ordway 

After the anticipatory and penitential season of Advent, we come to Christmas. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1, 14) Christmas is the Feast of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ – the Word made flesh.

The Greek word used in the Gospel for “Word” is Logos. It doesn’t just mean word, in the sense of a spoken or written word; Logos also means order, rationality, logic. The universe is an orderly place, one in which laws of nature can be discerned. Cause and effect function; we can observe nature and draw conclusions from it; we can use our own minds, our own reason, to interpret the world rightly and put our interpretations into practice. We take all this for granted, but we shouldn’t. It doesn’t have to be the case that the universe is orderly and comprehensible. The ancient Greeks thought the world was fundamentally chaotic; as a result, they didn’t bother to pursue experimental science. Why observe nature, when it is random? Why run an experiment, if it will just come up differently another day? We should pause in wonder and awe at the fact that the world is, indeed comprehensible, because it doesn’t have to be. Though there is so much that we do not understand about the world, yet we can understand so much through the use of our minds, somehow standing above and apart from the universe that we study.

The underlying structure of the cosmos; the basic rationality from which all reason comes; order, rationality, meaning – Logos. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… full of grace and truth.” When we speak of the order of the universe, whether we know it or not, we speak of the Second Person of the most holy Trinity, the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Who was born in a stable in Bethlehem.

John Donne’s poem “Holy Sonnet 15” invites us to consider what that means.

 

Holy Sonnet  15

Wilt thou love God as he thee ? then digest,
My soul, this wholesome meditation,
How God the Spirit, by angels waited on
In heaven, doth make His temple in thy breast.
The Father having begot a Son most blest,
And still begetting—for he ne’er begun—
Hath deign’d to choose thee by adoption,
Co-heir to His glory, and Sabbath’ endless rest.
And as a robb’d man, which by search doth find
His stolen stuff sold, must lose or buy it again,
The Sun of glory came down, and was slain,
Us whom He had made, and Satan stole, to unbind.
‘Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more.

 

Like Eliot, Donne shows the connection between the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. For why did God become man? For us, and for our salvation: “The Sun of glory came down, and was slain, / Us whom He had made, and Satan stole, to unbind.” We are bound by sin, stuck in alienation, misled by Satan to put our own wills higher than the will of the One who made us. Despite the fact that our situation is, to put it bluntly, all our own fault, the Son, the Light of the World – the Sun of Glory – came infinitely far down to us, to loose us from the chains of sin.

And at what a cost. He made us, and so we are rightfully His, but even so, He chose to pay for us again – to pay the ultimate price of His own perfect and sinless life, for us: “And as a robb’d man, which by search doth find / His stolen stuff sold, must lose or buy it again, / The Sun of glory came down, and was slain.”

Yet Donne reminds us that our Lord offers not just rescue from sin, but eternal life as adopted children of God! “The Father… Hath deign’d to choose thee by adoption, / Co-heir to His glory, and Sabbath’ endless rest.” It is an offer that seems too good to be true… except that it comes from the hand of the Father, who is perfect Good, and so it is an offer that we can trust.

What does Christmas Day mean to us? It means that on a particular day in history, God Himself took on mortal flesh and was born as a human baby, in cold and poverty, in fear and uncertainty and the shadow of Herod’s murderous intentions.

We could not reach up to Him, so He came down to us. No myth, this. No fairy tale – but reality, a fact of history, as hard-edged as it gets.

What does this mean to me, to you?

If it is true – it changes everything.

“’Twas much, that man was made like God before,

But, that God should be made like man, much more.”

 

Photo: “Virgin and Angels Watching Over the Sleeping Infant Jesus.” By Francesco Cozza. Public Domain. Obtained from National Gallery of Art. 

Leave a Reply