The Feast of the Annunciation via John Donne

On Annunciation and Passion Falling on the Same Day. 1609.
by John Donne

TAMELY, frail body, abstain to-day ; to-day
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
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 ;
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 ;
She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha ;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen ;
At once a son is promised her, and gone ;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John ;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity ;
At once receiver and the legacy.
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one—
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.

This is but the first part of Donne’s poem; the second deals with the wisdom, authority, and piety of the Church. I would try to go over this with various of my classes every year, but this year, as I am behind in my classes, its treatment here will have to suffice.

The poem is fairly transparent, except when you don’t know what either the Annunciation or the  culmination of Passiontide are (which almost none of them do). Once I start talking about “the passion of the Christ,” then most of them are clued in. That, and that 25 March is nine months prior to Nativity/Christmas.

If this coincidence happened in the Latin church, then the feast of the Annunciation is celebrated on the Monday following Easter; when it happens for the Orthodox, we celebrate a full Liturgy on that Great and Holy Friday (Good Friday), as feasts of the Incarnation will ‘trump’ even this solemnity. Since we put our moveable feasts on the Gregorian Calendar, as I have been told, this never occurs anymore, and more’s the pity. Today we would have normally, as is the Orthodox reglua for Lent, celebrated the Liturgy of St. Basil this morning, but instead it is that of St. John Chrysostom.

The genius of Donne’s poem moves through the ‘hither and away’ of the second line: the ministry of the Incarnate Christ is seen almost fully in this day, Christ comes to Mary by the word of Gabriel and through the Holy Spirit, and is taken away on the cross (and thus we fast on Fridays, for it is on this day that the bridegroom is taken away). The metaphors cause my students some perplexity, largely because they have no knowledge of ‘ecclesiastical’ parlance. The Latin at the end always surprises me, though. Consummatum est (it is finished) not quite so much, but while many of them have heard the Ave Maria – – and if they haven’t I start singing it for them – -they have no idea what it has to do with. The point about plain maps (which we still use) is that the furthest eastern tip of Siberia at the Bering Strait is the same as the furthest western tip of Alaska. What also surprised many of my students is Donne’s ‘misplaced’ devotion to our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary. It comes as some surprise to them that most of the Reformers were very devoted to Mary, and I cannot think of one of them that did not confess her perpetual virginity. I also tell them that some people have thought Donne a “closet papist.”

So, I wish all of you a blessed feast, and hope you have enjoyed the poem.

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About Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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7 Responses to The Feast of the Annunciation via John Donne

  1. marcusjosephus says:

    Thank you for posting this! One of my favorite poems. I love the part where she gains Him and loses Him on the same Day. In the Mystery of the Incarnation, Christ still lives in Mary, She still bears him (Theotokos) and He is still on the Cross and ever rising from the Grave, destroying Death by His Death.

  2. Athanasia says:

    I am not one for poetry, lacking patience to read slowly and savor themessage. Yet, this one causes the heart to ache with joyful sorrow. I love this feast day. May itbe a joyous one for you.

    I must have missed the class in which you sang “Ave Maria”. Listening to that earns one an automatic “A” I hope. 😉

  3. Billy says:

    I’ve loved this since your friend Dr. Tighe first pointed me toward it. Some of the lines are so supple and beautiful. Perhaps my favorite is “Gabriel gives Christ to her, she to John.”

    IT is a superb telling of the Gospel and a great reminder that the Life which Christ gives is dependent, not only on his death and resurrection, but in his taking to the Godhead manhood.

  4. Fr. Andrew says:

    Lovely stuff! Donne has long been a favorite, though it has been some time since I spent any with him.

    I remember studying Donne a good bit in college and having one of the professors occasionally insist on calling him “Father Donne,” which took some of the students quite aback. He is remembered chiefly for his poetics these days, but the man was a priest. Of course he would think quite a lot about liturgical rarities like this one! (Then again, most Christians were liturgical in those days, so they all thought a good bit more liturgically than your students and most of us in our day.)

  5. Kim says:

    My favorite line is also, “Gabriel gives Christ to her, she to John.” This poem took my breath away. Thanks for sharing. I believe I will read it again now.

  6. J. Bullfrog says:

    I agree that it is a pity that Annunciation and Passion no longer can coincide. For the coincidence of these two feasts is the situation of our lives– the bridegroom come and the bridegroom gone.
    “Hark! My beloved is knocking.
    ‘Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one;
    for my head is wet with dew,
    my locks with the drops of the night’…
    My beloved put his hand to the latch,
    and my heart was thrilled within me.
    I arose to open to my beloved,
    and my hands dripped with myrrh,
    my fingers with liquid myrrh,
    upon the handles of the bolt.
    I opened to my beloved,
    but my beloved had turned and gone.
    My soul failed me when he spoke.
    I sought him, but found him not;
    I called him, but he gave no answer.”
    (Song of Solomon 5:2b-6)
    The Virgin opens the latch, and her beloved is gone.

  7. Pingback: John Donne on the Annunciation and Good Friday on 25th MarchThe Feast of the Annunciation via John Donne | Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin

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