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Death’s Duel

By February 1, 2010 No Comments

And would Christ not spare himself?
He would not: love is strong
as death
; stronger, it drew in
death, that naturally is not welcome. If
it be possible
, says Christ, let this cup
, when his love, expressed in a former
decree with his Father, had made it
impossible. Many waters quench not love.
Christ tried many: he was baptised out
of his love, and his love determined not
there; he mingled blood
with water in his agony,
and that determined not
his love; he wept pure
blood, all his blood at
all his eyes, at all his
pores, in his flagellation
and thorns, and these
expressed but these did
not quench his love. He
would not spare, nay,
he could not spare himself.
There was nothing
more free, more voluntary, more spontaneous
than the death of
Christ. It is true, he
died voluntarily; but yet when we consider
the contract that had passed between
his Father and him, there was an
oportuit, a kind of necessity upon him:
all this Christ ought to suffer.

And when shall we date this obligation,
this oportuit, this necessity?
When shall we say that began? Certainly
this decree by which Christ was to suffer all this was an eternal decree,
and was there anything before that that
was eternal? Infinite love; eternal love;
be pleased to follow this home, and to
consider it seriously, that what liberty
soever we can conceive in Christ to die
or not to die; this necessity of dying,
this decree is as eternal as that liberty;
and yet how small a matter made he of
this necessity and this dying? His Father
calls it but a bruise,
and but a bruising of his
heel, and yet that was,
that the serpent should
practise and compass his
death. Himself calls it but
a baptism, as though he
were to be the better for
it. I have a baptism to be
baptized with
, and he was
in pain till it was accomplished,
and yet this baptism
was his death. The
Holy Ghost calls it joy (for
the joy which was set before
him he endured the
), which was not a
joy of his reward after his passion, but
a joy that filled him even in the midst
of his torments, and arose from him;
when Christ calls his calicem a cup, and
no worse (Can ye drink of my cup?), he
speaks not odiously, not with detestation
of it. Indeed it was a cup, a health to all
the world. And says David, What shall I
render to the Lord?
Answer you with David,
I will take the cup of salvation; take
it, that cup is salvation, his passion, if
not into your present imitation, yet into
your present contemplation.

And behold how that Lord that was
God, yet could die, would die, must die
for our salvation. That Moses and Elias talked with Christ in the transfiguration,
both Saint Matthew and Saint
Mark tell us, but what they talked of,
only Saint Luke: They talked of his disease
[sic], of his death, which was to be
accomplished at Jerusalem.
The word is
of his exodus, his issue by death. Moses,
who in his exodus had prefigured
this issue of our Lord, and in passing
Israel out of Egypt through the Red Sea,
had foretold in that actual prophecy,
Christ passing of mankind through the
sea of his blood; and Elias, whose exodus
and issue of this world was a figure
of Christ’s ascension, had no doubt
a great satisfaction in talking with our
blessed Lord of the full consummation
of all this in his death, which was to be
accomplished at Jerusalem. Our meditation
of his death should be more visceral,
and affect us more, because it is
of a thing already done.

This passage is excerpted from the third part of John
Donne’s final sermon, “Death’s Duel,” preached at the
royal chapel in Whitehall the first Sunday in Lent,
1631. Donne was at the time Dean of St. Paul’s, London.
He died 31 March 1631. The reference apparatus
and some Latin phrases have been dropped, and paragraphing