This evening, for my dissertation, I am revising my reading of John Donne’s, “Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward.” Donne describes traveling in one direction, when he really longs to be going in another. His meditation is on the east as the location of Christ’s passion (in Jerusalem) and the direction of the rising sun (a symbol of the resurrection). As he imagines himself present at the crucifixion, the poet is troubled by the thought of God experiencing a human death. God told Moses, “No man can see my face and live.” Does it do something to us then to see the face of God in Christ? He writes,
Yet dare I almost be glad, I do not see,
That spectacle of too much weight for me.
Who sees God’s face, that is self life, must die;
What a death were it then to see God die?
It made his own lieutenant Nature shrink,
It made his footstool crack, and the sun wink. (15-19)
The last line is a reference to the earthquake and the eclipse that happened on the day of the crucifixion. Donne is saying that even Nature itself broke under the strain of seeing God suffer. Is it possible, then, that the poet can have such an encounter with Christ and not be changed by it?
To be honest, this poem has given me some difficulty. When I first read the poem (the whole thing is 42 lines long), I thought that Donne was struggling with the idea of a free salvation. He seems to want God to punish him or make him a better person, so that he can earn his salvation. I think after reading more Donne, that this is not quite right. It’s sanctification, or holiness, that he is looking for, but that does not make the last lines any less comfortable:
O think me worth thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou mayst know me, and I’ll turn my face. (39-42)
One of my sources suggests that Donne is thinking of Heb. 12 – Those whom the Lord loves, He chastens and rebukes. Certainly, that is possible, and it would explain how undergoing punishment might make Donne feel more secure, but I still think he has it wrong. Christians are no longer children of wrath (see Ephesians 2:1-5), and Hebrews makes it clear that God is not to be compared with human fathers who punish arbitrarily or out of anger. Rather, God disciplines us according to His own infallible knowledge of what will bring about good for us.
What I think Donne has right is the emphasis on being changed by “seeing” Christ. God sends to each of us those moments or experiences when something about the character of God is suddenly clear to us, something we never knew or understood about him before. Those moments are important to our own journey of holiness because we can only imitate what see. When I learn something new about the character of the Savior, I am one step closer to being like Him, if only I will take what I have learned and apply it to how I live.
So what about you? Was there a time when you learned something about God that changed everything for you? What was it?