“Cor Novum, Canticum Novum”: A New Year’s Sermon from John Donne

New Year’s Day coincides, in most church calendars, with the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. It’s a fitting convergence, given that circumcision (and its corresponding New Testament sacrament, baptism) are about cutting off the old and putting on the new, dying to self and living to God, mortifying the flesh and coming alive in the Spirit.

These themes are what animate John Donne’s New Year’s Day sermon from 1625, in which took as his text Genesis 17:24: “Abraham himself was ninety nine years old when the foreskin of his flesh was circumcised.”

It’s a wonderful little sermon exhorting his hearers to New Year obedience, looking closely at all the reasons Abraham would have had to question such a strange, painful, and mysterious command from the Lord.

Early on, Donne draws heavily on Luther on the need for humility before the clear will of God. He then quotes some fantastic lines from Luther about asking God “why?” and how it is a dangerous and infectious thing:

Periculosa & pestilens questio, Quare; says Luther also (“It is a dangerous and infectious monosyllable, how or why”). If I will ask a reason why God commands such a thing; first, Periculosum est, it is dangerous; for I have nothing to answer me but mine own reason, and that affords not lead enough, nor line enough, to sound the depth of God’s proceedings, nor length enough, nor strength enough, to reach so far, and therefore I may mistake the reason and go upon false grounds.

“A dangerous and infectious monosyllable.” What a line. He unpacks further why it is dangerous:

So Periculosum est, it is a dangerous question, and a lost question, because I can have no certain answer; and it is an infectious question too, for here is one col of the Devil’s fire, of his pride, kindled in me; as the Devil said, Similis ero Altissimo (“I will be like the Highest”).

And why an infectious question?

And then, when the infection is got into a house, who can say it shall end here in this person and kill no more; or it shall end this week, and last longer? So if that infectious inquisition, that Quare (“Why should God command this or this particular?”) be entered into me, all my humility is presently infected, and I shall look for a reason why God made a world, or why he made a world no sooner than 6000 years ago, and he he saves some, and why but some, and I shall examine God upon all the interrogatories that I can frame, upon the Creed (why I should believe a son of a virgin without a man, or believe the son of God to descend into hell) or frame upon the Pater Noster (why I should worship such a God that must be prayed to “not to lead me into temptation”), or frame upon the Ten Commandments, why after all is done and heaped for any sinful action, yet I should be guilty of all, for coveting in my heart another man’s horse or house.

Asking “why?” is infectious because, quite simply, where does it end? And yet it gets worse:

And therefore Luther pursues it father with words of more vehemence: Odiosa & exitialis vocula, Quare (“It is an execrable and damnable monosyllable, Why”). It exasperates God, it ruins us.

Abraham, Donne goes on to say, had all the reasons in the world to question God, and find ways to wriggle out of clear and direct obedience. Donne enumerates examples of those who did question God in such a way. But Abraham obeyed fully and without question, despite the pain and mystery of the commandment.

This then forms the basis of Donne’s exhortation to his hearers to circumcise their hearts in full-bodied devotion to the Lord:

Let us come to this circumcision of which that was but a figure, a spiritual circumcision, the circumcision of the heart, and God shall give us new names (new demonstrations that your names are written in the Book of Life) and new marriage (refresh his promise in the prophet that he will marry himself to us forever) and new sons, new Isaacs (assurance of new joys, essential and accidental, in the kingdom of heaven, and inchoative here in the way), and new promises, and new seals (new obligations of his blessed Spirit) that that infallibility of salvation which we have conceived is well grounded.

Donne brings things in to land on a New Year’s note, compelling his hearers to offer to God, in exchange for the gift of a new year, a new heart and a new song. And he is not shy of offering a warning that, if this time next year they find themselves no more sanctified that they are today, then they are the authors of their own destruction:

Do this today; as God this day gives thee a new year, and hath not surprised thee, nor taken thee away in the sins of last year; as he gives thee a new year, do thou give him a New Year’s gift, Cor novum, a new and circumcised heart, and Canticum novum, a new song, a delight to magnify his name and speak of his glory, and declare his wondrous works to the sons of men, and be assured that whether I or any other of the same ministry shall speak to you from this place, this day twelve-month, and shall ask your consciences then, whether those things which you heard now, have brought you to this circumcision, and made you better this year than you were the last, and find you under the same circumcision still, be assured that God will not. God cannot be mocked, but as he will receive us, with an Euge bone serve, Well done my good and faithful servant; so he will say to you Perditio tua ex te (“Your destruction is from yourselves”).

I found this sermon striking in a number of ways, not least of all Donne’s imagination and turns of phrase. The idea of exchanging a new year for a new heart and song feels like a characteristically metaphysical Donne-ism, whisking up one unexpected image from another.

For another thing, it is interesting to imagine how Donne’s frank words about the dangers of asking “why?” would land today. In an age of pastoral abuse scandals where we are on edge all the time at the idea of unquestioning obedience, they probably put us slightly on edge. Donne is, however, talking about obedience to clear and direct commandments of God, rather than the preferences of power hungry pastors. Still, the rhetoric lands oddly on our ears now–but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

You can read the whole of the sermon here–and may it provide a fruitful exhortation and warning as we begin 2023.

*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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