Anticipating Easter Sunday, I thought of a poem that celebrates that day. You will consider it an unlikely choice, because some of the piety expressed in it is very old-fashioned. The note on which it ends, however, may touch your heart.
The poem is a sonnet, not by Shakespeare but by a poet contemporary with him, Edmund Spenser, whose sequence of 89 sonnets was published in 1595. It is unusual: most Elizabethan love sonnets describe a beloved who is more imaginary than flesh and blood, but Spenser, at the age of 40, was courting the woman who became his wife in 1594, and his sonnet sequence, Amoretti, is followed by a very elaborate poetic celebration of his wedding day, Epithalamion. Here Edmund Spenser’s sonnet LXVIII, which fits Easter into the framework of an episodic courtship of his beloved, Elizabeth Boyle:
Most glorious Lord of life, that on this day
didst make thy triumph over death and sin,
and having harrowed hell, didst bring away
captivity thence captive, us to win:
This joyous day, deare Lord, with joy begin,
and grant that we for whom thou diddest die,
being with thy dear blood clean washed from sin,
may live forever in felicity.
And that thy love we weighing worthily,
may likewise love thee for the same again,
and for thy sake (that all like dear didst buy),
with love may one another entertain.
So let us love, dear love, like as we ought;
love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.
Every Easter reenacts the triumph of Christ’s life over death. Here the poet calls upon his risen Lord to share in his own joy. In other sonnets he speaks only for himself, but here the personal pronouns are plural: “us” and “we.” (Perhaps Spenser and his bride-to-be were formally betrothed on this day, or recently: in the preceding sonnet he took her hand, “and with her own goodwill her firmly tied.”)
We may no longer delight in imagining how, with the “deare blood” of Jesus, we were “clean washed from sin,” all purchased at the same high price. In contrast to this theology of atonement, in the poem’s last six lines, the lesson of mutual love resonates today. Spenser applies to his marriage the “love thy neighbor” message in Romans 15:5-7: “be likeminded one toward another.” The Elizabethans understood ‘social distancing,’ but Spenser asks his Lord’s permission, that they “with love may one another entertain.”
I’ve been recalling my appreciation of Spenser’s poetry from many years ago, but it just so happens, today, that I find a similar lesson “which the Lord us taught” in Marcus Borg’s book, Days of Awe and Wonder. In one of the sermons brought together there, he describes two ‘models’ of God’s character. The first is patriarchal, God as lawgiver and judge. In the second, drawing upon the Song of Songs and the New Testament, God is a compassionate lover, and in this light Borg comments, “the ethical imperative is, ‘Love what God loves’.” He goes on to say, with reference to “the Lenten journey of death and resurrection,” that “one of its meanings is dying to life under the lawgiver and judge and rising to new life as the beloved of God.”