Redemption In Milton’s “On The Morning Of Christ’s Nativity” Essay, Research Paper
Not only that there will be a redemption, but that there must be a redemption act is present in several ways in John Milton’s poem “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. The redemption act–not being a reaction of God to Humanity’s Fall, for such a dependency on Humanity by God is not in keeping with the absolute and divine nature of the Creator–is significant in this poem not necessarily for its bringing Humanity into its divine inheritance, but rather for its greater purpose of fulfilling the Creator’s original plan.
Man, who exists in this fallen world, would desire immediate communion with the divine state if he could but conceive of it. Milton, who exercises his Reason, that heavenly faculty, albeit tainted by the Fall, that allows him at least some conception of what that heavenly reality is like. This inkling that Milton gets sends him into an enraptured climax in which he speculates and fantasizes about an imminent Heaven on Earth that could have happened concurrently with the birth of the Savior. “For if such holy song/ Enwrap our fancy long,”[accent added](lines 132-133) Milton muses and then finally finishes, “And heaven as at some high festival ,/ Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall.”(lines 147-148) However pleasing this thought of salvation through a melodious holy song may be to Milton, he has not truly accepted this idea of heaven without the redemptive act; he has conditioned the entire idea on a single “if.” This “if” is answered immediately in the stanza following the divine vision by a “but,” which sets up the literary movement towards the climax of Milton’s necessity of redemption theme.
In stanza 16 the abruptness of the transition, “But wisest fate says no,/ This must not yet be so,” wrenches to focus of the poem from an idyllic state of Man to the actual state of Man. At once we are reminded that this is in fact a fallen world in need of redemption and not yet capable of being one with the divine, eternal reality. We are reminded of “the babe,”(line 151) who has yet to redeem our world. And again the poem’s focus is shifted from the divine, the nativity imagery, to the fallen world and the price the Savior must pay for humanity on “the bitter cross.”(line 153) Christ must commit this redemptive act, he “must redeem our loss,”[accent added](line 154) not merely to make up for humanity’s mistake, but to fulfill the divine plan. Milton shows that the divine plan is not one of breaking even, but rather it is one in which our Fall was fortunate; Christ redeems the world “So both himself and us to glorify.”(line 155) Once again the poem’s focus shifts from glory to the reality of the fallen world, which must first experience the dreadful judgment day. The powerful imagery of the “horrid clang”(line 157) and the “wakeful trump of doom”(line 156) here serve to contrast the holy music that came before, focusing the reader abruptly away from any lingering thoughts of immediate redemption and yet also giving the reader hope that redemption is going to come.
The reason for the constant focus changes within these few lines is to move attention away from the image of salvation and onto the meaning of the redemption act itself. The world is fallen, and Milton provides several reminders of this fact. Milton doesn’t present the Savior as coming down in heavenly glory, the choir of heaven behind him, proclaiming that the world is now worthy of being redeemed; rather, he shows the Savior coming down in a “darksome house of mortal clay”(line 14) to suffer and so to begin the final stage in the redemptive cycle. Nature herself portrays this theme of the guilt that Man bears as a result of the Fall when she “[hides] her guilty front,”(line 39) for she is “pollute with sinful blame.”(line 41) Man is guilty. He is guilty of the Fall and all the evil he has willfully let into the world in its wake. Milton portrays this guilt in the flight of the pagan deities, or fallen angels, that Man has worshipped and who now flee in the face of the Savior, abandoning their idols, temples, and “pale-eyed [priests]“(line 180) behind. This is not the image of a world on the virge of salvation; it is the image of a world needing redemption.
Milton has no sentimental illusions about the state of the world with regards to its salvation. His perception is as ultimately rational as human reason is capable, and this rationality is necessary in order to answer the question: why not simply save and redeem the world instantaneously, why must there be a redemptive act? This question, which fundamentally tries to comprehend the Creator’s greater plan, is both raised and answered, as much as it can be, within the images and themes of the poem. Alluding to “wisest fate,” Milton suggests that not only is the world not yet prepared for salvation, since it is a sinful place, but that it is wise, as dictated by highest Reason, to allow the redemption act to take its full course. And what exactly is this course? It is ostensibly to redeem our loss through original sin, but more importantly it is to glorify both God and Man, whose glorification will raise him to communion with the Creator. The glorification of the Savior is evinced in the poem’s early lines of “that glorious form”(line 8) sitting “at heaven’s high council table”(line 10) who laid all divinity aside “here with us to be.”(line 12) The ultimate compassion and mercy, traits that Milton uses to glorify the Savior, are also traits that glorify mankind, for it validates Man’s worth that a part of God would suffer to bring “our great redemption.”(line 4). Milton shows that God has the power to instantaneously redeem us; he shows it in the power of the heavenly music. But he also shows that such a redemption would deny the worth of humanity. That He is giving His son for humanity and not simply willing that humanity be made perfect evinces that Man has worth, and it had been Man’s misuse of his free will that allowed for this revelation of his worth to take place.
Milton shows the reader a glimpse of heavenly bliss, then abruptly focuses his attention back on the fallen earthly world with its first tentative steps away from the reach of Sin, then shows him images of Sin retreating but not yet vanquished, and then finally he allows the reader to again consider the divine world, but solely from an earthly perspective. “But see the virgin blest,/ hath laid her babe to rest,”(lines 238-237) echoes the “but” transition from the earlier stanza, and like that one this transition refocuses the poem. This time however the focus is shifted not from heaven to Earth but from Earth to heaven, this time with an Earthly perspective. Milton shows the heavens bending to the Savior, and he shows the “bright-harnessed angels”(line 243) attending their lord, but the Lord Himself is “sleeping,”(line 241) an act which makes evident his humanity. Here Milton shows mankind’s Lord among them, but in the form of a human babe. In the stillness of the night mankind’s redemption is beginning.