On the Morning of Christ's Nativity

by John Milton
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466

Milton’s imagination is cosmic. The central two stanzas of the introduction establish this. He wants to depict the full cosmic and spiritual significance of the Incarnation. This is his prophetic calling, similar to Isaiah’s (line 28). He is also a humanist, however—a lover of classical literature. There is thus a conflict posed for him as a Christian poet: What values can be put on classical myths and belief systems now that Christ has come to give full revelation? One traditional answer was to dismiss such myths as lies and deceptions (the Augustinian solution); the other was to accept them as partial revelation, as types and foreshadowings actually pointing the way to Christ. This is the answer Milton adopts. Christ becomes the fulfillment of the nature god Pan (stanza VIII); he is the new infant Hercules strangling the snake (Satan) in his crib (stanza XXV). Thus the prophetic oracles at Delphos did utter truth, but their power is now withdrawn and put on Christ (stanza XIX). This is how Milton states his Christian humanism, and how he establishes a basis for a transformed Christian pastoral.

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When it is a question of Middle Eastern mythologies, as of Phoenicia, Canaan, or Egypt, however, his condemnation is complete, since the Old Testament condemns them utterly, and as a biblical Christian he needs to do the same. The position he adopts is the same one he retained in Paradise Lost: The pagan gods worshiped falsely are, in fact, not lifeless idols but real spiritual forces that need binding and defeating. The transition from the treatment of one set of beliefs to the other occurs in stanza XX, the tone of which is rather poignant and ambivalent, suggesting perhaps some lingering regret that something beautiful has been lost at the same time as the sordidness of pagan ritual.

The nativity is seen, then, not as a celebration of a personal story of a virgin birth in a humble stable, but as a breaking in upon Creation by its King: a reclaiming and a moment of glory, anticipating the final glory of the Second Advent (stanza XVI). Milton collapses time here, as he does in Book III of Paradise Lost. Past, present, and future all exist within his incarnational language; however, he avoids any centering on the Crucifixion, which one might expect more orthodox treatment to do (later, the Puritans actually abolished Christmas as a celebration). In fact, at no point in his poetic career did Milton ever focus on Christ’s death and suffering. This lacuna is already in evidence here: The appearance of Christ foreshadows not his rejected humanity and redemptive sacrifice but his appearance in final glory and judgment over the dark falsehoods of satanic forces. That is the second climax of history; this Nativity is the first.

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