Remembering “War is Hell” Sherman reminded me of our processional hymn at Mass yesterday. For the first time since I was a kid, I think, I found myself singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
It sort of snuck up on me. I had been scheduled as “alternate reader” — in English this time, so I hadn’t studied in advance (I always have to practice, to warm up the right muscles, before reading in Spanish) — but when I arrived, all the slots were filled on the sign-up sheet, so I went to take a seat with my wife for a change. Then, just as the processional hymn was starting up, Judy leaned in to our pew to hurriedly whisper that I was needed, after all. Apparently, someone had messed up and signed in on the wrong spaces at a previous mass.
So I moved quickly to line up for the procession, Debra handed me a hymnal/lectionary, I asked “Which reading?,” was told it was the first (Good! I love doing the first; not so much the second), and was flipping through the book to check it out when I was asked if I could “double up” and serve as a Eucharistic minister, too, and I said sure, just as we stepped off to start the procession.
So it was not until then, as the congregation was starting the second verse, that I realized we were singing “The Battle Hymn.” Not knowing that verse, I wisely suppressed the urge to sing the first lyrics that came to mind:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school We have tortured all the teachers; we have broken ev’ry rule… Glory, glory, hallelujah Teacher hit me with a ruler I hit her in the bean with a rotten tangerine…
Finding the right page, I then sang with the others as we walked up the aisle:
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps, They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps; I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps: His day is marching on.
And the thought occurred to me, This is what it feels like to be a Yankee, self-righteously celebrating victory over us Southerners… (And no, we didn’t sing it in a medley with “Dixie,” Elvis-style.)
You may have noticed, church gives me a lot to think about on Sundays, but it’s not always what I should be thinking about. But I try.
I focused a little better when I went to the pulpit to do the first reading, which began:
The LORD said to Moses,
“Go down at once to your people,
whom you brought out of the land of Egypt,
for they have become depraved.
They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them,
making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it,
sacrificing to it and crying out,
‘This is your God, O Israel,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’
“I see how stiff-necked this people is, ” continued the LORD to Moses.
Let me alone, then,
that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them.
Then I will make of you a great nation.”…
You see why I like the first reading? Unlike all that theological abstraction you get with Paul’s letters (which is what you get on the second reading most of the year), there’s drama in the Old Testament. The readings we use from it are never boring or tedious. Lots of Sturm und Drang. You can really get into it reading it aloud. I especially like the flair in “Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them,” like the Lord’s just beside himself, indulging in such a Shakespearean rhetorical flourish (as in, “Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, And I must pause till it come back to me.“)
I found myself thinking how like a divine editorial writer the Lord sounded there. I could imagine him haranguing SC voters for being a depraved, stiff-necked people for electing Mark Sanford twice, or nominating Alvin Greene. As I walked back to my pew, I started imagining how I could rewrite that as a political satire on the blog, but decided that would be just a little too sacrilegious.
So did I ever set aside idle digression and get into a proper, worshipful state of mind during that hour?
Actually, I did. I found myself blessed by one of those rare moments of transcendence that you always hope for, whatever church or other house of worship you attend.
I don’t know if it was the way our music director had arranged it, or the voices of the choir (only about five people at that Mass) lifting above the congregation’s, or the brilliance of Jean Sibelius, or the coffee I had for breakfast kicking in. But as we sang it yesterday, Finlandia sounded like the most beautiful hymn I had ever heard. It may sound trite, like something an envious Salieri would say about Mozart’s work, but it was as though the voice of God himself were leading us.
And as we sang, I realized the lyrics were every bit as strikingly beautiful as the music. Particularly the second verse, which was the most poetic evocation of the universal longing for peace that I have ever heard:
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean, and sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine. But other lands have sunlight too and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine. This is my song, oh God of all the nations; a song of peace for their land and for mine.
Best line of all: But other lands have sunlight too and clover…
After Mass, I said something about it, and my wife said the same. Of course, she’s not a war-monger like me — quite the opposite, in fact. So it’s not as surprising that she liked it. But it’s a testament to the beauty of the moment that I did, too. Very much.
The original Finnish lyrics, by the way, are more run-of-the-mill nationalistic stuff. Whoever wrote the English version above (and there are many songs sung to this tune), was, I believe, divinely inspired.