War and Peace in the hymnal on Sunday

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.

20 thoughts on “War and Peace in the hymnal on Sunday

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    I cannot hear the Beatitudes without thinking “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” Smirking not so good when in front row of the choir.

  2. bud

    I find it fascinating that many so-called Christians are up in arms over the prospect of Muslims push for implementation of Shariah law. That’s not going to happen of course but what we should really be worried about is the imposition of Judeo-Christian law as prescribed in the old testament, especially Deuteronomy. Here are some of the things that would become law if the biblical purists had their way:

    Deuteronomy 5-26 is composed of two distinct addresses. The first, in chapters 5-11, forms a second introduction, expanding on the Ethical Decalogue given at Mount Sinai. The second, in chapters 12-26, is the Deuteronomic Code, a series of mitzvot (commands), forming extensive laws, admonitions, and injunctions to the Israelites regarding how they ought to conduct themselves in Canaan, the land promised by the God of Israel. The laws include (listed here in no particular order):

    The worship of God must remain pure, uninfluenced by neighbouring cultures and their idolatrous religious practices. The death penalty is prescribed for conversion from Yahwism and for proselytisation.
    The death penalty is also prescribed for males who are guilty of any of the following: disobeying their parents, profligacy, and drunkenness.

    Soon the sentences would have to be carried out by woman since there would not be any living males left.

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    “The death penalty is also prescribed for males who are guilty of any of the following: disobeying their parents, profligacy, and drunkenness.”

    Sure would make my neighborhood quieter on game days.

  4. Brad

    Nah, they’d all have been stoned to death for tempting the men. Have you seen what some women are WEARING these days?

    Seriously… the problem with the imposition of Sharia is that, in some of the manifestations we’ve seen at least, what it does is actually apply those ancient standards to today — and not symbolically, either.

    Mosaic law sounds awful today, but it was the imposition of some order and fairness on some pretty vicious times — or so I’ve always heard; I wasn’t actually around then.

    Jewish and Christian experience of divine revelation has evolved markedly since those times. But the Taliban and those Wahabbi dudes out of Saudi Arabia want to go all prehistoric here in the 21st century.

    Speaking of Saudi, the ban on expressions of non-Islamic faith in that country is, and should be, an offense to believers everywhere.

    That said, I don’t believe faith should remake itself to fit modern tastes. Eternal truth is eternal truth. But civil LAW, in the context of self-government, should reflect the sensibilities of the people. It would be problematic for Leviticus to become the civil law, and it’s certainly problematic to impose sharia.

  5. Brad

    An Anglican friend who I suppose wishes to remain anonymous wrote via e-mail:

    OK, so I’m reading along thinking, wow, those Romans don’t vest their lay readers, and then I see … Eucharistic minister … not vested? Whoa. What kind of church do you go to? And do you also use grape juice and little squares of Wonder bread?

    There’s just no telling what will enter the minds of heathens…
    Hey, you gotta be able to tell the ordained from the Unwashed.
    Technically, Rome insists that we are “Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist,” which is 180 degrees from the truth. Receiving the host from a PRIEST is what’s extraordinary; most people receive from us…
    They’d better watch out, and not get me riled up. I’m perfectly capable of nailing 95 theses on the door…

  6. Brad

    … and I can come up with 95 things to complain about faster than most people can say a Rosary. WAY faster than I can, since they never taught me how to do that when I converted…

  7. Karen McLeod

    Tsk! Such a lapse in education! And many Anglicans can use a Roman or an Anglican Rosary! (Some could probably manage Eastern Orthodox as well).

  8. Karen McLeod

    P.S. You can tell the priests and Deacons by the stoles. Most of the rest of us (including acolytes, of course) wear either simple albs and cinctures, or cassocks and surplices.

  9. Kathryn Fenner

    @ Karen– I am designing a Southern Summer series of robes–made out of CoolMax, they have dickie-style cassock collar, cassock sleeves and cassock hems attached to the surplice, maybe vents in the armpits….somethin’s gotta give up there in the sweat box–maybe sweatbands in liturgical colors–the green would get a lot of wear….

  10. Karen McLeod

    Hey, Katherine, instead of albs could we just do a white, blousy thing? Made out of something other than whatever that guaranteed-not-to-breathe stuff? I have often thought that choirs could simply do liturgically coloured shorts and a tee. I suspect that my ideas will be met with oppposition from the piety posse, of course.

  11. Herbie

    I believe Battle Hymn of the Republic was written by Martin Luther. You know, 95 Theses and all. So why is that hymn in Catholic hymnal? Or have I misunderstood the history?

    Just sayin.

    And Blessed is the Greek. Did anyone catch his name?


  12. Steve Gordy

    I haven’t been to a Catholic mass in several years, but this summer our Episcopal priest compensated by wearing sandals instead of shoes. I guess that’s Biblical.

  13. bud

    Brad, you find all this so-called “eternal truth” stuff interesting yet find tax policy boring. There’s just no accounting for taste.

  14. Brad

    Yes. In fact, I got this from a reader whose folks hail from up North:

    Dear Brad,

    The Battle Hymn of the Republic was written in 1861 or 1862 to boost recruiting for the Union Army.

    It is not a triumphant song but a call to duty. 4th stanza below:

    In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
    With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
    As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
    While God is marching on.

    Does mass mean you are Catholic? Me, too. In my church in Lake Wylie it is called “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah. How namby-pamby.

    Its a great song and its fair to say that is a good thing your ancestors did not succed in destroying the Republic.

    James B. Ronan II

    Major USAR (ret.)

    Grt-grt grand nephew of Thomas O’Connell, 28th Mass. Vols.

  15. Kathryn Fenner

    @ Herbie- The words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic were written by Julia Ward Howe.

    @ Karen– From your mouth to the new Dean’s ears! Why we have to dress as if we were in a cold stone English Cathedral beats me–or else chill the church to English temps!

  16. Karen McLeod

    Chilling the Cathedral would be a bad idea environmentally. If we want to use less energy, let’s dress for the weather. Most men dress for 65 degrees in the dead of summer. Many women, too (or they have sweaters in the office to offset the air conditioning that the men need for their suits and ties.

  17. Kathryn Fenner

    Works for me–but since one of our best, nicest, kindest AND most talented singers got called on the carpet for her hair choices, I’m thinking that’s not gonna happen. At least we don’t have to wear chasubles.

    How about a nice sort of chemise jobbie–a loose, sleeveless shift! The men/more uptight women could wear t-shirts underneath.

  18. Karen McLeod

    Sounds like a good idea. And if someone doesn’t like that person’s hair, maybe they should simply direct their thoughts toward God instead of the chancel.

Comments are closed.