Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Unorthodox wisdom - part 5

In honor of Memorial Day, Sunday's closing hymn was "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which is always a popular and rousing song because people are so familiar with it. I noticed, however, that the editors of the ELW demonstrated their reserve of the militaristic theme by retitling it "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory." The very presence of the hymn in the ELW is an example of unorthodox wisdom, since the song was first popular during the Civil War as a pro-Union anthem.

However, the militaristic nature of this hymn derives largely from the marching music to which the poetry is set. If you sit down and read Julia Ward Howe's poem, you'll see that the text refers to war primarily through symbolism. It's a rich text of imagery that includes tender moments like the opening of verse three: "In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea; with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me." Set that text to a lullaby and nobody would consider it in any way militaristic!

Verse three continues with my favorite line in the hymn: "As he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free." Here, the richness of the tune and text combine to allow multiple levels of meaning. As American heroes died in war, as Christ died to save us, and as early Christian martyrs died for their faith - in recognition of all those sacrifices, let us live our lives thankfully and joyfully, working to make the world a better, more loving, more Christian place. All of that meaning in such a short line of text!

That particular line of text also sent me to my boxed DVD set of The West Wing to rewatch the episode "Isaac and Ishmael." In the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, the show devoted one episode to a forum for discussing politics, religion, and war. In response to a student's question about martyrs, the fictional President Bartlet replied, "We don't need martyrs right now. We need heroes. A hero would die for his country but he'd much rather live for it." It reminds me of another famous text that "they'll know we're Christians by the way we live." It's a sentiment I think most of us can agree with, and I think it's a sentimenet we all struggle to implement daily.

1 comment:

  1. Rev. Robert FerroMay 27, 2009 at 11:11 AM

    Julia Ward Howe's original words were "As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free" which the Ferro family lustily sang on Sunday, ala' John Wesley. The change in wording came when the LBW was published.

    Although I think both ideas are important, do we really hear in our society anymore the call to die for something greater than ourselves? We all want to live, but the gospel calls us to pick up our crosses and be willing to die for what is right. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die." Bonhoeffer demonstrated both his willingness to live and to die to "make men free".

    Singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" on Memorial Day Weekend is especially appropriate because Memorial Day grew out of Decoration Day a day to honor those who died in the Civil War. The closing paragraph of Lincoln's Address to dedicate the Soldier's National Cemetery at Gettysburg, PA says it best: "But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate... we can not consecrate... we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government : of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."