The Biblical roots of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

I was reminded recently of one of my favorite hymns as I read the first reading at Mass. In particular these lines stood out:

[An] angel came out of the temple, crying out in a loud voice to the one sitting on the cloud [Jesus], “Use your sickle and reap the harvest, for the time to reap has come, because the earth’s harvest is fully ripe.” So the one who was sitting on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested. Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven who also had a sharp sickle……“Use your sharp sickle and cut the clusters from the earth’s vines, for its grapes are ripe.” So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and cut the earth’s vintage. He threw it into the great wine press of God’s wrath. (Rev 14:14-19)

Ah, yes, the Battle Hymn of the Republic:

Mine eyes have seen the glory
of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage
where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning
of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on
– –

We live in a time that does not usually appreciate these fearsome images of God. These are dainty times where many have tried to tame God. And yet the image from the hymn above is thoroughly biblical as you can already see. This first verse of the Battle Hymn also recalls Jeremiah

God will thunder from his holy dwelling and roar mightily against his land. He will shout like those who tread the grapes, shout against all who live on the earth. The tumult will resound to the ends of the earth, for the LORD will bring charges against the nations; he will bring judgment on all mankind and put the wicked to the sword,'” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 25:30-31)

Yet again Scripture is alluded to by the hymn in reference to the terrible swift sword which is from Isaiah: In that day the LORD will take his terrible, swift sword and punish Leviathan, the swiftly moving serpent, the coiling, writhing serpent. He will kill the dragon of the sea (Isaiah 27:1). And the Book of Revelation 19:15 also speaks of the word coming forth from the Lord’s mouth like a sword: Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. And in the fateful lightning the hymn alludes to Luke 17:24 For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other.

Yes, the Lord is coming in judgment on and for his people. Injustice will be avenged and holiness disclosed.

The author of these words, Julia Ward Howe, lived in times that were anything but dainty or delicate. She lived in time of war, the Civil War. And she , like many of that time, possibly including President Lincoln, had come to see that horrible war as God’s judgment on a land that had enslaved, and cruelly and unjustly treated a whole race of people. Many decades before Thomas Jefferson had written, Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free (Notes on the State of Virginia). Yes, many abolitionists and others saw the Civil War in terms of God coming to render justice for the oppressed and to punish and purify by fire a land that strayed far from justice.

Julia Ward Howe had been stirred to write the hymn when, just outside of Washington DC, she heard the troops marching to the tune “John Brown’s Body.” The rhythm of that hymn stayed with her and that night she lodged at the Willard Hotel in Washington and recounts how she was was inspired to write:

I awoke in the grey of the morn­ing, and as I lay wait­ing for dawn, the long lines of the de­sired po­em be­gan to en­twine them­selves in my mind, and I said to my­self, “I must get up and write these vers­es, lest I fall asleep and for­get them!” So I sprang out of bed and in the dim­ness found an old stump of a pen, which I remembered us­ing the day be­fore. I scrawled the vers­es al­most with­out look­ing at the p­aper (Julia Ward Howe, 1861).

She describes it as a moment of inspiration. The words seem to flow from her effortlessly as is the case with inspiration. We have been blessed by these words ever since. It is true, these words do not remain without controversy. Some object to such warlike imagery associated with God. Even more objectionable to some is the human tendency to have God take sides in a war or to attribute any war to his inspiration. And yet, for one who has read Scripture, it is hard to wholly dismiss the notions advanced in this hymn even if they are offensive to modern ears. The Battle Hymn remains a masterpiece of English Literature and the music is surely masterful as well.

Other verses contain Biblical quotes and allusions as well. Perhaps a brief look at them.

Verse two says,

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.

A powerful word painting here. The campfires of the bivouacked troops burning like candles before an altar to God’s glory and justice. The righteous sentence perceived by the flickering light recalls Daniel 5 where the hand of God wrote a sentence on the wall near the lamp stand at King Bleshazzar’s feast: MENE, TEKEL, PERES. The King trembled and all with him as the words appeared in the flickering candlelight. The righteous sentence of God announced that the King had been “placed in the scales and found wanting.” His kingdom was about to end. Of this sentence, Scripture says, From heaven you pronounced judgment, and the land feared and was quiet—when you, O God, rose up to judge, to save all the afflicted of the land (Psalm 76:9-10)

And also in those signal fires, those watch fires, is recalled the question of Isaiah the Prophet: Watchman, how far gone is the night? Watchman, how far gone is the night?” The watchman says, “Morning comes but also night. If you would inquire, inquire; Come back again.” (21:11-12). As if to ask, “How much longer must justice tarry, how much longer?”

In all this, God’s “Day” of judgment marches on. The Scriptures often refer to the Day of the Lord as the “Great and Terrible Day of the Lord” (eg. Mal 4:5-6).

Verse Three says,

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.”

“Contemners” are those who despise God and his justice, who hold his law in contempt. Against these is the fiery Gospel. The Scripture says the Lord Jesus will judge the world by fire (eg. 2 Peter 3:7) and that his word comes forth from his mouth like a sharp sword: Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron scepter. He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty(Rev 19:5). The author allows the bayonets of the soldiers to allude to Word of the Lord whose fiery gospel judges the world. And in the second line the Lord promises grace to those who fight for justice.

The last two lines of this verse are the reference to Genesis: And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, while you strike at his heel (Gen 3:15). It also refers to the reiteration of this in Rev 12. The Lord is destroying Satan’s power and ending the injustice of slavery, and ultimately all injustice.

Verse Four says:

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

A clear reference is made here to St. Paul who writes of the trumpet blast, For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised (1 Cor 15:52) and of the judgment we must face: For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10).

The third line of jubilation is a reference to Malachi which promises a joyful judgment day to the Righteous: Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out leaping like calves released from the stall. Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things,” says the Lord Almighty (Mal 4:1-4).

Verse Five says,

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.

The lily is a symbol of purity in the Scriptures. In the Song of Songs is the beautiful praise by the Bride for her groom: I am my lover’s and my lover is mine; he browses among the lilies (Song of songs 6:3). A sea a clear and calm as glass is described as surrounding the throne in heaven (Rev 4:6; 15:2). We are transfigured by Christ’s glory for we are made members of his body (Eph 5:30). Hence, when the Father sees Christ he also sees us, transfigured as it were in Christ’s glory.

We too are called to walk in Christ’s footsteps. We are to carry our cross as he did (eg. Lk 9:23) and if necessary to die for others. As his cross made us holy, our cross can help to make others free. Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church (Col 1:24). Clearly Howe is appealing here to Northern Soldiers to be willing to die in order to free the slaves.

The Final verse says in a kind of doxology:

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of wrong His slave,
Our God is marching on.

Christ is Lord of History (Rev 1:8; 21:6; 22:13). He will come in Glory accompanied by his angels: They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other (Mat 24:30-31). The world has doubted and scorned him and his teachings, yet he is Wisdom to those who believe and whom he makes mighty by it, as Scripture says,  Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children (Luke 7:35).

In the end, the wicked shall be his footstool as Scripture says, He sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. (Heb 10:13-14)

Ah, what a hymn. It is remarkably Christological and Biblical. Some consider it controversial. But that’s OK, the Bible is too, and this hymn is rather remarkable stitching of Bible verses and allusions. For this reason, it is not only the Battle Hymn of the Republic, it is also the Bible Hymn of the Republic.

Forever Singing as they Shine, the Hand that Made Us is Divine: A Consideration on the Hymn of Creation

A certain number of comments that come over the transom here at the blog never see the light of day. Perhaps they are unnecessarily hateful, contain profanities, or are personal attacks on other commenters, clergy or other public figures.

One such comment came recently which I did not post for just about all the reasons I just listed. Among his profanity-laden words, was a sneering denunciation of  God as “your magical sky-fairy” (sic). Our combative commenter, and self described consumer of “brave science,” may be surprised one day to meet our true and living God who is in fact no little “sky-fairy” but is Deus Omnipotens (God All Powerful).

It is a strange and remarkable thing to me how, in this age of discovery, where we have discovered such magnificent realities that show a universe steeped in order and unbelievable size, that increasing numbers of people want to hold that the whole thing is just dumbly there. In other words, to increasing numbers today, the obvious order of the universe is accidental; we human beings are simply the result of random, blind, and unguided mutations; all the order of creation we can plainly observe, and the sophisticated interdependent systems which give rise to complex life, are all just accidental. We are asked to believe by some that all this obvious order, an order that no one can miss, somehow leapt together, unguided and accidentally, from a primordial dust and soup; that from disorder, came order. Yes, and, although things tend to fall apart and go back to their basic components (the Law of Entropy), nevertheless, in this case, we must believe that in a somehow random and accidental way, things actually moved from disorder to order, all their own, even though, as some insist, no outside force, energy or intelligence acted on them.

To me this sort of belief requires more “faith” than simply to believe that a higher and intelligent being (whom we call God) both created and introduced the order that is so obvious in the universe and in this world, not to mention our bodies, down to the smallest cells and atoms. And to be sure, the atheist/secularist notion of random, unguided, accidental order is a  belief, for its conclusion is outside of what science can study or demonstrate. For all the denunciation by many atheists of Philosophy, Theology and Metaphysics, those who deny God’s role in creation are not making a scientific claim, they are staking out a philosophical, theological and metaphysical claim and asking others to believe it. To me, such a “belief” in the random, unguided, and accidental existence of things, in the face of such overwhelming and consistent order is unreasonable in the extreme.

The whole universe shouts Order! Consistency! Intelligibility! Our bodies, and every delicately functioning system on this planet all echo back the refrain: Order! Consistency!  Intelligibility! And while I cannot, and do not, ask a scientist to specifically affirm the Biblical and Christian God and our whole Catholic Theological tradition by science, the existence of consistent order in the universe and in the world is plainly obvious, and serves as the basis of the whole scientific method. For if things were truly random, and not orderly, intelligible, or predictable, science could not brook theories, test results, or verify them. No experiment would turn out similar results if everything acted randomly. The scientific method presupposes order and consistency within a verifiable range. Thus while science need not draw conclusions as to how this order came about, it is wholly inappropriate, as certain scientists have done, to be dismissive of believers who conclude from order that someone ordered it so.

Yes, what a glorious and magnificent thing creation is. And to this believer it loudly proclaims God who made it.

There is a beautiful hymn that I have seldom heard sung in Catholic Parishes, that takes up the voice of creation, especially that part of creation we call the stars (firmament) and the planets. The hymn is a gloss on Psalm 19, and, to me, it is a minor masterpiece of English poetry. It was written by Joseph Addison in 1712.

It comes from a time before skeptical agnosticism and hostility to the very notion, (let alone existence), of God had taken deep root in our culture. And, frankly, it also comes from a more sober time that was able to accept the plainly obvious fact that creation is ordered, and therefore was ordered by someone in a purposeful and intelligent manner. That someone we believers call God.

Consider the beautiful words of this song and its reasoned conclusion that, as Psalm 19 notes, creation shouts its Creator.

The spacious firmament on high,
with all the blue ethereal sky,
and spangled heavens, a shining frame,
their great Original proclaim.
The unwearied sun from day to day
does his Creator’s power display;
and publishes to every land
the work of an almighty hand.

Soon as the evening shades prevail,
the moon takes up the wondrous tale,
and nightly to the listening earth
repeats the story of her birth:
whilst all the stars that round her burn,
and all the planets in their turn,
confirm the tidings, as they roll
and spread the truth from pole to pole.

What though in solemn silence all
move round the dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice nor sound
amid their radiant orbs be found?
In reason’s ear they all rejoice,
and utter forth a glorious voice;
for ever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine.”

Yes, the hand that made us is divine, and He has done a marvelous thing!

Here is a sung version of this wonderful song:

Best Advent Hymn

I have published on this Hymn before but want to post on it again at the beginning of Advent in hopes that a few of you who have the influence and ability may see that this hymn in used in your parishes for Advent at some point.

For my money the best Advent hymn ever written is Veni Redemptor Gentium (Come Redeemer of the Nations) written by St. Ambrose in the 4th Century.

One of the beautiful things about the ancient Latin Hymns is how richly theological they are. Not content to merely describe the event in question, they give sweeping theological vision and delve into the more hidden mysteries of each event.

So here we are beginning Advent and Jesus is coming, get ready! Well yes, but he is not just coming, he is redeeming, dying, rising, ascending and reigning at the Father’s Right Hand! But how can we get all that into an Advent Hymn? Well, just below you can read the text and see how.

Full vision – But for now ponder the theological point that hymns like this make. And it is this: that no act of God can merely be reduced to the thing in itself. Everything God does is part of a sweeping master plan to restore all things in Christ, to take back what the devil stole from us! Too often we see the events of our redemption in a disconnected sort of way, but it is all really one thing, and the best theology connects the dots. It is not wrong for us to focus on one thing or another, but we must not forget it is all one thing in the end.

Without this reminder, we can develop a kind of myopia (a limited vision) that over-emphasizes some aspect of redemption and thus harms the rest by a lack of balance. In the 1970s and 80s we had all resurrection all the time, but no passion or death.

Christmas too has its hazards as we get rather sentimental about the “baby Jesus” but miss other important aspects of his incarnation. The passion and death are present in his birth in homeless poverty, the swaddling clothes, the flight into Egypt and so forth. The Eucharist is evident in his birth at Bethlehem (House of Bread) and his being laid in a manger (feed box for animals). His glory as God and his ultimate triumph are manifest in the Star overhead and the Angels declaration of glory! You see it is all tied together and the best theology connects the dots.

So with that in mind I present you to this wonderful Advent hymn so seldom sung in our Catholic Parishes. It can be sung to any Long Meter tune but is usually sung to its own melody (Puer Natus – see video below). I give here only the English translation but the PDF you can get by clicking here: ( VENI REDEMPTOR GENTIUM) contains also the Latin text. I think the poetic translation reprinted here is a minor masterpiece of English literature and hope you’ll agree. Enjoy this sweeping theological vision of the mystery of advent caught up into the grand and fuller vision of redemption.

Among the theological truths treated in this brief hymn are these: His title as Redeemer, his virgin birth, his inclusion of the Gentiles, his sinlessness, his two natures but one person, his incarnation at conception, His passion, death, descent into hell, ascension, his seat at the Father’s right hand, his divinity and equality with the Father, his healing and sanctification of our humanity so wounded by sin, his granting us freedom and eternal life, his renewing of our minds through the light of faith, his opening of heaven to us.

Not bad for seven verses! St. Ambrose, Pray for us! And now the hymn:

Come, thou Redeemer of the earth,
Come testify thy virgin birth:
All lands admire, all times applaud:
Such is the birth that fits our God.

Forth from his chamber goeth he,
That royal home of purity,
A giant in twofold substance one,
Rejoicing now his course to run.

The Virgin’s womb that glory gained,
Its virgin honor is still unstained.
The banners there of virtue glow;
God in his temple dwells below.

From God the Father he proceeds,
To God the Father back he speeds;
Runs out his course to death and hell,
Returns on God’s high throne to dwell.

O Equal to thy Father, thou!
Gird on thy fleshly mantle now;
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate.

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
And darkness breathe a newer light,
Where endless faith shall shine serene,
And twilight never intervene.
All laud, eternal Son, to thee
Whose advent sets thy people free,
Whom with the Father we adore,
And Holy Ghost, for evermore.

This video gives you an idea of what the hymn tune for Veni Redemptor Gentium sounds like. The words in this version are slightly different but the hymn tune is perfect. Try not to dance as it is sung. You can find the melody for this hymn tune in the hymn tune index of most hymnals. This hymn tune is called “Puer Natus.” The words to this hymn however can be sung to any Long Meter (LM) hymn tune.

Sing the Dies Irae at My Funeral – A Meditation on a Lost Treasure

Yesterday, for All Souls Day, I was given the grace to celebrate a Funeral (Walter Gallie, R.I.P.) in the Traditional Latin Form of the Mass. Referred to as a Requiem Mass, (Requiem means “rest” in Latin), it features black vestments and prayers steeped in consistent yet confident pleas for God’s mercy on the departed.

Though many depict the Requiem Mass as a gloomy affair, I beg to differ. Black vestments, to be sure, speak a different language than the white usually worn today, (though black or purple are permitted). But death, after all is a rather formal affair. And the readings for the Requiem on the day of burial are quite hopeful. The Epistle is from 1 Thessalonians 4, and begins, Brethren we would not have you ignorant concerning them that sleep in the Lord lest you be sorrowful like those having no hope…… The Gospel is Jesus’ discourse with Martha in John 11: Your brother will rise…do you believe this? Jesus then assures her that he is the resurrection and the life. Hardly gloomy. And all the pleas for mercy in the Requiem are based on hope expressed in these readings.

At the heart of the Requiem Mass is the astonishing and magnificent masterpiece, the Sequence Hymn, Dies Irae. Yes, I am of the mind that one of the great treasures and masterpieces of the Church’s Gregorian Chant is indeed the sequence hymn of the Requiem Mass, Dies Irae. It is almost never done at funerals today, though it remains a fixture of the Extraordinary form Mass.

Some see it as a “heavy” with its sobering message, but it sure is glorious. The gorgeous chant was one of the more beautiful and soaring melodies of Gregorian Chant and many composers, such as Mozart and Verdi, set the text to stirring musical compositions. With November, the month of All souls perhaps this hymn deserves a look.

It’s syllables hammer away in trochaic dimeter: Dies irae dies illa solvet saeclum in favilla, teste David cum Sybila! (Day of wrath that day when the world dissolves to ashes, David bearing witness along with the Sibyl!) Perhaps at times the text is a bit heavy but at the same time no hymn more beautifully sets forth a basis for God’s mercy. The dark clouds of judgment part and give way to the bright beauty of the final line Pie Jesu Domine, dona eis requiem (Sweet Jesus Lord, give them [the dead] rest).

The hymn was not composed for funerals. Actually it was composed by Thomas of Celano in the 13th century as an Advent Hymn. Yes, that’s right an Advent hymn. Don’t forget that Advent isn’t just about getting ready for Christmas, it is about getting ready for the Second Coming of the Lord. And that is what this hymn is really about. At this time of year, as the the leaves fall and summer turns to winter, we are reminded of the passing of all things. The Gospels we read are those that remind us of death and the judgment to come.

Journey with me into the beauty and solemn majesty of this hymn. I will give you an inspiring English translation by W J Irons, one that preserves the meter and renders the Latin close enough. A few comments from me along the way but enjoy this largely lost masterpiece and mediation on the Last Judgment. (You can see the Latin Text along with English here: Dies Irae)

The hymn opens on the Day of Judgement, warning that the Day, spoken of in Scripture as “The Great and Terrible Day of the Lord,”  will reveal God’s wrath upon all injustice and unrepented sin. God’s “wrath” is his passion to set things right. And now it is time to put an end of wickedness and lies:

    • Day of wrath and doom impending,
    • Heaven and earth in ashes ending:
    • David’s words with Sibyl’s blending.

And all are struck with a holy fear! No one and no thing can treat of this moment lightly: all are summoned to holy fear. The bodies of the dead come forth from their tombs at the sound of the trumpet and will all of creation answer to Jesus, the Judge and Lord of all:

    • Oh what fear man’s bosom rendeth
    • When from heaven the judge descendeth
    • On whose sentence all dependeth!
    • Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth,
    • Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth,
    • All before the throne it bringeth.
    • Death is struck and nature quaking,
    • All creation is awaking,
    • To its judge an answer making.
    • Lo the book exactly worded,
    • Wherein all hath been recorded,
    • Thence shall judgement be awarded.
    • When the Judge his seat attaineth,
    • And each hidden deed arraigneth:
    • Nothing unavenged remaineth.

Judgment shall be according to our deeds, whatever is in the Book (Rev 20:12; Romans 2:6)! Ah but also in God’s Word is the hope for mercy and so our hymn turns to ponder the need for mercy and appeals to God for that mercy. It bases that hope on the grace and mercy of God, his incarnation, his seeking love, his passion and death, and his forgiveness shown to Mary Magdalene and the dying thief:

    • What shall I frail man be pleading?
    • Who for me be interceding?
    • When the just are mercy needing?
    • King of majesty tremendous,
    • Who does free salvation send us,
    • Font of pity then befriend us.
    • Think kind Jesus, my salvation,
    • Caused thy wondrous incarnation:
    • Leave me not to reprobation.
    • Faint and weary thou hast sought me:
    • On the cross of suffering bought me:
    • Shall such grace be vainly brought me?
    • Righteous judge for sin’s pollution,
    • Grant thy gift of absolution,
    • Before the day of retribution.
    • Guilty now I pour my moaning:
    • All my shame and anguish owning:
    • Spare, O God my suppliant groaning.

    • Through the sinful Mary shriven,
    • Through the dying thief forgiven,
    • Thou to me a hope has given.

Yes there is a basis for hope! God is rich in mercy and, pondering the Day of Judgment is salutary since for now we can call on that mercy. And, in the end it is only grace and mercy that can see us through that day. And so the hymn calls on the Lord who said, No one who calls on me will I ever reject (Jn 6:37):

    • Worthless are my tears and sighing:
    • Yet good Lord in grace complying,
    • Rescue me from fire undying.
    • With thy sheep a place provide me,
    • From the goats afar divide me,
    • To thy right hand do thou guide me.
    • When the wicked are confounded,
    • Doomed to flames of woe unbounded:
    • Call me with thy saints surrounded.
    • Lo I kneel with heart-submission,
    • See like ashes my contrition:
    • Help me in my last condition.

And now comes the great summation: That Day is surely coming! Grant me O lord your grace to be ready:

    • Lo, that day of tears and mourning,
    • from the dust of earth returning.
    • Man for judgement must prepare him,
    • Spare O God, in mercy spare him.
    • Sweet Jesus Lord most blest,
    • Grant the dead eternal rest.

A masterpiece of beauty and truth if you ask me.

Some years ago I memorized most of it. I sing it from time to time over in Church late at night, the hauntingly beautiful chant rings through the echoing arches of our Church.

When I die sing it at my funeral! For I go to the Lord, the Judge of all and only grace and mercy will see me through. Surely the plaintive calls of the choir below at my funeral will resonate to the very heavens as I am judged. And maybe the Lord will look at me and say,

    • I think they’re praying for you down there; asking mercy, they are.
    • “Yes, Lord, mercy.” (I reply)
    • They’re making a pretty good case.
    • Yes Lord, mercy.
    • Then mercy it shall be.


Dies Irae from elena mannocci on Vimeo.

The Majesty of God is Manifest in What He Has Made – A Meditation on a Great Hymn of Creation

OK, it’s gotten controversial to say it, but I want to say it anyway, that creation shouts its maker. It reveals its creator, and manifests its God. While the more militant atheists the more extreme followers of scientism and secularism may well scoff and urge believers like me to the door, I want to say again, I see God in what he has made, and he has done a marvelous thing.

Scripture often sings of the majesty of God manifest in what he has made. Some of my favorite verses in this regard come from the song of creation at the end of the Book of Sirach:

  1. The sun at its rising shines at its fullest, a wonderful instrument, the work of the Most High! Great indeed is the LORD who made it, at whose orders it urges on its steeds. (Sir 43:2,5)
  2. Behold the rainbow! Then bless its Maker, for majestic indeed is its splendor (43:11)
  3. The thunder of his voice makes the earth writhe; by his power he shakes the mountains. (43:16)
  4. He makes the snow fly like birds; Its shining whiteness blinds the eyes, the mind is baffled by its steady fall. (43:17)
  5. Those who go down to the sea recount its extent, and when we hear them we are thunderstruck; In it are his creatures, stupendous, amazing, all kinds of life, and the monsters of the deep! (43:23-25)
  6. Beyond these, many things lie hidden; only a few of his works have we seen! (43:32)
  7. More than this we need not add; let the last word be, he is the all! Let us praise him the more, since we cannot fathom him, for greater is he than all his works; (43:27-28)

Yes, creation shouts, proclaims and sings the Lord who made it. And we too, who believe ought to take up the song, today more than ever. For increasingly there are those who see the created world only as an impersonal machine of sorts, rather than a living revelation of God. We who believe must take up the ancient song, too easily cast aside by a secular world. Some may call us fools, but at least add that we are fools for Christ!

With that in mind I would like to share with you a minor masterpiece of English and German hymnody that will help us take up the song.

Some of you who read this blog regularly know that I am a fan of hymns, and especially those from the English and German tradition. One of my regrets is that, when we went over to the use of English in the Mass here in America, we did not draw more deeply on 400+ year tradition of hymns, but instead went to mimeographed and stapled song sheets containing mostly (poor) folk music, quickly composed to fill a gap. Many of the great hymns in the English hymnals were often beautiful translations of old Catholic, Gregorian hymns. The German hymnals also effectively imported ancient material and adapted it well. Many of the German hymns were then taken into the English hymnals as well.

And this song of creation taps into these rich traditions. I consider the song a minor masterpiece in terms of its poetic rhyme and the various tunes (Usually Haydn’s Creation) are also quite wonderful. Consider this text which is a gloss on Psalm 19:1-6):

The spacious firmament on high,
with all the blue ethereal sky,
and spangled heavens, a shining frame,
their great Original proclaim.
Unwearied sun from day to day
does his Creator’s power display;
and publishes to every land
the work of an almighty hand.

Soon as the evening shades prevail,
the moon takes up the wondrous tale,
and nightly to the listening earth
repeats the story of her birth:
whilst all the stars that round her burn,
and all the planets in their turn,
confirm the tidings, as they roll
and spread the truth from pole to pole.

And though in solemn silence all
move round our dark terrestrial ball?
And though no real voice nor sound
amid their radiant orbs be found.
In reason’s ear they all rejoice,
and utter forth a glorious voice;
for ever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine!”

Yes, the hand that made us is divine! And note the way that the text says, “In reason’s ear” for I will assert what was never controversial until the last Century, that the created world demonstrates to our reason, our intellect, that all this was created by an intelligent, orderly (and I would add) loving Creator. And this Creator we call God. Some in this modern world will call us kooks and fanatics, but at least add that we are kooks for Christ, and fanatics who are trying to be faithful.

What a magnificent poem indeed. Imagine the stars and planets, forever singing as they shine, “The hand that made us is divine!” And remember, as Sirach (Jesus Ben Sira) said above: Beyond these, many things lie hidden; only a few of his works have we seen!

Here is a version of the song sung to a different melody than is commonly used, but I post it first because of its higher production quality:

And here is the traditional melody :

Music as the "6th Proof" for the Existence of God

There is an old African American Spiritual that says,

Over my head, I hear music in the air!
There must be a God somewhere.

Yes, God has to exist. How else could we explain music?

Now, please understand, I speak here, not a theologian, but as a poet;  not as a philosopher, but as lover of music. And in the mode of poet and lover,  I want to say that, for me, music is the 6th proof for the existence of God. St. Thomas designated five proofs for the existence of God (motion, efficient cause, contingency, perfection and design). I am not in his league, I am just hitchhiking a ride on his idea in a poetic, not a theological way.

Yes, I know God exists for, among other reasons: I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere!

It was through music (and beauty) that God called me (for I joined the Church choir to meet the pretty girls who sang there). And God put a song in my heart and called me through the majesty and exquisite beauty of Church music: The metrical march of the hymn and the joy of playing its counterpoint with my feet at the organ; the sighing of Gregorian chant, almost as if singing in tongues;  the mystical harmony of Renaissance polyphony; the joy and fun of singing Mozart, the dignity of Bach; the soaring majesty of a Viennese Classical Mass, the haunting beauty of the African American Spirituals in their pentatonic scale; the exuberance of Gospel music so centered on the greatness of God. Yes, these have been God’s gift to me whereby he has spoken to the depths of my soul.

There is an old saying:

Bach gave us God’s Word, Mozart gave us God’s laughter, Beethoven gave us God’s fire. God gave us music that we might pray without words. — quote from outside a German opera house

Scripture says the Lord puts music in our hearts and that many, by it will be summoned to faith: The Lord  set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD. (Psalm 40:3-4) I can only say, Amen. This is exactly what happened for me.

And music seems to be a unique gift of God to the human person. Animals do not sing. Oh perhaps some say the birds do “sing” but it sounds more like a Morse code type of communication than true song. Only the human person, by the charism of God’s grace,  has produced the majesty of music, and surely it emerges from the deep mysterious places of our soul. So singing is a special trait of human beings and part of our dignity.

And to some extent only humans grasp it. I have often marveled at how unaffected by a great song my pets have been. I can be tapping my toe, be moved to tears, filled with zeal  by a song and the dogs and cats I have had just lie there bored. Proof again that music is distinctly human and requires an immortal, God breathed soul to grasp it.

Yes, music can stir, it can call forth tears, it makes us swell with healthy pride and exuberance, it can instill joy, provoke our deepest thoughts, and it make us want to dance. Music unites, it also divides, some love what others hate, it can make you mad, it can make you sad, it can make you glad but seldom are we merely neutral as to it’s quality or influence.

The genius and variety of music is astonishingly remarkable: from country to classical, modern to medieval, blues to ballads, solos to symphonies,  jazz to jewsharp, renaissance to rap, and polyphony to parade music.

Music is the soul’s way to exhale, to express itself beyond words. It bespeaks the soul’s longing, its sighing, its joy and its sorrow, words are optional.  Appreciate anew this miracle of human existence, this unique gift to the human person, this flash of beauty and dignity in the soul of every human person.

Of course God exists. One way I know he exists is that he put a song in my heart and gave me ears to hear his glory:

Over my head I hear music in the air!
There must be a God somewhere.

Photo Credit: Screen shot from The Sound of Music

Here’s a little video I put together based on the spiritual: Over My Head

The Sun that Bids Us Rest is Waking, Our Brethren ‘neath the Western Sky: A Meditation on the Movement and Mystery of Time


It is late on the east coast of the United States, the 23rd hour (11 pm) of the day we have called June 15. But where my Uncle, Fr. George Pope lives, (he is a priest in Bangladesh), not only is it June 16th, but it has been so for some time. It is 9 in the morning there and they are likely arriving at work just now; on a day that has yet to begin for me. Further to the east, in Sydney Australia, it is 1pm  in the afternoon of June 16th and they are returning from lunch; before I have even gone to bed. In Wellington, New Zealand, their work day is almost over, it is 3pm and many are looking to wrap things up in couple of hours and head home from a day that doesn’t even exist for me yet.

Time, what could be simpler than for me to look at the clock and say, It is 11pm June 15. And yet what could be more mysterious than a simple thing like 11pm, June 15; for time interacts with space and folds back on itself. It is simply a human reckoning of a mysterious passage.

And yet the mystery is also beautiful. At any given time some of us sleep, and some of us are at noonday. There is a wonderful verse in an old English hymn that says:

The sun that bids us rest is waking
Our brethren ‘neath the western sky,
And hour by hour fresh lips are making
Thy wondrous doings heard on high.

Other verses beautifully say:

We thank Thee that thy Church unsleeping,
While earth rolls onward into light,
Through all the world her watch is keeping,
And rests not now by day or night

As o’er each continent and island,
The dawn leads on another day,
The voice of prayer is never silent,
nor dies the strain of praise away

Magnificent lines, a beautiful and poetic description of the Church, always praising, always sighing, always at worship. While some sleep, the praises continue. One of the psalms says, Let the name of the Lord be praised, both now and forevermore. From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, the name of the Lord is to be praised. The Lord is exalted over all the nations. (Psalm 113:2-4). And yet the praises never end for the sun is always rising, even as it is setting somewhere on this earth.

And Malachi, prophesying the glory of the Mass celebrated worldwide says, My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the LORD Almighty. (Mal 1:11). At any one time, Mass is surely being offered somewhere on the orb of this earth. The Liturgy of the Hours too, always uttering forth from the lips of the faithful, somewhere on this spinning orb of the earth. Yes, in the mystery of time this planet of ours is a perpetual place of praise. And our praises join the perpetual praises of heaven for as the Liturgy proclaims (in the words of the new translation): And so, Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the host and Powers of heaven, as we sing the hymn of your glory, without end we acclaim: Holy, Holy Holy Lord God of hosts…..

Yes, the mystery of time and our praises caught up in the ever moving sweep of time. What St Paul says to us as individuals is also fulfilled by the worldwide Church. And the advice is so simple and yet profound. He says, Pray always (1 Thess 5:17)

Photo Credit: Snapshot from

Here is the full hymn (The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended) that was quoted above. The full text is here: The Day Thou Gavest.

Enjoying a Minor Masterpiece – The Sequence Hymn for Pentecost

There are several Feasts of the Church wherein a “sequence” hymn may be sung. The sequence hymn is sung Just before the the Alleluia (Gospel acclamation). The feasts with sequence hymns are these:

  1. Easter – Victimae Paschali Laudes (To the Paschal Victim give praise)
  2. Pentecost – Veni Sancte Spiritus (Come Holy Spirit)
  3. Corpus Christi – Lauda Sion (Praise O Sion)
  4. Our Lady of Sorrows – Stabat Mater (Stood the Mother sad and weeping)
  5. All Souls – Dies Irae (Day of Wrath)

To many parishes simply omit the sequence hymn. But, for my money, they ought to be sung. Especially the ones that occur on Sunday. Since Pentecost has just passed we ought to sample the sequence hymn for Pentecost: Veni Sancte Spiritus.

The Hymn was likely written by Pope Innocent III (1161-1216). Written in Trachaic dimeter (catalectic), it is widely regard as one of the masterpieces of sacred Latin poetry. It was obviously written by one who had experienced many sorrows but also consolations in those sorrows. The rhyme in this hymn is quite rich and complex. Lines 1 & 2 always rhyme and the third line of every verse ends in “ium”

The sung version of this hymn is gorgeous and soaring. It starts subtly and then builds through the center with soaring notes. It sets us down gently at the end.

Here is the Latin text and a translation (fairly literal) of my own.

VENI, Sancte Spiritus,
et emitte caelitus
lucis tuae radium.
COME, Holy Spirit,
send forth from heaven
the rays of thy light
Veni, pater pauperum,
veni, dator munerum
veni, lumen cordium.
Come, Father of the poor;
Come, giver of gifts,
Come, light of [our] hearts.
Consolator optime,
dulcis hospes animae,
dulce refrigerium.
Oh best Comforter,
Sweet guest of the soul,
Sweet refreshment.
In labore requies,
in aestu temperies
in fletu solatium.
In Labor rest
in the heat, moderation;
in tears, solace.
O lux beatissima,
reple cordis intima
tuorum fidelium.
O most blessed Light
fill the inmost heart
of thy faithful.
Sine tuo numine,
nihil est in homine,
nihil est innoxium.
Without your spirit,
nothing is in man,
nothing that is harmless
Lava quod est sordidum,
riga quod est aridum,
sana quod est saucium.
Wash that which is sordid
water that which is dry,
heal that which is wounded.
Flecte quod est rigidum,
fove quod est frigidum,
rege quod est devium.
Make flexible that which is rigid,
warm that which is cold,
rule that which is deviant.
Da tuis fidelibus,
in te confidentibus,
sacrum septenarium.
Give to thy faithful,
who trust in thee
the sevenfold gifts.
Da virtutis meritum,
da salutis exitum,
da perenne gaudium,
Amen, Alleluia.
Grant to us the merit of virtue,
Grant salvation at our going forth,
Grant eternal joy.
Amen. Alleluia.

Here is the traditional Gregorian Chant of this sequence. Enjoy this little masterpiece:

And here is a rather nice modern version of the same text: