Interstellar SpaceFrom my earliest memory of them, the words of the Julia Ward Howe[1] in her “Battle Hymn of the Republic”[2] stirred to me. Recall what she wrote in this rousing poem:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ
      was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom
       that transfigures you and me… 

I would wager almost everyone in the United States knows the chorus of the first verse. The words I have quoted, however, come from verse five. This verse continues:

As He died to make men holy,
     let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

In the Victorian Era, as those times of the mid to late nineteenth century are called, literate people knew the Bible. They were able to use the scripture in their discourse in a meaningful way. Often words of the Scripture were the source of powerful poetry. For example, every time I think of the Feast of the Transfiguration observed on August 6, or the Gospel for the Last Sunday of Epiphany, my thoughts often bring me to the words of Julia Ward Howe. Julia Ward Howe

In the beauty of the lilies (I’m not certain about that allusion), Jesus is born. Born not only to become a great teacher of the ancient world, but the one person who has changed history, and, according to Julia Ward Howe, he transfigured history. More important Jesus transfigured you and me.

Why does Julia Ward Howe say Jesus transfigured you and me? I am not certain of my observations, and my answer is colored by the culture of the twenty-first century not the nineteenth, but I think the transfiguration analogy is a good one. My knowledge of Julia Ward Howe is limited. I know that she was an American woman abolitionist of the Civil War era. We can only imagine what life was like in the era and during that terrible time in our history. When we look back at the time, Howe wrote this hymn to freedom we have a difficult time understanding all the emotions of the period.

Battle Hymn of the RepublicIt is quite likely most of the men, if not many of the people in general, did not understand the Civil War as a war for freedom and justice. I suspect many of them only wanted to live their lives and let others do the same. If people down south had slaves, what did that mean to them? Even the concept of a Federal Union may not have been a reason to go into battle for some.

Her hymn was to stir the men of the Union Army to turn the struggle to a fight for human freedom and dignity.

Union Soldiers

The National Transfiguration was, however, about to take place. Howe caught this fresh vigor for freedom and justice in her vision of possibilities. Her hymn of the transfiguration was to stir the men of the Union Army to turn the struggle from just an attempt to keep the union together to a fight for human freedom and dignity.

Through her poetry, Howe reminded the people of the Union that the war was not just about Federal versus State sovereignty. Instead, it was about the most basic of human aspirations–freedom. The Civil War transfigured from a political struggle to a great cause for justice. Howe’s referral to the Transfiguration of Jesus reminded the people that they shared in this new life of hope and freedom in Jesus Christ.

To me, that’s what the transfiguration is about–new life, a new opportunity.

The Transfiguration

Portable Icon with the Transsfiguarion of Christ, Byzantine artwork, circa 1200. 

The report in the Gospel according to Luke[3] about Jesus’ transfiguration is strange. What does it mean? What did the Disciples see? They apparently saw something important. The transfiguration is the seminal event that changed everything. It is not until Simon Peter recognizes Jesus as the Messiah[4] and it is not until he and others are led to the top of the holy mountain to see Jesus converse with the heroes of Hebrew lore that the final act of grace begins. Up to that moment, Jesus was merely another itinerant rabbi or “holy man”. Not only do we see Jesus in a new way, as a result of this event, Peter and the others understand they are on a new mission, something quite remarkable and unique.

In the story from the Gospel according to Luke, we have the picture of Jesus standing with Moses and Elijah. Why did he stand between these two?  Why not Abraham and Jacob, or David and Solomon? In my understanding, it is because these two, Moses and Elijah, represent all that God has been, and Jesus represents all that God is.

Moses, the Law Giver, reflects God’s wish for humanity to rise above instinctual responses and be something greater than another form of animal life. Elijah represents the continuing conversation God has with creation, especially that part of creation given the extraordinary capacity to humanity to interact with God. In Jesus, we see the completion of God’s work. However, it required Jesus

We are like the listless, hapless Union soldiers of the 1860’s, not confident of their mission, of their goals.

When we open our eyes also to see the transfigured Jesus standing before us, we can also be changed. Before then, we are like the listless, hapless Union soldiers of the 1860’s, not confident of their mission, of their goals. However, after encountering the transfigured Jesus as the disciples did and as the Union soldiers were called to do by Howe’s poem, we too are transfigured into people with a purpose and a reason for living. In the glow of the transfigured Jesus, life has new meaning and a new reason for enthusiasm.  Because we can live in that transfigured life, we can have a loftier goal than simply getting through the day or just tagging along.

Jesus’ transfiguration opened for Julia Ward Howe an inspired heart. A heart inspired to pour out words of hope and vigor.  She poured out words that enthralled a beleaguered people—people who were not sure of their future and their cause or reasons for making huge sacrifices.

Jesus can transfigure us into a new people, with new hopes and dreams.

The vision of a transfigured Jesus can open our hearts also. More than opening hearts Jesus can transfigure us into a new people, with new hopes and dreams. The vision of a transfigured Jesus teaches and helps us to know that God is present in and around us and that all that God has created is culminated in this transfiguration event; that is, in Jesus.

So, it is the love of God that transfigured Jesus; and, it is the love of God that brought to an end the brutality of legalized involuntary servitude. It is the love of God that creates in us the compassionate hearts from which unconditional love can flow.

Julia Ward Howe was correct. In fact, Christ was born in the beauty of the lilies; that is, in the beauty of holiness or love. It is the beauty of holiness that transfigures you and me.


[1] May 27, 1819 – October 17, 1910.

[2] “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, also known as “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” outside of the United States, is a song by American writer Julia Ward Howe using the music from the song “John Brown’s Body”. Howe’s more famous lyrics were written in November 1861, and first published in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1862. The song links the judgment of the wicked at the end of time (Old Testament, Isaiah 63; New Testament, Rev. 19) with the American Civil War. Since that time, it has become an extremely popular and well-known American patriotic song. (Source: Wikipedia.)

[3] Luke 9:28-36.

[4] Luke 9;20.

Photo: Julis Ward Howe, Wikipedia.

Icon of The Transfiguration, Wikipedia.


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