The words of the Julia Ward Howe in her “Battle Hymn of the Republic” are stirring 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 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 very well. They were able to use the scripture in their discourse in a meaningful way, which often found its way into 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.
In the beauty of the lilies (I’m not certain about that metaphor), Jesus is born across the sea–a distant place in history and geography, but not distant in the hearts of free people. Therefore, according to Julia Ward Howe, he transfigured history, and he has transfigured you and me. Transfigured us to see the potential of love in a free society.
Why does Julia Ward Howe say Jesus has 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. I, that is, 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 magnificent hymn to freedom we have a difficult time understanding all the emotions of the period.
It 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 many.
The Transfiguration was, however, about to take place. Howe, in her vision of possibilities, saw freedom only in a united country. Her poem was written to keep the Union together.
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, if not the people, was transfigured from a political struggle into a spiritual struggle. Howe’s referral to the Transfiguration of Jesus reminded the people of that time 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 report in the Gospel according to Luke (9:28-36) about Jesus’ transfiguration is strange. The transfiguration is the seminal event that changed everything. It is not until Saint Peter recognizes Jesus as the Messiah 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 of these two, Moses and Elijah, represent all that God has been, and through Jesus, we see what 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 God’s effort to call people to holiness. In Jesus, we see the completion of God’s work. However, it required Jesus overcome power and evil by defeating sin and resulting death. In Jesus we know freedom–all can be released from the evil of slavery.
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 for words that enthralled a beleaguered peoples future and their cause or reasons for making enormous sacrifices.
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 culminated in all that God has created is in this transfiguration event; that is, in Jesus.
It is the love of God that creates in us the compassionate hearts from which unconditional love can flow. So, it is God’s love that transfigured Jesus; and, it is God’s sake that the Union soldier fought to end the brutality of legalized involuntary servitude.
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.