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 has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on…
Looking back now, this was one of the very first hymns I ever learned as a child. I remember getting to sing it in the old city hall of downtown St. Louis as we attended a Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast when I was six or seven. Like all younglings, the chorus’ lyrics were the main thing that stuck, but the feel of the song was something I carried with me.
Thanks to the great wisdom of our Middle School Principal at the time, we spent an entire year studying the Civil War. For all of the issues that my home city of St. Louis has had and continues to have, in school I learned the essential importance of educated citizenship. I learned that we must study our history in order to bring hope to the future. This Battle Hymn epitomized this understanding. And I knew that the fight for justice was essential to who we are as the people of these United States.
In high school, the meaning of the hymn expanded, yet again, as I had the opportunity to sing one of the greatest choral arrangements of the piece ever written, by Peter J. Wilhousky. After being reared so that the melody ran in my blood, and reinforcing the importance of the work it represented as I learned in school, a theological dimension finally appeared.
There were four young men who sang the final verse of the song as a quartet – with gentle, dulcet tones, growing in intensity. They sang, 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 all free, while God is marching on.
I wonder, to this day, if that was the first moment I truly understood the gospel: the love of one who died for all – who calls us to live so that all might live free. Just imagine how God’s glory will reign in a world where we truly live into that calling. For if nothing else, it is our purpose as followers of Christ to ensure the fullness of life of all God’s children. And who can have that fullness without freedom?
Here is a version of that arrangement for your reflection. May you find your own sense of call as you take your place in God’s work.