The coming of the Lord

One of the joys of advent readings is the three songs from Luke; the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), the Benedictus (Luke 1:67-79) and the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:28-32). To these some add the Gloria (Luke 2:13-14). I’ve included music links, in the case of the Nunc Dimittis to my favorite version, which happened to be the end credits to “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”.

I want to concentratate here on the Magnificat, which is Mary’s song of praise on learning what must have been a huge shock to her teenage system. In the version of the Book of Common Prayer, it reads:-

My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden.
For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him : throughout all generations.
He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel : as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

This is, of course, programmatic for Jesus’ ministry as seen by Luke. It is good news for the poor and marginalised, and not so good news for the rich and powerful, very much in tune with Liberation Theology and, of course, the Beatitudes.

I was thinking of this, and there popped into my head 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.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

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.


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.


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.


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.

This is far more like some of the preachers of my youth than like the Jesus I have come to know in the gospels, at least during his lifetime ministry (there are, of course, apocalyptic passages suggesting what might happen in the future in the gospels as well). It’s “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition” music. OK, I will grant that it’s possible to harmonise the two, at a pinch, but the overwhelming message of the Battle Hymn (if not already in its title) is that violence by men in the service of God’s judgement is applauded. It gels better with the sentiments of some parts of the Old Testament, and, of course, those of Revelation.

It’s absolutely not the music of the Prince of Peace whose coming we will be celebrating later today.

It is, however, historically the anthem of the Union of the States of North America, which is now the USA. I wonder how much it still represents the North American concept of what Christianity should be, into which our government here seems to buy on a regular basis.

This Christmas, I will stick with the sentiment of the Magnificat.