Countdown to Christmas: Day 20. "Battle Hymn of The Republic "

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.


“Battle Hymn of the Republic” isn’t officially a Christmas song. But there’s a direct reference to the first Christmas in the fifth verse. The writer, Julia Ward Howe, was an activist. She campaigned for those on the margins; she dreamed of a day when slaves would be free and women in the U.S. would vote. While she lived to see the end of the Civil War, she died ten years before the 19th Amendment was ratified.


Howe believed Christ’ arrival on earth is a politically charged moment. Jesus didn’t come to bless us, he came to change us. He lived, and died, so people could be spiritual transformed, liberated from the invisible bonds that enslave hearts and minds. Jesus’s mission on this earth was driven by love-driven sacrifice. His commitment to his cause eclipsed his cares for comfort.


God, claims Howe, is marching, moving purposefully across the stage of human history to announce the Kingdom. This Kingdom looks to address injustice and broken social systems at every turn.


For some, this view of Christmas is unnerving. We don’t want to politicize the crèche. But Howe is onto something here. And she’s not the first woman to write a social anthem that references the Messiah’s birth.


Listen to these words:


For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;

He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.


These are the words of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as recorded in Luke 1.

Some of these lines feel better suited for a protest rally than a praise song, but they are a powerful nod to Mary’s understanding of her place in the world. The difference between Julia Ward Howe and Mary of Nazareth is power distance. Howe wrote as an educated woman of means and influence; she’s at the top looking down. Mary sings about the lowly as one of them; she’s at the bottom looking up.


Both sing of a God on a mission, but Mary’s urgency is higher. She’s ready to be filled with good things now, because she’s hungry now. Christmas means everybody matters. And that means there’s a reckoning for those who are stepping on the marginalized to get what they want.


Christmas reminds us that God is still marching, breathing hope and light into the forlorn corners of the world. 

Craig Custance