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Greenwood Forest Baptist Church

Program Note: Ralph Vaughan Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem

Today is Mother’s Day in the United States of America. At first glance, it may seem like cruel and unusual punishment to subject you to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s great anti-war oratorio, Dona Nobis Pacem, on Mother’s Day. Given the way that we typically celebrate Mother’s Day, you may be forgiven for missing the connection between Mother’s Day and Dona Nobis Pacem! But I would suggest that Vaughan Williams’s epic rebuke of violence gets to the heart of what Mother’s Day was originally intended to be.

The roots of Mother’s Day in the United States go back to the mid-19th century when courageous women such as Ann Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe lifted their voices against long-ignored injustices facing women and children. In 1870, five years after the American Civil War, abolitionist Julia Ward Howe delivered the original Mother’s Day Proclamation after witnessing the horror and destruction experienced by everyone involved in that conflict. She said, “Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: ‘We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.’” Julia Ward Howe fought to establish a day when mothers of all nationalities would come together “in the name of womanhood and humanity” to declare that they would no longer sit idly by while their children and their family members were destroyed by war and violence. 

The horrors of the American Civil War also inspired Walt Whitman to pen the poems that form the better part of the text of our cantata this morning. As a nurse in the war, Whitman witnessed the futility of around 750,000 people killed, all to defend the unimaginably evil system of chattel slavery that dehumanized and killed Black people. In “Dirge for Two Veterans” (Movement IV), Whitman recounts witnessing a mother mourning during a funeral procession for her husband and son, both killed in the same battle. This text reminds me of Julia Ward Howe’s call for mothers everywhere to stand against the dehumanization of each others’ children. In another of his more theologically perceptive moments, Whitman declares “for my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,” a line sung by the baritone soloist in Movement III. This revelation reminds us that despite the distance we try to put between ourselves and those we label our enemies, all people are created in the image of God. When we oppress or harm or kill another person, we oppress or harm or kill God in them.

The prophets of our Scriptures cry aloud against the destruction of the image of God as well. The prophet Jeremiah laments the lack of peace in his land and pointedly asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?” (Movement V) Theologian Walter Brueggemann tells us that the task of the prophet is threefold: 1) to call us back to reality, (2) to cause us to grieve the way things are, and (3) to lead us into the hope of God’s good future. This is what we have the opportunity to experience this morning through Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Dona Nobis Pacem: reality, grief, and hope.

Vaughan Williams compiled these texts and composed Dona Nobis Pacem as a plea for peace in the run up to World War II. After the unbelievable loss of life and destruction that accompanied World War I and in the midst of increasing tensions in 1930s Europe, he reminded people of the reality of war and cast a vision of God’s peaceable kingdom. He compiled texts from the Requiem Mass (Movement I), Walt Whitman (Movements II, III, and IV), John Bright, an English politician (Movement V), and Scripture (Movements V and VI), all of which speak to the horror of violence and the hope of peace offered by a reconciling God. The entire piece, musically and textually, moves according to the pattern of prophetic speech: reality to grief to hope. Movement I sets the tone by pleading for God to grant us peace. Movements II and III reveal the reality of violence. We hear the unstoppable destruction of the drums of war in Movement II; no one, innocent or guilty, is spared from their dissonant assault. Amidst the beauty of Movement III, we are to meditate on the pattern of war that washes over our world over and over again and reflect on the tantalizing truth that war can one day be utterly lost if we can recognize the image of God in our enemies. After the reality check of Movements II and III, Movements IV and V are a musical lament for the way things are. Lament then gives way to radical hope in Movement VI. God will create a new heavens and a new earth where nation shall not lift up the sword against nation!

May we decide on this Mother’s Day that we care too much about the mothers and fathers and daughters and sons of our human family to allow violence, however justified we think it is, to take their lives. This Mother’s Day, may we heed the voice of our Scriptures and the great poets of our language and choose to abandon the sword in favor of the plow. In troubled times, may we, through the moving music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, experience the vision of a God who desires that love and peace, instead of weapons of war, proliferate among all nations on the earth. Amen.

Rev. Stephen Stacks