Francis Scott Key:
An Ordinary Joe?
Fr. Joseph K. Horn
4 July 2009
St Thomas More Parish
What do you get when you cross this Sunday’s Gospel reading with this weekend’s holiday? Oh, you lucky people, you get this homily!
How would you feel if the British army invaded the Unites States, marched into Washington DC, ransacked its treasures, and then burned down most of the city, including the White House? Well, guess what? It happened!... during the War of 1812. As if burning down the White House wasn’t bad enough, they went to the home of a famous elderly doctor (Dr William Beanes) in the middle of the night, crashed through his front door, barged into his bedroom where he was sleeping, dragged the old man out of bed, arrested him on trumped-up charges, and threw him into the brig on a British ship in the Baltimore harbor.
This outraged the American people so much that they sent two emissaries to the ship to plead for the release of the prisoner. But the British General Robert Ross said to one of the emissaries, “I know and respect you, John Skinner; you are your government’s representative agent for the exchange of prisoners of war. It is your duty to be here, and we respect those who carry out their duty. But I do not recognize this man you brought with you. If he is a lawyer, I hope he is a good one, for the doctor’s sake.”
Skinner replied, “General Ross, this is Francis Scott Key, here to plead the good doctor’s case.”
Ross laughed. “Francis Scott Key? The POET? Why did you bring us a poet instead of a lawyer? What on earth can a poet know about serious, real-world affairs of state? I know this man’s poetry; it has been published even in real countries like England. Why should I listen to a poet? Are you trying to insult us?”
Francis Scott Key, who really was a lawyer and not a poet at all, held his tongue. Silently, Skinner pulled out of his pocket a thick bundle of letters written by British soldiers who were left behind by the British during the ongoing war. He handed the letters to General Ross, whose eyes flew wide as he perused them. The British soldiers all wrote that they were receiving the best medical care from the Americans, and were being treated not only fairly but with admirable hospitality. Ross immediately had a change of heart, and he released the elderly Dr Beanes from the brig. However, since Beanes and Skinner and Key had seen the inside of the British ship, and it was about to attack Fort McHenry, the three Americans were not allowed to leave the ship right away. From the deck, they watched in dismay as Fort McHenry was shelled with cannon balls and rockets and bombs for hours and hours. As the smoke of the battle thickened, they saw a huge American flag rise above the fort, and they proudly cheered (though not too loudly), but then it became hidden behind the veil of dense smoke, and they wondered if the flag was still there. Then night fell, and the bombing continued through the whole night. Once in a while that night the smoke cleared just enough that they could see from the glare of the rockets and the flashes from the bombs exploding in the air that the flag was still there, but then it would disappear again as the battle raged on. After 25 hours of straight bombardment, the first rays of dawn finally began to light up the fort. The three Americans watching the battle from the ramparts of the ship had only one question on their minds:
Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light... but the smoke is now so thick and the night so dark that we have lost sight of our beloved flag!
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there...
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet waveThere! There! In the rapidly clearing dawn sky, over the fort! Look!
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,The experience moved the lawyer so much that he was inspired to write that famous poem. But he was also inspired to think deeply about war itself, and he knew in his heart that an atheistic “just war theory” is unjust. He ended his poem with a powerful meditation about the desolation of war, the peace that can only be won by victory, and the absolute necessity of faith in God:
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
’Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall standHis poem moved the American people so much that we made it our national anthem, and Francis Scott Key is now remembered not for his work as a lawyer, but as the inspired poet who has inspired many generations of Americans and inspired millions of freedom-loving people all over the world.
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must when our cause is just,
And this be our motto: “In God we trust.”
Then the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
General Ross scorned Francis Scott Key. “Why should I listen to him? He’s a poet, for heaven’s sake; what can he possibly know about matters of state?” General Ross had no idea who Francis Scott Key was. He didn’t know that he was not only a lawyer, but a great lawyer, who knew more about matters of state than General Ross did. And Ross had no inkling how famous Francis Scott Key would become, how he would have more impact on American history than Ross would. Every American sings the poem that Francis Scott Key called “The Defence of Fort McHenry” but which we call “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Every one of us knows the name of Francis Scott Key. But how many Americans know who General Robert Ross was? Almost none.
When Jesus spoke in his hometown, his old neighbors said, “Why should we listen to this guy? Isn’t he just a carpenter? We know who he is. His dad was just an ordinary Joe! [That’s true!] We know his mother and his relatives. He’s nobody special! What can he possibly know about the Scriptures?” And they scorned him. They had no idea who he was. They didn’t know that he was God incarnate. They had no inking that his name would become known by billions of people. But does anybody remember the names of any of the people in today’s gospel who scorned Jesus? Nope. Not one.
Listen closely: There are people in your life, many people, whom you know so well that you think of them as regular Joes of no special interest, common folk of mediocre talent not destined for fame, Ordinary People Who Will Never Amount To Much. Well, my good friends, don’t be so sure. Some of the men and women and boys and girls whom you think you know are in fact angels walking among us, as is often described in the Bible. Some of the people whom you think you know will become pivotal characters in history... and I guarantee you that it’ll be the people that you least expect. Don’t scorn anybody, because no matter how well we think that we know people, the truth is that we haven’t got a glimmer of a shred of a fraction of a hint of a clue who they really are. Treat everybody as if they were immortals, with infinite potential for greatness, and personal friends of Almighty God. Why? Because they are.