There is a lesser known hymn, at least in Catholic circles, which is remarkably fit for our times since it both challenges us to soberly see the choice before us and also encourages us that the victory is already our if we choose Christ Jesus. I would like to present the verses of the hymn and supply commentary throughout. First a little background.

The hymn, Once to Every Man and Nation is a gloss on a poem written by James Russell Lowell. He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1819, and his father was the pastor of the West Congregational Church in Boston for 55 years. Graduating from Harvard in 1838 he became a lawyer, poet, and editor of Atlantic Monthly. He was also an ardent champion of abolition.

In 1876, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him ambassador to Spain and, in 1880, to Great Britain. He was in great demand as a public speaker….

Written over 160 years ago, Once to Every Man and Nation is a poignant reminder of Who is in control of history, and Who will ultimately write the last chapter.

The Poem by Lowell’s that served as the basis for this hymn was titled, “The Present Crisis,” and spoke to the national crisis over slavery leading up to the Civil War.

Lowell was right, the darkness of slavery could not ultimately prevail of the light of truth. And thus this hymn can also serve to summon us now to courage and remind us that the increasing moral darkness of these present times cannot ultimately stand. The light of day will return. We have already won the victory in Christ Jesus.

And now the hymn, my comments are in red.

Once to every man and nation,
comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever,
’twixt that darkness and that light
.

Yes, we have to decide. There are only two ways, God or the World. Tertium non datur (no third way is given). The Lord says, No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. (Mat 6:24). Of old Joshua warned,  But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. (Jos 24:15). And James also warns: You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (James 4:4)

And yet, far too many want two lovers, want to serve the world and get it’s passing blessings, and also inherit God’s blessings. But there comes a moment to decide.

And now as never before we see how the path of this world is diverging steadily and inexorably away from God. Sin, evil, open rebellion, sexual confusion, secularism, atheism, shredded families, and a growing tyranny of relativism and false tolerance are poisoning our culture. And secular culture increasingly sees the light of faith as harsh and obnoxious, something to be ridiculed, marginalized and ultimately criminalized.

Our choice is ever clearer and the distinctions are ever more stark. It is time for Catholics, for the Church to stake out far more clearly our choice for God. If there ever was a time when lukewarm would do, (no such time has ever really existed), it is surely not now. And the word of the Lord is true which warns by way of rebuke to the lukewarm:

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. (Rev 3:14-19)

It is going to be a lot tougher in the near future to be a Catholic, and its going to take fiery believers who are prepared to speak the truth in love, endure persecution and ridicule, and suffer loss. The Lord has been purifying and pruning his Church in recent years for just this moment. It is decision time. Once to every man and nation, Church, comes the moment to decide.

Then to side with truth is noble,
when we share her wretched crust,
Once her cause brought fame and profit,
and was prosperous to be just;
Now it is the brave man chooses
while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue
of the faith they had denied
.

In a way it is glorious time to be a Catholic, to be a Christian. Perhaps in the past one could even be praised for being religious, and in the once Judeo/Christian setting, religion was gain.

Now all that is changing and there is a glory in choosing God when that choice brings only ridicule, what the song calls “wretched crust.” It’s one thing to be a Christian when it is easy, it is a far more noble and glorious thing to be so when it is hard, even dangerous.

The distinction between courageous and the cowards to which the song refers is once again becoming clear. It is like Gideon of old who had an army of 30,000 and faced the Midianites who had 60,000. But said to him, “Your Army is too large. Tell the cowards to go home” (Judges 7:3).  So Gideon dismissed any of the soldiers who didn’t think they were up for this battle. 20,000 left. Now with only 10,000 God said to Gideon, “Your army is still too large, lest you think you would win this battle on your own.” So God had Gideon observe the men at the stream as they drank water. Some drank leisurely and others lapped up the water like dogs! “That’s your army,” said the Lord, “300 men and I will be with you.” Gideon won that day with three hundred men whom the Lord had chosen. God thinned his ranks, and chose only a remnant as his true soldiers. (cf Judges 6 & 7).

Yes it is a time to stand up and be counted. It is a time for courage. It is a time to be prepared to suffer loss and endure ridicule. It is a glorious time in the valley of decision (cf Joel 3:14).

By the light of burning martyrs,
Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever
with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties,
time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward,
who would keep abreast of truth.

We walk the path of Christ who said, If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. (John 15:18-21)

If, for a brief time, the world had some tolerance for Christ, and his followers, that is going away. Frankly, we are returning to the normal state for true Christians, a state that has us despised by the world. Too many Christians spend too much time wanting to have the love and respect of this world. No can do, unless you’re willing to compromise and outright surrender the Gospel.

So, welcome to the normal Christ life.

The hymn speaks of times like these which make ancient good “uncouth.” That is, as our world heads steadily downward into unbelief and the rejection of God’s truth those of us who remain with the Lord’s vision are considered “uncouth” in other words, rude, boorish, ill-mannered, hateful bigoted, homophobic, intolerant, i.e. “uncouth.”

But it is not we who have changed, nor has God, the world has slouched toward Sodom, and “ancient good” and ancient wisdom is ridiculed as uncouth. We who would dare doubt the cultural radicals are assailed in this way.

And we ought to be sober about it. For mere name-calling soon becomes demonizing and paves the way for a persecution about which the persecutors feel self-righteous. Marginalization soon replaces ridicule, and criminalization follows marginalizing. Say hello to more assaults like the HHS mandate and so called “hate-crime” legislation directed against biblical Christians who still follow the “ancient good” now seen by the radicals as “uncouth.”

Though the cause of evil prosper,
yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet on that scaffold sways the future,
and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
keeping watch above His own
.

The truth will out. The light always conquers the darkness, the dawn always returns after every dark night.

Every now and again on this blog I received scoffing remarks from secularists and certain militant atheist who laugh and ridicule, saying that the days of the Church are over, that the world has come of age and no longer believes our “infantile myths.” Yes they scoff that our days are done and close to disappearing and will soon be gone forever.

Such remarks not only show no knowledge of God, but also no knowledge of history. The Church has perdured through the rise and fall of many civilizations, many nations, many philosophies have come and gone, risen and fallen; the Church alone remains. And for everyone who has announced the the Church’s doom, they have gone and the Church is here, the Gospel is still being preached, and the Sacraments celebrated. The Church has buried every one of Her undertakers. Where is Caesar now? Where is Napoleon now? Where is the Soviet Socialist Republic?

The darkness cannot win, it is always destined to be scattered by the Light of an upcoming day. The hymn refers to martyrs on the gallows, saying, on that scaffold sways the future. The darkness of unbelief is not natural to the human family and the light of belief will always return.

I do not know what what will ultimately become western culture, but whether it stays or goes, the Church will surely be here. Perhaps it is needful that she should be pruned for a time, or her numbers even reduced, as was Gideon’s army, but reduce though it was, Gideon’s army won the day against overwhelming odds.

The Church is indefectable, by the Lord’s promise (cf Matthew 16:18) And we carry the same promise, as did the army of Gideon, the  promise of the Lord who said,  and I will be with you (Judges 7:7; Matt 28:20). The darkness of these times cannot win, the light wins, He always wins.

Here is the hymn. The tune is “Ebeneezer” and the movie clip is from a Polish Movie on the Christian Martyrs of Rome.


18 Responses

  1. Angelo Amaral says:

    You are loved Msgr. Charles, in what you do for us….something so beautiful as your soul…Fr. Angelo Amaral a Brazilian and simple priest. I just have much faith in our God… Constantly He is here. Here in my live together and the lives of the poverty of the people around me…

  2. Peter Wolczuk says:

    “Now it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,” Reminded me of reading in one of the later books in the “Dune” serious by Frank Herbert, Some key characters were floundering in and indecisive manner and, as best as I can recall on the short side of notice, it was Princess Irulan who loudly proclaimed that failure to make a decision in itself.

  3. John says:

    another superb blog and one that hits the nail exactly on the head! I am becoming a Catholic not just because I’m a sinner in need of God’s forgiveness but also because in recent months, a thought hit me like a thunderbolt: we have to choose – God or the world. And your point about this being a great time to be a Catholic christian is exactly correct: I’ve grown rather tired of the defeatism and handwringing. This is the perfect time to grow our faith and is just what the church and the faith needs. Bring it on! God bless you, Msgr Pope, and keep up the good work!

  4. linda says:

    Often when I feel tempted to label another person as evil, I stop and ask myself two questions:
    Have I made an attempt to come to know that person – his or her struggles, sorrows and joys; and second, what sin in me do I need to confront – what are my demons? Usually these questions serve to humble me enough to open me to see the real person hidden behind my judgments. True evil is overcome only by Christ’s love which sees deeper than my surface vision.

    • Is someone labeling people or a person evil?

      • linda says:

        No, but this type of writing tempts me toward labeling the motives of others as evil, which is a temptation I need to be aware of and guard against as I described above.

        • Okay, but you imply this issue of the rest of us it would seem by the nature of Unsolicited advice. Further, you seem to imply that no distinctions are necessary in analyzing the cultural situation today. If this be the case, I’m must vigorously disagree. There are today increasing and egregious moral errors that are proposed by many which must be described as the error that they are And require of us a clear decision for against these errors.

          • linda says:

            I apologize for any implications. I’m not gifted at blogging but enjoy your site. I counsel people who have endured and inflicted great suffering. Sometimes it feels as if I encounter evil and disorder every day. I must strive to create a space that is safe and sacred. I know that there are moral distinctions to be made and God bless those called and equipped to make them. Christ has called me to another task, which requires a different kind of vigilance. It can be overwhelming and lonely.

  5. RichardC says:

    “But if, as some that are without God, that is, the unbelieving, say, that He only seemed to suffer (they themselves only seeming to exist), then why am I in bonds? Why do I long to be exposed to the wild beasts? Do I therefore die in vain? Am I not then guilty of falsehood against [the cross of] the Lord?”–St. Ignatius of Antioch,The Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallians, Chapter 10.

  6. Phillip says:

    The hymn also works very well with Rowland Pritchard’s “Hyfrydol”. Ralph Vaughan Williams and Percy Dearmer paired them in the 1906 English Hymnal.

    If you scroll down a little on the following link, you can hear a non-professional recording of this pairing:

    http://thomasaquinas.edu/news/audio-junior-class-music-tutorial

  7. Mark says:

    “The church has buried every one of Her undertakers.” What a great observation-and so true. Thank you for your beautiful scriptural insights. Keep fighting the good fight.

  8. Mark says:

    Those that do not believe can say the Church is headed for ruin but they do not even know what the church is, for we are not a building, we are a people, faithful to the word of God, and as long as you speak the word, proclaim the Gospel, we will be at your side.

    I believe a dark cloud has hunkered over our country and we need a more knowledgeable church so we can defend the blows we shall truly be receiving. I know we as a church have failed to bring a message of unity to those that question why, as I did for many years in my youth. Without clarity we wander aimlessly in the desert, blinded by our own ignorance and want for self indulgence, forgetting that the path is narrow and a hard one to follow. Even Jesus knew so few would follow his path, a sorry commentary for one who gave so much for so many, however I am filled with hope as I realize if I touch just one and they touch one then maybe we will have more on the path to the Kingdom of God.

    I shall forever be his humble servant.

    Peace to you Msgr.

  9. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    It’s time for some John the Baptist evangilizing to expose the lies, deceptions and hypocracies coming from this country’s administration.

  10. Cynthia BC says:

    I enjoyed your discussion of “Once to Every Man and Nation” however I’m sure that I’ll ever again be able to hear the tune Ebeneezer without visualizing Christians being ripped apart by lions.

    I know Ebeneezer as the tune used for “Thy Strong Word” whose text is below:

    Thy strong word did cleave the darkness;
    At thy speaking it was done.
    For created light we thank thee
    While thine ordered seasons run.
    Alleluia! Alleluia! Praise to thee who light dost send!
    Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia without end!

    Lo, on those who dwelt in darkness,
    Dark as night and deep as death,
    Broke the light of thy salvation,
    Breathed thine own life-giving breath.
    Alleluia! Alleluia! Praise to thee who light dost send!
    Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia without end!

    Thy strong Word bespeaks us righteous;
    Bright with thine own holiness,
    Glorious now, we press toward glory,
    And our lives our hope confess.
    Alleluia! Alleluia! Praise to thee who light dost send!
    Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia without end!

    From the cross thy wisdom shining
    Breaketh forth in conqu’ring might;
    From the cross forever beameth
    All thy bright redeeming light.
    Alleluia! Alleluia! Praise to thee who light dost send!
    Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia without end!

    Give us lips to sing thy glory,
    Tongues thy mercy to proclaim,
    Throats to shout the hope that fills us,
    Mouths to speak thy holy name.
    Alleluia! Alleluia! May the light which thou dost send
    Fill our songs with alleluias, Alleluias without end!

    God the Father, light-creator,
    To thee laud and honor be.
    To thee, Light from Light begotten,
    Praise be sung eternally.
    Holy Spirit, light-revealer, Glory, glory be to thee.
    Mortals, angels, now and ever Praise the holy Trinity!

    Text: Martin H. Franzmann, 1907-1976; © 1969 Concordia Publishing House. Used by permission of CPH.
    Tune: Thomas J. Williams, 1869-1944

  11. Susan says:

    The original said: “Some great cause, God’s new Messiah” not “some great decision.”
    Also, I think you misunderstood what Lowell meant about ‘ancient good’ becoming ‘uncouth.’ He was referring to slavery which was being defended as biblical. The verses which immediately proceeded this one in the original poem makes this clear:

    “Worshippers of light ancestral make the present light a crime;-
    Was the Mayflower launched by cowards, steered by men behind their time?
    Turn those tracks toward Past or Future, that make Plymouth Rock sublime?
    They were men of present valor, stalwart old iconoclasts,
    Unconvinced by axe or gibbet that all virtue was the Past’s;
    But we make their truth our falsehood, thinking that hath made us free,”

    He goes on to write:

    “Shall we make their creed our jailer? Shall we, in our haste to slay,
    From the tombs of the old prophets steal the funeral lamps away
    To light up the martry-fagots round the prophet of today?”

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