There is a lesser known hymn, at least in Catholic circles, that is remarkably appropriate for our times. It challenges us to see the choice before us soberly, and encourages us with the fact that the victory is already ours if we choose Christ Jesus. In times like these we need courage and conviction; this hymn serves as a powerful anthem to such a call. I would like to present the verses of the hymn and supply commentary throughout. First, though, a little background:
The hymn, Once to Every Man and Nation was based on a poem written by James Russell Lowell. Lowell was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1819. His father was the pastor of the West Congregational Church in Boston for 55 years. After graduating from Harvard in 1838, Lowell became a lawyer, poet, and the editor of Atlantic Monthly. He was also an ardent champion of the movement to abolish slavery.
In 1876, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him ambassador to Spain, and in 1880 ambassador to Great Britain. Lowell 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 basis for this hymn was Lowell’s poem, “The Present Crisis,” which spoke to the national crisis over slavery leading up to the Civil War.
Lowell was right; the darkness of slavery could not ultimately prevail over the light of truth. This hymn can serve today to summon us to courage and to 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, with my comments 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’s or the world’s. 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). 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 warned, 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; they want to serve the world and get its fleeting blessing, and also inherit God’s blessing. But there comes a moment when we must decide.
And now as never before we see how the path of this world is moving steadily and inexorably away from God. Sin, evil, open rebellion, sexual confusion, secularism, atheism, shredded families, and the growing tyranny of relativism and false tolerance are poisoning our culture. 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 starker. It is time for Catholics, for the Church, to stake out far more clearly our choice for God. And if there ever was a time when lukewarm would do (no such time has ever really existed), surely it is not now. The Word of the Lord rebukes 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).
In the near future, it’s going to become a lot tougher to be a Catholic; it’s going to take fiery believers, people 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 and Church, comes the moment to decide.
The hymn continues,
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 a glorious time to be a Catholic, to be a Christian. In the past one could even be praised for being religious. In the once-Judeo/Christian setting, religion was gain.
Now all that is changing. There is a glory in choosing God when that choice brings only ridicule, what the song calls “wretched crust.” It is one thing to be a Christian when it is easy; it is a far more noble and glorious thing to be one when it is hard and even dangerous.
The distinction between the courageous and the cowardly, to which the song refers, is once again becoming clear. Gideon of old had an army of 30,000 and faced the Midianites, who had 60,000. But God said to him, “Your army is too large. Tell the cowards to go home.” 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 remaining 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 is your army,” said the Lord, “300 men and I will be with you.” Gideon won that day with just the 300 men whom the Lord had chosen. God thinned his ranks, choosing 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).
Onward to the next verse:
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).
Although, for a brief time, the world had some tolerance for Christ and His followers, that is now going away. Frankly, we are returning to the normal state for true Christians, a state in which we are despised by the world. Too many Christians spend too much time and effort trying to gain the love and respect of this world. No can do−unless you’re willing to compromise and even outright surrender the gospel.
So, welcome to the normal Christian 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. We are considered rude, boorish, ill-mannered, hateful, bigoted, homophobic, and intolerant.
But it is not we who have changed, nor has God changed. It is the world that has slouched toward Sodom, ridiculing ancient good and wisdom 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; it paves the way for persecution about which the persecutors even feel self-righteous. Marginalization soon replaces ridicule and then criminalization follows. Get ready for 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.
The hymn concludes,
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 receive scoffing remarks from secularists and militant atheists who laugh and ridicule us, 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, that we are close to disappearing and will soon be gone forever.
Not only do such remarks demonstrate a lack of knowledge of God, they also show an ignorance of history. The Church has perdured through the rise and fall of many civilizations, nations, and philosophies. They have come and gone, risen and fallen; the Church alone remains. All those in the past who announced the Church’s doom are gone. The Church is still here, the gospel is still being preached, and the sacraments are still being celebrated. The Church has buried every one of her undertakers. Where is Caesar now? Where is Napoleon now? Where is the Soviet Socialist Republic now?
The darkness cannot win; it is always destined to be scattered by the light of the 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; the light of belief will always return.
I do not know what will ultimately become of Western culture, but whether it stays or goes, the Church will surely remain. Perhaps it is necessary that she be pruned for a time, or her numbers even reduced. But remember that Gideon’s army, small as it was, won the day against overwhelming odds.
The Church is undefeatable, 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 a video of the hymn. The tune is “Ebeneezer” and the clip is from a Polish movie about the Christian martyrs of Rome. I have offered this video before, but I want to warn you that the content is graphically violent. However, it is an accurate depiction of the death of the martyrs.