Advent and the Long Defeat

Be of good cheer. Be not afraid. There is nothing to fear. The dragon is slain!

(photo: Karl Friedrich Lessing, “The Return of the Crusader,” 1835)

“Actually I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains … some samples or glimpses of final victory.” —J. R. R. Tolkien

“Together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” —Galadriel

“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would certainly strive that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now my kingdom is not from hence.” —Jesus Christ


One of the fatal errors that Christians make is the belief that Christians need to rule the world. If we had Christian rulers, it is argued, we would have a better world. And indeed we would. The problem is that the world is always more powerful than the Christians and will never be ruled by followers of Christ. It never has been and never will be. If Christ stood for election, he would lose. The media would be against him, the advocates of Pride would be against him, the corporate globalists and other followers of Mammon would be against him. He would have his followers and they would be the salt of the earth but they would be powerless against the forces aligned against him and them. The media would mock him. The mob would crucify him. And the followers of Mammon would be relieved that the troublemaker had been removed and that everyone could return to business as usual. Meanwhile the followers of Christ would be marginalized and ostracized and at times forced underground. It has ever been thus.

The first 30 or so popes, in the first 300 years or so following the crucifixion of Christ, were all put to violent deaths. During this time, Christians were part of an underground Church worshipping in the catacombs. Laity and clergy alike, powerless politically, were slain by the secular powers.

During the times that Christianity was in the ascendant in terms of its worldly power it was prone to a corruption from within which was perhaps even more pernicious than the persecution from without. Christ promised that Christians would be persecuted as he himself had been persecuted. If the world hated him, it would hate those who follow him. Christ did not promise that following the fads and fashions of the world, or accommodating the demands of the rich and powerful, would bring forth any fruit other than that cankered kind which portends damnation. The Church persecuted is the Church purified; the Church which accommodates the fads and fashions of the world is the Church decadent. Those who understand these bedrock realities know that the Church in the land of exile which is called Time, and in the vale of tears which is the Long Defeat of history, is always the Church Militant, the Church at War with the world. This is why modernism is always a deadly enemy of the Church. It is the error of those who think that the Church needs to move with the times whereas, as Chesterton reminds us, we don’t need a Church that will move with the world but a Church that will move the world. The war cry of the Church Militant is pro Ecclesia contra mundum. For the Church against the world.

Herod, the perennial symbol of the secular power, responded to the birth of Christ by slaughtering the holy innocents. It has ever been thus. Today a host of Herods systematically exterminate the holy innocents in the wombs of their mothers. Having responded to the birth of Christ so violently, the secular power responded to the life of Christ by putting him to death, as it has put to death millions of his followers in every century since.

If Christ is not who he says he is, the whole of history is an endless defeat, a grimly grotesque diabolical comedy, consisting of nothing but meaningless suffering in a meaningless cosmos. Such is the anti-gospel of despair which counters the Gospel of Hope.

If, however, Christ is who he says he is, we know that the Long Defeat of history is only the stage on which we fight for our eternal lives. The Long Defeat is, for each of us as individuals, a very short history, spanning our own lifetime. We are called to fight the Long Defeat for a short time so that we might win the everlasting victory; or, alternatively, we are free to refuse to fight the Long Defeat, surrendering to the false promises of the world and succumbing to its seductive sordidness, winning pathetic pyrrhic victories which prophesy the Final Defeat.

This understanding of the Church Militant and her place in history is understood by those Christian warriors who have the courage to fight the secular power, even in the midst of great persecution. A perfect example of such a warrior is Cardinal Emeritus Joseph Zen Ze-Kium. Having fought the good fight against the secular fundamentalist regime in China for decades, the 87-year-old retired Bishop of Hong Kong, had these words of encouragement for those faithful Christians facing renewed and intensified persecution: "The faithful in China are suffering and are now coming under increasing pressure. Early this year, the government tightened regulations on the practice of religion. Priests in the underground on the mainland tell me that they are discouraging parishioners from coming to Mass to avoid arrest. … And yet, to the underground bishops and priests of China, I can only say this: Please don’t start a revolution. They take away your churches? You can no longer officiate? Go home, and pray with your family. Till the soil. Wait for better times. Go back to the catacombs. Communism isn’t eternal."

O for more such courageous Christian leaders as Cardinal Zen in a time characterized by so much cowardice and corruption both inside and outside of the Church. How right he is. Communism isn’t eternal. Nor is the Long Defeat of history. Nor is time. Nor is the world. All such temporal things are by their very nature temporary. They do not last or endure. They are passing away. For each of us, as individuals, they are passing away very soon. In this season of Advent may we learn to wait for the coming of Christ with hope in our hearts, girding our loins for the struggles ahead.

Be of good cheer. Be not afraid. There is nothing to fear. The dragon is slain!


This article was first published in the Imaginative Conservative as “Winning the Long Defeat” and is published here with permission.

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