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"Christian, Dost Thou See Them?"
Saint Andrew of Crete (8th century)
Our first entry for What’s In a Name was ANDREW, so where else to go for a Hymn of the Week but to Saint Andrew of Crete, one of the great writers of hymns in the Christian heritage? And that’s fitting, because just as the name ANDREW means “manly,” so the hymn I’ve chosen stresses the manly virtue of courage, especially in times of trouble and confusion — well, I suppose that means every day the sun rises, because as Jesus says, every day has trouble enough of its own
The best melody to sing it in is simply called Saint Andrew of Crete, and it was composed by the hymnodist John B. Dykes specifically for the English translation. It is a most striking melody; you can comb through a thousand hymns and you’d be lucky to find another one like it. That’s because of the unusual structure, perfect for the text. In each of the first three stanzas, the opening lines, sung in a minor key, are a question addressed to the Christian, and in fact the first two lines have only one note, eleven times in a row, strange and menacing. But the final lines burst through in a major key, and answer the challenge. I’ll give the first stanza here to show you what it’s like, changing the fonts to go from minor to major:
Christian, dost thou see them On the holy ground, How the powers of darkness Rage thy steps around? Christian, up and smite them, Counting gain but loss, In the strength that cometh By the holy cross.
That surely gives us a rush of encouragement, and we might expect the whole poem to go on in that way. But the final stanza departs from the pattern, and it’s like no other I am aware of, in any hymn. It does not begin with a question. It is a straight address to us, from Christ Himself – printed in the hymnals with quotation marks, so that we don’t pretend to be singing Christ’s words as if they were ours. Imagine Jesus himself saying to us something like this: “I know your trouble, my good servant faithful. You are weary of the fighting. I too was weary.”
Imagine it, in your dark nights, when friends are far away, or they have forgotten you, when all you set your hand to seems to fail, and you hear the snickering of the demons as they tempt you to give up, to be despondent, to lie down on the path and never rise. Imagine, it is Christ speaking, and he does know our trouble, because he bore it on his shoulders, and he knows what it is to be weary, because he climbed that dreadful hill of the Skull, carrying the cross, the weight of all men’s folly and sin. But he does not cast it in our teeth. All he says, with infinite understatement, is, “I was weary too.” And then in the major key comes the promise, the reassurance, also from the lips of Christ, as you’ll see.
Such hymns as Saint Andrew’s should not feel strange to us. Haven’t we been forewarned? Warfare is the Christian’s calling – not to slay other people, but to enter the lists for the truth, for “we are contending not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against the powers, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” So we must put on the whole armor of God, says Saint Paul. The Greek word is panoplia, whence we derive the English word panoply, which I guess may suggest to us a lot of fancy regalia, all fuss and feathers. But panoplia refers to the full armor of a Greek hoplites, a foot-soldier – an infantryman. The soldier usually carried a spear in his right hand and a shield in his left, to protect the man to his left as they marched in orderly ranks. If you could afford it, you wore a bronze breastplate, a helmet, and greaves to protect your feet. So when Paul imagines someone wearing the panoply of God, he can enumerate each of the items, and what he says would surely bring many a sharp image and clear memory to those who heard him. It’s the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. What need we fear, then? Our countenances may well be bright. We’ll have trouble in the world, says Jesus, but we’re to be of good cheer: “I have overcome the world.”
Christian, dost thou see them On the holy ground, How the powers of darkness Rage thy steps around? Christian, up and smite them, Counting gain but loss, In the strength that cometh By the holy cross. Christian, dost thou feel them, How they work within, Striving, tempting, luring, Goading on to sin? Christian, never tremble; Never be downcast; Gird thee for the battle, Watch and pray and fast. Christian, dost thou hear them, How they speak thee fair? "Always fast and vigil? Always watch and prayer?" Christian, answer boldly, "While I breathe I pray!" Peace shall follow battle, Night shall end in day. "Well I know thy trouble, O my servant true; Thou art very weary, I was weary too; But that toil shall make thee Someday all mine own, And the end of sorrow Shall be near my throne.
Word & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.