My Favorite Hymn
By Dr. Samuel M. Zwemer
One of the oldest selections in our church hymnals was composed by St. Andrew of Crete (660-732). It was translated from Greek into English by John M. Neale in 1862, but it was used centuries before that in the Greek Orthodox churches. It is found not only in the Anglican hymn book but in that of the United Church of Canada; also in the United Lutheran, the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational hymnals. The tune by John B. Dykes to which it is wedded (called "St. Andrew of Crete") has vigor and life. Correctly sung, as a responsive melody, it fits the words perfectly. There are not many hymns used in public worship that have this dialogue feature.
We must transport ourselves, however, across fourteen centuries to the days when St. Andrew lived in an old monastery in the region of Crete and Cyprus, under Moslem conquest and cruelty, to understand "the powers of darkness" (hosts of Midian) to "feel them work within," to "hear them speak" us "fair," and to "smite them" in the strength of the "holy cross."
The hymn is one of loyalty and courage such as Paul felt in his days at Rome when he wrote his prison epistles, or such as John Bunyan portrays of Christian and Hopeful shut up in the dungeon of Giant Despair!
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!
Mohammed, the Arabian prophet, lived just prior to St. Andrew of Crete. His early conquests were in the Mediterranean region and extended from Damascus to the pillars of Hercules. Cyprus and Crete were strategic islands then as they are now. The Arabian prophet died in 632 and the hosts of Arabia were already invading Syria, Palestine, North Africa and the islands of the Mediterranean. The Saracens occupied Crete in 673 A.D. and subjugated the island under Omar al Balluti of Cordova in 825. St. Andrew of Crete saw the beginnings of the great invasion and of the defeat of Christianity by Islam in all North Africa and the Near East. In 638 Jerusalem fell. With incredible swiftness Syria was torn from the Byzantines. Two years later Egypt was invaded, and by 670 the soldiers of the caliph had taken Tunisia. Before the death of St. Andrew, Spain had fallen to the Arabs.
We know very little of the history of this early period except that there were Arab raids, massacres and the destruction of small towns. Thirty years after the rise of Islam the island of Cyprus was invaded and the tomb of a woman, Um Haram of the Ansari, who took a leading part in the conquest, is still revered near Larnaca as the great Moslem sanctuary on the island. The Christian inhabitants were compelled to pay tribute both to Byzantium and to the caliphs, so their lot was doubly hard. Later on in all this region "Turkish rule was established with the greatest cruelty."
It is only when we put the brief story of the life of St. Andrew side by side with the rise and conquest of Islam that we can understand all the references in his hymn and the effect of a Moslem environment on the soul of a loyal Christian. What St. Andrew endured and felt and saw and heard Raymond Lull also experienced in North Africa, Henry Martyn in Persia, George Hunter in Central Asia, Canon Temple Gairdner in Cairo and Peter Zwemer in Muscat. They too saw the powers of darkness, felt them, and heard them as they raged their steps around.
According to tradition Saint Andrew was born July 4, 660, at Damascus. He was a mute from his birth up to seven years of age when, by a miracle after partaking of the Holy Communion, he began to speak. At fifteen he was brought to the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem and joined the clergy of the Patriarchs' circle. Thereafter he became one of the monks at Mar Saba, a rocky monastery in the wilderness of Judea.
To this wild and barren canyon in 484 there had come a youth of eighteen to live as a hermit. He founded a monastery which afterward became famous. It was here that many Christians sought solitude and refuge from a distracted world. Here Stephen the Sabaite (725-815) wrote "Art thou weary, art thou languid," and here also a generation earlier, St. Andrew is said to have written "Christian, dost thou see them?" In spite of his youth, Andrew attended the Ecumenical Council at Jerusalem (680-681) and participated in the abstruse discussions on the dual nature of Christ and the two wills, human and divine. The Monophysite heresy and other schisms blinded the best of men to world vision, and, absorbed in controversy, they did not see that the real enemy of Christendom was Islam.
Andrew was ordained a deacon of St. Sophia and afterwards became Archbishop of Crete. "Here he had to organize the island's defense against invasions of the Arabs"-(Albert E. Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns, 1950, p. 293) He in his cell at Mar Saba and the little flock of his care were subject to fightings within and fears without. It is not surprising, therefore, that the militant note dominates his hymns. He is credited with writing a good many: they were spiritual weapons against an insidious foe. In the seventh century as well as in the twentieth, any well-to-do Christian could escape fear, taxation and social inferiority, not to speak of obtaining emolument, by repeating the Moslem creed. The physical environment was as uncompromising as the spiritual. The Garden of Allah is always a desert and the desolate loneliness of Mar Saba's refuge in the canyon of Kidron is typical of the savage and lascivious harshness of the Arab hordes, while the thirsty soul cried for the waters of Shiloh.
Christian, dost thou feel them, How they work within,
Striving, tempting luring, goading into sin?
Christian never tremble; never be downcast;
Gird thee for the battle, Thou shalt win at last!
Islam in its sacred book tells us God desires "to make it easy for you," and the Paradise that awaits the Mohammedan is one of sensuous and sensual pleasure. Christ spoke of the cross. The oriental church demanded Lenten fasts, so St. Andrew goes on:
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.
Wherever the Cross faces the Crescent there is the hard way and the easy way for the seeker after God---the way of self-denial or the way of self-indulgence; salvation by crucifixion and death or salvation by human merit. Mohammed or Christ-that is the real question for millions today, and the answer is not easy. The Moslem convert echoes the question of St. Andrew, "Christian dost thou hear them, how they speak thee fair?" The undertow of social currents, the dreadful law of apostasy in Islam, and the prestige of nationalism at high tide all combine to defeat the would-be convert's struggle. So this hymn remains a battle-cry in our own day at every mission in Moslem lands.
One word needs to be added regarding the translator. His life also illustrates the old Greek hymn. He too lived near the cross and endured persecution for Christ. John Mason Neale was born near St. Paul's Cathedral, London, in 1818 and was a "prince of hymn translators whose work has superseded that of most others in the Latin field and who stands practically alone in the Greek field." On account of weak health he left the ministry after attending Cambridge University and became Warden of Sackville College. Here he founded an asylum for the aged and found time for study, but he was subject to many troubles and persecutions. The roughnecks of the village mobbed funerals, stoned his windows, started fires! He was prohibited from holding church services for thirteen years by ecclesiastical authorities but kept on with his studies and ministry to the poor.
Finally, this is a dialogue-hymn. There are two speakers in each stanza except the last, where only the Master speaks. In the other three stanzas it is the inward spiritual struggle of two natures-the flesh against the spirit; the world against the soul; the tempter against his victim, who only through Christ remains victor, for the answer comes in the last stanza:
Well I know thy trouble, O my servant true;
Thou art very weary, I was weary too;
But that toil shall make thee some day all mine own,
And the end of sorrow shall be near My throne.
(This piece of writing by Samuel Zwemer was gleaned from the May 16, 1951 issue of The Alliance Weekly.)
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