The Long Defeat and the Cross

Having posted an article on marriage as a “lifetime of suffering,” I thought it worth reflecting on the larger picture of the Christian faith in this world. For marriage is a primary image used throughout the New Testament when speaking of our salvation. In Christian terms – that marriage and that salvation are shown forth in the Cross of Christ. This article, from over a year back, seemed worth re-presenting.

Few ideas contrast as starkly to our modern myths as Tolkien’s view of history as “the long defeat.” I have been very interested in the continuing comments that struggle with the perceived pessimism of such a phrase. I have refrained from commenting at length myself, for the very reason that I wanted to do so in an article. For the nature of the long defeat that is the Christian life and the Christian experience through time goes to the very heart of the faith – and a heart that most would like to avoid.

For the long defeat through time is nothing other than the playing out of the Cross through time. It is not the failure of the Church and of Christians – though our failures certainly participate in the long defeat. Nor is it a pessimism born of the modern experience as we reflect on the tragedies of our times.

The tendency of many (particularly among contemporary Christians) to relegate the Cross to a historical moment, renders that “defeat” to the past and writes the remainder of subsequent history and the coming future under the heading of the resurrection. Christ died – but now He’s risen – having taken away any need for the Cross.

But this is utterly contrary to the preaching of Christ and the witness of the Scriptures. The Cross is more than historical moment – it is a revelatory moment as well – one that makes known the way of God and the manner of our salvation – always and everywhere.

Whosoever would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.

The cross to which Christ refers is improperly relegated to an individual’s experience in contemporary thought. The whole history of the Church, its path through time, has been a manifestation of the Cross. The occasional “triumphs” (as measured by the world) are very often the times of greatest unfaithfulness to the gospel. The “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” according to the fathers. We have no teaching about building on “success.”

Just as all of human history prior to Christ is seen as culminating in His death and resurrection – so all subsequent human history should be seen as a cosmic version of the same.

The vision of St. John is the triumph of the slain Lamb.

The witness of the faith points towards a coming victory. But that victory is ironic, sudden, and an intervention rather than an unfolding of an evolving kingdom. There is no Scriptural nor patristic witness contrary to this.

Tolkien understood all of this through the lens of his very classical Roman Catholicism. The same understanding permeates the thought of the Orthodox fathers as well. If there is an “evolution” or an “unfolding,” it will be of the Cross as seeming defeat.

And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened. (Mat 24:22)

The Church is the body of Christ, and, like Him, its culmination in the world will be crucifixion. The character of a world that crucifies the whole of the Church, is the character of the darkness that has been a murderer from the beginning.

If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (Joh 15:18-19)

That hatred of the light is the source and cause of human suffering. It is already present in the world, and it grows. The trajectory of that growth in the short term cannot be described. But the trajectory in the long term is nothing short of the Cross – the long defeat.

I think that some Christians are uncomfortable with a phrase like “long defeat” because the Cross has somehow lost its original meaning for them. So swallowed in the victory of Christ’s resurrection has it become, that we fail to remember its character of defeat. Our adversary understands only that our defeat means his victory. In this he is utterly mistaken and it is the resurrection that assures us and encourages us not to fear the Cross.

But the resurrection is never anything apart from the Cross. There is no Resurrected Christ who is not always the Crucified Christ. Nor will there ever be a victorious Church that is not always the defeated Church.

Those who long for a return to Christendom (in all its various forms) engage in an understandable nostalgia. But they do not engage in something promised by the gospel nor established as a theological necessity.

The promise to the Church is that the “gates of hell will not prevail.” People fail to realize that those gates are something that shut us within hell. The gates will not prevail for we will be victorious from within hell itself – even as Christ our God trampled down death by death, and not from without.

The long defeat is the path to Christ’s victory. There is no other path and no other true victory.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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10 responses to “The Long Defeat and the Cross”

  1. Jonathan McCormack Avatar

    So, Father, what might this ‘long defeat’ look like in someones day to day life? The daily ten thousand small failures to love ? A life of failed relationships, shattered dreams, but faithful waiting ? I’m trying to see it in some concrete life situation. Really, wonderful article though, thank you.

  2. Agnikan Avatar

    Dētrīmentum longum est via ad victōriam Christī.

  3. Byron Avatar

    Wow. Beautiful and sobering, Father. “…And upon those in the tombs, bestowing life” takes on a different meaning altogether….

  4. Matt Avatar

    Father, for the benefit of those who haven’t seen this post the first time round, or might not remember the context as distinctly as some, might I suggest adding a link to the Tolkien’s Long Defeat article in there somewhere?

  5. ralph williams Avatar
    ralph williams

    E. Stanley Jones commented that the strength of Christianity is in the fact that its origin is in defeat, disgrace, suffering and death. If you start there, he said, there is no place to go, but up. And we always start there, and must continually return there.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Jonathan McC
    It looks somewhat as you’ve described. Certainly there are victories, but the victories are so often hid beneath the Cross. In the blessing of water at Baptism, the priest says, “Let all adverse powers be crushed beneath the sign of the image of Thy Cross.” But the Cross looks like an apparent failure. When God chooses to make our victories manifest, He does so. “With a secret hand, the Lord battles with Amalek from generation to generation.”

  7. Dino Avatar

    I think that God’s hidden transformation of bad into good (Exodus 17:16, Genesis 50:20 mentioned in the comments recently) that culminates in the resurrection is the core strength of all who strive to become true Christians. The certitude that characterises and must emanate from their life is therefore -ironically- based first and foremost on the certitude that we will die! [“since the resurrection is death trampled by death”] It is of course the transformation of that most certain thing in life -ie: death- from an eternal darkness into the most inconceivably joyous, eternal Paschal Light that colours everything (all other ‘defeats’), so that this holy irony of measuring the greatness of ‘strength’ according to the measure of ‘weakness’ is constantly at work, enabling true Christians to be joyous in torture, loving when hated, humbled when exalted… May the Lord grant us to become like this.

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think I would say it differently (following the words of the Elder Sophrony). He said, “The way up is the way down.” Thus I would rephrase Jones’ thought as “If you start there, then you can learn to go down.”

    Our Modern world is anti-Cross. It only wants up. But the victorious Cross of Christ and His Pascha, give us the courage to stay the course, even as it goes down into the mystery.

  9. Christopher Avatar


    Thanks for your 8:43 post – it spoke to me today. Also, Fr. thanks for “getting back up”, it also spoke to me today…

  10. Wayne Avatar

    Indeed, the way of life is the way of the cross–glory be to God for all things..

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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