The Joy of Defeat, by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 16 April 1933

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'The time is sunset – that dread day when at high noon the sun hid its light at the passing of Light. The holy Body which was purpled with blood from the precious wardrobe of His side, was now at death, laid in a stranger’s grave, as at birth it was cradled in a stranger’s cave. The rocks, which but a few hours before were shattered by the dripping of His red blood, now have gained a seeming victory by sealing in death the One Who said that from rocks He could raise up children of Abraham.

In the last rays of that setting sun, which, like a Eucharistic Host, was tabernacled in the flaming monstrance of the west, picture three men, a Hebrew, a Latin and a Greek, passing before the grave of the One Who went down to defeat and stumbling upon the crude board nailed above the Cross that very afternoon. Each dimly read in his own language the inscription “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The variety of languages, symbols of a variety of nationalities, provokes them to discuss what seems to them an important problem: namely, what will be the most civilizing influence in the world in fifty years?

The Hebrew says the most civilizing world influence in fifty years will be the Temple of Jerusalem, from which will radiate under the inspiration of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the religion which will conquer the hearts of the gentile nations, and make of the Holy City the Mecca of the world. The Roman contends that within fifty years, the most potent social factor will be the city of Rome, destined to be eternal because founded by Romulus and Remus, who in their infancy were nourished by something non-human, namely a wolf which gave them their extraordinary force and their might. Finally, the Greek, disagreeing with both, argues that in the specified time, the most important world influence will be the wisdom of the Grecian philosophers and their unknown god to whom a statue, made by human hands, was erected in the market place of the great Athens.

Not one of the three gave a thought to the Man Who went down to the defeat of the Cross on that Good Friday afternoon. For the Hebrew with his awe for religion, and the Roman with his love for law, and the Greek with his love for philosophy, there was not the faintest suggestion that He Who called Himself the Way of religion, the Truth of law, and the Light of philosophy, and Who was now imprisoned by rock-ribbed earth, would ever again stir the hearts and minds and souls of men. They could not agree upon what would most influence the world in the next generation, but they were all agreed that He Whose blood dried upon the Cross that afternoon would never influence it, or be an inspiration of hearts, or the hope of sinners.

And yet, ere the sun had risen on that third day, in that springtime when all dead things were coming to life. He Who laid down His life, took it up again and walked into the garden in the glory of the new Easter morning. Ere yet the fishermen disciples had gone back to their nets and their boats about the Sea of Galilee, He Who had announced His own birth to a Virgin, now told a penitent harlot to tell Peter that the sign of Jonas had been fulfilled. Ere long before nature could heal hideous scars on hands and feet and side, nature was to have the only serious wound she ever received, namely the empty tomb as He was seen walking on the day of triumph with five wounds gleaming as five great suns, as an eternal proof that love is stronger than death.

Fifty years passed, and what happened? Within that time the army of Titus struck the Temple of Jerusalem and left not a stone on stone, while over the empty tomb all the nations of the earth saw a new spiritual edifice arise, whose cornerstone was that which the builders rejected. Within fifty years, Rome discovered the real reason for its immortality; it was not because Romulus and Remus, nourished by the wolf had come to dwell there, but because the spiritual Romulus and Remus, Peter and Paul, nourished on the Bread descended from heaven, came there to preach the eternal love of the risen Christ. Within fifty years, the dominant spiritual force in Greece was not the unknown god made by human hands, but the God Whom Saint Paul announced to the Areopagites when, stretching forth his hands he said: ‘I found an altar also, on which was written: ‘To the Unknown God’. What therefore, you worship without knowing it, that I preach to you: God, Who made the world, and all things therein . . . for in Him we live, and move, and are.” Fifty years passed and Jerusalem would have been forgotten had not Jesus died there; fifty years passed and Rome would have perished had not a fisherman died there; fifty years passed and Athens would have been forgotten had not the risen Christ been preached there. Fifty years passed and the three cultures in which He was crucified now sang His name in praise; the Cross which was the instrument of shame became the badge of honor, as Calvary was renewed on Christian altars in the language of Hebrew, Latin and Greek.

The world was wrong and Christ was right. He Who had the power to lay down His life had the power to take it up again; He Who willed to bf born, willed to die; and He Who knew how to die knew also how to be reborn, and to give to this poor, tiny planet of ours, an honor and a glory which flaming suns and jealous planets do not share – the glory of one forsaken grave.

The great lesson of Easter Day is that a Victor may be judged from a double point of view; that of the world, and that of God. From the world’s point of view, Christ failed on Good Friday; from God’s point of view Christ had won. Those who put Him to death gave Him the very chance He required;, those who closed the door of the sepulchre gave Him the very door which He desired to fling open; their seeming triumph led to His greatest victory. The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weak things of the world hath God chosen to confound the strong. And so I say the great lesson of Easter Day is that He Who goes down to defeat in the eyes of the world is the victor in the eyes of God. Christmas told the story that Divinity is always where the world least expects to find it, for no one expected to see Divinity wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Easter repeats that Divinity is always where the world least expects to find it, for no one in the world expected that a defeated man would be a Victor, that the rejected cornerstone would be the head of the building; that the dead would walk and that He Who was ignored in a tomb would be our Resurrection and our Life – and so on this Easter Day, I sing not the song of the Victors but of those who go down to defeat: –

I sing the hymn of the conquered, who fall in the Battle of Life,
The hymn of the wounded, the beaten, who died overwhelmed in the strife;
Not the jubilant song of the victors, for whom the resounding acclaim
Of nations was lifted in chorus, whose brows wear the chaplet of fame.
But the hymn of the low and the humble, the weary, the broken in heart,
Who strove and who failed, acting bravely a silent and desperate part.
Whose youth bore no flower in its branches, whose hopes burned in ashes away.
From whose hands slipped the prize they had grasped at, who stood at the dying of day
With the wreck of their life all around them, unpitied, unheeded, alone.
With death swooping down o’er their failure, and all but their faith overthrown.
While the voice of the world shouts its chorus – its paean for those who have won
While the trumpet is sounding triumphant, and high to the breeze and the sun
Glad banners are waving, hands clapping, and hurrying feet
Thronging after the laurel-crowned victors, I stand on the field of defeat,
In the shadow, with those who are fallen, and wounded, and dying, and there
Chant a requiem low, place my hand on their pain-knotted brows, breathe a prayer.
Hold the hand that is helpless, and whisper, “They only the victory win.
Who have fought the good fight, and have vanquished the demon that tempts from within;
Who have held to their faith unseduced by the prize that the world holds on high;
Who have dared for a high cause to suffer, resist, fight, if need be, to die.”
Speak, History! Who are Life’s victors? Unroll thy long annals and say,
Are they these whom the world called the victors, who won the success of a day?
The martyrs or Nero? The Spartans, who fell at Thermopylae’s tryst?
Or the Persians and Xerxes? His judges or Socrates? Pilate or Christ?

Unroll the scrolls of time and see how the lesson of that first Easter is repeated as each new Easter tells the story of the Great Captain, Who found His way out of the grave and revealed that lasting victory must always mean defeat in the eyes of the world. At least a dozen times in her life of twenty centuries the world in the first flush of its momentary triumph sealed the tomb of the Church, set her watch and left her as a dead, breathless and defeated thing, only to see her rising from the grave and walking in the victory of her new Easter morn.

In the first few centuries thousands upon thousands of Christians crimsoned the sands of the Coliseum with their blood in testimony of their faith. In the eyes of the world Caesar was victor and the martyrs were defeated. And yet in that very generation while pagan Rome, with her brazen and golden trumpets, proclaimed to the four corners of the earth her victory over the defeated Christ – “Where there is Caesar, there is power”, there swept from out the Catacombs and deserted places like their leader from the grave the conquering army chanting its song of victory: “Wherever there is Christ, there is Life”. Who, today, knows the names of Rome’s executioners? But who does not know the names of Rome’s martyrs? Who today recalls with pride the deeds of a Nero or a Diocletian, but who does not venerate the heroism and sanctity of an Agnes or a Cecilia? And so, on this Easter Day, I sing not the song of the Victors but of those who go down to defeat.

Come now closer to our own times to the last quarter of the last century. During those days France was celebrating its great victory over the Church in a wave of anti-clericalism which made it a shame and scandal to be a follower of Christ. There was hardly a lip of the world which did not pronounce in praise, and hardly an ear which did not hear in joy the names of Jules Steeg, of Parliament, and Ferdinand Buisson, the Minister of State, the two men most responsible for the seeming victory over the Church. At that very time in a little city a few hours outside of Paris, a young girl hidden away in the shadow of the cloister was pouring out her prayerful life for Christ and, like her Master, going down to defeat in the eyes of the sinful world. On this Easter Day, who in this country, who, even in France, ever mentions the names or remembers the deeds of a Steeg or a Buisson? But who does not know of the Little Flower, Therese of Lisieux? She who was defeated in the eyes of the world is the victor in the eyes of God, and so on this Easter Day I sing not the song of the victors, but of those who go down to defeat.

Finally the Easter lesson comes to our own lives. During the last four months I have been preaching to you the Gospel of Defeat, for Christian morality is unpopular in the world today. It has been suggested that you go down to defeat in the eyes of the world by accepting the voice of conscience rather than public opinion; that you go down to defeat in the sanctity of the marriage bond rather than win the passing victory of divorce; that you go down to defeat in the fruit of love rather than win the passing victory of a barren union; that you go down to defeat in the love of the cross rather than win the passing victory of a world which crucifies. And now it is suggested in conclusion that you go down to defeat in the eyes of the world by giving to God that which is wholly and totally yours. If you give to God your energy, you give Him back His own gift; if you give Him your talents, your joys and your possessions, you return to Him that which He placed in your hand not as an owner but as a mere trustee. There is only one thing in the world which you and I can call our own. There is only one thing I can give to God which is mine as against His and which not even He will take away, and that is my own will with its power to choose the object of its love. Hence the most perfect gift I can give to God is the gift of my will. The giving of that gift to God is the greatest defeat that one can suffer in the eyes of the world, but it is the greatest victory we can win in the eyes of God. In surrendering it we seem to lose everything, yet defeat is the seed of victory as the diamond is the child of night – the giving of our will is the recovery of all our will ever sought – the Perfect Life, the Perfect Truth and the Perfect Love which is God! And so on this Easter Day I sing not the song of the Victor but of those who go down to defeat.

With these words I conclude my series of broadcasts, the sole aim and purpose of which was to prove that victory with Christ on Easter is sweeter than victory with the world on Good Friday. There is only one touchstone of success in such broadcasts as these, and that is to bring souls nearer to God. If therefore I have brought to thirsty lips a cup fashioned of clay moistened with the tear drippings of Calvary, or to any uneasy mind the knowledge that earth is but the blossoming of a desire the fruit of which is heaven; or to an aching heart the joy of Eucharistic communion with the Master; if any word of mine has encouraged a soul to dig where it has fallen to find the pearl of God’s grace, or to shoot its arrows above earthly targets to the hid battlements of eternity, or to transform itself from a creature into a child of God, as dirty water may be transformed into white snowfiakes by the sunlight or to remain pure in the world as the lily on the foul pond; if I say I have lifted up just one single soul to the embrace of Christ and His Cross, then I shall feel that my labors have not been in vain. Of that soul or souls I would ask that they write a word of thanks to the sponsors of these programs and that they say a prayer for me that I may practice what I preach.

May the lesson of Easter and the victory of Christ ring in your ears. What care we if the road of this life be steep, if the poverty of Bethlehem, the loneliness of Galilee and the sorrow of the Cross be ours? Marching under the leadership of the Captain of the Five Scars, fortified by His Sacraments, strengthened by His infallible Truth, divinized by His redemptive Love, we need never fear the outcome of the battle of life; we need never doubt the issue of the only struggle that matters. Why, we have already won – only the news has not yet leaked out!