Sunday, 13 April 2014

I say, I say, I say, when is a Roman Triumph not a Roman Triumph? A Sermon for Palm Sunday

When I was at school, in our school hall where I sat through many a dull assembly, there was a big wooden board with the names of all of our Head Boys and Head girls. I remember looking up at this list as an easily-impressed eleven year old, and wondering what it must be like to be that grown up, that capable, that sophisticated, to be Head Girl of a whole school. At the top, in a gilt-edged wooden carved box, were the words ‘Roll of Honour.’ 

It’s hard to imagine a more auspicious roll of honour in the ancient world than the Fasti Triumphales, an inscription which forms part of the Fasti Capitolini, which are now on display in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. The Fasti Trimphales is a list, published in the year 12BCE, of all the Roman Triumphs awarded to the great heroes of the Roman Empire, starting with the mythical Romulus, son of Mars and going through the ages down to the proconsul of Africa, Cornelius.

Each one of these triumphs was a spectacle of the wealth, the power, and the glamour of the Roman Empire, and meant an unscheduled holiday for Roman citizens, a feast, wine, games and new commemorative coins. At the heart of all this hullabaloo was a procession flanked by paraded war captives and seated in a carriage drawn by four horses, the vir trimphalis – man of triumph – himself, whose deeds of military might had won him the highest accolade Rome could offer. One scholar of Roman spectacles says that ‘In no other Roman ceremony do god and man approach each other as closely as they do in the triumph’; not only does the triumphal procession culminate in the offering of sacrifices to the gods by the man of triumph at the Temple of Jupiter, but the man of triumph becomes almost godlike himself.

The Roman Triumph was a one-day wonder; the red and purple clothing of the man of triumph could only be worn for one day only, and after that, would be permanently on display in the man of triumph’s household. Around  the edges of the Triumph was the hint of danger; things could, and did sometimes go wrong at a Roman Triumph; existing tensions could erupt, fear and jealousy and too much wine could break into violence and bloodshed. It makes my school’s Head Girl and Boy list look a bit inconsequential, to be honest.

There were no new coins minted when Jesus entered Jerusalem, neither was a day of feasting declared. Jesus’ name wasn’t added to any roll of honour, nor was he listed among Rome’s military men of triumph. As triumphal entries went, this one was pretty inconsequential, a poor provincial imitation of the glamour of Rome.  There weren’t even any horses, just a humble donkey, and every good Roman knew that donkeys had no place in military action.

They were the pack animals of the poor, only good for carrying things, often in groups – three mules could carry the equivalent of one wagon load. A man on a donkey wouldn’t intimidate anyone or impress anyone. Yet this was the very creature that Jesus had chosen for his entry into Jerusalem. ‘The Lord has need of them’, was the message that Jesus had given to his disciples as they went off to find the donkey and colt. The Lord, the one who was with God in the beginning, who took delight as creation was spoken and fashioned into being, this Lord has need of the humblest and most everyday of animals.

G. K Chesterton wrote a poem, called, simply, ‘The Donkey’:

The Donkey
by G.K. Chesterton
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

For those Jews in the crowds in Jerusalem who knew their Scriptures and awaited their Messiah, they knew that this donkey wasn’t just a clever PR trick or a subversion of Roman propaganda, it was the enactment of the words of Zechraiah: ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem; And the bow of war will be cut off.  And He will speak peace to the nations.’

This man of triumph would not be distinguished by his prowess in warfare but by his humility and peacefulness. This man of triumph would parade no captives in his procession, but, as the letter to the Ephesians would later put it, led captivity captive in his second triumphal entry, his ascension into heaven. This man of triumph wore no special clothes, but was given the garments of the people as he passed by them.
This man of triumph’s spectacle did go wrong, by all worldly criteria of success; in fact to a watching Roman it would be deemed a total disaster; Jesus ended up killed himself as the underlying tension between his followers and others erupted into violence. This man of triumph offered no sacrifices at the Temple of Jupiter, but would only too soon offer himself on the cross, the willing but heart-stricken sacrifice for the brokenness of the whole world. 

This is the triumph of the cross, the triumph that lasts not just for one day but goes on through time and across the whole world, a triumphal procession that continues down the ages to us today. Thanks be to God, says Paul, who always leads us in triumphal procession and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.  The processions that we have had in our churches today are just a way of reminding us what we are, reminding us that we are part of this great procession of faith.

And at the centre of this procession, as ever, is the man of triumph, not seated among war horses but carried on humble, everyday creatures whose only real job in life is to carry things. That’s us. Our only real job in life is to carry the love and the peace of Christ to one another and to those who aren’t yet part of this great procession of peace. It might look inconsequential to the watching world, provincial and homespun, but this procession of peace is where we will find Jesus, because it is where Jesus chooses to be; it’s where Jesus needs to be.

Remember those words, ‘the Lord has need of them.’  The Lord has need of us, to be the humble ones who will carry him into the places we spend our time, into our communities and schools, workplaces and homes. We might see ourselves as too humble to be of any use to God, but that’s just the point; again, to paraphrase Paul, God chooses the foolish and the humble things of this world to shame those who consider themselves wise and sophisticated. 

And as we walk through our lives in this triumphal procession of peace and faith, we pick up all sorts of humble waifs and strays along the way.

To change metaphor, the Jesuit Greg Boyle uses the image of a circle to say this: 'See Jesus standing in the lowly place,' and that's powerful for me because I think we ought to be standing in the lowly place. I think we ought to be standing at the margins as Jesus did so that the margins will get erased. That you stand at the very edges of the circle of compassion so that the circle will widen because we've chosen to stand there.’

As we walk through Holy Week together, may we do so knowing that we are part of a procession of compassion and peace, through which God spreads in every place, the fragrance that comes from knowing him, the fragrance of peace and redemption, of forgiveness and a fresh start, of love and of dignity, for all people. Amen. 


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