Monday, April 15, 2019

The Triumph of the Christian

A Triumph was a Roman celebration of victory, granted by the Senate, in which the victorious general entered Rome followed by the captive leaders of the vanquished, a display of captured booty, and his own victorious troops.  The New Testament contains, I think, four 'moments' which could be thought of as Triumphs, each of which is illuminating for understanding what victory as a Christian looks like.

The first Triumph is recorded in all four Gospels (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-40; John 12:12-19), and of course we celebrated it yesterday on Palm Sunday.  Jesus enters Jerusalem, accompanied by his followers, who shout his acclaim.  Although it is not explicitly identified as a Triumph in the text, the echo of the Roman ceremony would surely have been picked up by the readers of the Gospels, as it has been by the church - hence the traditional description as the 'Triumphal Entry'.  Luke records that the disciples were prompted to their cries of praise by remembering "the mighty works they had seen"; I think it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that Jesus' followers saw his progress from Galilee to Jerusalem as a protracted running battle (consider the many encounters with demons), a battle which Jesus had won and which led to the victorious entry to the capital city.  At the same time, the humility of Jesus shown in his Triumph stands in sharp contrast to the self-aggrandising display of your typical Roman general.  There is something incongruous already in this Triumph.

The second moment of Triumph brings home this incongruity.  In Colossians 2:13-15, the Apostle Paul describes God's Triumph over "rulers and authorities" - spiritual powers of evil.  These powers are overcome and led in Triumphal procession precisely at the cross of Christ.  (Whether verse 15 should end with 'in him' [that is, Christ] or 'in it' [that is, the cross] the crucifixion is still in view from verse 14, and indeed the whole wider context).  The actual victory is won at the cross; the real Triumphal procession towards which the entry into Jerusalem could only point takes place on the first Good Friday.  It's a Triumph that looks like a defeat, a celebration of victory that looks like a crushing humiliation.  Jesus is dragged to Calvary carrying his cross, stripped, and lifted up to the mocking view of all, and yet it is precisely as this happens that the rulers and authorities are 'stripped' of their power to harm, exposed as the empty things they always were, and dragged in Triumphal procession behind the crucified Son of God.  The death of Christ is the Triumph of Christ.

It is because of this deep incongruity - the suffering and the victory - that the third moment of Triumph takes the shape it does.  The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 2:14 describes his own missionary journeys as a Triumphal procession, led by Christ.  In this use of the image we are looking at a different part of the Triumphal parade; in Colossians it was the captive spiritual powers which were in the focus, but now it is the soldiers following the victorious general who come into view.  Paul's work is a Triumph, as Christ leads his Apostle through the world, proclaiming his victory.  But because it is his victory, won at the cross, this Triumph necessarily has a curious shape; read the rest of 2 Corinthians and it is clear that for Paul his ministry was primarily suffering.  He was weak, powerless, almost despairing - and yet this was a Triumph!  This is necessarily the shape of all faithful Christian ministry, and all Christian life; conformed to the cross of Christ, and yet in that cross sharing in his Triumph.

The fourth moment of Triumph comes at the end, when the kings of the earth lead the redeemed of the nations in to the New Jerusalem, every enemy having been finally vanquished and utterly destroyed.  Only at this point will the incongruity disappear, the tension resolve itself.  They were faithful to death, they lived the cross, and now they receive their reward.

So, victory.  The Christian life is a Triumph, a following in the path of the victorious General.  It is a celebration and a display of the victory he has won.  And yet that victory is the cross, which means that Triumph can never become triumphalism.  The victory parade is a parade of suffering, weakness, and foolishness.  Until he comes.

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