The Church “Triumphant” – The Rev. Michelle Meech
April 10, 2022
How many of us love a parade? How many of us love to feel the sense of community that comes from a public event – a procession of people we know, people we trust, things we believe in. We watch them all the time: The red carpet of the Oscars. The pre-game show of any televised sporting event. The graduation procession of children and grandchildren. Wedding processions. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
A procession means that something is beginning. Something is happening. And we are here for it. We are a part of it.
When I was a kid, it was the Halloween parade. For some reason, it was a big deal every year. I would sit down on the curb in front of the Academy Movie Theatre where my grandmother worked in the ticket booth – near the big town square called Diamond Park – and watch everything go by. I felt a part of something. It seemed like everyone in Meadville was there celebrating with us. Enjoying the spectacle. Being a member of the crowd. Together.
Something was happening. And I was there for it. I was a part of it.
Processions and parades were an important part of the Roman Empire. They were called “triumphs” – a ceremony that was both religious and civil since the two were intermixed in the Roman imperial cult. They worshipped Caesar as a divinely sanctioned ruler. And triumphs were held to sanctify the success of a military commander. Someone who had vanquished an army and took valued items to demonstrate superiority. Triumphs were given to someone who had won.
On the day of his triumph, the general wore a laurel crown and was dressed in regalia that identified him… always a him… as a near-deity. And he rode through the streets of Rome in a chariot or on a warhorse alongside his army and all the spoils of his war – the captives, the riches, the assets – all on display. He would then make a sacrifice of his tokens of victory.
It was also custom to erect triumphal arches. Large, free-standing monument-like structure with an arched passageway designed to span a road. And on these structures, the deeds of victorious generals were depicted in stone. The arch, itself, was a Roman invention that enabled them to construct buildings that were far larger than any others that had been built before. Because the weight of the walls was now supported by the arch directing the pressure away from the passageway underneath.
On one of these triumphal arches that still stands, Titus is depicted in a triumph procession, displaying the loot from his victory in Jerusalem in the year 70 – the same victory that destroyed the temple, putting to an end the on-again-off-again Jewish rebellion in Judea.
But about 40 years earlier, when Jesus was alive, the religious leaders of Jerusalem, who were, of course, Jewish like Jesus was, were trying to avoid trouble by going along with the Roman occupiers. You see, they had received a special dispensation to continue worshipping as Jews, instead of being forced to worship Caesar. They were trying to keep things normal. Business-as-usual. Orderly. In-tact. This has been going on for almost 100 years. Since the Romans first conquered Jerusalem.
But, as we know, Jesus did not see God being served in this kind of effort. Because God’s people – the marginalized, the oppressed, the sick… even the tax collectors and the marginalized among the Romans, were suffering. Jesus saw that the religious leaders were more interested in order… in some kind of triumph of their own that would give them some kind of power, that would allow them to maintain their precious institution at the expense of the people they were supposed to be servicing. They were much more interested in maintaining the status quo than they were interested in love and justice.
And, because of this, Jesus knows that he is a marked man. He has spoken out. He has started a movement. He knows that the religious authorities aren’t happy with him. And he knows that if he chooses to make a scene, he will be forcing the hand of the Roman authorities.
The religious authorities don’t want a scene. They want business-as-usual. They want controlled behavior. What they don’t want, is anyone… someone, like Jesus… inciting a riot and giving the Roman occupiers a reason to begin using force. That would risk the institution of the Temple… and all its moneychangers and its power and its precious place in Jerusalem. And it would risk the precarious relationship with the Roman authorities.
The Roman authorities, of course, are ready to crush any rebellion if necessary. They almost want it. Because they want the triumph. Who wouldn’t?
Jesus knows this. He can see it. And he goes to Jerusalem anyway.
He understands that the spectacle is going to end in his death but it will begin the bigger movement. If Jesus had walked away from this moment, he might have been able to live the rest of his life but a part of him, the part he had been listening to all along – holy wisdom whispered in the silence of his prayer – this heart, this soul. If he walked away, he would lose his soul.
So, when he goes to meet the crowds in Jerusalem, he asks for a small donkey rather than a warhorse or a chariot as a way of making fun of the Roman triumphs and the false glory that they display.
The crowd who comes to see Jesus is, of course, like any crowd. A mob of onlookers, really. People there to be a part of what was happening. Wanting to see and feel as though they belonged.
Then, to mock the Roman authorities, the disciples begin to lead the crowds: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Jesus, who no more wanted to be called king than he wanted to die. Jesus, who took the mantle of both – the king and the marked man – the dead man. Jesus… rode into Jerusalem on a young donkey. And the crowd responds with Hosannas.
Something is happening. Something is beginning.
Ride on! Ride on in majesty!… the hymn cries.
The angel armies of the sky look down with sad and wondering eyes to see the approaching sacrifice.
What did the crowd really know that day? Did they really care? Maybe some of them were tired of the Romans and saw this as a way of making fun of them… so they joined in with the hosannas. Maybe some of them saw Jesus as a miliary hero who really would vanquish their enemy – the Roman state. Maybe some of them were just there at the gate, doing something they do everyday and joined in because it looked like fun or they were curious.
From Luke’s Gospel, we are told that some of them were the religious authorities, the Pharisees. And we know their reaction. They yelled directly at Jesus, pleading: “Rabbi, tell them to stop.”
And Jesus, the one with the dual worldly mantle – the dead man and the king. Jesus knew that something more profound was happening. That it had to happen. That it had already begun. And nothing would stop it now.
Jesus replied, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Ride on! Ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die; O Christ, thy triumphs now begin over captive death and conquered sin.
As Christians, we don’t use the words majesty and triumphs and conquer and throne in their worldly meaning. We use them to mock worldly power. Or, at least, that’s what was intended by the Gospel witness.
Unfortunately, the institution of church, throughout its history, has gotten so intermingled with the institution of the state, with the customs and practices of capitalism, so conflated with business-as-usual… that the church has done exactly what Jesus would have taught us not to do.
The church has used Christ as a weapon to extinguish native peoples…
to wage war on LGBTQ people…
to enslave millions of Africans and countless others…
to do violence against women and keep them powerless…
The church has used Christ to defend our own self-righteousness instead of being Christ to lift up those who need help.
The church has used Christ to plunder the environment and rip apart this planet in which we live.
Is this the triumph of the church?
The “triumph” of the church is to empty itself. To give itself. To ride in on a donkey and sacrifice itself.
As disciples of Jesus, if we are to honor his sacrifice, if we are to follow him, we must read this story as it was meant to be read. And humble ourselves in its shadow.
We must not sacrifice Love for business-as-usual to keep ourselves safe. That would be blasphemy.
Because the stones continue to cry out for God’s Love incarnate. The stones continue to cry out for Christ.
Can we hear them?