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I heard that Donald Trump wants a massive military parade.
I preached a sermon once, for Palm Sunday, about a military parade. I’d had my mind blown by reading some history of the military culture of the place where Jesus lived, and it breathed new meaning into what Jesus might have been doing in his humble little march into Jerusalem: mimicking, and undermining, the empire.
This helped me understand Jesus. And it helped me understand what it meant for me to claim to follow this Jesus.
In the Roman empire, there was a custom that was followed when a general was victorious in battle — if he had killed thousands of enemy soldiers, if he had been able to acquire more land and wealth and expand the boundaries of the empire. He would return, and there would be a public celebration. Later, it became celebration for the emperor himself. He would ride a chariot through the streets, slowly making his way toward the capitol city; he would show off the slaves he had captured, maybe show off the enemy king he had defeated. The crowds would gather around, brandishing their weapons and cheering for the hero.
So when we refer to Jesus’s journey into Jerusalem as the “triumphal entry,” we are using a specific, technical term that was used in Rome to refer to the parade-like celebration of military might. The triumphal military parade was a statement of privilege, of colonization, of wealth and conquest and power and winning, no matter the cost. It was about Rome First. It was about the “bigger button.”
For the citizens of the empire, the triumph was a celebration of the hope of the Roman empire: the empire which kept them safe, which ensured they were #1, which they expected would last forever.
Of course the Washington Post beat me to it, and has already articulated the parallels between the aspirations of the Donald and the Roman Triumph. But in the piece, the author pointed out a detail I didn’t know: “In the Roman triumph, a slave would ride with the general in his chariot and repeatedly whisper into his ear, ‘Memento mori’: Remember, you are mortal.”
This Wednesday, many of us will kneel before our pastor to receive ashes on our forehead, and we will hear these words of truth and of hope: “From dust you came, to dust you will return.” It is this somber story that grounds us, that binds us together, that fixes our faith. We are not our own. Our might will not save. The way to glory is through suffering. The last shall be first. Hope incarnate, the Refugee, from shit-hole Nazareth, unarmed and unafraid, rode a donkey to Jerusalem to be executed by the state. And the weapon of the empire’s death sentence became our sign of a God who lives.
As we watch and await a new American Triumph, let’s remember our story. From dust we came. To dust we will return. Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.