The Origins of Christendom in the Cosmology of Christ’s Great Commission
Fr. John Strickland · April 11, 2013
Fr. John discusses cosmology, a concept that was very important to the early Church.
It was the year 46 B.C., and the city of Rome was assembled for what promised to be the greatest victory parade it had ever seen. Julius Caesar, emerging from the Republic’s recent and bloody civil wars, was planning a triumph, or, rather, he was planning several of them. Caesar had proved himself master of the world, conquering armies on every known continent. He was a product of classical civilization, a man set on the achievement of worldly glory as well as a devout pagan, and as he prepared for his triumphal entry into the capital of that civilization, his message was clear: He was an invincible victor. As one of his victory banners famously declared on this occasion, “Veni, vidi, vici—I came, I saw, I conquered.”
It was the year A.D. 33, and the city of Jerusalem was assembled for what proved to be the greatest victory parade it had ever seen. Such was not immediately apparent, however. Jesus, emerging from a three-year period of ministry which resulted in his condemnation by the religious authorities, and who, the day before, had resolved to have him put to death, was preparing to enter the city to celebrate the upcoming feast of the Passover. His message, or gospel, had from the beginning fundamentally contrasted the way of life or the world with what he called the kingdom of heaven.
This kingdom was not like an earthly one, not like the Roman Empire that under Julius Caesar’s stepson and successor, Augustus Caesar, ruled at that time over the Jews. It was an eternal kingdom, and it brought with it a corresponding peace unlike that so-called peace of Rome or pax Romana of which Julius Caesar had nearly a century earlier dreamt, and which now under Augustus actually appeared to exist. The kingdom of heaven offered nothing less than paradise to a world that, no matter how peaceful and prosperous and even glorious, could never escape sorrow and death. “In the world, you will have tribulation,” Jesus later assured his disciples, “but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.”
The world is a subject of great importance to Christianity. The study of the world, knowledge about the world, theological vision of the world, is called “cosmology,” from the Greek word for world, kosmos, and I begin this first episode in the podcast by discussing cosmology, because it was something very important to the early Church. It can be found as early as in the gospels themselves, which speak repeatedly about the world and the Church’s relationship to it.
As early as the Great Commission, Jesus explained to his followers that they had a calling to engage the world, to have a relationship with the world, and this had a great impact on how Christians approach the question of culture and civilization. It had a fundamental influence on the formation of what would become called Christendom. This can be found in the Great Commission itself, which is described in the gospels of both Matthew and Mark. The one of Matthew is probably the most famous, and I’ll have words to say about it later, but Mark’s version is one of real interest in talking about early Christian cosmology.
Mark’s gospel emphasizes, as all of them do, I suppose, but especially emphasizes the phrase “good news.” It begins and ends with these words: “good news” or “gospel,” as it became translated later into English, “evangelion,” in the original Greek. Mark’s gospel begins, the very first chapter and the very first verse begins with the word “good news, gospel”: “The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That’s how Mark begins his gospel. It’s all about good news, and this good news describes a way of living, a way of approaching life in this world that leads beyond this world to the kingdom of heaven, to communion with God, to paradise.
An early Christian document, written not long after the first century—and some historians think even within the first century—called the Didache, emphasizes that Christians faced two alternative ways of life. Two ways were described in the Didache of how one might live his life. One way was the way of Life itself, the way of Christ, the way of Christ’s Church. The other way, the Didache declared, was the way of death. So starkly put, these two ways were the options for anyone living in light of the Gospel that had been brought to the world by Jesus Christ.
For early Christians, the way of death, of course, was the way of the devil, who was really the lord of death, in fact, the very one that was confronted by Christ himself in his passion; and to the devil, the good news was in fact bad news. It meant that the way that he had organized life in this world was coming to an end. Those seduced and deluded by the devil often experience, in fact, the Gospel as bad news rather than good news because of an attachment to that way of life, because of an attachment to an untransformed world, a world untouched by the Gospel, the good news.
So there’s an inevitable spiritual conflict between these two ways of life in the world, a conflict that was brought to mind by Christ himself who said, “I came, not to bring peace, but a sword.” Christians have always faced this conflict, this cosmological conflict, how to live their lives in the world.
The purpose of Mark’s gospel, especially as it culminates in the account of the Great Commission, the call to the apostles to go into the world and evangelize it, the purpose of the gospel, therefore, was to bring salvation for all the world. For all the world—that’s the phrase of Mark. Let me just quote this here so we have it in front of us.
And he (Jesus) said to them: “Go into all the world (kosmos), and preach the gospel to every creature.”
It’s just one verse, but it’s extremely important to reflect on as we begin this podcast about the rise and fall of Christendom. Christendom was a civilization and a culture that took its place within the world, shaped fundamentally by traditional Christianity. At the beginning of the history of the Church, the apostles were called into the world to evangelize it, being told to bring the Gospel to every creature; every creature in the world was to receive that good news. I often have wondered about that phrase. “Every creature” suggests something more than just the individual souls of people touched by the evangelical work of those apostles, but of the entire creation, the entire cosmos itself.
So the Great Commission, then, to summarize this point, represents an imperative for cosmic transformation and the civilization and culture within that cosmos.
Traditional Christian cosmology: we can think about traditional Christian cosmology, in part, by reflecting on how the word “cosmos, world” is used in the New Testament. It’s used especially with particular precision and purpose in the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John uses the word “world” (”kosmos” in Greek) more than any other gospel.
There are many, many different uses of this word, and among them all there are two basic uses of the word. The word “world” is sometimes used in an affirmative sense. This can be found in probably one of the most famous verses of the gospel, John 3:16. You sometimes see the statement “John 3:16” at football games. When they kick the extra point, up goes the sign: “John 3:16.” It’s a famous, famous passage, of course, and it reads:
God so loved the world that he gave to it his only-begotten Son, that all that believe in him should not perish but have eternal life.
So here’s an affirmative statement about the world. God loved it. That’s the point of that verse. God loves the world. The world is loved by God. But John’s gospel also, and in fact more often, uses the word “world, cosmos” in a negative sense. This is found in the very prologue to the gospel, the first chapter of the gospel, something Orthodox Christians hear every year at Pascha, a very significant point in the liturgical cycle. There the world does not recognize or accept Christ. This is the passage we read at Pascha, John 1, and this particular section of it is verses 10-11. I’ll read that right now.
He (Jesus) was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world did not know him. He came to his own and his own did not receive him.
So Jesus had no place in the world, having been rejected by the world. At the end of the gospel, or, rather, that the beginning of the section that leads to the end of the gospel, John 15, we also have a use, a negative use, of the word “world” that bears attention. John 15:18-19 speaks about how the world hates Christ, and not only him but his apostles. This is what John 15:18-19 states:
If the world hates you (Jesus speaking to the apostles in the upper room), you know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own, yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.
So, a negative use of the word “world.” Both of these uses are part of the overall understanding of cosmology that is laid out in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospel of John.
Another area to study, to think about, in considering cosmology in the early Church would be the area of the creation of the world. How was the world created? How was the world made by God himself? Of course, the book of Genesis describes this process, the very beginning of the Bible. The first thing to be said is that the world, cosmos, is good. There is a goodness to God’s creation. This is proclaimed in the book of Genesis very, very emphatically. Chapter one of Genesis seven times declares that the world is good. Every act of God’s creation, day by day, in the six days of creation, emphasizes that, summing up: the world is good; the creation is good. So good that creation can be said to be seven times good. It’s good, good, good, good, good, good. And then on the sixth day, when man, anthrōpos, is created, it is very good. These are the words of Genesis. These are the words of God himself in or recorded in the book of Genesis.
Furthermore, on the seventh day of the week, the day after the completion of that creation, God, of course, rests. There’s a kind of suggestion here that God rests because everything is so good. It’s been created so wonderfully good. On that day of the Sabbath, the first Sabbath ever, the seventh day of the first week in the history of the world, God says nothing. He keeps silence. He says, “Good, good, good, good, good, good, very good,” and then God is silent for a day. God is silent for a day, reminding us that this thing that he has done is a magnificent and good creation.
The other point that might be considered in the creation of the world—accounts of it, how it’s interpreted—would be also that that creation of man—anthrōpos in Greek—is also part of the larger creation of the cosmos. The study of man is known as anthropology. That word often is used in our modern culture to describe the study of what’s called cultural anthropology. Societies and cultures, often pre-literate societies and cultures. But the really original word itself—I think it was coined by Aristotle—“anthropology” means simply the study of man. Man is, in fact, a part of the creation, a very important thing to keep in mind. Man is made in the image of God, the eikon theou—the imagio dei in Latin, eikon theou is Greek—made for a life of communion with God. That’s suggested strongly in the creation account of Genesis 1, and it’s elaborated strongly in Genesis 2-3.
Christian anthropology, the study of man, is really a part of Christian cosmology, the study of the world. But the reverse could be said as well. Cosmology is an ultimate extension of anthropology. Man becomes, in a lot of the writings of the Fathers, Maximus the Confessor, for instance, described as a microcosm of the cosmos, a little world of the larger world. He has a calling from God himself to reign, rule, over creation, the cosmos. Therefore, if those points are true, there is a consequent significance for human civilization within creation, because it’s within human civilization and culture that man comes to life, as it were, acts and behaves and creates himself. Human civilization and culture have a very close connection to creation itself and man’s place within that creation.
This brings us to paradise. It’s interesting to ask the question: was paradise in the world or set apart from it? It’s not completely clear just from reading those two chapters. On the one hand, God planted paradise and set a boundary, with gates, around it, suggesting that it’s set apart from the world proper. On the other hand, man rules over nature. Remember, man is called to reign over the world. Man rules over nature from within paradise, co-existing, for instance, peacefully with the beasts. There’s a kind of an ambiguity there, a mysterious ambiguity of what paradise is and how it relates to the world. Its relationship to the world is suggested both as something in which it is related to the world, and on the other hand set apart from the world. In the world, perhaps, but not completely of it.
Also, in the early account of the creation and of paradise itself, paradise represents communion with God, something of great significance in the Christian tradition. Paradise represents harmony, life, communion with God. That is symbolized by the Tree of Life, which is described in the book of Genesis at the center of paradise, and this Tree of Life itself represents communion with God. I can quote here John of Damascus who reflected on what the Tree of Life signified, and this is what St. John of Damascus had to say.
Man in paradise had the indwelling God as a dwelling-place, and wore him as a glorious garment. He was wrapped about with his grace, and like some one of the angels, he rejoiced in the enjoyment of that one most sweet fruit which is the contemplation of God, and by this he was nourished. Now this is indeed what is fittingly called the Tree of Life, for the sweetness of divine contemplation communicates a life uninterrupted by death to them that partake of it.
That’s St. John of Damascus reflecting on the Tree of Life and how it brings about man’s communion with God in paradise.
Communion with God was also expressed in man’s walking with God, with the Person of God. This is communion. Man’s experience of communion with God was represented through his obedience to God, in love of God, in trust of God, in gratitude to God. This was communion. Finally, in paradise, man—male and female; humanity—lived in harmony with each other, with the person of the other human being, and this was communion as much with each other as it was with God.
But, of course, man fell from paradise, and that’s the ultimate point made at the end of this three-chapter sequence at the beginning of Genesis. Chapter three describes this. There was an impact of this fall from communion with God on the human condition, which became subject to sin, disease, sorrow, despair, and death. This is brought forth powerfully when Adam and Eve are expelled from paradise, and the angel is placed at the gates of paradise with a flaming sword, guarding that entrance and barring access to the Tree of Life and therefore communion with God.
But that’s not the end, is it? Of course, it’s not the end. The New Testament tells about how this was reversed in the Person of Christ, his works, his teachings. Christ brought about a re-creation of the creation, a re-creation of the cosmos, first of all, by his incarnation. This is a point made especially by St. Athanasius, but many other Fathers as well. By becoming man, God, in the Person of Jesus Christ, enabled human beings to have a restored communion with God, in what theologians call the union without confusion of divinity and humanity in the Person of Jesus. He was completely God and he became completely human as well. This made it possible for human beings to return to that communion which they had enjoyed in paradise and even more, as we’ll see.
From the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea to the Seventh Ecumenical Council, also in Nicaea, from Nicaea I, 325, to Nicaea II, in the year 787, over and over again the Fathers of the Church proclaimed that the man Jesus is God incarnate, represented in a phrase often used theologically: God-man; Jesus as the God-man, the Theanthrōpos in Greek, Bogochelovek in Slavonic. The turning point in the history of the world was the incarnation of God. It was a turning point of the whole history of the world and with it everything that goes with that history: human culture, human civilizations, everything else.
This point was made over and over again by a great historian of Christendom, Christopher Dawson, who often emphasized that beginning with the Incarnation, all history, whether Christian or not, becomes the history of Christianity, because the whole human race, whether individual members of it happen to be Christians or not Christians, the whole human race now shared in the Person of Jesus insofar as he shared in human nature.
So the gates of paradise, through the Incarnation, were reopened to man, through the life of the Church, given by Christ. This, now, brought about a new understanding of paradise, a new experience of that communion with God. There had been the primordial paradise, recorded in the book of Genesis, but there was something like an eschatological paradise now available to man, bringing him into communion with God in a way much greater, much higher than Adam and Eve had ever been able to experience, because now God was also human. It is this eschatological paradise that would inspire Christians living in the world to seek its spiritual transformation, giving rise to Christendom.
The Church’s experience of paradise is found in a lot of the experiences of the saints. Many of the saints, St. Paul first among them, spoke about this experience of paradise, and I can mention a couple of examples of these visions of paradise that saints like Paul recorded. Paul’s account in II Corinthians is a good example of this, chapter 12, verses 1-6, describes how Paul, through the grace of God, was lifted up, as it were, to experience paradise, and he describes briefly and in a very kind of difficult language, because he says it’s unlawful to describe it too distinctly, probably impossible as well in human language, what paradise was like. He was gazing on that eschatological paradise which he and all the saints of God are destined to dwell in.
So that’s St. Paul in II Corinthians, but many saints also had this experience of paradise. St. Euphrosynos the Cook, for instance, is a famous case, where he ascends into paradise, experiences paradise according to another monk who finds him there, and he brings back these apples which are symbols of communion with God, but a communion which is experienced within this world now, a world focused on, oriented toward, paradise. Another example is St. Andrew the Fool-for-Christ, Byzantine, I think, 9th-century saint, in Constantinople, who was lifted up and experienced a vision of paradise. I can quote his account, the account given in his Life of that experience, and this is it:
Once, during a terrible winter, when St. Andrew lay in a city street, frozen and near death.
An interesting detail for Paul, for Euphrosynos, and for St. Andrew, is the deep humility that’s required before one can be lifted up into that condition of paradise, a kind of a kenotic humility, an extreme humility, modeled on Jesus himself. So St. Andrew lay in a city, frozen and near death.
He suddenly felt a warmth within him and beheld a splendid youth with a face shining like the sun, who conducted him to paradise and the third heaven.
“By God’s will I remained for two weeks in a sweet vision. I saw myself in a splendid and marvelous paradise. In mind and heart I was astonished at the unutterable beauty of the paradise of God, and I took sweet delight walking in it.”
And he goes on from there to describe what paradise was like. Again, a temporary experience, but one given to the saint in this life, in this age, orienting him and those influenced by him in the life of the Church toward that life in communion with God, in paradise.
This also, this experience of paradise that was found in the cosmology of the early Church, especially in connection with the Incarnation, is kept alive by the Church in her liturgical life and hymnography, which I will talk more about later in another episode, but here, since I’m talking about the Incarnation, I might bring in a hymn that’s associated with the celebration of Christ’s birth—the Nativity, Christmas—which is sung, and which brings attention to paradise and its gates being reopened to man through God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ.
Here, for instance, is a hymn from vespers for the celebration of Christmas in the Orthodox Church. This is what it reads:
Come, let us greatly rejoice in the Lord as we tell of this present mystery: the middle wall of partition has been destroyed. The flaming sword turns back, the cherubim withdraw from the Tree of Life, and I partake of the delight of paradise from which I was cast out through disobedience…
And it goes on from there. Clearly, then, in the hymnography of the Church, we have in the case of Christmas a reflection on and orientation toward, beyond this world, paradise and communion with God. I might also introduce here at this point a prayer read, not at Nativity or Christmas, but at Theophany, which, historically, as it’s widely known, was celebrated in connection with Christmas or Nativity. Theophany, the celebration or commemoration of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan river, on January 6, and in the West known as Epiphany, when in fact the arrival of the Three Wise Men from the East is celebrated rather than Christ’s [baptism], had originally been part of the incarnational celebration of the Church in the dark depths of winter. Then later it got separated. But in the Orthodox tradition, of course, those who are Orthodox know that it’s associated with the blessing of water, what’s known as the Great Blessing of the Water, when bodies of water are blessed as part of the re-creation of the world that the Incarnation of God represents, and the blessing of the physical world, of the water of the world.
There’s a beautiful prayer said in the Greek Orthodox tradition. It’s not found in the books of the Russian Orthodox traditions, but it’s in the Greek Orthodox books, and I think in America plenty of priests who follow the Russian tradition borrow this beautiful prayer at that Great Blessing of the Water at Theophany because it really does express so well how paradise and the gates of paradise are reopened through the experience of Christ’s incarnation, both at Christmas and at Theophany.
So let me read to the prayer. It was composed by St. Sophronius of Jerusalem, and it’s a beautiful prayer in which he kind of takes the parishioners with him through the experience of celebrating the Incarnation and repeatedly emphasizing today, today, because in the liturgical life of the Church especially, but in general in the life of the Church, paradise and the entire experience of God and communion with him, is a present reality, not something to be put off into some future experience, but right now. Right now, in this life, in this world, paradise is opened up. The prayer of St. Sophronius is also interesting in that it presents all the created aspects, all of the created things in this world—the stars, the moon, the waters, the clouds—as praising God, as participating in this re-creating of creation. This is what the priest says:
In the preceding feast, we saw thee as a child, while in the present we behold thee full-grown, our God made manifest, perfect God from perfect God. For today the time of the feast is at hand for us. The choir of saints assembles with us, and angels join with men in keeping festival. Today the grace of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon the waters. Today the Sun that never sets has risen, and the world is filled with splendor by the light of the Lord. Today the moon shines upon the world with the brightness of its rays. Today the glittering stars make the inhabited earth fair with the radiance of their shining. Today the clouds drop down upon mankind the dew of righteousness from on high. Today the uncreated of his own will accepts the laying-on of hands from his own creature. Today the Prophet and Forerunner approaches the Master.
Prophet and Forerunner would be John the Baptist.
...but stands before him with trembling, seeing the condescension of God towards us. Today the waters of the Jordan are transformed into healing by the coming of the Lord. Today the whole creation is watered by mystical streams. Today the transgressions of men are washed away by the waters of Jordan. Today paradise has been opened to men, and the Sun of righteousness shines down upon us.
Those are the words of St. Sophronius of Jerusalem which are contained in the Great Blessing of Water. Beautiful words.
The Incarnation was not the end of the story, of course, and the crucifixion was another fundamentally central part of God’s re-creation of the creation. The crucifixion was inseparable from the Incarnation for the Fathers of the Church such as Athanasius, and symbolically was represented in the iconography of the birth of Christ. I’ll explore iconography later in another episode, but here it’s worth remembering that, often in the iconography of the Church, at least the Eastern Christian tradition, the manger in which the infant Christ is placed at the birth appears like a tomb, reminding those viewing the icon of Christ’s birth that he was born in order to die, the only one ever born to die. Every other human being was born to live, but the Son of God came into the world to die for it, to bring life to others, to the human race.
So the crucifixion springs, is inseparable from, the Incarnation. The crucifixion, of course, culminates at the end of Passion Week, the Lord’s Pascha, Christ’s Pascha. After Palm Sunday Christ went to his voluntary death on the Cross, and it represents Christ’s anti-triumph, to call it that. Caesar and other Roman generals, and emperors later, celebrated this triumphal entry into Rome where they were lauded and praised and stood up gloriously, lifted up on chariots and glorified extravagantly. Christ inverted all of this. For him, the crucifixion is a kind of anti-triumph, growing out of the experience of his entry into Jerusalem at Palm Sunday.
This is found in certain ways that the crucifixion is described in the gospels. Jesus says, “Now is the time for the Son of man to be glorified.” This is John’s gospel. Glorified: well, the glorification of being lifted up on the Cross, of course, is a very different kind of glorification than being lifted up on a chariot. So we have, then, the crucifixion representing an inversion, really, of this world’s standards of glory, but one which the Gospel proclaims brings about true, authentic glory.
It also represents, the crucifixion does, the judgment on the fallen world, with all of its civilizations and cultures that existed up until that point, including the Roman one in which Christ lived. This is powerfully brought forward by Christ’s own words, again from John’s gospel, chapter 12, which I might just briefly read here.
The hour is come that the Son of man should be glorified. Most assuredly, I say to you: unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Now is the judgment of this world. Now the ruler of this world will be cast out.
So the crucifixion is a judgment against the world, the untransformed world under the sway, under the influence of the devil himself, in rebellion against God.
Then Jesus, of course, in connection with the crucifixion, finally dies, and as he dies, he utters that statement in John’s gospel: “It is finished,” often translated that way. Another translation of what he says could be, “It is completed. It is accomplished.” What he had accomplished, what he had completed with his death was the re-creation of creation, the re-creation of the cosmos. Then he rested.
Then he rested in the earth. Christ was buried in the tomb. This day, of course, fell on the Sabbath day for the Jews, the day of rest. And it fulfilled all the other Sabbaths that occurred up until that time for the Jews. Every single Sabbath pointed toward this Sabbath. All the times the Jews had kept rest on that day was a prefiguration of the rest that the God-man would keep on that day, after he had completed the re-creation of his creation. The Orthodox Church on this day—Great and Holy Saturday, it’s called—during Passion Week, sings a hymn during the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, a unique hymn to that particular service, where is sung the statement:
This is the blessed Sabbath. This is the blessed Sabbath to which all other Sabbaths point.
Another hymn sung at that solemn service on Holy Saturday, when we commemorate Christ’s burial in the ground—in fact, a tomb is placed right in the middle of the church with an icon of Christ’s burial there for the people to venerate and to gaze upon and contemplate—we sing that famous hymn from the Liturgy: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.” Let all mortal flesh keep silence. And we might recall that God himself, at the beginning of this history, time itself, beginning of time, kept silence on that first Sabbath, at the end of the week of the first creation. God kept silence, and now again the Church keep silence with God on this blessed Sabbath, Great and Holy Saturday. And then, of course, comes the Resurrection of Christ. The Resurrection completes the process of the re-creation of the creation.
As a matter of fact, having discovered the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene, Equal-of-the-Apostles, this female disciple of Christ being first to the tomb, to see, to witness the Resurrection, brings the news to the apostles, and they bring the news to the Church, and with time the Church holds the Resurrection as being the most important event in the entire experience of the Church, an experience which is described as being the first day of the new creation. It was the first day of the week, and with that first day of the week started a new day of the entire creation of the world, the cosmos.
It’s also known in the symbolic language of the Church as the eighth day of creation. God created the world in six days, rested on the seventh, and then on the eighth day is, of course, a new week, but the Church, in trying to reorient time beyond this world into paradise itself, whose gates are now open to man, describes Sunday, the day of Christ’s Resurrection, as the eighth day of the week, in a transformation of time itself, being part of creation. I’ll talk more about calendars and the keeping of time, the marking of time in the Church in a later episode.
The last point to be made here is that Christ, having risen from the dead, did not remain in the world. He didn’t then make his home in the world. He ascended into heaven forty days later. His ascension into heaven forty days after his Pascha, his Passion, his Resurrection, represents or indicates to the Church that Christ’s resurrected body and the transformed world with it belong not to this world but to the age to come. That is where man’s final destiny is to be found: not in this world, but in the age to come, in paradise itself, where Christ, with his human body, awaits the entire transfigured, transformed cosmos.
With this in mind, we can return to and conclude this introductory episode of this podcast with the twin anecdotes with which we began. As they prepared to enter the respective capital cities of Rome and Jerusalem, Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ each declared a radically different standard of victory over the world—two victors, different victories.
The Roman institution known as a triumph was a ritualized state ceremony at the heart of ancient political culture. It was awarded to generals such as Caesar who had achieved spectacular victories over their enemies and would feature the symbols of Rome’s worldly might. Long trains of captive soldiers would be led along in chains to the jeers and abuse of the crowds. Wagons piled high with the trophies and the spoils of war would remind onlookers of the wealth that was available to those with ambition for great power. At the center of attention was the victor himself, standing atop a chariot, the ancient world’s equivalent of a tank. Wearing a crown or carrying a palm branch in his hand, he was himself the ultimate symbol of earthly glory.
As it turned out, Julius Caesar’s great triumph in 46 B.C. did, in fact, surpass all previous ones, and, as one recent historian puts it, represented the ancient world’s equivalent of a blockbuster show. What were probably hundreds of thousands of people had come to Rome for the spectacle. Many had slept in tents and stood in long lines to be assured of seeing Caesar as he passed by on the street. According to the ancient historian Suetonius, more than a few were crushed to death in their frantic efforts to be first. All were drawn by promises of unprecedented state largess. There would be forty days of public celebration, culminating in free meals for those fortunate enough to get seats at the 22,000 tables laid out with fresh meats and wines. Those who missed out on this were compensated with an individual gift of 100 denarii, the equivalent of four months’ wages, and a kind of a gift bag of olive oil.
As entertainment, there would be five days of beast fighting, including the slaughter of 400 lions, and an exotic animal never seen before in Europe, the giraffe. In the Roman manner, the stage violence was not limited to four-legged animals. Gladiators would be compelled to fight each other to the death for public amusement, with a grand finale in which two armies, numbering a total of one thousand men, would participate in a massive, pitched battle. Rome’s famous civil engineers were even called upon to design an artificial lake on the banks of the Tiber River to accommodate a mock naval battle involving small ships and a detachment of marines. For the unusual citizens whose tastes were less sanguinary, night after night the city’s theaters offered dramas, musical performances, and dances.
Caesar celebrated four triumphs in all, one for each of his victories in Asia, Europe, and Africa, that is, on every continent of the known world. Early in the morning on the day of each, the triumphal gates, as they were called, were opened, and the procession began to make its way through the city. Its progress was announced was by the often ribald singing of the soldiers, some of whom celebrated Caesar’s adulterous exploits. One song even sung of a homosexual affair. According to custom, it passed through the huge Circus Maximus, whose capacity of some 150,000 spectators made the great arena roughly three times larger than Yankee Stadium.
After passing the Forum, the political heart of the city, it paused before a prison. There the order was given to execute a certain number of the helpless captives. Caesar would have been reluctant to show mercy to the unarmed men who, by this time, were no threat to the state, in part because his main rival for leadership in Rome, the great Cicero, had once publicly vilified another victorious general for doing just that, seeing mercy as a sign of weakness unbecoming of great men.
What is more, Caesar held the Roman office of pontifex maximus, or high priest, and was responsible for overseeing the sacrificial system of the pagan cult. He had even ordered two ritual human sacrifices in the temple of Mars on this occasion, having the heads of the victims displayed prominently. Though such human sacrifice was rare in Roman religious life, the procession offered an irresistible opportunity to solemnize his victory. Pausing at the prison, therefore, he gave the order for a group of the captives to be led off in chains to torture and death.
He then proceeded toward the culmination of the procession, Rome’s foremost pagan temple. The temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus stood at the summit of the Capitoline Hill, and dated from the earliest times, though it had recently been rebuilt. The Roman equivalent of Zeus, Jupiter was known as the ruler of the gods, and his power was the source of Roman greatness. It was to him especially that blood sacrifices were offered on a regular basis by faithful Romans for the sustaining of their civilization. So it was appropriate that Caesar’s processions, like all others, should terminate here.
No record exists of the thoughts the great general had as he stood in triumph within the temple of Jupiter, but it seems clear enough that he was inclined to see himself as a kind of mirror of the greatest of gods. It would only be a matter of time before he was deified, that is, formally declared a god by the Romans. For the time being, he had made much of the pagan symbolism of deity. He very likely wore a toga of purple, embroidered with gold, resembling that worn by the statue of Jupiter itself in the temple. Some historians have even speculated that he and other triumphal generals wore the actual garment adorning the statue itself and, having borrowed it, as if from an equal, was returning it at the end of the procession. Identification with Jupiter was also suggested by Caesar’s decision to use four horses with pure white coats to pull his chariot, an unambiguous allusion to images of Jupiter recognizable in contemporary pagan culture.
In the short term, the effects of Caesar’s triumphs in 46 B.C. were unquestionably favorable. He was soon elevated to the office of dictator of Rome, and enjoyed supreme authority over the state. His intention had been to establish a permanent peace through the defeat of his enemies, but, in less than two years, a group of senators, fearful that he would establish himself as a king, organized a conspiracy and stabbed him to death.
The Jews had no political institution like the Roman triumph, but Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in 33 [A.D.], known thereafter as Palm Sunday, made clear allusions to their divinely protected past and fulfilled some of their prophecies about the coming Messiah. The city was, after all, the capital of ancient Israel, captured by its greatest king, David, nearly a thousand years earlier. David had entered the city in a glorious procession, bearing the Ark of the Covenant, a symbol of both the Israelites’ power over their enemies and of the presence of God among them. It was here on Mount Zion that David’s son, Solomon, built the Temple in which the Ark would permanently be held—at least until the sixth century before Christ, when the Babylonians sacked the city and carried the Ark away into oblivion.
Prophets such as Ezekiel had presented David as a type of the Messiah, and Jesus now came to this city as the victor over Israel’s enemies. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!” another prophet, Zechariah, had prophesied.
Proclaim it aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king comes to you. He will utterly destroy the chariots out of Ephraim, and the horse out of Jerusalem. The bow of war shall be utterly destroyed, and there shall be abundance and peace among the nations. He shall rule over the waters as far as the sea, and over the rivers to the ends of the earth.
Thus, for a single day, Jesus allowed his rule over the kingdom of heaven to be manifested. By this time, his adversaries had settled on putting him to death, but a large number of Jews received him warmly. According to the Evangelist Matthew, they lined the streets in throngs, laying their clothes on the ground. Some cut palm branches, the Roman Empire’s symbol of victory, and cast them before Jesus as he proceeded into the heart of this city, toward the Temple.
But Jesus’ Palm Sunday procession was different [from] Julius Caesar’s military triumph 79 years before. As a sign that the kingdom he came to establish was not like that of Caesar, Christ rode triumphantly into his capital city on a donkey. There was no chariot, nor were lewd songs to be heard, only the sound of children shouting, “Hosanna in the highest!” There were no prisoners and no executions. The only death that was suggested was that of the Victor himself. No riches were displayed. Jesus was surrounded only by his disciples who, like their master, embraced a life of material poverty. In contrast to the feasting that accompanied Caesar’s entry into Rome, the only banquet offered was the coming heavenly banquet of the Last Supper.
During his three-year ministry, Christ had inverted all worldly standards of victory. In the Sermon on the Mount, he had called upon the disciples to love their enemies and forsake all forms of enmity, what he called the ways of old, the untransformed world. As he voluntarily approached the end of his earthly ministry, he revealed that the kingdom of heaven is a kingdom not of this world, but one of sacrificial love. And as divine Love incarnate, he terminated his entry into the city at the Temple, preparing to make his sacrifice.
Unlike Caesar, however, his arrival at the capital city’s Temple was not an act of usurpation or human delusion. He was the very Son of God himself. For centuries the Temple in Jerusalem had been the site of blood sacrifices, but now Christ came to make the ultimate and final sacrifice of history. Soon to be raised up in glory upon the Cross, an inversion of Caesar’s glory atop the chariot, he came to reveal a completely new standard of victory. His would be a victory over death itself.
Just the day before, on the Sabbath, he had visited the tomb of Lazarus as a victorious general might come to the stronghold of his greatest enemy to announce a final and irresistible assault upon him. The enemy was Satan, and amid the stench of his citadel, the tomb, Jesus served him warning that seven days hence, that is, on what came to be known as Great and Holy Saturday, he would return to the tomb to liberate all those whom the evil one had held captive in tombs since the fall of man from paradise. And so, having accepted triumphal recognition from his people for a day, Christ withdrew from the Temple and the city itself, awaiting the coming Passover, or Pascha, through which he, as Victor, would finally put death to death.
Join me next time, when we explore the formation of a Christian subculture within the pagan Roman Empire.