Roman Triumphs and Palm Sunday

On this Palm Sunday, I wanted to share with you why this has become one of my very favorite holidays:

In ancient Rome, “Triumph” was a very significant word.  It meant far more than “the act, fact, or condition of being victorious” (dictionary.com definition of “triumph”).  A Triumph was an extravagant, joyous parade through the capital city to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus:

It happened only after a remarkable victory of war.  The Senate would vote, and if they agreed, the man who led the Romans to victory would be granted a triumph.  At the soonest possible date, Rome would gather to witness the parade, to watch as mountains of wealth and thousands of exotic prisoners, the spoils of war, marched through the city in a winding path.  Somewhere in the procession would be flawless bulls, ready to be sacrificed.  The prominent political leaders, decked in their very finest, would follow the display of Rome’s new wealth, preceding the triumphateur.

He, the glorious general through whom Mars granted Rome victory, would be riding a chariot, clothed in a rich violet toga embroidered in gold, with a laurel crown atop his head.  All his ornaments and attire reinforced the idea that he was, in a sense, a king–or even a god–for that day, far superior to the rest of the Roman citizens.  He was truly a sight to behold.

And so, with great fanfare, the triumphal procession wound its way up to the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, to the climax when the flawless bulls were sacrificed on the altar.  Afterwards, celebration ensued.  The whole city would be in a state of revelry.

That is the Roman concept of a Triumph.

Now imagine you are a Jew in Jerusalem very early in the first century A.D.  For centuries, you and your ancestors have awaited the long-promised Messiah–the Annointed One, the King of the line of David.  Over the years, there have been many false alarms, freedom fighters who got your people’s hopes up, only to come crashing down when Rome crushed them like insects.  Of this you think, going about your business in the city, preparing for another Passover.  Even while you think this, you reflect on another time Israel was harshly oppressed.  “Lord Almighty, even as You led us out of Egypt before, so now send us a king to deliver us from Rome,” your heart prays on repeat.

You gradually notice a commotion.  “What is going on?” you ask a fellow Jew.

“He has come!” he exclaims.  “The Lord saves!  At long last–a deliverer!”

Could it be?  With hope making you lighter than you’ve ever been, you drop everything and follow the crowds.  Soon the people stop moving, forming an aisle.  With elbows “accidentally” placed in inconvenient sides, you push your way to the front, and there you glimpse what you have been praying for your whole life but never thought to see.  It is the man Jesus, who has been causing such a stir recently, riding through the city.  The cries of your countrymen catch you up.  Elated, you shout at the top of your lungs, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

The king is here, the Annointed One, the Messiah.

He passes you by, and you turn to follow, follow him straight to the Temple.  He is king for a day, in Triumphal procession, announcing his crushing victory over the enemy.

This is Jesus’ Triumphal Entry.

True to Roman form, he ends up at the Temple of the supreme ruling God, ready to offer sacrifices.  Only there the story changes, for there the priests are not prepared.  No, instead He has to drive out those who should have been leading the people into relationship with God but instead were preying off of the people’s guilt to make a profit for themselves.

The message still stands, though.  This is why I love Palm Sunday:

Here is Jesus, our beautiful Lord.  Here He proclaims His victory over the enemy.  He is the King, there is no longer any question.

After years of hushing up His reputation and warning people not to speak of His miracles, He finally made an incredibly bold, public display of His victory.  Right before he went to the cross to die.

How beautifully backwards is that?  Jesus keeps surprising me, doing exactly the opposite of what I expect, to show what His kingdom is really about.  He made it.  He had told His beloved children that their Father was bringing heaven to earth, and that they could be part of it.  He announced His victory over our sin, our struggles, our betrayal, our oppressor (Satan)–then He proved it by making a public spectacle of them, nailing them to a cross and raising Himself to life.

Ah, Messiah, blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!

Hosanna in the highest!

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