We begin Holy Week by talking about a parade on Palm Sunday, but some historians believe that there were actually two parades that day. There was the procession of the Roman cohort, led by Pontius Pilate, which came into the city of Jerusalem from the west as a show of imperial power; a sign to the people that no unrest would be tolerated during the Passover Festival. At about the same time, coming into the city from the east, was Jesus, riding not on a war horse but on a donkey. His followers shouted royal slogans and put palm branches in the road. On Friday of that week, these two parades—representing two different world views—would come into direct conflict, but not in the way that people expected. In fact, on Friday, Good Friday, these two parades somehow merge into a single parade that leads out of the city and into a new future that would change the world.
If the Gospel of Mark was written to a Roman Christian audience, his readers would have read this narrative and understood the relationship of these processions and the images they evoked. Parades were fairly common in Rome, but they were reserved primarily for imperial victory celebrations. When emperors or victorious military commanders returned to the city from foreign conquests, they were given a parade called a “triumph.”
A look at the history of Rome tells us that the procession was almost always the same. The imperial honoree was called the “triumphator” would be mounted on a chariot and would display the symbols of his office, being clad in a long purple robe and wearing a crown of laurel leaves. Purple was the color reserved only for royalty—it was unlawful for anyone else under a certain rank to wear it at all. Above the triumphator’s head, a slave would hold a crown of gold fashioned in the shape of laurel leaves. The purple robe and golden crown would have been borrowed from their permanent location, where they clothed the statue of the chief Roman god Jupiter in his temple, the Jupiter Capitolinus. The connection between the triumphator and the gods was unmistakable—a symbol of divinity. Before the triumph would begin, the soldiers in the imperial guard would give their accolades to the triumphator: “Hail, Caesar! Hail the conqueror! Hail Son of God!” (one of the emperor’s most common titles). The parade would then move toward the city with drums beating and the shouts and accolades of the people echoing off the stone buildings and pavement.
Following the triumphator in the procession would be a sacrificial bull, which was dressed and crowned in a similar fashion to signify its identity with the triumphator. The bull would be sacrificed as an offering to Jupiter once the parade reached its terminus. Walking along side the bull was an official carrying a double-bladed axe—the instrument of death for the sacrificial victim.
The procession would move along the prescribed route until it came to its end at the temple of Jupiter, which sat on a hill called the “Capitolium.” The legend was that when the foundations for this temple were being dug, the diggers discovered a buried human head with all of its features intact. The hill was thus named the Capitoline Hill, because the Latin word for “head” is the word “capita”—where we get the word “Capitol” in English. It was to be the “head of all Italy,” the capital, the place of the head.
Arriving at the Capitolium, the triumphator was offered a cup of wine, which he would refuse and then pour on the altar. The wine was given just before the bull was sacrificed and thus represented the precious blood of the victim freely poured out. The bull would then be slaughtered and placed on the altar, signifying the god who dies and appears as the victor in person of the triumphator. The sacrifice, in other words, signifies that the emperor is one of the gods. The triumphator then ascended to a high rostrum or throne, where he would take his place and be flanked by other, though lesser, men of royalty.
This formula, with some slight variations, was repeated for every triumphal march in Rome, thus it would have been familiar to Mark’s first readers. When those Roman Christians opened this particular scroll and read the story of Good Friday, the message of that parade would have been unmistakable.
On Friday, Jesus is tried by Pilate and rejected by the religious leaders and the crowd. He is charged with being royalty—Pilate called him “King of the Jews,” a title which infuriated Jesus’ accusers. Wanting to keep peace, Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified and the parade begins.
According to Mark, Jesus is led from his trial before Pilate into the “Praetorium,” which is an interesting phrase. This could mean that he was taken to the general military headquarters in the Antonia Fortress, next to the Temple in Jerusalem, but the word choice is unique. “Praetorium” was also the term used for the unit of the imperial guard in Rome—the emperor’s bodyguards, if you will—and also referred to their barracks, which was also the place from which each parade of triumph began. Notice, too, that Mark says that “the whole company of soldiers” was called together. That meant probably about two hundred, which would seem like many more than necessary to flog and mock a prisoner. Normally, the whole company would fall out only for necessary occasions—drills, battle, and, notably for Mark, for triumphal parades. Is Mark trying to tell his readers something here?
The evidence continues. Jesus is dressed in a purple robe, reserved only for royalty. It’s hard to imagine where they got it as Pilate would have been the only ruler at hand who had one. Mark tells us, however, that Jesus was dressed in royal color, like a triumphator in Rome. Like in Rome, too, a crown is placed on his head—not the glittering crown of golden laurel, but the bitter mockery of a crown of thorns. Just like at the beginning of a Roman triumph, the imperial guard shouts its accolades, “Hail, King of the Jews!” but here it’s a punch line rather than a proclamation.
The parade begins. Instead of riding a chariot, this King walks—stumbles, really, down the prescribed path. A passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, a foreigner and a spectator, is compelled to walk beside the King, carrying the instrument of his death; not a double-bladed axe, but a cross beam of rough wood that will be used to kill the triumphator himself—a true and personal sacrifice.
The procession winds slowly through the narrow streets. Instead of the shouts of an adoring public, this King hears instead shouts of derision and disappointment. Leaving the city, the parade moves toward the Capitolium, the place of the head, except here it is called Golgotha, the place of the skull.
Just before the moment of sacrifice, the triumphator is offered wine, but he refuses. It is his own blood that will be poured out in sacrifice this day. At the crucial moment he is lifted up, set high above the crowd—not on a throne but on a cross. There beside him are two others, not officials or friends but murderous revolutionaries who don’t hail him, but instead hurl insults at him. A sign is nailed above his head, “KING OF THE JEWS,” but in this case it is not a title but a joke. The triumphator, the King, hangs there nailed fast through the hands and feet, naked, bleeding, gasping for breath, the life ebbing out of him.
And this is a triumph?
It’s hard to imagine the impact this story had on Mark’s first readers. Roman Christians knew the symbols and knew the way of triumphal parades. They had heard the proclamations of the emperor’s divinity and seen the demonstration of powers in Roman streets and temples. For them, this story has all the elements of a triumph, but it ends so differently than all the others. The divine ruler is not given a coronation here, but a cross. He is not ruler of Rome, he is Rome’s victim. He has not entered the city triumphantly, but has been marched outside and nailed to a tree beside the road so that the whole world could see his shame. Yet, somehow, Mark and the other Gospel writers say, is a victory—a real and lasting triumph.
The Apostle Paul certainly saw the connection. In 2 Corinthians 2:14-15 Paul writes, “But God always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.” The reference to scent is also connected to the triumph, which included the distribution of different aromatics along the parade route. The connection here, though, is unmistakable—for Paul, and for the early Christians, Christ was the triumphator and the cross is his sign of victory.
I think that sometimes we miss the scandal of Good Friday, perhaps because we’ve turned the cross into a decoration rather than understanding it for what it really represents. How could the instrument of ultimate death become a symbol of triumph? How could the bitterest kind of defeat be celebrated as a victory? These were the questions those early Christians had to answer in the midst of a Roman world where emperors still rode chariots and took their place at the head of the empire.
Their answer was a simple one—the death of Jesus on a cross, they said, was not a defeat by the forces of evil, but the defeat of the forces of evil. On the cross, Jesus Christ—Israel’s representative, God’s representative, humanity’s representative—took upon himself all the pain and injustice the world could muster. He was innocent, yet he bore the pain, suffering, and condemnation of those who were guilty—guilty of sin, guilty of ambition, guilty of setting up systems that ground people into dust physically, economically, and spiritually. Instead of offering a token sacrifice to God, he gave his whole life over to God and God’s plan for the redemption of the world. He was fully divine, fully human, and fully committed to defeating evil, not through violence, but through suffering.
To put it another way, the cross became the sign that the empire and its deified rulers, who ruled by force and achieved victory through violence, was being decisively challenged by a different kind of power—the power of sacrificial love. The real King had come, as Jesus said earlier in Mark’s Gospel, “not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). The cross thus becomes the “Capitolium” of the whole world; the focal point of the true King’s ultimate victory.
Mark’s first audience would have continued to see triumphal marches years after hearing about the death of Jesus on a Roman cross. They would have continued to see the display of power, the flaunting arrogance of world rulers and despots, the wealth and excess of the empire. Truth is that we still see the same things paraded before us today: the deification of celebrity, the gluttonous wealth of the few, the violence of military conquest, and the political posturing of people seeking power. Jesus’ victory parade seems to have been for naught.
But it’s not. It’s a sign that there is, indeed, hope. Growing up I was trained to repeat the mantra that “Jesus died on the cross for my sins.” I believe that’s true, but I also believe that the cross means so much more than that. The cross is not simply a means to my personal eternal destiny, it is the means through which God chose to change the world for good.
Remember that less than 300 years after Mark wrote these words the Roman empire was changed. The persecuted Christian minority of Mark’s day would become the dominant faith of the empire. That, of course, would cause its own kinds of problems, but the fact remains that wherever people catch this vision that evil is not the last word, wherever people choose to fight evil with good and choose sacrifice over self-indulgence, wherever people are willing to give their lives for a cause, wherever God is at work, it is in those places and in those hearts that no amount of evil can ever be victorious. In the cross of Jesus, the ultimate victory has been won, but we still await its completion, that day when Jesus once again comes in triumph to set the whole world to rights. Things can change; indeed, they will change, but only when we, too, pick up a cross and follow Jesus, living that victory in our own lives.
The choice that Mark offers to his readers is an important one, and it’s the same choice offered on Palm Sunday: whose parade are you going to follow? Which King do you choose? Do you hail the Caesars of this world, or do you choose to take up a cross and follow Christ?
The centurion, captain of the Roman company who led the parade that Friday, was watching the condemned man die there on the Captiolium, the hill of the Skull. He had seen triumphal marches before, probably had shouted his own “Hail Caesar!” at the passing chariot. This day, though, for all its parallels to a Roman triumph, was different. On this cross hung a man whose sense of purpose was unmatched by even the most powerful emperor. Here was a man whose quiet suffering held within it the dignity of true royalty. Here was a man whose compassion and humility never wavered, even in the face of the cruelest torture and most gruesome of deaths. Here was a man who did not need to claim divinity for himself. Instead, it seemed to shined through him. As he hung there battered and beaten, drawing his last breath, he looked defeated, destroyed, yet somehow he was not.
Says Mark: “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was the Son of God!'”
Hail to the King!
Schmidt, Thomas, “Jesus’ Triumphal March to Crucifixion: The Sacred Way as Roman Procession.” Bible Review. February 1997. p. 30-37.
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