‘He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.’ Colossians 2:15
As I have been praying and preparing for Holy Week and Easter in recent weeks, this verse from Paul’s letter to the Colossians has particularly resonated with me. On Palm Sunday I was leading worship at Hutton Rudby and reflecting on something which clearly happened but isn’t referred to directly in any of the gospels. Some days before Jesus enters Jerusalem from the east down the Mount of Olives, Pilate has entered the city from the west. Festival time was always a time when the occupying Romans were on high alert: Pilate was in town to keep order. The contrast between these two processions could not be starker. Nick Page puts it in the following way:
‘Two processions, then. One from the east, tumbling down the Mount of Olives, wild with cheering and rich with messianic symbolism. The other coming from the west, but just as symbolic: gleaming armour and burnished leather, cavalrymen on horseback and the imperial eagle leading the way. From the west comes the kingdom of the world; from the east comes the kingdom of God’ (The Wrong Messiah, p.227)
Page goes on to describe Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a ‘…politically charged act, a two fingered salute to the empire, the world and the Gentile ways of power’. We cannot help but be acutely aware of the destructive power of militarism in our world today not just in the Ukraine but in many other places of conflict. Power and its misuse, of course, is not just a political issue: it has social, economic, community and psychological forms.
Paul’s choice of image then in describing the cross in these terms is both deliberate and thought provoking. Victorious Roman generals would parade the captives of war in chains through the city. It was a form of ridicule and humiliation entirely in character with an oppressive regime. It is perverse forms of power, political and religious, which send Jesus to execution, to the humiliation of the cross. Yet just at the hour at which they seem to have won, Paul claims, the table is turned. It is now these forces, indeed all the powers of evil, which are humiliated, relativised and ridiculed like a defeated army.
This is a bold claim. What sense can we make of it? It’s interesting to note that the idea of Christ defeating the powers and principalities on the cross –the Christus Victor – was the most important way of conceiving the meaning of the cross in the early Church. I think about this in three different ways. First, I view the cross as having revelatory power. Amongst other things this means that the cross makes clear the forces that are ranged against God in our world and which are still active today. We cannot ignore the parallels between the misuses of power and the use of violence that sends Jesus to the cross with the experience of the world today. We have a duty to name and expose these abuses wherever we see them. Secondly, I sense that there is something here about the resisting power of mockery, satire and ridicule. It’s interesting isn’t it that those who misuse power find it difficult to accept being mocked. It undermines their power and also reminds them of their mortality – it is interesting to note at this juncture the role of the Holy Fool in the Orthodox tradition who is able to speak truth to power in a way in which others are not. Thirdly though, none of this makes sense without the resurrection. Christ is Victor simply because he is the risen one. It is this which turns a cross of disgrace into a demonstration of the power of God. It demonstrates that ultimately there is a power which is greater than the powers of death which stalk our world. It is the resurrection which ultimately relativises any other claim to power and authority in the world.
I pray that Christ, risen from the grave, might be your light, life and hope as you journey through Holy Week and Easter.
Yours in Christ,