This is the seventh in a sporadic series on the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. The previous post was The Difference Between Image and Likeness in Genesis.
In the midst of his exposition on the passion, crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ, Cyril makes the following statement:
But the soldiers who crowd around mock Him, and their Lord becomes a sport to them, and upon their Master they make jests. When they looked on Me, they shaked their heads. (Psalms 109, 25.) Yet the figure of kingly state appears; for though in mockery, yet they bend the knee. And the soldiers before they crucify Him, put on Him a purple robe, and set a crown on His head; for what though it be of thorns? Every king is proclaimed by soldiers; and Jesus also must in a figure be crowned by soldiers; so that for this cause the Scripture says in the Canticles, Go forth, O you daughters of Jerusalem, and look upon King Solomon in the crown wherewith His mother crowned Him. (Song of Solomon, 3:11.) And the crown itself was a mystery; for it was a remission of sins, a release from the curse. (XIII, 17)
Readers of this blog have probably been waiting for the “other shoe to drop” and for me to turn Cyril’s lectures into a political statement. Well, here it is. In passing he makes a pungent observation about Roman politics that puts a new perspective (new to most of us) on this part of the passion.
The part of the gospel narrative he is referring to is this:
After that, the Governor’s soldiers took Jesus with them into the Government House, and gathered the whole garrison round him. They stripped him, and put on him a red military cloak, And having twisted some thorns into a crown, put it on his head, and a rod in his right hand, and then, going down on their knees before him, they mocked him. “Long life to you, King of the Jews!” they said. They spat at him and, taking the rod, kept striking him on the head; And, when they had left off mocking him, they took off the military cloak, and put his own clothes on him, and led him away to be crucified. (Matthew 27:27-31)
Good Friday isn’t normally thought of as a “political” holy day, but looking at it from the standpoint of how and why Jesus was arrested and tried, it is the political holy day par excellence. The Jewish leadership placed against him the charge of blasphemy, but in reality their actions were politically driven, as I discussed in my piece We Are Donkeys. Yes, We Are. Once they got the result they were after, it was time for the soldiers to make their political move, and they did with a vengeance.
For all of its greatness, the Roman Empire never quite hit upon a succession routine that it found satisfactory over a long period of time. Until the last century before Our Lord, the Republic had its cursus honorum for aspiring leaders up to the annual election of the two consuls. That regularity of office inspired our own Founding Fathers in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.
The success of the Republic’s expansion put strains on the system that led to adventurers like Marius and Sulla to upset the routine. From then on the Republic’s life was dominated by careerists with armies behind them: Pompey (who actually strolled into the Holy of Holies,) Crassus (who perished at the hands of the Persians,) and ultimately Julius Caesar. Caesar’s assassination set off a new round of war with the likes of Mark Antony and Octavian, who ultimately cleaned up the mess by dispatching Mark Antony at Actium and establishing what we call the Empire but is more properly referred to as the Principiate.
The years between Augustus’ accession and Nero’s death were relatively peaceful, but the soldiers were always out there. Tiberius, under whose reign the Passion took place, had for a time a “regent” in Sejanus, head of the Praetorian Guard. In 41 A.D. Claudius was put forth by the Praetorians, the Senate eventually going along. And, of course, the “long and one year” 69 A.D., was a battle of one set of soldiers after another proclaiming successive emperors until Vespasian triumphed over all, leaving his son Titus, the “darling of the human race” (to use Josephus’ sycophantic phrase) to level Jerusalem.
That, in any case, is the situation around the time of the New Testament. Cyril was doubtless aware of all of this, but more recent history dominated his thinking.
The years between the assassination of Commodus in 192 and the proclamation of Diocletian in 284 were a long, bloody mess. The soldiers not only proclaimed just about every emperor; they proclaimed several at once, leading to one civil war after another. A state and civilisation weaker than Rome would have collapsed under the strain; as it was, the third century was grim enough for most of the Empire. Like Julius Caesar’s rule, Diocletian’s attempt to stabilise things with the Tetrarchy was a temporary fix. It was left to Constantine to restore one emperor rule, and that after having to defeat his rivals (except for Licinius, whom he had executed.) After Constantine’s death his sons, when not meddling in the Arian controversy, fought each other and usurpers, each proclaimed by soldiers.
Cyril’s comment, thus must be seen in the light of Roman history and practice. This leads us to three lessons:
- The soldiers who crowned and mocked Jesus were not only aiming their sport at him; they were “play acting” the central act of Roman politics and Imperial history. Today, it was a prisoner; tomorrow, for them, it might be the next Roman Emperor. Most of the proclamations of that day were done closer to home, i.e., Rome, so they may have figured they needed to at least act it out when they got the chance.
- Cyril’s point is that, not realising it, the soldiers were making the most important proclamation of kingship they would ever do. Unlike Roman Emperors, God didn’t need a group of soldiers to proclaim the king of the universe, but, just as he accommodated us in the Incarnation, so also they proclaimed him anyway. The significance of that proclamation, and the events surrounding it, sunk in to some of the soldiers who were present: “The Roman Officer, who was standing facing Jesus, on seeing the way in which he expired, exclaimed: “This man must indeed have been ‘God’s Son’!”” (Mark 15:39.)
- Roman history is a lesson that a stable, consistent routine of government change can deteriorate more quickly than we’d like to think. The deep disaffection in our own society should be a warning to us. We could be seeing rulers proclaimed by soldiers much sooner than we’d like to think.