A Torch Relay contrasted to a Triumphant Spectacle

So yesterday the torch relay came through our neighborhood on its way to the Olympic stadium to mark the start of the London 2012 games. There was a great buzz of excitement all throughout our neighborhood, as I’m sure there was in every neighborhood through which the torch passed. Essentially, the relay is an extended one person parade as people line the streets to see the procession of the torch as it makes its way to the main show at the stadium here in Stratford (East London). Different people carry the torch as it is passed from one person to another, and there is an excitement surrounding it. These torch bearers are all local or nati0nal heroes, generally selected for outstanding service to the community of the country. It is a unique and interesting, and genuinely exciting, thing to witness.

For some reason, however, the torch relay got me thinking about something else. There’s this theme used in Corinthianian correspondence of a parade. There, it is referring to the “triumphal procession.” It’s not really that related to the Ancient Olympics, despite the fact that Corinth had an early parallel in the Isthmian Games (named for the isthmus that Corinth straddles), but is a very Roman parade. In the parade, a general who had recently conquered new territory for the Roman Empire, was given a huge honor. As part of this honor, he would get to lead a lengthy parade through various parts of the empire. The general would lead the parade, coming as a national hero, followed by his officers and generals and new captives in the back. They would wind their way through most of the major cities finally ending in Rome, the capital, where a fire was lit and they were given an honor by the emperor.

Throughout each of these cities, however, and including up until Rome the general would hold a long chain in his hand. The chain would stretch back throughout the parade, past the officers, and cavalry, and foot soldiers, past most of the captives to the very back. There, at the tail end of the procession, was the conquered leader or king, being led like a dog. Rather than a king, he was a prisoner. At the end of the lengthy procession, once the fires were lit, he along with some of the captives, would be sacrificed

A relief of captives being led by a collar in ancient Rome, via Wikicommons

for the glory of the kingdom (Rome in this instance). The entire process was meant to humiliate the conquered king, who was essentially a walking dead man, and bring honor to the one leading the triumphal procession. With that in mind, let’s look at these two passages, first from 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 (NIV),

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?

and then from 1 Corinthians 4:9 (NIV).

For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings.

What is striking is that even though Jesus and God is the triumphant general leading the march, Paul does not consider himself to be among the officers, but among the king who must be killed. There is a real recognition that my own achievements are, as Paul says, rubbish (well that’s the clean translation of Philippians 3:8). He has truly died to himself and his old self is a walking dead man. He mixes his metaphors a bit to talk about the “aroma.” In the triumphal procession, as the captive king approached the stadium, he would begin to smell the fires burning and to him it would be an aroma of death. To the officers and generals, however, it was an aroma of life. For Paul he sees that for his old self it is the aroma of death, but for his new self that is Christ living through him and transforming his very being, it is an aroma of life. At the root though, rather than an honor before people, he sees his service to Christ as a his own humiliation before the entire universe. I’m not saying we shouldn’t give some sort of honor to those who clearly benefit our communities and the world around us, of course we should. I am saying, however, that the Christian should work with no thought for an immediate reward, but only to bring glory to Christ, even if it means humiliation. In contrast to a parade celebrating the honor of human achievement (even if it is for genuinely good work), Paul sees his work as only bringing honor to Christ. So the question, one that we all struggle with, is for whose honor or glory are you working?


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