Inasmuch as it is an excessive exultation of human achievements and capabilities, triumphalism can only ever be an impediment to the Church’s mission. Any deviation from the path of humility exemplified in the life and ministry of Our Saviour inevitably takes us into a dead end in which we cannot expect him to bless our efforts.
Being members of the Church Militant on earth involves struggling, with God’s grace, against our own frailties, and allows no quarter to any sense of self-sufficiency. Convincing ourselves of our own invincibility is a hubris that leads to disaster.
The Church’s celebration of Easter, however, is exceedingly and unabashedly triumphal. At the Easter Vigil the organ thunders loud and clear and an explosion of bells fills the church at the intonation of the Gloria, while altars decked with reliquaries and ornaments are made to resemble ancient Roman trophy monuments. This is exactly how it should be.
The threefold Alleluia sung before the Gospel, and all the liturgical accoutrements which make the solemn paschal liturgy unique and beautiful, are not meant to extol any achievement of man. We are rejoicing, with as much splendour as we can muster on earth, in the definitive triumph of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ over sin and death. What is there not to celebrate?
Nevertheless, an observer from outside our religion might well question our sanity. What, they might ask 2,000 years after the event, do we have to show today for Our Lord’s conquest over evil in the tomb? On the face of it they might seem to have a point. The anticipation with which we have been looking forward to Easter will, for Christians in some parts of the world, have been marred by a severe sense of trepidation. In recent years they have become used to the fact that terrorists launch their most deadly attacks on churches during great feasts while large crowds are worshipping inside. Within the Christian community, meanwhile, it sometimes seems as if a political culture of spin and prevarication is in danger of derailing the proclamation of the Gospel with the credibility that only comes with transparency and clarity. Perhaps this indicates a curiously modern form of triumphalism, which attempts to maintain power by means of worldly wiles rather than trusting in the power of the Incarnate Truth.
Despite appearances, however, the triumph of the Resurrection is definitive. It means that the outcome of the final conflict between good and evil, which will reach its denouement when Our Lord returns in majesty to judge the living and the dead, is already decided. The Devil and his angels are to be cast into hell forever. Every battle which occurs between now and then is a skirmish. Yes, Satan and his legions continue to wage ferocious guerrilla warfare against the reign of the King of Kings, and at times it looks as if we are losing ground. What matters in eternity, however, is not that we have been seen by the world to be victorious, but rather that we ally ourselves with the side to which we know the ultimate victory has already been granted. The Resurrection of Our Lord, and his Ascension body and soul into heaven where he has prepared a place for us, assure us where that final triumph lays.
At the beginning of Lent, Our Lord went into the wilderness, inspired by the Holy Spirit. There the Devil promised him success if he only he would impress Jerusalem by turning stones into bread and throwing himself off the roof of the Temple into the arms of angels, and even offered Him all the kingdoms of the earth on condition that he bow down and worship him.
God the Son, however, had not come to snatch possession of this world by means of novelties and gestures, or to conduct backroom diplomacy with the enemy of mankind. Rather, he came to purchase humanity back by paying the price of our sins in an offering of perfect love on the Cross. His Resurrection, and his promise to us that we may participate eternally in the life of this Resurrection, are the guarantee that the sacrifice on Calvary was effective and that we are able to be saved.
If triumphalism is incompatible with the meekness personified in Our Lord, defeatism is equally detrimental to the Church’s mission. We become defeatist when we recognise our own propensity to sin, the evils embedded in our society, or the wickedness of a godless regime, and tell ourselves that these evils are here to stay and so we might as well accommodate them.
The Resurrection means that evil has a very definite sell-by date. With God’s assistance, we must combat it at all costs if we wish to be part of the Church Triumphant in heaven.
Fr Julian Large Cong Orat is Provost of the London Oratory