Star Trek and the Triumph of the Cross

Recently Dom showed me a trailer for the Passion of the Christ created with clips from the movie that had been mixed with the soundtrack to the new Star Trek movie. It was a very compelling remix, with many beautiful coincidences of timing, that showed how important music is to the telling of a story. With this soundtrack the passion becomes the story of the hero’s journey. The emotional movement is quite different than the descent into sorrow and fear of the soundtrack to Mel Gibson’s movie. instead the triumphal notes in the music focus more on the ultimate victory of the resurrection rather than the terrible experience of the passion itself, on the triumph of the cross rather than on the horror and the scandal of the cross. Both approaches are, of course, valid depending on the mood one wishes to convey. Gibson chose to convey the more somber of the two. In fact, his original screenplay, I understand, did not include the Resurrection but ended on Good Friday.

The Church’s liturgical year wisely allows us to linger in these two very different moods at two different times. During Holy Week we join Christ in his suffering and death, while on the feast of the Exultation of the Cross we view the cross in a much more celebratory mode. I thought it was neat how the two pieces of music made the same footage reflect those two different liturgical moods.

Afterward we watched the original Star Trek trailer and as I watched I got shivers a few times, struck by how many of the things said of Kirk are also true of Christ, how Kirk’s story (at least as presented in the trailer,I hadn’t seen the movie yet) has echoes in it of the Passion:

“You will experience fear. Fear in the face of certain death.”

“We’ve received a distress call.”

“I’ve been waiting for this day my whole life.”

“This day of reckoning.”

“We have no captain. And no first officer to replace him.”

“You are capable of deciding your own destiny.”

“The question is: which path will you choose?”

It makes sense really, for isn’t every hero story either an anticipation of or an echo of the one hero story, which is the life of Christ? Tolkien said that the Incarnation is the one True Myth that all others are echoes of. All heroes are heroic precisely to the degree that they are imitators of Christ, the greatest hero ever to live because his heroism actually did save the universe and defeated death itself.

If the comparison seems incongruous it is perhaps because the idea of Christ as hero, as military commander, as victorious general has been lost to us, or at least very watered down to the point that we are seldom moved by its power.  We shy away from the militaristic images that abound in both the Old and New Testaments. And yet I find that these are often the metaphors that speak to me most strongly if I really let myself ponder them. one of my favorites is from Psalm 24 : “O gates, lift up your heads, grow higher ancient doors let him enter the king of glory Who is the king of glory, he the Lord of armies he is the king of glory.” That and the image in the Book of Revelation where Christ is depicted with a sharp two edged sword coming from his mouth.

And as I thought about the feast of the Exultation of the Cross, also known as the Triumph of the Cross suddenly it occurred to me how watered-down that word “triumph” has become so that we hardly remember its original meaning. To the ancient Romans, to anyone living in the Roman Empire as the early Christians did, a triumph was a very specific civil ceremony and religious rite, a public celebration of the military achievement of the commander of an army who had won a significant victory. In fact traditionally a triumph was awarded only to a general who had successfully completed a war and who therefore brought his entire army home, signifying that they are no longer needed.

The more I thought about what I learned long ago about Roman triumphs, the more fitting the triumph seemed to me as a metaphor for Christ’s victory over death. Christ is the ultimate in triumphal generals, his victory brings the eternal struggle between good and evil to a definitive end. After the crucifixion and resurrection death is defeated once and for all. On a cosmic level the war is over, even though individuals still struggle with sin, evil no longer has any power over anyone who is joined to the body of Christ.

In a Roman triumph the victorious general carried the arms of his defeated opponents through the streets, displaying them as trophies and also showing that they no longer have power to harm the citizens of the city. Likewise we lift up the cross, originally the symbol of shame, degradation and torture, of the power of death, and in raising it up we recognize that everything the cross represents has now been subjected to Christ’s power.

On a side note, this has helped me to understand finally the meaning of the Bronze Serpent. It always puzzled me why Moses was commanded to make an image of the serpents that God had sent to attack the Israelites. The explanation that it prefigures the cross begs the question of what it means on the literal level, what it meant to the ancient Israelites. But when I think of the practice of carrying one’s defeated enemy’s arms—or in some cases his head—raised up on a pole to signal his defeat, then the bronze serpent makes sense. You look on the weapon or the enemy that formerly threatened you and see it deprived of its power, subject to your control. So the Israelites looked upon an image of the snake, the enemy that had brought them down, an image of their shame and saw that God’s power had defeated it. Likewise, on Good Friday when we are told to, “Behold the wood of the Cross!” we look upon the image of Christ’s shame and death and see that death is defeated and shame has become victory. Sin and death no longer have power over us so long as we are one with Christ the victor.

It really is a shame though that we have lost our sense of Christ as hero and warrior and have replaced it all too often with images of Christ as buddy and friend. it’s not that there is an inherent contradiction between those two images of Christ—both are true—but that we have elevated one to the exclusion of the other.

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