During this year’s Passion season, I encountered an old Holy Week hymn called, “The Royal Banners Forward Go”:
The royal banners forward go,
The cross shines forth in mystic glow; Where He in flesh, our flesh who made,
Our sentence bore, our ransom paid.
These words are from the translation of J.M. Neale (1851). But the Latin original – Vexilla regis prodeunt – go back to Venantius Fortunatus, who died around AD 609. Venantius was Bishop of Poitiers in what is now modern France, around the time when Roman power was weakening in North and Central Europe. He wrote this hymn, which is still sung in churches today during Passion Week.
The tone and metre of the hymn is that of a procession, a parade. The word vexilla (“banners”) is the word used to describe the regimental standards of the Roman Legionnaires. At the time when Roman Legions would have been retreating or have retreated from North and Central Europe to Italy, Bishop Venantius sings of the standards of another royal army, the banners of another king. 1
The language of the hymn is not just of that of the Cross as royal banners. The language also speaks of the Cross as a throne. This is clearest in the third verse, which contains a curious phrase:
Fulfilled is all that David told
In true prophetic song of old,
Amidst the nations, God, saith he, Hath reigned and triumphed from the tree.
We join many others in wondering where exactly David said that – that God has reigned and triumphed from the tree?
The answer is in David’s “true prophetic song of old” – i.e. the Psalms. But where in the psalms? Well, in our bibles, Ps 96.10 reads
Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns!”
But, it looks like in the Roman Psalter (an Old Latin translation), the verse reads:
Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns from the wood/tree!”
Some Latin Church Fathers from Tertullian onwards (including Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms) quote this reading. Interestingly, the early Greek-writing apologist Justin Martyr argues that these words do belong in the verse and they prophesy about the cross of Christ (1 Apol. 41; Dial. 73): “The Lord reigns from the tree!”
But none of our usually reliable OT manuscripts – whether Hebrew or Greek – have “from the tree” at the end of that line. Most likely, this was an addition from someone translating or copying a manuscript. Who knows what this translator was thinking? Maybe he didn’t understand a particular Hebrew word and guessed. Maybe he saw wrongly. Maybe he just liked trees.
But, while “the Lord reigns from the tree!” is almost certainly NOT what Ps 96.10 says, the early Fathers are on to something here. The phrase does reflect a profound truth worth meditating upon.
At the heart of Luke’s picture of the cross is the mocking of Jesus as king of the Jews.
There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” (Luke 23:38)
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has turned upside down the meaning of kingship, the meaning of the kingdom itself. He has eaten with the wrong people, offered peace and hope to the wrong people, and warned the wrong people of God’s coming judgment. 2
Now in chapter 23, Jesus is hailed as king at last, but in mockery. We see his royal cupbearer. But it’s a Roman soldier offering him the sour wine favoured by the poor. We see his royal inscription, announcing his kingship to the world. But it’s actually the criminal charge which forms the basis of his death penalty. We see the generous gift of a king on his way to enthronement. And it turns out to be a promise of a place in paradise to a fellow-convict.
But, in a deep and mysterious way, what was intended as mockery turns out to be the deepest truth of all. Jesus is indeed and truly the King of the Jews, the Lord over all the earth. And God is enthroned here at the tree. Here – at the place where Roman humiliation and Jewish shame and universal curse meet – here is where God’s glory is fully revealed to us.
If we were asked to think of royal glory, some of us would picture the pomp and the circumstance of the British royal family – they are still the most famous royal dynasty, after all. We think of the palaces, the parades, the processions, the crowns, the opulence, the vertical-hand waves from the balcony high up. And so, it’s easy for us think that the Cross is a place where Jesus has been stripped of his most powerful, glorious, divine attributes. We suppose that the Cross is the place where Jesus is most un-Godlike.
But what if the reverse is true? What if the Cross is the place where God is the most God-like? What does that say about God, and about his Kingdom?
If Jesus is enthroned at the Cross, if God is reigning from the tree, then perhaps we have to start rethinking what true power, honour, and glory, is. Perhaps true power and glory is found at the place of ultimate self-giving love, suffering for the sake of others.
1See Rowan Williams’ short but rich book, The Sign and the Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Cross and Resurrection (WJK, 2016).
2 See Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (SPCK, 2004), 284.