Among the many things that—for me at least—add to the magic of Christmastime is the annual dusting off of some wonderful hymns on the Advent of our Lord. I rotate between favorites. A few years ago it was “Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendor.” Last year it was “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” We have precious few weeks to sing these hymns, and some years it feels as though we return a few of them back to the rear corner of the attic as dusty as they were when we took them out.
There is at least one hymn, however, that always manages to get its annual dusting, polish, and shine. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is a staple of the Christmas season, and would likely stand atop many folks’ list of favorite Christmas songs—justifiably so. Yet despite the song’s privileged place in the canon of Christmas hymnody, and despite the fact I’ve sung it at some point in December every year of my song-enabled life, my experience of teaching Roman history this fall thrust a new resonance of meaning into the lyrics that I’d never picked up on before.
In modern English, the word triumph doesn’t have any real particularity to it that distinguishes it from words like victory and win. They all sort of generically denote successes as opposed to failures in some endeavor or another. But in ancient Rome, a triumph was something entirely unique. Sure it was restricted to military endeavors, but even more than that, a triumph was restricted to a particular event that could happen only after military successes of a particular sort.
To be specific, a triumph could only be awarded by vote of the Senate to a victorious general who had conquered more than 5,000 enemies of Rome in battle. His success must not have been preceded by major defeats, nor would the honor of a triumph be given if his campaign had not achieved its intended result—the expansion of Roman sovereignty and peace in the conquered region.
If the necessary preconditions were met, the Roman general was awarded this highest of honors. He was allowed to lead his victorious army through the streets of the city, thronged everywhere with jubilant citizens and resounding with their adoration. To modern people, the triumph would have looked like a cross between our civic parades and religious processions. It was led by singers, musicians, and dancers, followed by an open display of all the choicest spoils of war, then by the leaders of the vanquished enemy bound and disgraced by their chains. “Then came the general dressed in purple embroidered with gold, with a crown of laurel on his head, a branch of laurel in his right hand, and in his left an ivory scepter with an eagle on the top, having his face painted with vermilion in like manner as the statue of Jupiter on festival days, and a golden ball hanging from his neck on his breast … standing in a gilded chariot, adorned with ivory, and drawn by four white horses.” (Roman Antiquities, A. Adam)
Quite a scene, isn’t it? With that in mind, then, consider anew the command you’ve doubtless sung dozens of times in the first verse of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” “Join the triumph of the skies,” the song implores. If you’re like me, you’re struck all at once with the paradoxical combination of near parallels and radical differences between the scene described above and the one described in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel. The dazzling brightness, majesty, and beauty of the angelic choir and their song is reminiscent of the Roman triumphal procession; it even makes the splendor of that earthly procession’s singers and performers look rather trite by comparison.
But what of the one heralded? What about the star of the show, the one on whom all the celebration centers? Unlike the entry of the victorious general into Rome, in which the heralded hero is exalted about as highly as any man can be, the entry of our Lord into our world is marked by profound humiliation. There in the feeding trough the hero lies, newly born into a poor Jewish family who had been lately beckoned to Bethlehem at the whim of a Roman governor named Quirinius—who, by the way, had once enjoyed a proper triumph of his own with all the trimmings.
In what sense then is the Advent of our Lord a triumph? Oh, it’s not a Roman triumph, of course. It’s a triumph of the skies. This is a Heavenly affair, done Heaven’s way. On that night Heaven’s light and life broke in on our darkness and forever reclaimed the first piece of Earth that had been lost. It was worth celebrating then, no matter how astoundingly humble were its beginnings. And it’s a triumphal procession worthy of joining now, these 2,020 (or so) years later. For, as Handel reminds us each Christmas, “he shall reign forever and ever.”