Paulette and I were privileged to accompany her sister on a whirlwind tour of London and Paris last week, two cities that have been on her bucket list for a long time. Three nights in London and four in Paris is really just a fly-by of the historic hot spots, places that have had world-wide recognition for centuries. Places like the real London Bridge, the Tower of London, Windsor Castle, the Notre Dame cathedral, the Eiffel Tower, and the Louvre. Actually seeing the reality of places such as these helped me understand why they are the national and international icons that they are. They really are very impressive.
Another very impressive place is the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It was commissioned by the emperor Napoleon in 1806 to commemorate his victory in the battle of Austerlitz. It is the largest of several other “arches of triumph” in Europe, all of them commemorating a battle victory or the conquest of a city.
Our tour guide told us that the idea of an arch of triumph began with the Romans as early as the first century AD. When the Roman army conquered a city, killing many of its citizens, they believed that they took on the sins, the defilements of the people of that city. In order to purify themselves, they would build an arch, believing that as they passed under the arch as they left the city, they would be cleansed of the defilements of that city.
Those beliefs of the ancient Romans point to two realities that are deep in the collective consciousness of humanity. The first is that sin defiles us, makes us unclean, and we need to be cleansed. The second is that our defilement can be passed on to others.
Those Roman soldiers knew they needed cleansing, as do we all. But passing under an arch didn’t in reality cleanse them. It was entirely symbolic wishful thinking. God knows we need cleansing, and he knows we know it. And that’s why Jesus came to the earth. He took our defilement on himself, not by conquering or killing us, but by being killed for us. He cleanses us from our defilement, not by passing under an arch, but by passing under the hand of God’s judgement in our place.
The Arc de Triomphe is a monument to man, to a man’s violent victory over other men. But it is also a monument to mankind’s need for a savior and redeemer. God’s monument to that savior is the cross.