Pomp, under the circumstances

“Pomp and Circumstance”: you know, the song they play (on a continuous loop!) during graduations. Go ahead. Hum it while you read.

Originally, the song had nothing to do with graduations. The title comes from a line in Shakespeare’s Othello, which speaks of the “pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war.” Shakespeare’s passage conveys the image of a military general astride a warhorse, marching to victory beneath the banner of his king, inspired by the sound of drum and fife. With that image in mind, Sir Edward Elgar wrote the song for the coronation of Edward VII.

But when Elgar received an honorary doctorate from Yale in 1905, they played the song as a recessional. Then Princeton used it. Then the University of Chicago. Then Columbia…

And the rest, as they say, is history.

But of course, sometimes a little pomp is called for, under the circumstances.

Cue the music.

. . .

Porcius Festus, the newly appointed governor of Judea, was a politician and statesman. The king of Chalcis, Agrippa II, and his sister Bernice had come to pay their respects. Festus saw an opportunity to get Agrippa’s help with a little political problem he was having: the apostle Paul. Festus knew nothing of Jewish customs, understood nothing of why the Jerusalem leaders hated Paul so. He hoped Agrippa, a descendant of the house of Herod, could help him craft his letter to Nero about the case, in a way that wouldn’t leave the neophyte governor looking confused or incompetent.

When Festus had briefed Agrippa privately on Paul’s case, the king expressed the desire to hear Paul himself, and Festus agreed:

So on the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city. Then Festus gave the order and Paul was brought in. (Acts 25:23, NRSV)

Festus, I imagine, pulled out all the stops. He wanted the event to show up on the 6 o’clock news, on every channel. He wanted to stroke Agrippa’s ego. There was fanfare and pageantry as Agrippa and Bernice approached the meeting hall, which quickly became packed with important people. The king and his sister were probably the only Jews in the room.

Festus had his audience. Let the show begin: 

And Festus said, “King Agrippa and all here present with us, you see this man about whom the whole Jewish community petitioned me, both in Jerusalem and here, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. But I found that he had done nothing deserving death; and when he appealed to his Imperial Majesty, I decided to send him. But I have nothing definite to write to our sovereign about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that, after we have examined him, I may have something to write—for it seems to me unreasonable to send a prisoner without indicating the charges against him.” (Acts 25:24-27)

If the motive hadn’t been clear before, it was now: he needed Agrippa’s help to write a convincing report to Nero. He laid out the dilemma: I found Paul innocent of any crime — then Paul appealed to the emperor. I have to send him. But how can I send him to the emperor when there are no formal charges against him that have anything to do with the empire?

It would be “unreasonable” to do so, he said. That’s a politically correct way of saying, “The emperor could have my head instead of Paul’s.” So Festus spreads the responsibility around the room: I’m relying on all of you, and especially you, King Agrippa, to help me figure out how to explain this to Nero. The unspoken subtext is: And if you can’t  — including a friend of the emperor who’s an expert in Jewish matters! — how could I be expected to do more?

It’s a canny move, designed to get Festus off the hook. Moreover, it seems likely that he wanted to disguise the fact that he was keeping an innocent man in custody because he was afraid of the political consequences of releasing him.

A little pomp, under the circumstances, was just what Festus needed.