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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

So what on earth is happening here?

One of the key events in world history, 8th November 1519, as conquistador Hernán Cortés enters Tenochtitlan, the splendid capital of Aztec ruler Moctezuma.  But what actually happens – does Moctezuma become Cortés’ prisoner?  Or is it the other way around? 


In order to address a huge gap in my knowledge of history I’ve been looking at this pivotal moment as the Old World (as we see it) makes contact with the New. From this point everything changes, here as much as there. 


Strangely this happens at the same time as the Reformation gets traction back in Europe. Just two years earlier Martin Luther published his 95 Theses, posting them on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church.


Again two worlds clash as modernity, with its individualism and scientific method, takes on the Middle Ages.  And again, from this point everything changes. 


We are heirs of both events, in more ways than we realise.    


Without going into any detail at all, you will be glad to know, Cortés’ meeting with Moctezuma has been traditionally understood as the moment when the ruler of the Aztecs, realising that his empire has no defence against European technology, surrenders his empire to the Spanish King.  Just like that, however implausible it may sound. 


However, this is to rely on Spanish sources, especially  from Cortés who is anxious to justify his terrible treatment of the Aztec people.  However, modern historians, such as Camilla Townsend whose book, Fifth Sun, I am currently reading on Kindle, takes the opposite view:  Moctezuma has taken Cortés prisoner. 


After all, the Spanish have no knowledge whatsoever of Aztec customs and culture, their language and their religion.  They simply have no idea of what is going on – and they completely misinterpret what is happening.  They get it the wrong way around – it may not feel like it but it is they who are being taken prisoner.  At least to begin with. 


And it is this which I find utterly intriguing – a moment of huge significance and those involved in the drama seeing things very differently.  Time, of course, will tell.    


You could argue that the years 1517 – 1519 are the pivot on which world history turns.  Except there is another date, even more important:  an event, which strangely was also totally misinterpreted at the time: the trial of Jesus of Nazareth before Pontius Pilate, the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judaea.  AD 33, 14th Nisan. 


Everyone involved knew exactly what was happening and who was in charge.  Pilate is the embodiment of the Roman Empire, making sure that Tiberius’ harsh rule remained unchallenged.  No one could seriously challenge the Roman legions.


And certainly no one at the time would have any idea that this trial would be of any significance whatsoever, soon to be lost in the passage of time. 


As far as Pilate was concerned, the trial seems to be more of an inconvenience as he sends Jesus, a Galilean, to be dealt with by King Herod, that is King in name only.  But he has no doubt who is in charge.  “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said (to Jesus). “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” (John 19:10). 


And Jesus is crucified, one of thousands suffering this cruel fate at the hands of the Romans. 


But the resurrection victory of Jesus changes everything, even the entire course of world history.


And looking back now it is clear who was on trial before whom.  Not Jesus before Pilate but the very opposite.  As Jesus replied to the governor, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.”  (John 19:11).


And this is the template ever since, of how God works in human history. 


Who would have thought, for example, that the very city which dominated the world 2000 years ago would give its name to the largest Christian church.  I remember walking around the magnifient St Peter’s Basilica, thinking that this is ridiculous, this is – or could be – the burial site of an ordinary Galilean fisherman!


An important discipline of being a disciple of Jesus is to refuse to be taken in by the world’s deceit.  We may be the weak, totally-overwhelmed party in this particular drama – but the reality is the very opposite. 


The apostle Paul knew this from experience.  His favoured self-description was as a slave of Christ Jesus (such as Philippians 1:1).  After all, how much power and influence does a slave have in the scheme of things?  Some English translations try to soften this by using the word servant but the Greek word doulos means slave. 


But as Paul recounts to the Philippian church, “(Jesus) emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave.” (Philippians 2:7).  And had you been there at the time, on Pilate’s pavement, you would have been in no doubt that Jesus was no better than a slave, deserving a slave’s death.


Who would have thought?


But that’s God at work, typical.  That’s how he does things!  So we need Elijah’s prayer: “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.”  (2 Kings 6:17)


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