By JAMES T. DENNISON, JR.
The day of his birth was celebrated in messianic strains. His career was recalled with rapt devotion. He was hailed ‘prince of peace’–bringer of tranquility–the deliverer–the deliverer from war and bloodshed. Truly with his advent, men could put up their swords. A golden glow spread its fingers over the world. Light–aureate sunlight–was the image of his reign. A golden age had dawned and mankind basked in the luster of his kingdom: happy, contented, at peace. For their cosmic benefactor–their savior (soter) bestowed upon them mercy, justice and freedom (caritas, justitia, libertas). With the advent of this glorious one, no less than a new age arrived. A new age and a new order–the transformation of the world; the end of the old–the inauguration of the new. In conquest, he was revered as victor–the vanquisher of all his foes. Yes, he could even say he had a god as his father; he was a son of the divine. Good news arrived with his appearance–the good news that the world had a new beginning.
He crossed the Campus Martius as Caesar crossed the Rubicon. With his entrance into the Roman Senate, Octavian began the campaign which has earned him the name, Augustus–’revered one.’ Pax–Pax Augusta; Pax et Princeps–Peace, Augustan Peace . . . and Dictatorship! Civil war ended–soldiers disappeared from plebeian homes; fields and barns were no longer summarily requisitioned; the devastation of 100 years of bloodshed began ever so slowly to be repaired. Yes, Rome was weary–weary of death, weary of bloodshed, weary of destruction, weary of corruption. And Octavian–Octavian was the man for all causes; a century of anarchy ended with his reign. On the surface, all was well in the city of the seven hills. Rome was rebuilt–more glorious than before: temples, arenas, public baths and forums abounded. No trace of the ruble of combat remained. Augustus found Rome brick and left it marble. If dozens of temples were opened, the doors of the Temple of Janus were closed. Pax Romana!
But those in authority are seldom what they seem. Beneath the veneer, underneath the projected public image, lies the intrigue, the manipulation, the cruel, insensitive use of people. Octavian ushered in the Pax Romana, but the cost of this peace was the surrender of the human liberties of the republic. Roman citizenship became little more than political and social slavery. For Caesar–Caesar Augustus–was supreme despot, chief dictator, totalitarian lord of all he surveyed.
The Age of Augustus was celebrated by the poets (especially Virgil) as a new era–the dawn of the age of gold. The empire was expanding in every area: law, culture, arts, humanities, military might, religious revival. The economy boomed, the temples were full–any and every new cult had opportunity to erect a temple in Rome. Reform was in the air–reform of manners–reform of religion–reform of the republic.
But what appeared externally polished and full of glitter–outwardly successful and popular–seeming to meet the needs of the masses with program after program, activity after activity, ritual after ritual: what appeared on the outside to be so satisfying–so pacifying, so fulfilling–was vacuous. The soul of the empire was tyranny–the autocratic dominance of the many by the few. Cicero was executed by Marc Anthony. Cato committed suicide in the face of Julius Caesar’s imperial policies. Catullus bemoaned the loneliness of man. And Augustus? Augustus was a butcher–brutally, systematically eliminating every hand which had been raised against Caesar. People’s attention was successfully taken off the emperor and his reign of terror by the busyness–the building program, the revival of a plethora of pagan gods, goddesses and temples, the games and holidays. Every manipulator has his or her agenda–for those with eyes to look beneath the veneer, to peer behind the facade–the reality remains what it was for Augustus–brutal and tyrannical.
The empire began to die. Intellectually, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Ovid: these could not hold back the flood of superficiality, the deluge of the trivial. Intellectual vitality died; the pursuit of luxury became the primary aristocratic pastime. Rhetoric and oratory became the tool of flattery, i.e., saying what was expected to the rich and powerful. And the grandeur of the state–enshrined in its man-become-god (the Emperor); the grandeur of the state escalated to crush the human spirit and initiative. Gregory the Great looked back at Rome and said she died from material prosperity and the withering of the heart. Withered hearts–from Rome to Carthage–from Athens to Alexandria–withered hearts embraced astrology, magic, the occult. There were gods for everything–even a god to teach a baby to suck its thumb–superstition run amuck. No values, no standards, no meaning. The glory of Rome hid the malaise of soul, the angst which could not be quelled. No, the bloody gore of the gladiatorial arena could not quell it; the baptism in the blood of Mithras could not drown it; the deference to the cult of Caesar could not bring peace.
Pessimism, fear, helplessness, fatalism: these were the demons of the empire. And no one–neither emperor, nor senator, nor philosopher, nor diviner, nor poet–could exorcise them.
Now in the days of Caesar Augustus . . . . a young carpenter and his pregnant fiancee slowly wend their way to the south. From Nazareth, unremarkable village of Galilee, they journeyed to Bethlehem, hilltop city of David south of Jerusalem. No brick highway traced out the route through the hills and valleys of Judea. No legionnaire escort safeguarded the solitary couple. The benediction of the empire rested upon them! Did I say benediction?–yet two more faceless names on a census roll. The entrance of Mary and Joseph into Bethlehem was unheralded, unannounced, unnoticed. No marble palace awaited the son and daughter of David; no processional galas filled the streets in celebration of their arrival; no banquet feasts toasted their safe passage.
There was no room–no room but a stable. And in that dimly lit stable, Mary delivered her firstborn. She cut the cord; she washed and daubed him; she nursed him; she swaddled him; she laid him in a feeding trough. No herald dashed through the streets proclaiming the birth of a king. No jubilant crowds thronged in temple and synagogue to give thanks for the advent of the Son of God. No solemn edict from council, cabinet or senate declaring his birthday a new holiday festival.
Not the eyes of the world, only the solitary eyes of mother and father beheld him. The lowly handmaiden of the Lord; the humbly obedient carpenter. Shepherds from the nearby hills visited them at the manger. Pastors from the slopes of David’s sheepfolds come to behold a different lamb. Shepherds in a “rustic row”–outcast from polite society–banded with brigands and outlaws–the refuse of the world. Still they come; at God’s own invitation they come and at a manger, the gloria rings in their ears–rings in their ears and begins to rise in their hearts. The exaltation of those of low degree is begun–on their way rejoicing, uttering glorias and doxologies. Shepherds–lowly, unpretentious shepherds–have found the chief shepherd–the shepherd who seeks lost sheep until he finds them.
The child is brought to the Temple at purification. The yearners, the seekers, the waiters and watchers: they receive him. Not the priests; not the scribes and Pharisees; not the rulers; not the rich and famous. But Simeon and Anna. “He hath exalted those of low degree; He hath filled the hungry with good things.” Those who sit in the shadow of death–they take him up in their arms.
Aged Simeon–lowly, insignificant Simeon–aged Simeon takes him in his arms and prophesies. Aged Simeon content now with death–for his eyes have seen the glory!
And Anna–solitary, insignificant Anna–widowed, aged, devout Anna. Anna sees and prophesies–the Redeemer has appeared!
The child become a man will enter his hometown synagogue and he will read:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor
he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted
to preach deliverance to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind
to set at liberty them that are bruised.
The poor hear him gladly, but the rich he sends empty away.
The angels sang at that nativity. Sang gloria–gloria in excelsis. Gloria! for the Soter is born! Gloria! for the euangelion (evangel). Gloria et in terra pax–on earth peace. Pax! pax Christi–not pax Augusta.
Angels sing–out of the darkness–angels sing. From out of the light of glory, angels sing. Angels sing and light shines in the darkness. Yes the angels sing once more–even as they did at first. When they sang in the beginning–out of the darkness–sang the Creator’s glory, the glory of the Creator who said, “Let there be light!” As it was in the beginning when the sons of God sang and all the morning stars sang together. First creation–new creation! Out of darkness, light–the dawning of the sun of righteousness–the outburst of the bright and morning star. Here is the advent of a new era–the inauguration of a new order–the in-breaking of a new age for the sons and daughters of God.
The day of new beginnings arrives in Bethlehem, not Rome. The light of a new age breaks forth in the skies above a stable, not above the marbled halls of the Roman forum. The procession of adoration begins with a lowly virgin, an obscure carpenter, a ragtag band of shepherds, a lonely visionary and an aging widow. The Messianic age is inaugurated in Judea; the birthday of Jesus is truly the beginning of the novus ordo seculorum–the new order of the ages. He is the Prince of Peace for he brings a peace which no sword knows. He is the Son of God–God indeed is his Father. And the good news of his reign is the abundance of mercy for the miserable, grace for the undeserving, justice for the unrighteous and liberty for the captives (caritas, justitia, libertas).