Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Christmas Confronts the World

About a decade or so before the birth of Jesus, the Roman Senate commissioned the Ara Pacis Augustae ("Altar of the Peace of Augustus") celebrating the peace which Caesar Augustus had brought to Rome and the world over which Rome ruled, thereby ending decades of civil war and Roman political and social conflict. This memorable monument to the famous pax romana remains in Rome to this day and should be seen by everyone - tourist or pilgrim - who visits the city. On the Emperor's behalf, it was also claimed (for example, in the so-called Priene inscription) that the birthday of the divine Augustus marked the beginning of good news for the world. Luke's Christmas Gospel famously situated Jesus' birth during the reign of Augustus (whose pax romana would later facilitate the spread of the good news of Jesus and the growth of the apostolic Church). But, in the inversion of priorities which is so characteristic of the Gospel story, Luke's account wants us to know that someone else is the true divine Savior of the world, at whose birth in seemingly insignificant Bethlehem a multitude of the heavenly host proclaimed an even greater peace that that produced by political power.

Luke also mentioned Qurinius, but neglected to repeat his earlier mention (cf. Luke 1:5) of Rome's client king of Judea, Herod the Great. If Augustus was happily remembered for the peace and unity his universal empire had provided, Herod has been remembered mainly for his malevolence, which highlighted and took to extremes the vicious violence which often accompanies the exercise of political power. It is Matthew's account which injects this tragic dimension of misused political power and its catastrophic consequences into the heart of the Christmas story, with Matthew's sad story of the massacre of those the Church commemorates today as the Holy Innocents.

in the Roman calendar, the Fourth Day of Christmas, December 28, has been dedicated to commemorating the slaughter of the Holy Innocents since the 5th century. Although included within the joyful Christmas Octave, prior to the 1960s today's celebration had a somewhat sorrowful aspect. Violet vestments were worn, and the Gloria and Alleluia at Mass and the Te Deum at Matins were omitted. The Holy Innocents were credited with martyrdom, despite their inability to will it, because of their death's special connection to the coming of Christ into the world. Even so, the usual note of triumph associated with the festivals of martyrs yielded in this unique case to the more human feeling of sorrow and expression of lament, suggested by Matthew himself, who cited Jeremiah's prophetic lament for the children of Israel, reflected in the matriarch Rachel, whose supposed tomb (photo) is within a short walking distance form Bethlehem, crying unconsolably for her children.

This juxtaposition of the jubilation appropriately associated with Christmas with the mourning and lamentation appropriately associated with Herod's murder of the Holy Innocents illustrates the complexity inherent in the Christmas story and message, whose meaning simultaneously comforts us and challenges us. On the one hand, as Saint Leo the Great said in his first Christmas sermon, "sadness should have no place on the birthday of life; the fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness." On the other hand, human history reminds us that the amazing inversion of priorities from the empire of the divine Augustus to the kingdom of Jesus Christ does not come about without opposition from those already in power in the world - and accordingly cautions us against any facile identification of the Christian story with any political party or agenda, with any ambition yo transform the earth through the acquisition and exercise of worldly political power. The latter lesson is one which needs to be repeated in churches in every age and especially in our own.

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