Strange how history guides us, even when we are not paying attention.
Here we are in 2019, thinking our time unique. We wring our hands at the mess politics has made of society, wish for the sort of peace an end to the Cold War promised, wonder at the future and find ourselves fuming at everything from high taxes to foreign threats, egotistical leaders and self-important detractors to the inanity – even stupidity – of public dialogue. We think we are alone, but we are not.
The largest war of an era – ending a costly period of interminable conflict and peripheral military engagement – had closed 31 years prior. Major civilizations had met, contested the future of the world, and one had prevailed.
Caesar Augustus had – three decades prior – defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra, bringing an indulgent reign to sudden close, creating one superpower and a peace dividend. A temporary period of peace had begun.
In that time, the earthy leader of the superpower was independently wealthy, often contributing his personal wealth to the advance of society. To many he was wildly popular, as he restored borders and order, military prowess and pride, lowered taxes, returned local decisions to the provinces.
Caesar Augustus was one who also stoked passions. Innovator, he defended longstanding traditions of the Roman empire. Accorded ample legal authority, his sails were occasionally trimmed by a powerful national council – which often asserted authority over daily life.
Across society, conflicting trends intersected, angered one another, raised moments of social unrest, receded and created a swirling pool of largely secular but also pagan practices and beliefs. Figurative and literal insurrections occurred, adroitly managed or simply put down. Society was hardly unified.
Tribal differences in outlying provinces were tolerated, but rule of law was often harsh. Rulers within the national council and Caesar’s administration pressed priorities, including expansion of Roman roads – what we might call, today, a bipartisan infrastructure initiative.
Of course, major differences marked that era, as they do all eras. Caesar and his successors failed as often as they succeeded, and society rolled on. Scars of the Roman Civil War were hardly forgotten. Rome was no democracy, no bastion of equality or liberty, the national council no American Congress, Augustus no American President.
But humanity was not so dissimilar, society not so profoundly different, and history not so distant from our own time in some important ways. People feuded for human, nonsensical, inane, and self-defeating reasons. Sins of the day were not unlike our sins. Government counted people, distributed resources, and made decrees. Politics was a profound distraction, sometimes dwarfing what mattered most.
“In those days,” as Luke tells us, “Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” By decree, albeit unknowingly, Caesar Augustus fulfilled the Old Testament prophesy of Micah – that a Savior would be born in Bethlehem.
You see Joseph and Mary, then with child, were not in Bethlehem. They were in Nazareth. Only by Caesar’s decree did they return to Bethlehem, family home of Joseph, who hailed from “the line of David.”
So, they found themselves in Bethlehem. There in Bethlehem – amid a society swirling with nonsense and corruption, crossed swords and endless recriminations, temporal politics and unending clashes of ego – they rested at a timeless crossroads, the meeting of mortality and immortality.
There, bathed in the evanescent light of angels, attended by simple shepherds and three introspective kings, was born the Savior of Mankind. This is what Christians celebrate at Christmas. In a society bereft of miracles, unable to nest a miracle, came the miracle.
And so, we remember. We recall more what happened than the environment in which it happened, more the miracle that begot more miracles than any before or since, than the pale facts surrounding Christ’s birth.
We forget that miracles occur in times of human distraction, disaffection, dissolution and disconsolation – for those of faith. They always have, and probably always will. Perhaps we are too distracted. Christmas offers a rare chance to slow. We forget history is a marvelous guide. We think we are alone, but we are not. Merry Christmas!