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Diebus saltem Dominicis: The Sons of David

When I visit Rome, at least once during my time there I go to the Ara Pacis or “Altar of Peace” of the Emperor Augustus Caesar (+14), which is housed in dreadful building that looks like a gas station.  I don’t go in to see the actual altar.  What I revisit is the supporting wall of the building, into which has been embedded in bronze letters the entire text of Augustus’ Res Gestae, his life and accomplishments.  It’s all about wars he fought, offices he held, money he spent to build this and do that.  My favorite part is where he talks about the temple of Janus, the god with two faces, patron of beginnings and endings, doorways and gates. The month January is named after Janus because consuls began their offices on its first day, now our New Year’s Day.

Janus was originally a primitive war god of the Sabines gathered into the Roman pantheon.  Janus was also called Quirinus, also from Sabine origins for “spear”.  Quirinus eventually was absorbed into Rome’s legendary founder Romulus which explains why Roman citizens were called “Quirites” in their peacetime mode.  When Julius Caesar dismissed one of his legions he called them Quirites since they were then civilians.  We get the word “cry” in English from the French crier, which comes from Latin quiritare, “to implore the aid of the Roman citizens, quirites”.  I digress.

Thus, it was a custom in ancient Rome that when there was peace, the doors of the temple of Janus Quirinus were closed.

Why is this of such interest to draw me there during my visits?  And why am I rambling about this today?

On the Vigil of Christmas in the Roman Church it is the practice at the Office of Prime to sing the Kalendas, the Christmas Proclamation.  It is now often sung before the Vigil Mass of Christmas or before Midnight Mass. This chant recounts how many years there had been before the birth of the Lord and various moments in salvation history from the Creation onward.  Toward the end of the chant we hear…

… in the 752nd year from the foundation of the city of Rome, in the 42nd year of the reign of the Emperor Octavian Augustus, in the 6th age of the world, while the whole world was at peace, Jesus Christ, Himself Eternal God and Son of the Eternal Father, being pleased to hallow the world by His most gracious coming, having been conceived of the Holy Ghost, and when nine months were passed after His conception, was born of the Virgin Mary at Bethlehem of Juda made Man, Our Lord Jesus Christ was born according to the flesh.

“…while the whole world was at peace”.

The whole world was, of course, the world under the rule of Rome.  The reference on the wall with the brazen bronze Res Gestae is to the year Christ was born.

Augustus boasts that he closed the temple of Janus three times when in all previous history they had only been closed twice.  According to the Roman historian Dio Cassius (+235) Augustus closed the doors in 29 and 25 BC and, according to a student of St. Augustine, the historian Paulus Orosius (+420), finally in the 752nd year after the founding of Rome.  It matters little that it’s hard to reconcile the year of Christ’s birth with the traditional date of Rome’s founding.  What matters is that this is what we sing in the Kalends before Christmas: “…while the whole world was at peace…”

How mysterious are the plans of God, His economy of salvation, how He disposes all things from the before the creation of the cosmos.

In Luke 2 we read that there was a census taken, which would have been done for purposes of taxation and military conscription.  There is debate among scholars about the date and details of the census.  Luke, however, says it was in the time when Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (there’s that word again) was governor in Syria.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.” (vv. 4-5)

The whole world being at peace would have been important.  Travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been dangerous a few years earlier without the Cohors Italica (cf. Acts 10:1) making sure no one would even dream of waylaying travelers on that route.  The same goes for traveling to Egypt to escape the predations of Herod.  Also, people tended to travel in caravans, for there is safety in numbers.  I rather doubt, however, given the slower pace of news and life in ancient times there would have been any traffic jam of census enrollers on the roads.

There is, however, a traffic jam of wonderful holy days this year.  As I write – I’m a bit late getting to my keyboard – it is the Vigil of Christmas and it supplants the 4th Sunday of Advent.   In the Novus Ordo the Gospel for the 4th Sunday and for Christmas Eve is the much the same, from Matthew 1, the Vigil starting from verse 1 and the Sunday starting from verse 18.  The first 18 verses of Matthew 1 are the genealogy of the Lord, from Abraham to Joseph.

The genealogy is important and not simply to be rushed by on the way to the good stuff because, among other great reasons it focuses on Joseph. Let’s give Joseph a lot of love in this time of Christmas joy.

If you are paying attention during the reading of the genealogy in Matthew 1, you hear at the end of the first of the three sections – it’s divided into three sets each of fourteen generations – that Jesse was the father of David the king.  Then you read names of kings until, fourteen generations later, the Exile of Babylon took place.  After that, we hear the list of fathers down to “Jacob, father of Joseph the husband of Mary”.  This means that silent Joseph, from whom we hear nary a word in Scripture, was the true heir of King David.  Joseph was The King.   He would have known that, too.

One imagines that gave Joseph added incentive to get his family out the town when the bloodthirsty and paranoid false King Herod was killing children who might potentially be rivals based on prophecy.

Herod was, of course, a client king over Judea, imposed by the Romans.  He wasn’t even a Jew of Judea, being an Edomite from Idumea, the land of the descendants of Esau.  Some scholars brush off as fiction the Massacre of the Innocents.  On the other hand, Herod was the sort of guy who killed three of his own sons on suspicion of scheming against him.  He killed a wife and her mother, the High Priest, uncles, sundry cousins.  When he was dying he plotted to put hundreds of scholars and priests in an area and slaughter them so that the Jews would have a reason to mourn instead of throwing a party.  Hence, when the Magi asked Herod about the one “born King of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2) and the priests tell him Bethlehem of Judea, where David was anointed King, that was cause for concern so serious that, again, an angel comes to hurry the Holy Family out of harm’s way.

Angels show up at pivotal moments.  Gabriel, of course, appeared to Mary at the pivot point of history, the Incarnation, and, before that, appeared to Zachariah to prepare for the Forerunner.  At Christ’s birth angels told shepherds minding the sheep destined for sacrifice in the Temple about the tidings of great joy.   When the Lord was tempted in the wilderness, angels aided Him, as they did in Gethsemane.  They were at the tomb of the Resurrection.  They assisted at the Ascension.  They busted Peter and John out of jail so they could preach and later saved Peter from prison.  An angel instructed Cornelius, a centurion probably of Corhors Italica, to send for Peter.  An angel guided Philip to the right place and time to baptize the Ethiopian eunuch.  Paul said that an angel came to him in the storm at Malta.   Those were pivotal moments.

In Matthew 1:20, when out of humility, not suspicion, Joseph is considering how to handle the fact that Mary was with child, the angel who comes to him calls him “son of David”.  The title Son of David, is a title of the Messiah, but it is also Joseph’s.  When Joseph died, Jesus would have been rightful King.  Jesus might have only Mary’s DNA, but he shared that title, Son of David, with Joseph.  Like David, Joseph too was in reverential awe of the “ark” and would not for a while bring it into his home.  David had sent away the Ark of the Covenant for a time and it remained for some months in the home of Obed-Edom (2 Samuel 6).  Were it not for the angel, Joseph might have not taken Mary into his house after their legal marriage.  Were it not for the angel, the Holy Family might have been caught by Herod’s thugs.

This provides some context to the next part beginning with Matthew 1:18-21.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

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