Advent 2018: Are We Back in the Time of Tiberius?
The grim, cold spitting weather here in Dallas is just one more thing helping to put me in spirit of the season. Which of course, despite the early explosion of Christmas decorations, is Advent. When we’re called to remember how bleak the world was before Jesus came. How cruel, self-satisfied, apparently ordered but deeply chaotic, the world was without Christ.
And is becoming once again, as the lights He kindled seem to be winking out. Or getting snuffed out, by the very hands consecrated to tend them.
Life in Year Zero
Let’s start with the realms of culture and politics. When Christ was born what was the dominant political force in His world? A massive empire built on conquest and plunder. By some estimates, one resident in three of the Roman empire was a slave. He could be killed by his master, usually with impunity. Or sent to copulate, or fight and die, in the Colosseum for crowds’ amusement.
The austere virtues that had built the Roman Republic had drowned in a sea of gold and slaves.
Slaves of any age and either sex were erotic playthings for masters. That helped undermine Roman marriage, for reasons you can imagine. Divorce exploded, and the once-tight Roman family was crumbling into fragments. The birth rate was dropping. Countless unwanted children were left to die on the walls of Rome.
Perversion went public, and even became fashionable. Jesus’ secular ruler, Tiberius, was unashamedly a pedophile, abusing young boys and girls in his pleasure villa of Capri. No one seemed shocked. The austere virtues that had built the Roman Republic had drowned in a sea of gold and slaves.
Rome no longer defended itself with citizen soldiers. Such men once worked small farms and took up the sword in times of need. No more. Instead Rome’s conquests made possible (and necessary) a massive force of mercenaries, ever more of them unassimilated foreigners. They were paid by taxes on vast estates of senators. Their slaves worked farms stolen in the course of Rome’s conquests, while they dithered and schemed in Rome. Political elites controlled more and more of the wealth, and the middle class withered, then died.
Globalism, Roman Style
The Empire squashed and stifled the nations and tribes it conquered. It assimilated their folkways to its own global monoculture. Its language and customs replaced theirs, and homogenized most of a continent. We tend to see the Romanization of Europe through a rosy lens, since the Empire later converted to Christianity, and baptized Romanitas. Roman culture did indeed become a transmission belt for conversion.
But that was five or six grim pagan centuries in the future. History podcaster Dan Carlin reminds us how brutal Roman conquest could be. He calls Caesar’s unprovoked attack on Gaul a “Celtic Holocaust.” Millions died, and among the survivors, their culture would barely outlive them.
Our Ancestors, the Pharisees
The Jews stood out, a thick-necked, contrarian sign of contradiction. Its Pharisees amounted to the Religious Right of its day. They doggedly carried on and tried to live the complex dictates of Jewish Law. It was divinely designed to keep them from assimilating to filthy foreign empires like Rome’s.
Looking back, we are tempted to sneer at the Pharisees, because many of them would someday reject Jesus. But think about how that happened. Jesus didn’t bother to confront the corrupt imposter King Herod. He didn’t try to evangelize the foreign occupier Pilate. He grew up among faithful Jews who followed the Pharisees, as the best and most sincere representatives of the world’s one true religion. (St. Paul came from among them.)
Jesus preached to the Pharisees, because they really were the best of the Jews. And the Jews were the best that the world could offer. They were God’s own people, as in some sense they always will be. Zealous Christians today are in this sense the heirs of the Pharisees. Fallen like them, we strive to do what good we can by human means. When we fail, then fall, we might listen to Jesus. As a last resort.
The Sadducees: Mainline Religion
In Jesus’ day, the priestly caste and sect of the Sadducees accepted a truncated version of the Law. A slimmed-down gospel, stripped of discomfiting mysteries. They didn’t believe in an afterlife. They collaborated with Rome, in exchange for monopoly power over the lucrative Temple in Jerusalem. I can’t help seeing the Sadducees as the forerunners of Mainline churches and Jesuit colleges today: vast, gorgeous palaces of worship that have made perfect peace with the World. Unsure that their ghosts outlive their corpses, they sought to better this life, by adapting to its trends and cozying up to its overlords.
The world in Year Zero still had good things in it of course. God made it, and many marks of His benevolence survived the Fall unsullied. Dogs, for instance. Natural virtues, like love of family and beauty. There was also the gift of divine Revelation to the Jews, clouded though it could be by human failures and compromise. But still and all, the picture for human beings looked pretty bleak.
The world demanded something different. A kind of shock therapy, sent from above, in a form no one expected. And that’s what it got, in Bethlehem, with only three men wise enough to seek it.
It needed Jesus. And needs him still.