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Christmas And Rome

The first Christmas this in which a Roman Senate has sat in Rome since
the old-fashioned Roman Senates went under,--or since they "went up," if
we take the expressive language of our Chicago friends.

And Pius IX. is celebrating Christmas with an uncomfortable look
backward, and an uncomfortable look forward, and an uncomfortable look
all around. It is a suggestive matter, this Italian Parliament sitting
in Rome. It suggests a good deal of history and a good deal of prophecy.

"They say" (whoever they may be) that somewhere in Rome there is a range
of portraits of popes, running down from never so far back; that only
one niche was left in the architecture, which received the portrait of
Pius IX., and that then that place was full. Maybe it is so. I did not
see the row. But I have heard the story a thousand times. Be it true, be
it false, there are, doubtless, many other places where portraits of
coming popes could be hung. There is a little wall-room left in the City
Hall of New York. There are, also, other palaces in which popes could
live. Palaces are as plenty in America as are Pullman cars. But it is
possible that there are no such palaces in Rome.

So this particular Christmas sets one careering back a little, to look
at that mysterious connection of Rome with Christianity, which has held
on so steadily since the first Christmas got itself put on historical
record by a Roman census-maker. Humanly speaking, it was nothing more
nor less than a Roman census which makes the word Bethlehem to be a
sacred word over all the world to-day. To any person who sees the
humorous contrasts of history there is reason for a bit of a smile when
he thinks of the way this census came into being, and then remembers
what came of it. Here was a consummate movement of Augustus, who would
fain have the statistics of his empire. Such excellent things are
statistics! "You can prove anything by statistics," says Mr. Canning,
"except--the truth." So Augustus orders his census, and his census is
taken. This Quirinus, or Quirinius, pro-consul of Syria, was the first
man who took it there, says the Bible. Much appointing of marshals and
deputy-marshals,--men good at counting, and good at writing, and good at
collecting fees! Doubtless it was a great staff achievement of Quirinus,
and made much talk in its time. And it is so well condensed at last and
put into tables with indexes and averages as to be very creditable, I
will not doubt, to the census bureau. But alas! as time rolls on, things
change, so that this very Quirinus, who with all a pro-consul's power
took such pains to record for us the number of people there were in
Bethlehem and in Judah, would have been clean forgotten himself, and his
census too, but that things turned bottom upward. The meanest child born
in Bethlehem when this census business was going on happened to prove to
be King of the World. It happened that he overthrew the dynasty of Caesar
Augustus, and his temples, and his empire. It happened that everything
which was then established tottered and fell, as the star of this child
arose. And the child's star did rise. And now this Publius Sulpicius
Quirinus or Quirinius,--a great man in his day, for whom Augustus asked
for a triumph,--is rescued from complete forgetfulness because that baby
happened to be born in Syria when his census was going on!

I always liked to think that some day when Augustus Caesar was on a state
visit to the Temple of Fortune some attentive clerk handed him down the
roll which had just come in and said, "From Syria, your Highness!" that
he might have a chance to say something to the Emperor; that the Emperor
thanked him, and, in his courtly way, opened the roll so as to seem
interested; that his eye caught the words "Bethlehem--village near
Jerusalem," and the figures which showed the number of the people and of
the children and of all the infants there. Perhaps. No matter if not.
Sixty years after, Augustus' successor, Nero, set fire to Rome in a
drunken fit. The Temple of Fortune caught the flames, and our roll, with
Bethlehem and the count of Joseph's possessions twisted and crackled
like any common rag, turned to smoke and ashes, and was gone. That is
what such statistics come to!

Five hundred years after, the whole scene is changed. The Church of
Christ, which for hundreds of years worshipped under-ground in Rome, has
found air and sunlight now. It is almost five hundred years after Paul
enters Rome as a prisoner, after Nero burned Rome down, that a monk of
St. Andrew, one of the more prominent monasteries of the city of Rome,
walking through that great market-place of the city--which to this hour
preserves most distinctly, perhaps, the memory of what Rome was--saw a
party of fair-haired slaves for sale among the rest. He stops to ask
where they come from, and of what nation they are; to be told they are
"Angli." "Rather Angeli," says Gregory,--"rather angels;" and with other
sacred bon-mots he fixes the pretty boys and pretty girls in his
memory. Nor are these familiar plays upon words to be spoken of as mere
puns. Gregory was determined to attempt the conversion of the land from
which these "angels" came. He started on the pilgrimage, which was then
a dangerous one; but was recalled by the pope of his day, at the
instance of his friends, who could not do without him.

A few years more and this monk is Bishop of Rome. True to the promise of
the market-place, he organizes the Christian mission which fulfils his
prophecy. He sends Austin with his companions to the island of the
fair-haired slave boys; and that new step in the civilization of that
land comes, to which we owe it that we are met in this church, nay, that
we live in this land this day.

So far has the star of the baby of Bethlehem risen in a little more than
five centuries. A Christian dominion has laid its foundations in the
Eternal City. And you and I, gentle reader, are what we are and are
where we are because that monk of St. Andrew saw those angel boys that
day in a Roman market-place.

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