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

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.