As I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to keep Advent as best I can. This is the time of year, that I wish I had kids. Other than the 80+ I spend the majority of my day with. Because kids love traditions. And I love traditions. But traditions when you’re on your own seem borderline creepy. But I’m comfortable enough now to embrace that for what it is. I light my candle. I enjoy the glow of my baby tree. I try to read everyday. This year I’m reading W.H. Auden’s For the time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. It’s as good an Advent read as anything, in my opinion.
This is also the time of year that I teach Ancient Rome and the play Julius Caesar. This year in particular I am struck by power of Rome.
Back to Auden. In the intro, Alan Bradley writes about the influence of the book Christianity and Classical Culture by Charles Cochrane on For the Time Being. The main thesis of this book is that the Roman State “was an inadequate answer to a philosophical problem, the problem of how to give meaning and value to human life.” It all boils down the idea that peace and order and freedom are all found through political action (i.e. the Roman Empire). We just finished reading Julius Caesar. And when I asked the question “Was Brutus the noblest Roman of them all?” they all answered with a reluctant yes. They criticized the many suicides and the narrow definition of honor. Neither Brutus nor Caesar seems to care much for his wife or regret the pain that he caused her. Children are mentioned not at all. For these Romans, political power is the only thing that matters, and it is the only thing living and dying for.
And Christ of course, turns that upside down. For a Christian, the political and the personal spheres are never separate again. What you do in your personal life makes a difference at your job, with your friends, in your neighborhood and city and country. Or as Auden says (much better than I can) “There can, for the Christian be no distinction between the personal and the political, for all his relationships are both; every marriage is a polis, every imperium a family; and he has to learn to forgive and sacrifice himself for his enemies, as for his wife and children.”
This year I am so moved when I read about Brutus and Cassius and the conspirators, nobly trying to save Rome from tyranny only to deliver it into the hands of emperor after emperor. How beautifully tragic and ironic. Then I think of Jesus preaching and healing and suffering and dying. Rome fell. Christ remains.The Church endures. I’m not sure if you’d ever call the twelve disciples honorable or noble men. The deaths that they died would have earned them the scorn of Brutus and the gang: “What could be more humiliating to a man to be tortured and killed by his enemies like a common criminal? Much better to run on your sword,” they might have thought. When I think of the twelve, I think of a diverse group of friends that should never have been friends. I think of their love and their faithfulness unto death. And I think of the saints and the nameless Christian brothers and sisters that have gone before me and my brothers and sisters that are suffering now all over the world. And I know with certainty that they are more worthy of my praise and admiration than any Romans.
I don’t know how to wrap this up neatly. Like most things that move me deeply, words just escape me. I think I’m moved the upside-downness or perhaps everything that was upside down was turned right-side up. I find it oddly comforting that countries change and collapse. The US of A was never meant to be our salvation. Nor is it the world’s last best hope for freedom and peace. It is only a tool that God can use for his purposes. People, however, are of the utmost importance. Loving God and loving your neighbor changes you, changes them, and it changes the world. And that is something to feel hopeful about this Advent and Christmas season.