As an addendum to the blogs Jesus & Augustus, Christ & Caesar (I) and Jesus & Augustus, Christ & Caesar (II), I offer two hymns from the Christmas services of the Orthodox Church. In those two blogs I pointed out that the Nativity of Christ narratives in the Gospels according to Sts. Matthew and Luke were written not merely to record historical event but also to sound a challenge to the religious and imperial claims of the Roman Empire. The Christian Gospel was confronting the false claims of imperial religion and power and placing the entire Roman Empire within the context of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God (note in the hymn below Augustus reigned alone ON EARTH, but not in heaven. Augustus like any man lives only on earth and is answerable to God). For the Gospel writers, the Roman Empire was not the context of the story of the birth of Christ, rather the Empire was being shown to be temporary and passing away. That was a pretty bold claim for a religion that was completely disrespected by the imperial government and by pagan philosophers.
WHEN AUGUSTUS REIGNED ALONE UPON EARTH,
THE MANY KINGDOMS OF MANKIND CAME TO END;
AND WHEN YOU WERE MADE MAN OF THE PURE VIRGIN,
THE MANY GODS OF IDOLATRY WERE DESTROYED.
THE CITIES OF THE WORLD PASSED UNDER ONE SINGLE RULE;
AND THE NATIONS CAME TO BELIEVE IN ONE SOVEREIGN GODHEAD.
THE PEOPLES WERE ENROLLED BY THE DECREE OF CAESAR;
AND WE, THE FAITHFUL, WERE ENROLLED IN THE NAME OF THE GODHEAD,
WHEN YOU, OUR GOD, WERE MADE MAN.//
GREAT IS YOUR MERCY: GLORY TO YOU!
(Vespers of Christmas)
In other words with the birth of Christ, it is the nations of the earth which stand under God’s judgment rather than the foundling religion of Christianity being under the judgment of the Roman Empire. The conversion of the Emperor Constantine and the embrace of Christianity by the Roman Empire is nothing short of miraculous. The Christians had no armies, yet they defeated the region’s only superpower. Christianity did not represent ideas compatible with Roman values, but rather challenged them. Surely, some of the Gospel claims about Christ are already found in pagan religions and in the claims of the Empire about the Emperor. But Christianity does not take the pagan and imperial stories and add more gods and miracles to its Gospel. Rather it claims an exclusive truth to the Gospel and displaces all of the pagan and imperial claims with the Gospel.
OBEDIENT TO THE DECREE OF CAESAR,
YOU WERE ENROLLED AMONG HIS SERVANTS, O CHRIST,
SETTING US FREE WHO WERE SERVANTS OF THE ENEMY AND SIN.
SHARING WHOLLY IN OUR POVERTY,
YOUR HAVE MADE OUR CLAY DIVINE THROUGH YOUR UNION AND PARTICIPATION IN IT.
(Matins of Christmas)
Christians respected the notion of rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, but then claimed even Caesar answers to God.