Advent Day 16: An Advent message from Rome

For the sixteenth day of Advent, Rev Dr Peter McEnhill, the minister at St Andrew’s Church of Scotland in Rome, shares an Advent message from Italy, reflecting on Luke’s account of Christ’s birth.

Rev Dr Peter McEnhill on the rooftops of Rome

Rome – the Eternal City – so ancient that it was already very old when it appears as the brooding background of the birth narratives themselves.

Luke’s account of Christ’s birth opens with a reference to the census ordered by Caesar Augustus, the hidden power behind the scene moving these lowly peasants on the far flung fringes of his empire to and fro at his behest.

The contrast is sharp and juxtaposed; the pitiless plight of a young couple in desperate circumstances at the mercy of blind unheeding imperial diktat.

Everything is stacked against them it seems, but miraculously Luke is going to tell us that it is among these - the lowest and the least - that God’s power is about to be made manifest.

For in the birth of this infant, in the most inauspicious of circumstances, God’s purposes for Israel and the world are in fact being fulfilled.

For this child is ‘Son of the Most High’ and ‘Son of God’, ‘Messiah’ ‘Saviour ‘and ‘Lord’ and ‘Bringer of Peace.’

The titles are astounding in themselves, but as New Testament scholars Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg have pointed out, they are not simply accidental on Luke’s part.

St Peter's Close
St Peter's Close

For there was another who used those titles of himself – none other than Augustus Caesar who was entitled, Lord, Son of God, Bringer of Peace and Saviour of the World. Moreover, Caesar’s birth was proclaimed as ‘good news’ or gospel.

So one gospel is deliberately being compared with another.

Luke is inviting his readers to consider where they discover God’s peace, God’s presence, God’s way in the world.

Where is true peace and justice to be found?

In the imposed peace of Augustus – an unjust absence of conflict provided you did the Emperor’s bidding - or in the peace of God unfolding in the fragile and vulnerable birth of this infant among the poor and lowly of the world?

An infant who is the Christ, the hope of all the earth.

Today, Rome is a city transfigured by shrines and churches in honour not of Caesar, but of this Christ.

But Luke’s challenge still remains for us today.

For Rome’s streets today are filled with migrants and refugees, the homeless and the poor, who are here because of the machinations of today’s Caesars - governments and movements over which they have little or no control.

They are fleeing persecution, poverty and war; they have come seeking peace, shelter and justice in a world in which these seem in short supply.

The world is as dark and foreboding as ever it was and each year it becomes harder and harder to believe in the Miracle On 34th Street as offered by the secular holiday season.

And so we are bidden to discover God’s peace again this Christmas season in service to the lowest and the least.

Amidst the grandeur that is Rome, St Andrew’s Church of Scotland, a very small multi-cultural congregation and the smallest microcosm of ecclesiastical Rome, will try and play its part in supporting its sister churches and organisations such as Mediterranean Hope and the Salvation Army in their work among refugees, migrants, the homeless and the hungry.

We also try to play our part in making real the Angel’s words – “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

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