How Silently, How Silently, the Wondrous Gift Is Given

In the birth stories of Luke and Matthew, only one person seems to grasp the mysterious nature of what God has set in motion: the old man Simeon, who had long clung to the belief that he would not die before seeing the Messiah, instinctively understood that conflict would break out. "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against ... ," he said, and then gave the prediction that a sword would pierce Mary's own soul. Somehow Simeon sensed that though to all appearances little had changed—Herod was still king, Roman troops were still stringing up patriots, Jerusalem still overflowed with beggars—under the surface, everything had changed. A new force had arrived to undermine the world and its powers.

At first, Jesus hardly seemed a threat. He was born under Caesar Augustus, at a time when buoyant hope wafted through the Roman Empire. More than any other ruler, Augustus raised the expectations of what a leader could accomplish and what a society could achieve. It was Augustus, in fact, who first used the Greek word for "gospel" or "good news" as a label for the new world order represented by his reign. The empire declared him a god, and established rites of worship. His enlightened and stable regime, many believed, would last forever, a final solution to the problem of how to structure a government.

Meanwhile, in an obscure corner of Augustus's empire under the local dominion of Herod the Great, King of the Jews, the birth of a baby named Jesus was barely noticed by the chroniclers of the day. We know about him mainly through four books written years after his death, at a time when less than one-half of ...

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