On Christmas: Each of Us Is a Salvation History | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | December 24, 2009 | Ignatius InsightOn Christmas: Each of Us Is a Salvation History | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | December 24, 2009 | Ignatius Insight


"Christmas is, as I have said, one of numberless old European feasts of which the essence is the combination of religion with merry-making... For the character of Christmas (as distinct, for instance, from the continental Easter) lies chiefly in two things: first on the terrestrial side of the note of comfort rather than the note of brightness; and on the spiritual side, Christian charity rather than Christian ecstasy." -- G. K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens, 1908. [1]

"There is in every person the desire to be accepted as a person and considered as a sacred reality, for every human history is a sacred history and demands the utmost respect." -- Benedict XVI, Rome, Spanish Steps, December 8, 2009.


The second chapter of the Gospel of Luke begins: "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was Governor of Syria...." I find surprisingly few students in class have ever heard of this incident, or even the names or the occasion. Why bring it up? Why would Caesar Augustus, Quirinius, or Syria be of interest? Why are they mentioned together? Was the name of everyone in the world written down someplace?

Caught up in the mechanics of this Roman political enrollment or census, however, was a man by the name of Joseph. To comply with this registration, he had to take his wife, Mary, who was with child, from his own town of Nazareth, where he seems to have been a carpenter, to Bethlehem. He was, we are told in explanation, of the "house and lineage of David." You need to know something of Jewish history to see why that heritage is important and why it is mentioned. Apparently, the Romans allowed no absentee registrations. One had to enroll where he was born. That's how they kept track.

These short passages, nonetheless, tell us much. We know of Caesar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. We know of his famous relative, Julius Caesar, who had been murdered in the Senate in 44 B.C. Indeed, only because of this murder, said to be committed in the name of the Republic by Brutus and Cassius, did young Octavian become the Augustus. Quirinius is known. There must have been a second census. We know what Syria meant in those days of Roman domination. Roman rule was relatively well-organized. As rulers go, the Romans were among the best. They promulgated laws, kept records, and made particular decrees. They had troops about, just in case; I believe it was the Tenth Legion that was stationed in Palestine.

This Joseph was a Jew, from the City of David. This origin, in Jewish terms, was of considerable significance. It was rumored someone called the "Messiah" might come from there. It was thus pretty high level stuff. Political decrees make people do things they would otherwise not do. This Joseph certainly would not have taken his pregnant wife on the road that time of year unless he had to. He seems to have been led to where he "ought" to have been by this very decree with which he had nothing to do but obey it.

Was there something going on here, something more than meets the eye? Speaking of Luke's later reference to Augustus' successor, Tiberius Caesar, who was in command at the time when one Pontius Pilate was Governor in Jerusalem, Benedict said: "The Evangelist (Luke) evidently wanted to warn those who read or heard about it that the Gospel is not a legend but the account of a true story, that Jesus of Nazareth is a historical figure who fits into that precise context." [2] It is this same Jesus who is evidently being carried in the womb of Joseph's wife as the couple travels to Bethlehem, the City of David. The point seems to be that this Child is connected with King David, and through him with David's own heritage. The two genealogies recorded in the Gospels themselves also indicate this concrete background of Jesus. Jesus was not a legend or a myth. He did dwell amongst us, as Luke is at pains to tell us. He was seen and heard by witnesses who recorded what they saw and heard and, as John even says, touched. No phantom here, no figment of some scholarly imagination.

We are told here that this Child of Mary is connected with everything else in our world. When the Emperor Augustus decided to take a census, he had no idea that, in a far off corner of his Empire, it would facilitate some event that had been being prepared from the foundations of the world. Human acts are not outside of divine providence, even if we do not know how they fit in at the time they are put into effect. They also remain at the same time the human acts that they are.


What was going on here? The Vatican II constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) states, "God, who through the Word creates all things and keeps them in being, provides men with unfailing testimony to himself in creation." The world was "created." It did not just "happen" to burst forth from its own nothingness, though indeed, it was created "from nothing." Unfailing, testimony is provided. Moreover, the world was created "through the Word." The Word was God. Nothing that is created causes itself in being.

We are also told that, over the ages, God actually provides us with witnesses to Himself; they are about if we look. We read books in the Old Testament in which these claims are recorded. There were also first parents. Human beings "began," but they "fell." Yet, they were given a "hope" both of salvation and redemption from the consequences of this Fall. The "hope," Eve was told, would have something to do with another woman. This other woman seems to come up in this census account. Things, however, were going to get worse before they got better.

God still intended to give "eternal life" to men, just as He planned to do from the beginning. This "eternal life" is the reason of their creation. It was a life that, while keeping them human, gave them the inner life of the Godhead. Of course, men needed to do "good works." They needed to "seek" salvation. They were not to be slothful, uninterested in who they are, what they could know. God gave them brains to use. He was not particularly interested in inert beings unless they were rocks or stars, and then only for the sake of the being who was free and finite.

Things happen according to chance and according to choice, sometimes according to both. God seems to have had a plan. We catch glimpses of it, if we look. We begin to hear of Abraham, a Chaldean. He was told he was going to be the father of many, yet he was to sacrifice his son. But God, we learn, "provided." The "sacrificial Lamb" came to be associated with the Word made flesh. In a line of people, we find prophets, then Moses. God was insistent that He alone was Holy. A Savior was to be sent. He evidently came into the world when Caesar Augustus was Emperor.

So something was going on. "Through the ages, He (God) prepared a way for the Gospel. Finally, God appears. He speaks through His Son. This Son turns out to be "the eternal Word." God from God, Light from Light. He will enlighten men, make known "the innermost things of God." This Word is "Jesus Christ, the word made flesh." He did what the "Father gave him to do." The Evangelist Luke recounts these things. They actually happened.

This Christ completed God's intended revelation. He did this making known what He wanted to make known in all his words and deeds, in the principal events of His life. The dramatic event of His Crucifixion was carried out under the authority of Tiberius Caesar by a Roman Governor by the name Pontius Pilate. But the event seemed to concern the Jews more than the Romans, at least initially. Pilate wanted to "wash his hands" of the whole mess. Many leading Jews just wanted this troublemaker out of the way. Pilate asked the crowd what to do with Him. They shouted "Crucify him."

But no one can crucify a man who does not exist. The message of all these events was "that God is with us to free us from the darkness of sin and death, and to raise us up to eternal life."


Chesterton tells us that this event of Christ's birth is one of comfort and really of making merry, of rejoicing. The two go together. The metaphysics and the brightness are there. But the birth of Christ into this world is a comfort, something ordinary folks can understand. Such ordinary folk have always suspected their lives mean something. No one has told them why. If Christ is born as a Child and if He is the Son of God, does this not tell us something about ourselves, about each son of man and woman (there are, as Chesterton said, no sons of man and man, though there is a Son of Man, born of woman)?

Revelation tells us first that we are not God. We are men, finite beings. Yet, we are not to have strange gods before us. The only God we want before us is the one who is testified to here, the one born of Mary in Bethlehem. She is evidently there because of a decree of Caesar Augustus. Her husband, Joseph, was of the house of David. The angel has said to her, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord be with you." She said, "Be it done unto me." She said this after she inquired "how."

Is there really any other way? Maybe God will figure out that the way He chose from the beginning was not "working." Maybe He will send a Mohammed or a Nietzsche, or a Grand Inquisitor, to explain things differently? No, it did not and will not happen. Robert Hugh Benson spoke of The Lord of the World. This Lord was present at the Fall.

Dei Verbum says: "The Christian dispensation, because it is the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away, and no new public revelation is any longer to be looked for before the manifestation in glory of our Lord Jesus Christ." I find this rather comforting. It is a reason for making merry. We have already been given all we need to know. The light has shone in the darkness, even if the darkness did not comprehend it.

But I am intrigued by Benedict's phrase "every human being is a salvation history." The pope says "is" a salvation history, not "has" one. That phrase "salvation history" is usually used of the way that God reveals Himself and His purposes in history, the history of the world from Creation to final Judgment. It includes the rise and fall of nations. Yet it is here singular, as if the rise and fall of nations passes through our own souls. Well, of course it does. Plato said this. Solzhenitsyn said this. It is obvious. There is no collective salvation that bypasses what each of us is, destined to eternal life.

Chesterton tells of comfort rather than brightness, of charity rather than ecstasy. There is nothing wrong with brightness. Our problem with God's revelation is not that it is obscure, but that it is too bright for our finite intellects to grasp. We are men, not gods. We are thankful that we are, for what we are. There are those who seek God in mysticism, and those who find Him in their neighbor. Both know, both find. This is Christmas. Joseph and Mary made it to Bethlehem, to the inn where there was no room. The Child was born who is "Christ the Lord."

The angels on high rejoiced. The shepherds heard. Away in a manger, there is the little Lord Jesus. This is our comfort. Our feast is not that we have first loved God, but that He has first loved us. We are each of us a salvation history, because of what happened when the decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world be enrolled, and Quirinius was Governor of Syria.


[1] G. K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens: The Last of the Great Men (New York: Press of the Readers Club, [1908] 1942), 117-18.

[2] Benedict XVI, Angelus, December 6, 2009. L'Osservatore Romano, English, December 9, 2009. The introductory citation is in the same edition.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles on Advent and Christmas:

CHRISTMAS 2008 | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
What In Christmas Season Grows: On the Days Leading Up to the Nativity of the Lord | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Christmas: Sign of Contradiction, Season of Redemption | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The God in the Cave | G.K. Chesterton
The Incarnation | Frank Sheed
The Perfect Faith of the Blessed Virgin | Carl E. Olson
Mary Immaculate | Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J.
Immaculate Mary, Matchless in Grace | John Saward
The Mystery Made Present To Us | Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J.
"Born of the Virgin Mary" | Paul Claudel
The Old Testament and the Messianic Hope | Thomas Storck

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, is now available from The Catholic University Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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