Prince of Peace

Octavian Augustus, first emperor of Rome, was known by many titles, including Divi Filius (Son of God), and Princeps Pacis (Prince of Peace). An inscription in Asia Minor states that Augustus’s birth “… has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (εύαγγέλιον) concerning him.” How strange, then, to use the same names for a contemporaneous but obscure Palestinian Jew, whose understanding of peace, politics, and power was so radically different. How strange to have so long diluted the scandal of the gospel (good news) with accommodations to an Augustan vision of a peace built on the use or threat of lethal violence. Here’s a Christmas poem calling attention to that contrast in a conscious act against forgetting.

Prince of Peace

Shepherds are notorious liars, so
what’s the sense in quoting them?
If angelic legions truly shattered
the desert night with blinding
incandescence and loud hosannas,
surely more reliable witnesses took note.
Next morning, it seems, locals found
unusually brisk hotel traffic
the only news worth discussing.

On the coast, foreign service careerists
slept late in gated villas,
dreaming of promotions
to Egypt, Asia, or Greece –
anywhere but godforsaken Judea.
Even worldly Herod, as yet
unaware of religious fanatics
smuggling “gifts” past customs,
barely nudged his dozing concubine.

But if the tales can be trusted,
the old king took quick action
once the crime was discovered.
Too late. Saved by momentary
inattention, the boy lived. Still,
those who understand such things
knew – whether it took three months,
three years, or thirty –
there’d be time enough to kill him.

Quiet citizens, no longer prey
to bandits, untroubled even by rumors
of war, whose sons lived long
and daughters grew unmolested,
cared little how peace was kept:
far better pressed down
on the world’s unreasoning factions –
a Roman seal on soft wax –
than left to an uncertain god’s offspring.

Reasonable men could hardly think
otherwise, not when the right-ordering
of things so blessed each honest subject
that from Joppa to Tarshish,
grain-laden ships sped toward hungry mouths,
Appian travelers ventured alone,
reasonably confident of their safety,
and stout German warriors embraced
the prosperous liturgies of trade.

At the bright hub of the peaceful world,
no one – citizen, slave, or foreigner
in search of a happier life – lost sleep
over a doomed infant in a provincial barn.
From history, one learns the longer view.
So on that night, Augustus,
alone on a Palatine balcony,
looked knowingly on all he had made,
and saw that it was very, very good.

-from Flesh Becomes Word, by Brian Volck, Dos Madres Press, 2013

Image: Augustus von Prima Porta

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