A message from Father Nick 42

Our true Prince of Peace

The 6th of January signifies for us the coming of the three wise men (to the “house”, Matthew says – not the manger). Were there three of them? Matthew does not tell us: he says only that they brought three gifts. Were they kings? Once again, Matthew does not tell us. As with the inclusion of an ox and ass in our cribs, some details have their origin in Old Testament prophecy.

Matthew does tell us that these wise men were “from the east”, which suggests that they came from outside the Roman Empire, but for us they represent the entire Gentile world. In the catacombs of Rome and the mosaics of Ravenna, we recognise them at once: wearing their Phrygian caps and hurrying forward in single file towards mother and child. As the Scripture scholar Raymond Brown puts it, “the Gentiles come to worship, but they must learn from the Jews the history of salvation.”

There is, however, a powerful exchange of ideas around our Epiphany feast. Matthew tells us about the Magi. Luke tells us of the census decreed by Caesar Augustus at the time when Jesus was born. Although Augustus could be ruthless in executing his policies, he wished to be seen as a protector of universal peace. He is associated with two famous symbols of that wish.

In Rome there was a temple to the god Janus, who gives the name to our first month, January, and who is always shown with two faces: one looking backwards to the past, one looking forward to the future. By custom, the doors of his temple remained open in time of war. They were closed only in time of peace. It was Augustus’ proud boast that during more than seven hundred years of Roman history, those doors had been closed just twice – during his time of leadership the senate had closed them three times. Christians associated that first closure with 6th January.

Augustus is also remembered for the building of his famous ARA PACIS, or “altar of peace”. Commissioned in 13 BC, and dedicated in 9 BC, it was made to celebrate Augustus’ return from a successful campaign in Gaul, but it came to represent a bigger vision of universal peace. For us, its closeness in time to the birth of Jesus has a special irony. Who really was the prince of peace?

We too pray for universal peace, and this week – looking both ways in a January fashion – we might resolve to learn from our past faults and to make the very best of our future. Like the wise men may we hurry forward to find God’s purpose for us.   Happy New Year to all.

Ara Pacis of Augustus