The first Christmas this in which a Roman Senate has sat in Rome since the old-fashioned Roman Senates went under,–or since they “went up,” if we take the expressive language of our Chicago friends.
And Pius IX. is celebrating Christmas with an uncomfortable look backward, and an uncomfortable look forward, and an uncomfortable look all around. It is a suggestive matter, this Italian Parliament sitting in Rome. It suggests a good deal of history and a good deal of prophecy.
“They say” (whoever they may be) that somewhere in Rome there is a range of portraits of popes, running down from never so far back; that only one niche was left in the architecture, which received the portrait of Pius IX., and that then that place was full. Maybe it is so. I did not see the row. But I have heard the story a thousand times. Be it true, be it false, there are, doubtless, many other places where portraits of coming popes could be hung. There is a little wall-room left in the City Hall of New York. There are, also, other palaces in which popes could live. Palaces are as plenty in America as are Pullman cars. But it is possible that there are no such palaces in Rome.
So this particular Christmas sets one careering back a little, to look at that mysterious connection of Rome with Christianity, which has held on so steadily since the first Christmas got itself put on historical record by a Roman census-maker. Humanly speaking, it was nothing more nor less than a Roman census which makes the word Bethlehem to be a sacred word over all the world to-day. To any person who sees the humorous contrasts of history there is reason for a bit of a smile when he thinks of the way this census came into being, and then remembers what came of it. Here was a consummate movement of Augustus, who would fain have the statistics of his empire. Such excellent things are statistics! “You can prove anything by statistics,” says Mr. Canning, “except–the truth.” So Augustus orders his census, and his census is taken. This Quirinus, or Quirinius, pro-consul of Syria, was the first man who took it there, says the Bible. Much appointing of marshals and deputy-marshals,–men good at counting, and good at writing, and good at collecting fees! Doubtless it was a great staff achievement of Quirinus, and made much talk in its time. And it is so well condensed at last and put into tables with indexes and averages as to be very creditable, I will not doubt, to the census bureau. But alas! as time rolls on, things change, so that this very Quirinus, who with all a pro-consul’s power took such pains to record for us the number of people there were in Bethlehem and in Judah, would have been clean forgotten himself, and his census too, but that things turned bottom upward. The meanest child born in Bethlehem when this census business was going on happened to prove to be King of the World. It happened that he overthrew the dynasty of Caesar Augustus, and his temples, and his empire. It happened that everything which was then established tottered and fell, as the star of this child arose. And the child’s star did rise. And now this Publius Sulpicius Quirinus or Quirinius,–a great man in his day, for whom Augustus asked for a triumph,–is rescued from complete forgetfulness because that baby happened to be born in Syria when his census was going on!
I always liked to think that some day when Augustus Caesar was on a state visit to the Temple of Fortune some attentive clerk handed him down the roll which had just come in and said, “From Syria, your Highness!” that he might have a chance to say something to the Emperor; that the Emperor thanked him, and, in his courtly way, opened the roll so as to seem interested; that his eye caught the words “Bethlehem–village near Jerusalem,” and the figures which showed the number of the people and of the children and of all the infants there. Perhaps. No matter if not. Sixty years after, Augustus’ successor, Nero, set fire to Rome in a drunken fit. The Temple of Fortune caught the flames, and our roll, with Bethlehem and the count of Joseph’s possessions twisted and crackled like any common rag, turned to smoke and ashes, and was gone. That is what such statistics come to!