It was in the 4004th year of the world, the 30th of the empire of Caesar Augustus, the 37th of the reign of Herod the Edomite, that Augustus, wishing to know the number of his subjects, so as to regulate the taxes paid by the conquered countries, to provide corn for the poorer Roman citizens, sent out an edict that each person should enroll his name at his native place, and there pay a piece of money. Thus the Divine Power brought it to pass, that the Blessed Virgin, who was about to bring forth a son, should travel with her betrothed husband to the home of their fathers, Rachel's burial place, Bethlehem, the little city, whence David had once been called away from the sheepfolds.
There the stable of the ox and ass received, the Master of Heaven and earth, when His people considered Him not, and shut their doors when, "Unto us a Child was born, unto us a Son was given." There, the shepherds on the hills heard the angels sing their song of peace on earth, good will to men; there, on the eighth day of His Life on earth, that Child was circumcised, and received the Greek form of the Divine name, Jehovah the Saviour, the same which had been borne before by the Captain and by the Priest, who had led His people to their inheritance. Thence the Desire of all nations was carried to His presentation in the Temple. He was truly the first-born of all creation, but He was only known to the aged Simeon and devout Anna, as the messenger of the covenant, the Lord for whom they had waited. To Bethlehem came the mysterious wise men from the east. They had been led by the star to Jerusalem, and were there directed on by the scribes, learned in the prophecies; but their inquiries had alarmed Herod's jealousy, and he sent forth the savage order, that the babes of Bethlehem should all be murdered, in hopes of cutting off the new-born King of the Jews; but while the mothers wept for the children who should come again to them in a better inheritance, the Holy One was safe in Egypt, whither Joseph had carried Him, by the warning of God.
This massacre was well nigh the last of Herod's cruelties. He was already in failing health, and after having killed his innocent sons because of their Asmonean blood, he was obliged to put to death the son of another of his wives for rebelling against him. A terrible disease came on, and fearing that the Jews would rejoice at his death, he declared they should have something to mourn for; and sending for all the chief men to Jericho, where he lay sick, he shut them all up in the circus, or place for Roman games, and made his sister promise that the moment he expired, soldiers should be sent in to kill them all. In this devil-like frame, Herod died, in the seventieth year of his age, and the thirty-fourth of his reign, the first year of our Lord;[A] and his sister at once released the captives. He had had nine wives, and many children, of whom he had himself put three to death. Archelaus and Herod Antipas were the sons of one mother, Herod Philip of another, and the murdered son of Mariamne had left two children, named Herod Agrippa and Herodias. Archelaus took the kingdom, but had not power to control either the people or the army. Three thousand Jews were massacred by the soldiers in the Temple, and Archelaus went to Rome to beg to be confirmed on his throne, and assisted in keeping his people in order; but his brother, Herod Antipas, was there already, begging for a share in the kingdom, and the Jews sent after Archelaus, saying, "We will not have this man to reign over us!" Augustus thereupon refused to give to either the title of King, but split Palestine into four divisions called tetrarchies, from tetra, the Greek word for four, giving to Archelaus Judea, Samaria, and Idumea; to Antipas, Galilee; to Philip, Iturea, the part beyond the Jordan; and to a Greek named Lysanias, Abilene, in the north, near Mount Hermon. After this, Joseph returned from Egypt, but avoided the dominions of the cruel Archelaus, by going to his former abode in Galilee.
[Footnote A: From the Birth of our Lord, time is counted onwards, and the years marked as A.D., Anno Domini, Year of the Lord.]
Archelaus grew so wicked, that in the year 12 A.D. an accusation against him was sent to Rome by the Jews and Samaritans; and Augustus deposed him, sending him into banishment to Vienne, in Gaul. His brothers did not obtain his domain, but it was joined to the province of Syria, and put under the charge of a Roman procurator or governor, who kept down disturbances by the strong hand; but this made the Pharisees very discontented, as they fancied it was against the Divine Law to pay tribute to strangers. Augustus had been all his life busy in setting his empire in order, and making laws for it. It stretched from the Atlantic Ocean nearly to the river Euphrates, and bordered the Mediterranean Sea on both sides, the Alps shutting it in to the north, and the deserts of Africa to the south. The Roman citizens considered themselves the lords of all this space; and though at first only the true-born Romans were citizens, Augustus gave the honour to many persons of the subject nations. It freed them from being taxed, gave them a right to vote for magistrates, and saved them from being under the authority of the governors of the provinces. Every educated person spoke Latin and Greek, but the latter tongue was most used in the east, as the Romans themselves learnt it as an accomplishment. Augustus died, A.D.17, leaving his power to his step-son, Tiberius, whom he had adopted as his own son, and thus given him the name of Caesar. Tiberius had not been kindly treated in his youth, and he was gloomy and harsh, and exceedingly disliked by the Romans. Under him, Pontius Pilate was made Procurator of Judea, and took up his abode in Caesarea, a city built by Herod and him son Philip, on the coast, and named after the emperors. Pilate set up shields with idolatrous inscriptions in Jerusalem; but the Jews petitioned Tiberius, who ordered them to be removed, and there was much hatred between the Procurator and the Jews. The thirty years of silent bearing of the common lot of man were now nearly over; and six months ere the Messiah began to make Himself known, His messenger, John, the Desert Priest, began to prepare His way by preaching repentance in the spirit and power of the great Elijah, and then baptizing in the Jordan unto repentance. Such washing was the manner in which the Jews accepted their proselytes, as they called the strangers who embraced the Law. The great purpose of the Old Covenant was accomplished when John, having made his followers feel all the weight of their sins against the Commandments, pointed out Him whom he had already baptized, and said, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!" A few faithful Galileans followed and believed, and miracles began to testify that here was indeed the Christ, the Prophet like to Moses, giving bread to the hungry, eyes to the blind, feet to the lame. Decreasing as He increased, John offended Herod Antipas by "boldly rebuking vice." This Antipas had forsaken his own wife, the daughter of an Arabian king, and had taken in her stead, his niece Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip; and for bearing witness against this crime, John was thrown into prison, and afterwards beheaded, to gratify the wicked woman and her daughter, Salome. The Arab King avenged his daughter's wrongs by a war, in which Antipas met with a great defeat.
Meanwhile, the Pharisees and Sadducees, their heads full of the prophecies of greatness and deliverance, to which their minds gave a temporal, not a spiritual meaning, grew more and more enraged at every token that the lowly Nazarene was indeed the Saviour, the Hope of the whole world. Each token of perfection, each saying too pure for them, each undoubted miracle, only made them more furious, and for once they made common cause together. The Passover came. Herod Antipas came to Jerusalem to observe the feast, Pilate to keep the peace among the Jews; and Jerusalem saw her King coming, meek, and riding on an ass, and amid the Hosannas of the children, weeping at the vengeance that He foresaw for the favoured city where He had been despised and rejected, and where He was Himself about to become the true Passover, which should purchase everlasting Redemption.
The traitor sold Him to the Sanhedrim, or council, in which the last words of the prophecy through the Priesthood had declared that one man must die for the people; and a band of Roman soldiers was obtained from Pilate. Meanwhile, our blessed Lord instituted the new Passover, the Communion by which all the faithful should be enabled to partake of the great Sacrifice; then He went out to the garden, among the grey olives which still stand beside the brook Kedron, and there, after His night of Agony, He was betrayed by a kiss, and dragged before the High Priest, under an accusation of blasphemy; but as the Sanhedrim had not power of life and death, and such a charge would have mattered little to a Roman, a political offence was invented to bring before Pilate. The procurator perceived the innocence of the Holy One, but feared to befriend Him because of the raging multitude; and after vainly trying to shift the responsibility on Herod Antipas, he washed his hands, to show that it was no affair of his own, and gave the Victim up to the murderers. They chose the most shameful death of Roman slaves, that they might show their hatred and contempt, unwitting that each act and each word had been foretold and foreshown in their own Law and Prophets. For six hours He hung on His Cross, while the sun was dark, and awe crept on the most ignorant hearts. Then came the cry, "It is finished;" and the work was done; the sinless Sacrifice had died; the price of Adam's sin was paid; the veil of the Temple was rent in twain, to show that the way to the true Mercy-Seat was opened. The rich man buried Him -- the women watched; and when the Sabbath was over, the Tomb was broken through, and the First-fruits of them that slept arose, wondrously visited His followers for forty days, gave them His last charges, and then ascended into Heaven, carrying manhood to the bosom of the Father. Satan was for ever conquered.