In This Year of Our Lord

If you have never read Vermont Royster’s classic Christmas Eve editorial In Hoc Anno Domini in The Wall Street Journal, do yourself the favor of reading it tomorrow when it is republished. It has appeared annually since it was composed in 1949. Or, you can read it here today. In it, he sets forth one key implication Christ for men and nations. The Wall Street Journal has long-prided itself on reporting the news so that readers immediately understand what today’s news means for the future; In Hoc Anno Domini is an editorial example of the same. Royster editorialized on the influence of Christ in a unique way. He caused readers to consider the historical news of the incarnation (though he did not explicitly articulate it as such) and its influence on their place in history present and future. No wonder the article resonates enduringly.

According to Royster’s biography, “most newspapers [in the late 1949] ran Christmas editorials that were messages of glad tidings, about peace and joy and the babe in the manger.” Years later, Royster noted,

But I did not see the world that way that year. There was a blockade in Berlin, and war clouds were again scudding across the map of Europe. There were the first stirrings of racial unrest in the United States, and in the Soviet satellites people were learning what it was like to win the war and lose their freedom.

Masterfully, he personalized Christ’s influence by seeing the Jesus’ coming through the eyes of the Apostle Paul. He painted a picture of the Roman Empire as Paul would have seen it in its dark cruelty and implicitly compared it to mid-twentieth century life.

Everywhere there was civil order, for the arm of the Roman law was long. Everywhere there was stability, in government and in society, for the centurions saw that it was so.

There was oppression — for those who were not the friends of Tiberius Caesar. There was the tax gatherer to take the grain from the fields and the flax from the spindle to feed the legions or to fill the hungry treasury from which divine Caesar gave largess to the people. There was the impressor to find recruits for the circuses. There were executioners to quiet those whom the Emperor proscribed. What was a man for but to serve Caesar?

There was the persecution of men who dared think differently, who heard strange voices or read strange manuscripts. There was enslavement of men whose tribes came not from Rome, disdain for those who did not have the familiar visage. And most of all, there was everywhere a contempt for human life. What, to the strong, was one man more or less in a crowded world?

The same threats echo today in a nation that increasingly empowers central government and relies on Washington’s largess, on college campuses and a public square that seek to regulate thought, in abortion mills with a contempt for human life, and in race and immigration discussions which too often breathe of disdain. Our culture rapidly moves toward a relative view of truth which can then only be established by the tyranny of the majority. Even wildly entertaining movies like Star Wars, as shown by Dr. Peter Jones, subtly beckon viewers to embrace the ancient religion of pagan Rome whose material worldview shaped the cruel empire Paul knew.

Opposed to this darkness and its slavery, the revelation of God in the flesh heralded a new epoch in the history of mankind and in Paul’s life. The birth of the Savior who is Christ the Lord thus sets Christianity apart from all other religions and gives true freedom.

Royster wrote, “Then, of a sudden, there was a light in the world, and a man from Galilee saying, Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”

The editorial then spins out some of the implications of Jesus’ ministry and returns to the foreboding threat of totalitarianism and darkness if Christ Jesus is forgotten in our world today. Royster concluded with a call to action by quoting Paul’s words in Galatians 5:1, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”

One might certainly quibble with certain of Royster’s wording and question the exact nature of his theology and exegesis. Or one might wonder how consistent his life was with this article. Or how consistent his other views were with what was written here. But, he still forces readers of the nation’s largest newspaper to think in real terms each year about what the reality of the incarnation means over against the platitudes of our cultural Christmas celebration.

The birth of the Savior means that your life and mine may and must be different. It means that cultures and nations may and must be different. Though the forces of this world would urge us back to the old ways of bondage, let us stand firm in Christ who remains the incarnate Mediator from his throne on high and proclaim the light of his liberty as Lord of men and nations.