The catastrophe at Sepphoris

Jesus arrived in the world at around the apex of the Roman Empire’s power and domination of much of the known world at the time, apart from the Eastern civilisation.

Dec 06, 2019

By Anil Netto
We are into Advent now. But what does the coming of Jesus mean in a world grappling with a multitude of crises?

Jesus arrived in the world at around the apex of the Roman Empire’s power and domination of much of the known world at the time, apart from the Eastern civilisation.

There have been many large empires in history, among the largest of which were the (first) Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Caliphate, the Mongol Empire and the British Empire.

One of the most sweeping — in terms of its conquest of much of the civilised world in the West — was the Roman Empire, which promoted the concept of peace through military victory. Such was its influence that many of its subjects actually aspired to be Roman citizens.

The Roman Empire lasted from 27 BC to AD 476, the fall of the Western Empire, while the Eastern side lasted until AD 1453.

But when really was its peak? Depending on what you mean by peak and empire, some argue it was during the rule of Emperor Augustus Caesar, who ruled from 27 BC to AD 14. Others say it was Trajan (AD 98-117), who ruled over the empire’s greatest military expansion or Hadrian (AD 117-138), when Rome reached its maximum reach.

Whatever, Jesus was born and lived at a  time when the Roman Empire was at its zenith during that period of about 150 years.

But Jesus came to herald a new kingdom from above — one that transcended ethnicity, class, gender, identity (foreigners vs locals) and all the other barriers that we put up to divide us from each other.

In the centuries before Jesus, prophets had spoken about a messiah who would come to rescue the people from every kind of bondage and exploitation. And indeed, Jesus said he came so that we may live life to the full.

Rome’s representative in the distant outpost where Jesus was born was the local ruler Herod the Great.

In his reflection on the Christmas creche, the Bishop of Rome reflects: “We see Herod’s palace in the background, closed and deaf to the tidings of joy.”

In contrast, he notes that it is the shepherds who first greet the Messiah: “It is the humble and the poor who greet the event of the Incarnation.”

The nativity scene clearly teaches that we cannot let ourselves be fooled by  wealth and fleeting promises of happiness, said Francis, who recalled how his namesake St Francis commissioned a local man, John, to reenact the manger scene in Greccio, a little Italian town, in 1223.

The lowly yet enchanting setting of the manger shows us that “Jesus proclaims, in a meek yet powerful way, the need for sharing with the poor as the path to a more human and fraternal world in which no one is excluded or marginalised.”

Then, as now, the forces arraigned against ordinary people were formidable. One single man, preaching love, compassion, justice and a deep peace was up against the might of the Roman Empire, built on a foundation of (a superficial) peace built upon military victory and conquest.

Growing up in Nazareth, Jesus would have been familiar with just how superficial that peace was. Nearby, just a few kilometres northwest, was the town of Sepphoris.

In 4 BC, Varus, the Roman governor of Syria had destroyed Sepphoris to quell an armed revolt led by a rebel-terrorist named  Judas. Varus’ forces killed many of the rebels and executed them, with many public crucifixions. It was an enormous catastrophe.

With such turmoil in the region, it was no wonder the holy family fled to Egypt as refugees — a reminder to us why we should emphatise with refugees, fleeing war, persecution and turmoil in their homelands.

After Herod died, his son Antipas developed Sepphoris into the “jewel of the Galilee”, turning it into one of the capital cities of the region.

The rebuilding of Sepphoris was the main construction project going on near Nazareth at the time when Jesus was growing up and many sought their livelihoods in that construction project.

Jesus and his contemporaries would also have been all too familiar with how superficial the Roman peace or Pax Romana in the empire — and the great suffering that went with it.

“By being born in a manger, God himself launches the only true revolution that can give hope and dignity to the disinherited and the outcast: the revolution of love, the revolution of tenderness,” reflected the Bishop of Rome.

From the manger, Jesus proclaims, in a meek yet powerful way, the need for sharing with the poor as the path to a more human and fraternal world in which no one is excluded or marginalised.

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