Christmas Day and Constantine

Manila Bulletin, December 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

Christmas Day and Constantine


MANILA, Philippines - For more than 300 years since the Nativity (about 4 BC), the early Christians in Rome celebrated Christmas secretly and probably in darkness. Pagan civilization was founded upon a state, Christian civilization upon religion. To a Roman, his religion was part of government structure and ceremony, and his morality culminated in patriotism.

The new rival to paganism

To a Christian, his religion was apart from and superior to political society. The Church resented the Roman idea that religion was subordinate to the state and viewed emperor worship an act of polytheism and idolatry. The Roman government concluded that Christianity was a radical, perhaps a communist movement, subtly designed to overthrow the established order.

Defiance

Before Nero (AD 37-68), the two forces found it possible to live together without blows. Roman law had exempted the Jews from emperor-worship and the Christians, at first confused with the Jews, were granted the same privilege. But the execution of Peter and Paul and the burning of Christians to light up Nero's games turned this mutual tolerance into unceasing hostility. The Christians turned the full armory against Rome, denounced its immorality, ridiculed its gods, and predicted its early fall.

Capital offense?

From the time of Nero, Roman law branded the profession of Christianity as a capital offense, which succeeding emperors enforced with deliberate negligence. The Christians might be imprisoned, or exiled, or flogged, or condemned to the mines, or rarely, put to death.

No, to the other cheek

In 303, the Christians were now numerous enough to retaliate and supported a revolutionary movement and twice set fire to Diocletian's palace.

First triumph

Finally in 311, Galerius, suffering from a mortal illness, convinced of failure and implored by his wife to make peace with the undefeated God of the Christians, devised the first Roman "miracle" and promulgated an edict of toleration, recognizing Christianity as a lawful religion and asking the prayers of the Christians in return for "our most gentle clemency."

Final triumph

Caesar and Christ had met in the arena and Christ had won. By this time, Constantine cast his lot with the Christians who were numerous in his army, saw a flaming cross in the sky with the Greek words en toutoi nika - in this sign conquer. Constantine won the battle at Mulvian Bridge against General Maxentian and made the engagement a turning point in the history of religion. …

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