Just by the Roman Forum there is a marble arch, nearly two thousand years old. It is the built to celebrate the victory that Titus won in the first Jewish War. Covered in carving, at the top there is Titus himself, flying in to heaven on the back of an eagle. It is what they call an ‘apotheosis’; no longer Titus the man, but Titus becoming a god.
That’s what Romans believed – that men and women could actually become gods. It
probably sounds a bit odd, dreaming of riding to heaven on the wings of an eagle, but the desire to be a bit more than human is actually a pretty basic temptation. Behind it is the idea that I could do better than this, if I try, I could make something of myself. It is the New Year temptation, all those resolutions we make to be svelte and shiny and improved.
New Year resolutions are designed to make us better. Whether it is taking something on, like running on the downs every morning, or giving something up, like sherry for breakfast we aim to be better than we are. No harm in that, providing we are alert to the temptation that effort always brings. Standing before the mirror after a run on the downs there’s a ghastly tendency to think ‘Haven’t I done well’, a tendency to start admiring myself.
That was the Roman disease. It was, and is, the temptation to aim at being more than human, the temptation to take charge of ourselves. You may think that pride is only for people who are really pleased with themselves, a sin for high achievers. It’s nothing of the sort. Pride is just another name for the sin that thinks that I am the great work in progress and (with a bit more running and a little less sherry) I might finally get it right.
In January we arrive at Epiphany. It is the moment when kings come to meet a baby. It is the moment power bows down to frailty. Epiphany is a lesson about pride and effort. The Kings did not kneel at the crib to admire a superhuman. This first glimpse of the God amongst us, is a glimpse of frailty and dependence. That is how God takes human form.