January 1 marks the beginning of a new year and with it the promise of new opportunities to better ourselves. Of course the beginning of the New Year means many new laws begin to take effect. This has been true ever since Julius Caesar changed the calendars back in 45 B.C. when January 1 first marked the beginning of the year. Just three years later following Caesar's assassination, it was on January 1 that he was posthumously proclaimed divine by the Roman Senate.
The move to make Caesar divine was a political one. Caesar's grand-nephew and heir Octavian wanted to capitalize on Caesar's popularity with the common people and leverage it in his favor as he engage in a power struggle for the empire against Caesar's enemies. After his success, Octavian became known as Caesar Augustus ("the venerable") which "had a religious significance as designating one worthy of reverence, and marked him as more than man."1
The act of declaring Caesar a god was a key moment in the history of Rome. The Romans, unlike the Greeks, Egyptians, and other eastern cultures didn't have a tradition that a ruler would be a descendant of the gods.2 They held Romans to be superior to all other groups, and like all other cultures of their day, believed the aristocracy was superior to the underclass. But they didn't see the Roman leadership as direct descendants of the Roman pantheon.3 It was Octavian's political maneuver that established the Roman Imperial Cult where the emperor would be worshiped as divine. Later Caesars actually began to believe their own propaganda, and grew even bolder in their proclamation of being from the gods.
Another January 1 Wathershed LawJanuary 1 marks the anniversary of another watershed law, this one more recent in history. On January 1, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln gave an executive order affecting more than three million people in the Civil War-torn United States south. The Emancipation Proclamation as it is known officially declared "all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons." While the Civil War wouldn't be settled for another two years, Lincoln's executive order legally marked the end of slavery in the United States of America.
The contrast between these two acts is interesting. Both of these laws affected the history of civilization. One sought to elevate a man above other men. The other sought to recognize the equality of all men. While both gave their proponents certain political advantages, one ultimately resulted in more human suffering and enslavement of other cultures while the other brought freedom and dignity to a previously repressed group. What changed? Why is there such a difference in the basic view of human beings?
The unifying force between these two is Jesus. The true God-man came into the world of one who claimed himself to be divine and leveraged it to spread His message that all men are equally valuable. Instead of demanding worship from others, He humbled Himself to the point of death on the cross so that all men of every race would be set free from the slavery of sin and death.
As we jump into a new year, you will certainly see many new laws take effect. Some of them are selfish in nature, seeking to bolster our personal pleasures without regard for the wider effects on society. Others are more magnanimous. But don't forget about Christmas just yet. Without the Emmanuel, without the God with Us, it might be that New Year's would only mark the beginning of another period of forced worship to one more of the various despots human nature has always produced. And that is nothing with celebrating.
2. Burton, Ibid.
3. Burton, Ibid.