Julius Caesar was the powerful, popular ruler of the ancient Roman realm. His all-too-brief reign established the empire that dominated much of the Mediterranean world for a millennium.
The assassination of Julius Caesar after four years of rule brought to power his grandnephew, Octavian. The 19-year old boy raised an army of 60 legions, defeated his rivals Antony and Lepidus, and entered Rome to begin four decades of imperial rule. The peace and prosperity which ensued is still known as “Pax Romana,” the Peace of Rome. The Senate confirmed upon him the title Augustus.
In the 29th year of the reign of Caesar Augustus, there was born to poor parents in a remote province of the Roman world a baby boy. His birth was unnoticed and unrecorded by those outside his immediate family, it being an event truly obscure and totally irrelevant to the public management of the greatest empire in the history of the world.
Now, 2,007 years later and half a world away, we begin our annual six-week celebration of birth: not of the emperor of Rome, whose name Caesar Augustus most people recall only because of its association with the other birth, that of a baby whose name everyone knows, Jesus.
A similar juxtaposition of the fleeting and famous one and the lingering influence of another occurred a few weeks ago when the public paused to remember the assassination of the handsome, heralded president, John F. Kennedy. It was 40 years to the day since he was gunned down in Dallas. To help us adequately recall those shocking events many means were employed; articles written, programs shown, videos played, services held, families interviewed, books reviewed, theories discussed.
Forgotten in this 40-year feast of nostalgia was the death that same day of a quiet and unassuming man whose life and work is destined to last and, surely, to outstrip the significance of the president whose death day he shares.
On Nov. 22, 1963, while the eyes of the world were fastened on events in Dallas, the man Clive Staples Lewis slowly and without public notice slipped from this world into the next. It happened at the Kilns, his family home a long, brisk walk east of the university where he studied and taught in Oxfordshire, England.
Since his unnoticed death 40 years ago, C. S. Lewis has continued his rise to the very pinnacle of popularity and influence. He may be the most widely read Christian author of the 20th century.
His fame rests primarily on a trilogy of books: The Screwtape Letters, written from one devil to another about how to tempt a human; Mere Christianity, delivered first as radio talks on the British Broadcasting Corporation during the second World War; and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, chronicling for children everywhere the adventures of Lucy, Susan, Peter, and Edmund in the land of Narnia.
Other books include a history of medieval English literature, several collections of essays and poems, single volumes on such subject as pain and miracles, and an autobiography entitled Surprised by Joy.
The death of Lewis was overshadowed by that of another; in the same way the life of his Lord (in whom he came to believe in 1931 through the influence of his friend and fellow scholar, J. R. R. Tolkien) was instantly lost in the limelight of another.
Odd, is it not, how things change, how time shifts the importance from one person to another, off one event and onto another?
In my home there is a picture of neither the Roman emperor nor the American president, save in a dust-covered encyclopedia stored in the basement. The words and deeds of Jesus, however, are treasured and studied from book upon book, some of them bound in genuine leather and stamped with gold. The life and literature of C. S. Lewis occupies a prominent place in both my library and my imagination.
It is impossible for me, and I suspect for many of you, to think of the one without the other.
Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.