Light From the Altar – The Old and New Dispensations


Four Empires or monarchies, i.e., powerful states, preceded the Roman Empire, Assyria, with its capital, Nineveh, wielded imperial power from about 625 to 1300 B.C. In 625 Assyria was overthrown and Babylon became the seat of Empire, 538-625. Its greatest ruler was Nabuchodonosor. His grandson, Baltassar, lost Babylon taken by Cyrus, founder of the Persian Empire, which in turn was conquered by Alexander the Great, in 331 B.C. The new Macedonian Empire fell asunder with the death of Alexander, its founder, and out of its ruins arose many smaller states and kingdoms which in the course of time fell under Rome, which from a city-state became complete conqueror of the civilized world. This period coincided with the coming of Christ.

Religion in the Ancient World

All these monarchies were pagan monarchies. Paganism is the turning away of fallen man from the one true God and his law. The “gentiles,” heathens, pagans, began to worship many gods (polytheism). Others paid religious veneration to demons or subordinate spirits, to ancestors, kings, living or dead (apotheosis) or to personified virtues and vices, even the most shameful. Still others who had a philosophical turn of mind, put the visible universe in the place of God (pantheism), or dreamt of two hostile divinities, the good and evil (dualism). Others deified mere matter, the flesh and its desires (materialism). Some recognized a blind necessity, to which even the gods were subject, as the highest power (fatalism). The insufficiency and absurdity of all these human inventions landed many in universal doubt (scepticism).

Character of Paganism

These false doctrines led to an ever increasing corruption and immorality which manifested itself in idolatry, superstition and human sacrifices. It was chiefly through the intercourse of pagan nations with the Hebrew people, that truths of the primitive revelations which had been lost were revived among them.

The Chosen People

Of all the ancient nations, the Israelites, “the chosen people,” were alone in possession of the true religion, a direct, divine revelation. In Abraham, God gave them their ancestor, and the promise that the Redeemer would issue from his family. Through Moses He freed them from the bondage of Egypt, and gave them the Decalogue, judicial and ceremonial laws and a high priest. According to their national or Mosaic law, God Himself was the immediate ruler of Israel (Theocracy).

Under the Judges they conquered Canaan, the Promised Land, and formed for four hundred fifty years a theocratic republic, with the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant as their national center. The introduction of the kingdom followed in 1099 B. C. (Saul, David and Solomon), the building of Solomon’s temple, and after Solomon’s death, the separation of the one into the two hostile kingdoms of Judea and Israel, 975 B.C.

Rapid as was the decay of the chosen people, God did not abandon them. He sent them prophets to preserve uncorrupted amid error and sin, the doctrine of the one true God, to keep alive the faith in the promised Redeemer and to announce the time of His coming. All the sacrifices, ceremonies and institutions of the chosen people were types of the expected Savior. The dignities of the three representatives of God, the High Priest, the Prophet and the King, were to be united in the Redeemer of the world.

The Mission of the Hebrews

Of utmost importance was the providential mission of the Hebrews to revive the worship of the true God (Monotheism) and the knowledge of His moral law among the heathen nations. Placed by Providence on the highway of nations where the commercial roads and caravans of Europe, Asia and Africa intersected each other, they came in contact with all the ancient monarchies. Thus it happened, that when the time of Christ’s coming approached, many pagans embraced the worship of God, rejected their heathen practices and adopted the moral precepts and even the ceremonies of the Mosaic law.

On the other hand, this intermingling of the Jews with other nations reacted on themselves. Sects like those of the Pharisees and Sadducees, political parties, favoring the adoption of Greek manners and learning (Hellenism), dangerous schools of philosophy arose among them.

Their worship of God became merely external and tinctured with intense fanaticism, national pride and hatred of the Gentiles. The great majority expected in the coming Messiah, not a Redeemer who would deliver them from error and sin, but a conqueror who would free them from the Roman yoke.


The Coming of Christ

Preparation – The ancient world had to pass through all the various stages of external progress and internal degeneracy in order to learn by sad experience the insufficiency of its natural resources and the need of a divine Redeemer.

The belief was widely spread among the Gentiles that a deliverer was to come; the political condition of the world, the influence of the Roman Empire itself prepared the way for the speedy propagation of the Kingdom of Christ. The best pagan philosophers, as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others, though without authority and the intention of teaching the common people and reforming the world, had, nevertheless, spread ideas among the educated classes which facilitated a transition to the Christian revelation.

The perfect development and universal use of the two languages of the civilized world, Latin and Greek, afforded an efficient means for the propagation, explanation and defense of Christ’s teaching. At the time of the Savior’s coming universal peace reigned in the world.

The Birth of Christ

Jesus Christ, the God man, was born at Bethlehem, of the Virgin Mary, during the reign of Augustus. Through His mother He belonged to the family of David, to the tribe of Juda, to the nationality of the Hebrews. Owing to the time and place of His birth, He was a subject of the Roman Empire which officially testified to His human nature at His birth by the census rolls (to which Tertulian, born 160 A.D., refers as existing in his time); at His death by the inscription: “Jesus Nazarenus,” affixed to the cross by the order of the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. The shepherds of Bethlehem and the Magi from the East doing homage to the new-born Savior, represented the two great divisions of mankind, the Jews and the Gentiles.

Pursued by Herod as a possible rival of his dynasty, Jesus spent a portion of His boyhood in Egypt, and after His return led a life of humble and laborious retirement at Nazareth up to His thirtieth year.

Christ’s Public Life

In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Redeemer, began to preach and baptize on the banks of the Jordan. When Jesus was about thirty years of age, He was baptized by John, and announced as the “Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.”

After a forty days’ fast in the desert, Jesus entered upon His public life, the life of a teacher, benefactor and worker of miracles, and the foundation of His Church. At the age of thirty-three He instituted the Holy Eucharist, was betrayed by Judas, condemned to death by the Jews, and crucified under the authority of Pontius Pilate. Thus the Jews and Gentiles again co-operated in carrying out the divine decrees. During the forty days between His resurrection and ascension. He completed the work of the organization of His Church.

On the fortieth day after His resurrection, in the presence of many witnesses He ascended into Heaven, taking with him the human body which he had assumed for the redemption of mankind. But before returning to the bosom of His Eternal Father He laid deep the foundation of His future Church, by bestowing upon the Apostles the full power of the Priesthood, by sending them even as the Father sent Him to all nations of: the earth, and by establishing Saint Peter the visible and abiding Head of the Church.

MLA Citation

  • Father James J McGovern. Light from the Altar, 1906. CatholicSaints.Info. 1 November 2019. Web. 25 February 2021. <>