On the Feast of Pope St. Sylvester I (d. 335), the evening of the last day of the year, the Holy Father is present in a Roman Church for that solemn traditional chant of praise, Te Deum, Laudamus. Giving thanks is not a bad way to end a year.
The Latin reads, literally, “You, God, we praise.” The English version reads: “You are God: we praise you.” The Latin is more forceful. We are not engaged in a philosophical statement. We are not informing God who He is or what we are doing.
The first words that we see are: “Te Deum – You, God.” The emphasis is on God, whom we presume, on the authority of His Son, to address with the familiar form of “Thou” or “You.” You, God, we praise, not any thing else, not some other god.
This chant is addressed to the Father. We want to be sure what we are about. All comes from the Father; all returns to the Father, both in God’s inner life and in the cosmic order of creation and redemption.
“You are the eternal Father; all creation worships you.” Apostles, prophets, martyrs, and the holy Church itself “acclaim you, Father, of majesty unbounded.”
The hymn then takes up Christ, “king of glory, the eternal Son of the Father.” He became Man, this Son. He overcame death: “We believe that you will come, and be our judge.” Isn’t that an interesting line! This Son of God will be our judge.
Much of Benedict’s encyclical, Spe Salvi, is on this very subject of our final judgment. The Nicene Creed, itself from the time of Pope Sylvester, explicitly states that Christ will come “to judge the living and the dead.” The world, in justice, cannot be complete without such a judgment. Plato, too, understood this, as we see in the last book of the Republic.
Robert Hugh Benson’s apocalyptic novel, The Lord of the World, ends, as does the world itself, on the Feast of St. Sylvester, at the very moment that the whole world is arrayed against the last pope. His name is, of course, Sylvester, an Englishman. The end of the world comes when the last believers, including the pope, are eliminated, ironically, in the name of a better world on this earth.
Pope Sylvester, in legend, supposedly cured the Emperor Constantine of leprosy. He is also associated with the famous forgery known as the Donation of Constantine, on which papal claims to Roman territories were said to have rested. He was pope during the first Council of Nicaea, still one of the most important of all Church councils. Its Creed we still profess on Sundays as a testimony that we know and speak what we hold to be true of God. Sylvester had to deal with the Donatists, who gave Augustine so much trouble, and with the Arian heresy.
Sylvester was present in Rome when Christians were finally politically free to build their own churches. The Roman Breviary for his Feast Day includes the following passage from Eusebius of Caesarea: “Then came the spectacle that we had prayed and hoped for: dedication festivals throughout the cities, and the consecration of newly erected houses of worship.”
These called many bishops and laity together from all over the Empire: “Yes, and our bishops performed religious rites with full ceremonial, priests officiated at the liturgy, the solemn ritual of the Church, chanting psalms proclaiming the other parts of our God-given Scriptures, and celebrating the divine mysteries.” There are, indeed, places where we still can be present at such rites.
The end of one year, 2009, the beginning of another, 2010 – a decade of the twenty-first century has now passed. We are well into the Third Millennium. Aquinas called time the fluxus ipsius nunc, the flowing of the very now in which we ourselves are immersed at all times.
The Te Deum ends in this way: “Come then, Lord, and help your people, / bought with the price of your own blood, / and bring us with your saints / to glory everlasting.” I like that – “Bring us to glory.” “Bring us to a glory that is everlasting.” Who could think beings of our kind really can be satisfied with anything less? We cannot be. In the very fiber of our bones, we cannot be satisfied with anything less.
The Feast of Pope Saint Sylvester is the year’s last. The New Year, on its first day, we find the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God – Theotokos.
A Te Deum verse reads: “When you (Christ) became man to set us free / you did not spurn the Virgin’s womb.” It all fits together if you think about it, which is precisely what we are asked to do at the end and beginning of each year.