Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the Virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate Deity!
~ Charles Wesley
It’s New Year’s Eve – break out the Champagne! Get the hors d’oeuvres ready, and the party hats!
Oh, and don’t forget to mark the feast of Pope St. Sylvester in some way.
“Pope saint who?” you ask. “Sylvester? Like the cartoon cat and Tweety Bird?”
No, but don’t worry if you’re in the dark – you’re not the only one. The feast of St. Sylvester is somewhat awkward and obscure, and it’s often overlooked – in fact, as an optional memorial, it’s frequently skipped altogether. Nevertheless, it’s a celebration I look forward to every year, for it neatly rounds out the Christmas Octave as a nuanced link between the Incarnation and the Church.
But first there’s the awkwardness – the timing for instance. It’s the last day of the calendar year, and everybody is either in the final throes of Christmas exuberance, or else (more likely) resting up for New Year’s Eve revelries to come later this evening. Plus, it’s always a truncated feast since it precedes the Solemnity of Mary on January 1. Liturgically speaking, Sylvester’s day is always trumped in the late afternoon by Vigils in honor of Our Lady – not that the saint would object, mind you.
Then there’s the obscurity, beginning with color. Like the Octave in which it is situated, Sylvester’s feast is liturgically white. This is unlike the other special observances immediately following Christmas which are awash in red. There’s St. Stephen the protomartyr on December 26, the feast of the Holy Innocents a couple days later, and then St. Thomas Becket – of Murder in the Cathedral fame – the very next day. Even St. John the Evangelist, on December 27, is touched by blood, for while it’s true he was the only Apostle to die of old age, it wasn’t for lack of effort: Those persecuting the early church had tried submerging the Beloved Disciple in boiling oil to no avail.
Back to our obscure Pope St. Sylvester – not a hint of liturgical red to set him apart during the white Octave, and this despite a pretty close call according to tradition. As a young Christian around the turn of the fourth century, when followers of The Way were still deemed outlaws, Sylvester was outspoken and fearless, going so far as to publicly support Bishop Timothy of Antioch who had come to Rome to stoke the city’s Gospel blaze. Eventually the authorities arrested, tried, and executed St. Timothy, and dumped his body in the streets. Sylvester collected the martyr’s remains for burial – an unmistakable clue that he himself was an adherent of the illegal Jesus sect. This led to the future pope’s capture and imprisonment, but his accusers died following the trial and Sylvester was set free.
Eventually, the pope got wind of Sylvester’s ardor and grit, and he ordained the young Christian to the priesthood. As a minister of the church, Sylvester grew even more passionate in his service to Christ, and he recklessly defied the Emperor’s attempts to crush the Christian insurgency. Even so, Sylvester managed to escape martyrdom, both prior to his accession to the throne of Peter and afterwards – which is noteworthy because so many other popes had suffered execution for their faith going all the way back to the Fisherman himself. In fact, it was a well-known occupational hazard, for in the first centuries of the church’s existence, becoming pope pretty much meant becoming a martyr –almost as a fearsome perk of the office.
Sylvester’s survival in the Petrine ministry, consequently, is exceptional:He is numbered among a handful of non-martyr early popes, and he’s one of only a few recognized as saints. His escape from martyrdom was due in large part to Emperor Constantine’s conversion in 312, which led to the imperial Edict of Milan and the legalization of Christianity in 313. A year later, the papal mantle fell to the zealous Sylvester, “whom God appointed,” in the words of Butler, “to govern his holy church in the first years of her temporal prosperity and triumph over her persecuting enemies.”
Although spared a martyr’s crown, Sylvester nonetheless poured out his life for the Church, and truly lived up to the ancient papal title of Pontifex Maximus – great bridge-builder – until his natural death in 335. For starters, he took full advantage of newfound freedoms and brought the church out of the catacombs. With the blessing and financial support of Constantine, Sylvester transformed a clandestine and cowed community into one firmly ensconced in magnificent basilicas and other edifices that truly created a bridge to a flourishing Church.
In figurative terms, and more importantly, Sylvester contributed to the Church’s dogmatic architecture by approving, through his delegates, the pronouncements of the First Council of Nicea in 325. Called by the Emperor to settle various persistent controversies, Nicea is especially remembered for its definitive rejection of the Arian heresy which held that Jesus was inferior to the Father – a direct assault on the divinity of the Second Person of the Trinity.
The Council’s deliberations led to the adoption of various canons and decrees, but its most lasting legacy is the Nicene Creed – a version of which we now recite at Mass every Sunday and Holy Day. Also known as the Symbol of the First Ecumenical Council, the Creed preserves all the essential elements contained in earlier creedal statements, but it expands on the unique character of Jesus Christ – Son of God and son of Mary, one divine person possessing two natures, human and divine.
The heart of the Nicene Creed is the word homoousios – a Greek phrase that roughly translates into our English word “consubstantial.” The Council insisted on including this term in the Creed for it precisely captures the relationship between the first two Persons of the Trinity – that they share the very same divine nature, that they are both equally divine. “The dogma of the Trinity was at stake,” according to the old Catholic Encyclopedia, “and Homoousion proved itself to be in the words of Epiphanius ‘the bond of faith,’ or, according to the expression of Marius Victorinus, ‘the rampart and wall of orthodoxy.’”
Now, here’s where St. Sylvester and his feast play parallel connecting roles, for just as the Pope confirmed that Nicene Council’s adoption of homoousios as a “bond of faith,” his feast serves as a liturgical bridge between our December 25 commemoration of the Incarnation, and our January 1 commemoration of the woman in whom that Incarnation took place.
Christmas, after all, is essentially a liturgical celebration of homoousios – as we hear in the first chapter of St. John on Christmas morning:
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only-begotten Son,
full of grace and truth.
Significantly, that’s exactly the same Gospel for St. Sylvester and the Seventh Day of Christmas a week later – another strong association between that ancient Pope and the First Noel.
Alright, but how does this relate to the Blessed Mother and her feast on New Year’s Day?
It’s this: While the Nicene Council affirmed a truth about Jesus through adoption of a term, Mary embodied that truth in her very being and became herself the vessel of the God-man. Mary, that is, was not a definition or a doctrine, but a real person – a mortal, a woman – in whom the Savior took on flesh, and through whom God entered his own creation as a baby. In fact, the vital importance of Mary’s person as a bulwark against further Christological heresy was such that she herself became the subject of another Ecumenical Council – this time in Ephesus in 431. Referring to Jesus, this is what St. Cyril of Alexandria wrote at the time:
For he was not first begotten of the holy virgin, a man like us, and then the Word descended upon him; but from the very womb of his mother he was so united and then underwent begetting according to the flesh, making his own the begetting of his own flesh.
Sylvester, for me, connects all these dots, both historically and on the Church’s calendar. The saintly Pope and his feast draw our attention to the relationship between the God-become-flesh and his mother’s embodiment of that divine mystery, and so he’s a bridge-builder indeed.
Maybe you’ve caught the Sylvester bug like me, and you’ll want to mark the day, but chances are pretty good that you’re reading this too late for any liturgical observances of the Pope’s feast – not to worry! You can plan ahead for next December.
Come to think of it, why not make it your New Year’s resolution tonight as you’re watching the ball drop. Celebrating the bridge feast of the first peacetime pope will not only enrich your Christmas, but it will enhance your devotion to Our Lady as well.
St. Sylvester, pray for us!