Thursday, December 31, 2009

Prayers today: A child is born for us, a son given to us; dominion is laid on his shoulder, and he shall be called Wonderful-Counsellor. Isaiah 9: 6

Ever-living God, in the birth of your Son our religion has its origin and its perfect fulfilment. Help us to share in the life of Christ for he is the salvation of mankind, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

St. Sylvester I, Pope (d. 335)

When you think of this pope, you think of the Edict of Milan, the emergence of the Church from the catacombs, the building of the great basilicas, Saint John Lateran, Saint Peter’s and others, the Council of Nicaea and other critical events. But for the most part, these events were planned or brought about by Emperor Constantine. A great store of legends has grown up around the man who was pope at this most important time, but very little can be established historically. We know for sure that his papacy lasted from 314 until his death in 335. Reading between the lines of history, we are assured that only a very strong and wise man could have preserved the essential independence of the Church in the face of the overpowering figure of the Emperor Constantine. The bishops in general remained loyal to the Holy See and at times expressed apologies to Sylvester for undertaking important ecclesiastical projects at the urging of Constantine.

It takes deep humility and courage in the face of criticism for a leader to stand aside and let events take their course, when asserting one’s authority would only lead to useless tension and strife. Sylvester teaches a valuable lesson for Church leaders, politicians, parents and others in authority. To emphasize the continuity of Holy Orders, the recent Roman breviary in its biographies of popes ends with important statistics. On the feast of Saint Sylvester it recounts: "He presided at seven December ordinations at which he created 42 priests, 25 deacons and 65 bishops for various sees." The Holy Father is indeed the heart of the Church's sacramental system, an essential element of its unity.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint John (1: 1-18)
(Homily by Fr. E. J. Tyler)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ From his fullness we have all received one grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No-one has ever seen God, but God the Only Begotten, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. (John 1: 1-18)

The Word Most religions seem to have an account of the beginnings, meaning by this an account of the beginnings of either the people who possess this account, or of the world. The Australian aborigines have their powerful Dreamtime, and numerous other myths of the peoples could be cited. It seems to be one of the functions of religion that it provide this answer to what is a fundamental question. In this, religion has competed with science, with science gradually supplanting the myths of religion and claiming authority to tell the whole story of the beginnings. So it is that in the imagination of many people, science now occupies the chair of religion. In his Oxford University Sermon of December 11, 1831, John Henry Newman spoke of “The Usurpations of Reason,” and much of his point is that this happens when reason strays beyond its own province. It certainly pronounces beyond its competence when it claims to teach the whole story of the beginnings. The Big Bang, of course, does not account for the beginnings because the Bang itself had to begin, and that required an ultimate uncaused Beginner of the Bang. In any case the Bang does not account for the ontological insufficiency of the transient and limited being that is the world. Be all that as it may, Revealed Religion tells us of the ultimate beginnings. As the first verses of the book of Genesis reveal, God spoke and the world began. Just what exactly he did in the world and with the world we leave to science to discover if it can. But the world began in time, and it began because of the act of the one Creator. Genesis teaches that were it not for God there would be no world at all. Why, then, is there not nothing? There is not nothing because God willed that there be something. He, the One without beginning who is sustained in being by no other, began and sustains in being all that is other than He. But there is a further revelation and it is set forth by St John at the outset of his Gospel. The word by which God brought all creation into being, the word which he uttered to his servants the prophets, this word was with God in the beginning.

Whatever point we take as being the beginning, there at that point the Word was with God. The Word did not begin, nor did God. At the beginning, there was the Word, and the Word was with God (ho theos), and — surprise of surprises! — the Word was God (theos)! At the outset of his Gospel St John begins forthwith to speak of the mystery of the most holy Trinity. The one and only God is not just one and only person. The Word who became flesh is also this one and only God (kai theos een ho logos). The Word, becoming flesh and dwelling among us, will reveal the person of the Holy Spirit, who will in turn glorify and bear witness to him and to the Father. Our Gospel passage today (John 1:1-18) is traditionally called the Prologue of the Gospel of St John. It sets before us a grand panorama of the beginning of time and of the redemption of the world. We are taken immediately to the heart of reality as it has been from all eternity and we are invited to accept the invitation to enter into communion with the great God who has deigned to reveal himself to us. In simple strokes, like the gentle unfolding of a grand symphony, St John tells us of the Word who will be the protagonist of his Good News. It was through him that we and all else was made. In him is life and that life is our light. It is a powerful light and the darkness cannot comprehend it nor can it master it. There is no other true light for man other than what is in him, so we must choose to regard him as our only Way and our only Truth. He is the Light of the world, and the one who follows him walks in the light, while the one who rejects him walks forever in the darkness. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and it is this which we celebrate during the Christmas season. God made man is the glory of God, and this glory has been seen by man. As the inspired author says, “we saw his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” He brings to us the fullness — the fullness of life, abundant life — “and of his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”

Let us contemplate the grand and lofty person of Jesus Christ, born a babe, an historical man for his brief span, dead on the cross, risen and now present in all his fullness in his body the Church. He brings to us the fullness of grace and life and light, grace upon grace. He is our hope and to him we must cleave. Let us, with our hand in his, walk by his side as, not his servants, but his friends. I have not called you servants but friends, he says. Let us tread his path whatever be the cost of each day, for he will take us with him into glory.

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