Where is God?
The Seventh Day of Christmas; and, the Commemoration of Saint Sylvester I, Pope & Confessor.*
Lessons from the feria, according to the ordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• I John 2: 18-21.
• Psalm 96: 1-2, 11-13.
• John 1: 1-18.
First & third lessons from the Second Mass of Christmas, Gradual from the Third Mass, according to the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite:
• Titus 3: 4, 7.
• Psalm 97: 3-4, 2.
• Luke 2: 15-20.
The Otdanije (Leave-Taking) of the Nativity of Our Lord, God & Savior Jesus Christ.**
Lessons from the Pentecostarion, according to the Ruthenian recension of the Byzantine Rite:
• I Timothy 6: 11-16.
• Matthew 12: 15-21.
9:40 AM 12/31/2016 — Today's Gospel lesson is very familiar: it's the prolog to the Gospel of Saint John and, in the extraordinary form, it's read at the end of every Mass, which is why it's called the “Last Gospel.” It's had such an important role in the liturgy of the Church because it is the quintessential statement of Divine Revelation about the incarnation and the Divinity of Christ; and, it all boils down to one verse: verse fourteen: καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας (1: 14). We have here a boiler-plate translation which is not wrong: “And the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory of the Father's only-begotten Son, full of grace and truth” (1: 14 NABRE). Msgr, Knox's translation is almost the same; but, there is not one translation of the Bible into English which translates it word for word.
The only one that comes close is a version you may remember called the Jerusalem Bible, which is out of favor now because of it's frequent use of the name “Yahweh” throughout the Old Testament, which the Holy See has told us may no longer be used because it violates the Jewish prohibition against pronouncing the name of God. It doesn't give a word for word translation of verse fourteen in the text, but it does give it in a footnote: καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν; the literal translation is, “And the word was made flesh and pitched his tent among us.” And a lot of people make the mistake of thinking Saint John used that language simply because so many of the peoples of the Middle East were nomads who lived in tents, so when they translate it into English they leave out the reference to a tent; but, that’s not what he means at all.
After Moses received the tablets of the Law on Mount Sinai, but before the Jews had settled in Jerusalem and built the first temple, they carried around with them, in their wanderings through the desert, a great tent called the Tabernacle, which housed the Ark of the Covenant. God dwelt in the Tabernacle, and Moses would speak to Him there. Clearly, John's use of the word σκήνοω—to pitch one's tent—is a clear statement that Jesus is the incarnation of God upon earth; and, His presence in the Tabernacle, where the Tablets of the Law were once kept, indicates that Jesus now replaces the old covenant of the Law of Moses with a new covenant, which is Himself. It may seem to you like an esoteric point, but it really isn't.
Since the time that God first revealed himself to Abraham, men have longed for God to be somewhere. A God who is pure spirit, who permeates all of nature, who lives up in the heavens, who dwells in the hearts of every man;—however else it may have been said—this kind of God has never satisfied man. He has always tried to confine God to this physical world.
The ancient Hebrews sent Moses up Mt. Sinai and he came down with the tablets of the Law, the Ten Commandments. They believed God was in the Law, so they could know where God was. But they were not satisfied. And so they built the ark, and they placed the tablets of the Law in the ark, and they carried the ark around with them everywhere they went. They believed God was in the Ark, so they could know where God was. But they were not satisfied. And so they put together a tremendous tent—they called it the “Tabernacle,” even though it was just a tent—in which to keep the Ark. They would pitch this tent everywhere they settled. They believed God was in the Tabernacle, so they could know where God was. But they were not satisfied. And as Israel became a great nation under King Solomon they built a great Temple. The Bible says it was the greatest building in the world, the envy of all the kings of the earth. And in the middle of the Temple, the Holy of Holies and the Altar of Incense, where God dwelt in majesty and splendor. And from all over the world the Hebrews would come, to celebrate the great feasts and Holy Days of the Jewish year. And when the temple was destroyed, they built another one, so they could know where God was. But even the great Temple in Jerusalem could not satisfy them; and, when our Lord went into the temple to pray, He could sense the hunger of the people for God. Why?
God is pure spirit, but we are not. We are physical creatures, and we relate to the universe around us in a physical way. I know this pulpit is here. Why? Because I see it, I can touch it, I can read from it. I know it is here because I experience it with my senses. How do I know that God is here? Can I see Him? Can I touch Him?
All of these places where God is said to have dwelt—the Law, the Ark, the Tabernacle, the Temple—all of them were defective. You see, all of these different places were made by men. Nothing made by man could ever contain the infinite God. The only place where God could really dwell would have to be a place built by God, Himself. And that's exactly what He did when he took upon Himself the flesh of the Virgin Mary, and became Man. And for the first time in the history of God's people, God had a place to dwell that was truly worthy of Him, a place so perfect that it was, in fact, God Himself, in the person of Jesus. “And the word became flesh and pitched his tent among us, and we saw his glory, the glory of the Father's only-begotten Son, full of grace and truth.” God knows us so very well. He knows that we are physical beings, that we can't just relate to Him purely on a spiritual level; that we need a God whom we can see and touch and feel. That's why he gave us Jesus; and that's why Jesus, before leaving this world, gave us His greatest gift: He gave us Himself, under the humble appearances of bread and wine, so that we, too, could know where God is.
I myself am the living bread that has come down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he shall live for ever. And now, what is this bread which I am to give? It is my flesh, given for the life of the world (John 6: 51-52 Knox).
St. John begins his account of the Last Supper with these words: "Jesus, having loved his own in the world, loved them to the end." That's what the Eucharist is all about: love. Not the kind of love that you or I know. When we speak of love we so often mean possession, satisfaction, fulfillment. For us, love so often becomes an obsession in which we try to own another person, to make that person ours. For our Lord it's just the opposite. For Him, to love another means not to possess but to be possessed. We so often characterize love as a hunger for another person. But at the Last Supper our Lord shows us the true character of love; and, by the act of washing His disciples’ feet, He reminds us that our destiny is to love one another as He has loved us. And He has loved us not with a hunger that seeks to consume, but which seeks to be consumed, giving His own Flesh and Blood as food and drink. I wonder how many of us actually believe that. How many of us actually believe that the small piece of bread given to us in Holy Communion is not bread at all, but the Lord? Not a symbol of Jesus, not a reminder of Jesus, Jesus is not present in the bread; but it actually is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is God. Think about that for a moment: God created the universe and everything in it, and He created you; and you can see him and receive him right here in this chapel, and wherever the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered! And there's absolutely no reason for it, except that He loves you.
There's a good deal of the ancient Israelites in all of us, because there are a lot of people running around with empty hearts. And they try, so futilely, to fill the emptiness with created things, all the while missing the fact that the only thing that can fill their hearts is in front of them always in the sacrifice of the Altar. That's where the priest, standing in the person of Christ, unites his own flesh and blood to that of his Divine Master, and offers both as an expiation for sin, his own sin as well as his people’s. That's where the Creator places Himself in the hands of the creature as a proof of His love, as if His love needed any proof.
The love that requires proof now is our own. And our Lord has shown us how, as He commanded us at the last supper: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13: 15 NABRE).
* In both the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Roman Rite, a memorial or third class feast occuring during the Octave of Christmas becomes a commemoration. In the ordinary form, only the Collect is taken, with everything else taken from the Octave feria; or, the commemoration may be omitted entirely, using the Collect of the Octave feria. In the extraordiary form, an additional Collect, Secret and Postcommunion are added to those of the Octave feria.
The importance of Pope St. Sylvester to the growth of the early Church cannot be overestimated. The following are the middle three lessons from Matins in the extraordinary form, not for today, but from the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilicas of Ss. Peter and Paul:
The rites observed by the Roman Church in consecrating churches and altars were instituted by the blessed Pope Sylvester. For although from apostolic times churches were dedicated to God, and called by some 'oratories,' by others 'churches;' and in them the Christian people assembled on the first day of the week, and there they would pray, hear the Word of God, and receive the Holy Eucharist; yet hitherto they were never so solemnly consecrated, nor was an altar erected in them, anointed with Chrism, to represent and signify Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is our Altar, our Victim, and our Priest.
But when the Emperor Constantine had received health of body and soul by the Sacrament of Baptism, he promulgated a law to the whole world, allowing the Christians to build churches; and he encouraged them in this work by his own example as well as by this edict. Thus, in his Lateran palace he dedicated a Church to Our Savior; and founded the adjoining Baptistery in honor of St. John the Baptist, on the very spot where he himself had been baptized by St. Sylvester and cleansed from the leprosy of infidelity. The Pontiff consecrated it on the fifth of the Ides of November (November 9); and we celebrate the memory thereof on this same day, whereon for the first time a church was publicly dedicated in Rome, and there appeared before the eyes of the Roman people an image of Our Savior depicted on the wall.
Although later on, when consecrating the altar of the Prince of the Apostles, Blessed Sylvester decreed that thenceforward all altars should be built of stone; yet the altar of the Lateran Basilica was of wood. This, however, is not surprising. For from the time of St. Peter down to Pope Sylvester, persecution prevented the Pontiffs from having any fixed abode; so that they offered the Holy Sacrifice either in crypts or cemeteries, or in the houses of the faithful, as necessity compelled them, upon the said wooden altar, which was hollow like a chest. When peace was granted to the Church, Saint Sylvester placed this altar in the first church, the Lateran; and in honor of the Prince of the Apostles, who is said to have offered the Holy Sacrifice upon it, and of the other Pontiffs who had used it up to that time, he decreed that no one should celebrate Mass upon it except the Roman Pontiff. This church, having been injured and half ruined in consequence of fires, hostile invasions, and earthquakes, was several times repaired by the care of the Popes. After a new restoration Pope Benedict XIII, a Dominican, solemnly consecrated it, on the 28th of April in the year 1726, and ordered the commemoration thereof to be celebrated on this present day. The great works undertaken by Pius IX have been happily completed by Leo XIII – that is, the principal apse, which was threatening to fall because of age, has been very much enlarged; the ancient mosaic, already partially restored at different times, has been reconstructed on the old model, and transferred to the new apse, which is beautifully and richly decorated; the roof and woodwork of the transepts have been renewed and ornamented. Moreover, a sacristy and a house for the Canons have been added, as well as portico connecting these buildings with Constantine's Baptistery. The whole work was completed in 1884.
** In the Byzantine Tradition, major feast days are marked by prefestive and postfestive periods. While there is no corresponding tradition in the West regarding prefestive days, the postfestive period is concomitant with the concept of an octave in the Latin Church, though it's duration is not necessarily eight days depending on the importance of the feast. The last day of the postfestive period is called the "Leave-Taking," Otdanije in Slavonic, actually a verb meaning "to return." The liturgy on the day of Otdanije mirrors that of the feast with minor variations.
The feast of St. Melany, ordinarily observed on the 31st, was transfered to yesterday because of the Otdanije.