Friday, December 31, 2010

December 31, "La Saint Sylvestre" - New Year's Eve: Miserere & Te Deum - Waugh on the Magi as Latecomers

Francophones know New Year's Eve as "Saint Sylvester's Day", after the saintly pope whose feast may be observed as an optional memorial this seventh day in the octave of Christmas.  This is the kind of image that comes up when one Googles "saint Sylvestre" in French:

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Here's the man who gave his name to the day and something about him:

Saint Sylvestre Ier Pape (33 ème) de 314 à 335 (+ 335)

Originaire de Rome, où il est prêtre, Sylvestre accède au pontificat en 314, à la suite du décès de son prédécesseur, Saint-Miltiade. L’empereur Constantin, qui règne alors sur l’empire d’Occident, lui apporte son soutien et sollicite même régulièrement ses conseils. Peu de temps après son élection, Sylvestre doit gérer le conflit avec les Donatistes et ce sont bientôt les disciples du prêtre Arius qui commencent à poser problème à Alexandrie, en Égypte. En 325, un important concile présidé par Constantin est convoqué à Nicée (Turquie).

Sylvestre y envoie deux légats (Victore et Vincent) et il aboutit à la condamnation de l’hérésie arienne. Durant le pontificat de Sylvestre, l’empereur Constantin fait bâtir plusieurs églises et/ou basiliques (+ 335) Saint-Sylvestre est inscrit au 2 janvier dans le calendrier d'Orient.

C'est sous son pontificat que Constantin fait édifier la basilique Saint-Jean de Latran, la basilique de Sainte-Croix de Jérusalem, la basilique de Saint-Paul hors les Murs, la basilique de Saint Laurent. Saint Silvestre intervient pour le mobilier liturgique, les ornements. Il aménagea les catacombes.

Il eût la tâche d'organiser l'Eglise dans une société enfin pacifiée. Il est un fait indéniable : il reste l'un des premiers confesseurs non martyrs dont le culte fut établi très tôt à Rome.

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These are the prayers for today's liturgical observance:

Almighty and ever-living God, who in the Nativity of your Son established the beginning and fulfilment of all religion, grant, we pray, that we may be numbered among those who belong to him in whom is the fullness of human salvation. Who lives and reigns with you.


Come, O Lord, to the help of your people, sustained by the intercession of Pope St. Sylvester, so that running the course of this present life under your guidance, we may happily attain life without end. Through our Lord.

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Today's scriptural readings at Mass constitute a playful reflection on this last day of the year and tomorrow's new beginnings: the first reading from the First Epistle of John begins, "Children, it is the last hour", while the Gospel from John's Prologue starts with "In the beginning"....

The custom followed in many places today (as with the Holy Father in St. Peter's Vatican Basilica) is to pray the Miserere (Psalm 51) in sorrow for the sins and failures of the past year and to sing, an ancient hymn equisitely explained last July 13 by Fr. Edward McNamara, LC (, the Te Deum in praise of the many blessings received and accomplished with the help of God's goodness and mercy in the past year and our hopes for the New Year: 


1 Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.
5 Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.
6 Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
9 Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.
12 Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.
13 Then will I teach transgressors thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto thee.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
15 O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
16 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
18 Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.
 Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit....

Te Deum laudamus....

We praise you O God,
we acknowledge you to be the Lord;
all the earth now worships you,
the Father everlasting.

To you all angels cry aloud,
the heavens and all the powers therein;
to you cherubim and seraphim
continually do cry:

Holy, holy, holy
holy Lord, God of Sabaoth,
heaven and earth are full of the
majesty of your glory.

The glorious company
of the apostles praise you,
the goodly fellowship
of the prophets praise you,
the noble army of martyrs praise you,
the holy Church throughout all the world
does acknowledge you:

the Father of an infinite majesty,
your adorable, true,
and only Son,
also the Holy Spirit, the counselor.

You are the King of glory, O Christ.
You are the everlasting Son of the Father.
When you took upon yourself
to deliver man,
you humbled yourself to be born of a virgin.

When you had overcome the sharpness of death,
you opened the kingdom
of heaven to all believers.

You sit at the right hand of God
in the glory of the Father.

We believe that you will come to be our judge.
We therefore pray you help your servants,
whom you have redeemed with your
precious blood.

Make them to be numbered
with your saints in glory everlasting.

O Lord save your people
and bless your heritage.
Govern them and lift them up forever.

Day by day we magnify you,
we worship your name,
world without end.

Vouchsafe, O Lord,
to keep us this day without sin.

O Lord have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us.
O Lord, let your mercy be upon us,
as our trust is in you.

O Lord, in you have I trusted,
let me never be confounded.

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The Origins of the Te Deum

The Te Deum, an ancient Latin hymn in rhythmical prose, is probably a compilation of three sources. In fact, there are triple rhythms and three distinct melodies within the one piece. In many ways it resembles another ancient liturgical prose hymn, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo.

The chant melodies are from pre-Gregorian and Gregorian styles. Polyphonic versions have been composed by, among others: G. Palestrina, G.F. Handel, Henry Purcell, Ralph Vaughan Williams, M.L. Cherubini, Benjamin Britten, H. Berlioz, A. Bruckner and A. Dvorak. Numerous English translations have been made, including one by the poet John Dryden (1631-1700). The popular "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name," originally a 1775 Lutheran hymn in German, is also based on the Te Deum.

We present the Latin version and the translation published in the 1975 Liturgy of the Hours. For the sake of clarity we have divided it into the three parts mentioned above.

"Te deum laudamus te dominum confitemur / Te aeternum patrem omnis terra veneratur / Tibi omnes angeli Tibi caeli et universae potestates / Tibi cherubim et seraphim incessabili voce proclamant / Sanctus sanctus sanctus dominus deus sabaoth / Pleni sunt celi et terra maiestatis gloriae tuae / Te gloriosus apostolorum chorus / Te prophetarum laudabilis numerus / Te martyrum candidatus laudat exercitus / Te per orbem terrarum sancta confitetur ecclesia / Patrem inmense maiestatis / Venerandum tuum verum unicum filium / Sanctum quoque paraclytum spiritum

"Tu rex gloriae christe / Tu patris sempiternus es filius / Tu ad liberandum suscepisti hominem non horruisti virginis uterum / Tu devicto mortis aculeo aperuisti credentibus regna caelorum / Tu ad dexteram dei sedes in gloria patris / Iudex crederis esse venturus / Te ergo quaesumus tuis famulis subveni quos pretioso sanguine redemisti / Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis gloria numerari

"Salvum fac populum tuum domine et benedic hereditati tuae / Et rege eos et extolle illos usque in aeternum / Per singulos dies benedicimus te / Et laudamus nomen tuum in saeculum et in saeculum saeculi / Dignare domine die isto, sine peccato nos custodire / Miserere nostri domine miserere nostri / Fiat misericordia tua domine super nos quemadmodum speravimus in te / In te domine speravi non confundar in aeternum"

"You are God: we praise you; You are the Lord: we acclaim you; / You are the eternal Father: All creation worships you./ To you all angels, all the powers of heaven, / Cherubim and Seraphim, sing in endless praise: / Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might,/ heaven and earth are full of your glory./ The glorious company of apostles praise you./ The noble fellowship of prophets praise you. / The white-robed army of martyrs praises you. / Throughout the world the holy Church acclaims you:/ Father, of majesty unbounded, / your true and only Son, worthy of all worship, / and the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide.

"You, Christ, are the king of glory,/ the eternal Son of the Father./ When you became man to set us free / you did not spurn the Virgin's womb. / You overcame the sting of death, and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. / You are seated at God's right hand in glory./ We believe that you will come, and be our judge./ Come then, Lord, and help your people, bought with the price of your own blood, / and bring us with your saints to glory everlasting.

"Save your people, Lord, and bless your inheritance./ Govern and uphold them now and always./ Day by day we bless you./ We praise your name for ever. / Keep us today, Lord, from all sin. / Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy. / Lord, show us your love and mercy; / for we put our trust in you. / In you, Lord, is our hope: / And we shall never hope in vain."

As we mentioned, we are probably dealing with three distinct hymns in one. The first is directed toward the Father and ends with a Trinitarian doxology. It could be a rare survivor of the hymns that were popular before the Council of Nicaea in 325. There are probable references to this hymn in the writings of St. Cyprian of Carthage and in the Passion of St. Perpetua, which would make its composition earlier than the year 250.

The second part, entirely Christological, is evidently later and reflects the controversies surrounding the fourth-century Arian heresy. It is also the more-perfect composition faithfully respecting the rules of Latin rhetoric.

The third section is formed from a series of verses from the Psalms. It is possible that these were originally versicles added as a litany at the end of the hymn. Something similar happens today when we add the versicle "You gave them bread from heaven …" after the Tantum Ergo. Eventually this litany also became part of the hymn itself. Indeed, in the Milanese Ambrosian rite the Te Deum ends with the "Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis gloria [Munerari]." The present rubrics also allow this part to be omitted in the Roman rite.

There are many theories regarding the author, especially with respect to who composed the second part and added it to the older first part. The most likely candidate is Nicetas (circa 335-414), bishop of Remesiana, now Bela Palanka in present-day Serbia. This zealous missionary bishop's poetical talent was acknowledged by contemporaries such as St. Jerome and St. Paulinus of Nola, as well as Gennadius writing about 75 years later. Nicetas' authorship is attested by about 10 manuscripts, the earliest from the 10th century and mostly of Irish origin. It is likely that Ireland's isolation could have kept alive an older attribution, whereas in continental Europe the hymn was attributed to more famous names such as St. Hilary and St. Ambrose. A more detailed discussion of the question of authorship and translation of the text can be found in the online Catholic Encyclopedia.

The earliest evidence for the use of this hymn in the Divine Office is found in St. Caesarius of Arles in 502. St. Benedict (died 526) also prescribed it for his monks. The general rubrics of today's Divine Office direct the recitation of the Te Deum before the concluding prayer of the Office of Readings on all Sundays outside of Lent, during the octaves of Easter and Christmas, and on solemnities and feasts.

It is also common to sing the Te Deum as a hymn of thanksgiving to God on special religious and civil occasions. Religious occasions would be such as the election of a pope, the consecration of a bishop, the canonization of a saint, religious profession, and other significant occasions.

In many traditionally Catholic countries it is still common for civil authorities to assist at a special Te Deum on occasion of a royal coronation or presidential inauguration, for peace treaties and significant historical anniversaries. This tradition was sometimes ruled by strict protocol. For example, when General Charles de Gaulle triumphantly entered a liberated Paris during the Second World War the canons of Notre Dame Cathedral debated if the recognized French leader was also the legitimate head of state. The Te Deum could only be sung for the legitimate head of state, and the legal situation was confused. Therefore, when the general entered the cathedral the canons diplomatically received him by singing the Magnificat.

Finally, the Te Deum is traditionally sung on December 31 in thanksgiving for the year about to end. The Church grants a plenary indulgence to those who participate in public recitation of the Te Deum on this day.

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In preparation for Sunday's celebration of the Epiphany:
The Magi as Patrons of Latecomers

Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337), The Magi Doing Homage to the Christ Child (Cappella Scrovegni, Padova)

“You came at length to the final stage of your pilgrimage and the great star stood above you. What did you do? You stopped to call on King Herod. Deadly exchange of compliments in which there began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!

“Yet you came and were not turned away. You too found room before the manger. Your gifts were not exactly needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought in love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you. You were not lower in the eyes of the holy family than the ox or the ass.

“You are my especial patrons... and patrons of all latecomers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents… For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”

Helena’s apostrophe to the Three Magi, from Evelyn Waugh’s Helena


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