Throughout much of the Western world, New Year’s Eve is known as “Silvester.” Any number of pagan customs inform the celebration of Silvester. Each New Year’s Eve my mother assured us—although we knew she was kidding—as she served us herring with boiled potatoes that this meal would make us rich in the coming year. It never happened. In North America we do not mark the change of year with even a glimpse at Saint Silvester (alternatively spelled “Sylvester”), to whom January 1 is assigned in the traditional Western Church year. It might be worthwhile to take at least a superficial glance at this Bishop of Rome, who from 314 to 335 led the Western Church. Indeed, much more than a superficial glance is not possible based on reliable historical records.
Silvester’s story is largely shrouded in mystery, but he was known as a confessor of the faith, both in word and deed. His experience of the pre-Constantinian persecution of Christians undoubtedly shaped his entire life. Christ had sustained him in tough times, and he liked to tell the story of his Lord as the lord and savior of sinners. Legend has it that he baptized the Emperor Constantine although it is not true. Silvester’s reputation as a bold confessor of the faith stems in part from his sending a delegation to the Council of Nicaea in 325, at which the Nicene Creed was written, as well as his public preaching. He was also known for his kindness and aid for the poor, particularly for travelers and refugees. However, the fact of the matter is records give us very little precise indication about the man and his activities.
Nonetheless, the day on which we normally have rather extravagant celebrations bears his name. As we close out an old year, Silvester can remind us God is the Lord of history and He has used and is using even people whose lives sink largely or totally into obscurity to keep the confession of our faith in Jesus Christ alive.
The end of 2020 is like no other most of us have ever experienced, certainly in North America. Instead of getting together to celebrate, most of us will be in some sort of “social isolation,” one of the new terms the virus has introduced to our lives. The absence of our usual way of celebrating the passing of the old year will not harm our relationship with our God in all likelihood, and it may even serve to keep us from certain kinds of sin that did not bring us any shred of positive results, anyway. But in our relative isolation, in the circle of our closest friends or family, or perhaps quite alone, God is present. God is there to speak to us from His Word and to assure us He is the Lord of history. He is near, at hand with His promise that gives hope and stability amid what we perceive as bleak days ahead with more turmoil and trouble, ongoing pandemonium that comes with pandemic. The Holy Spirit reminds us that He who walked on stormy seas will walk with us through distress and disaster and even through discomforts big and small. For He came as Jesus of Nazareth to rescue us from our self-sought, self-designed quarantine apart from God. Jesus entered our flesh and blood, our skin and bones, so we might not turn-in upon ourselves in lonely self-isolation. He arrived in our world to provide us an exit from sinfulness into the fullness of being with Him, creatures with our Creator, the free people with our Liberator, the whole and holy people with our Sanctifier.
+God is there to speak to us from His Word and to assure us He is the Lord of history.
As the Good Shepherd, Christ has come searching for us who have placed ourselves in the self-quarantine of thinking we can control our own lives. We have turned-in upon ourselves to find joy and peace, but ultimately, we find no more than fleeting pleasures, emptiness, loneliness, and the resulting terrors they bring. Some other Christians in Silvester’s time thought holiness was to be found in the isolation of the desert. These believers established a tradition of withdrawal from the world as the godliest way of spending our earthly days. Silvester did not but is said to have gone into the highways and byways to find the disadvantaged and disturbed people on their way and those who had lost their way. That may not be possible this New Year’s Eve unless we use phones or other means of contact to share a few moments and some words of confidence in our Lord with those whom we know are alone and lonely. Even these means of communication give us opportunity to confess our Lord and His presence in our lives, just as Silvester did.
This New Year’s Eve we might also reflect on our language of negative and positive testing. “I tested negative,” is good news in times of lethal virus and, “I tested positive,” leads to negative consequences. We often test ourselves as believers, and we always find ourselves negative, without the godliness we wish to have. We test positive once again for the presence of sin and shame in our lives.
On this festival of Silvester in 2021 we might well think of the Lord’s test of our identities. His incarnation affirmed and sanctified the earthly creatureliness our Creator gave us in the beginning. Jesus became human, precisely not so we might become God, but so we might be restored to our full humanity. His life presents us with the pattern of the life God designed us to lead, like Silvester, finding and serving the disadvantaged and disturbed. His death did death to death because it placed the sins which had condemned us to death in His own tomb and sealed them therein forever. His resurrection opened up for us a Corona-free future that is guaranteed to last forever. Infection-free, virus-free, we will enjoy the fulness of life because He emptied His life for us and reclaimed life for Himself and us. Based on what He has done, Christ tests us, and we are positive, positively a delight to Him and to His and our Father.
+His incarnation affirmed and sanctified the earthly creatureliness our Creator gave us in the beginning.
We know this is true because of the essential workers in the Lord’s vineyard who have conveyed to us His saving serum of absolution through Christ’s death and resurrection. This serum works wonders: The restoration of our righteousness, the renewal of our identity as God’s own children, and the rejuvenation of life itself. Our parents, our spouses, our children, our friends, and fellow-members of our churches, and certainly our pastors and teachers, are indeed essential workers as they go about God’s business—callings—as speakers of His Word of promise in Christ and conveyors of the benefits of His death and resurrection.
This New Year’s Eve may be unique in the lives of many around the world. It is an occasion on which even the briefest glance at Bishop Silvester—and he deserves only that—can serve as a reminder that also December 31, even the December 31 of this year, is a day of our Lord, a day in which He comes to us to accompany us through all that troubles us. It is a day of our Lord, ending another year of our Lord, during which He has not left us isolated or quarantined but has lent us His presence and His promise.