December 13th is the feast day of St. Lucy.
She was an early 4th century Christian who lived at Syracuse in Sicily at a time when the Roman Emperor wanted to restore the worship of pagan gods and, particularly, worship of himself as a god.
Lucy was supposedly a wealthy woman who, in a true following of the Gospel, decided to give away all her possessions and provide for the poor. Engaged to be married at the time; her betrothed took exception to this – no doubt having planned to marry her for her money – and so, in a fit of pique, he denounced her to the authorities. They are said to have tortured her and finally put her to death. As she died she predicted that soon persecutions such as hers would cease. Within a few years, when Constantine became Emperor he established Christianity as the only religion of the Roman Empire thus fulfilling her prophecy.
Lucy belongs, then, to that period of Christianity when martyrdom – dying rather than denouncing Christ – was not only common but also inspirational. Christians under suffering drew strength from the martyrs witness.
As with many early saints, her story became surrounded by legend as it was told throughout Christendom and her cult increased. Up until late medieval times her feast day was one that was well observed.
Whilst the martyrdom itself is the chief reason for remembering her there is another reason and it is contained in the meaning of her name – Lucy means ‘Pure Light’ – and in the position of her feast day in the Church’s Calendar. Until the secular calendar changed in the 18th century, St. Lucy’s day was the shortest day of the year – the day when the hours of daylight reached their lowest point.
The 17th century priest and poet, John Donne – who became Dean of St. Paul’s, wrote a poem entitled “A nocturnall upon St.Lucie’s day, being the shortest day” which began with the words:
‘Tis the yeares midnight’
which captures the sense that on St. Lucy’s day the world is at its lowest ebb. It was the time of the pagan midwinter solstice when Nature is at its deadest, which for us is marked by cold and cheerless weather, a longing to be warm indoors – our own version of hibernation, a looking forward to the light of spring. For our forebears it was a time of terror, confusion and darkness, of infertility, hunger and danger as the sun’s light all but disappears.
The Christian overlaying of this time of the year with the Festival of Christmas is no accident – the early fathers of the Church were determined not only to stamp out paganism by replacing it with new interpretation – they also recognised that midwinter was a time of gloom, despair and shadows. What better than to transform it with a festival of light and joy. So the observance of Christmas in late December seemed a natural development. St. Lucy’s day anticipates that and in Sweden and other Nordic countries it is a day of great celebration of Light.
St. Lucy’s day, falling in mid-Advent became a natural turning point as, in old calculation, we pass the shortest day and move slowly but certainly towards the re-birth that we know as Spring. From the day of her feast – though now from December 21st – the light returns; hope in new birth is gradually awakened and the year’s midnight turns towards a new dawn – the dawn of spring, still some time off but from that moment coming ever near. Here is promise and hope. It is perhaps harder for us in a world of artificial light to fully understand the relief of insecure primitive man as light returns.
Lucy, representing Light became the pivot on which the world turns.
The Christian interpretation is easy to see – as the anticipation of the Christmas festival begins to gather pace. St. Lucy’s day marks not only the restoration of the Sun’s light – it marks much more the movement towards the celebration which, in the words of St. John’s Gospel, is about God’s light coming into the world – the light which ‘shines in the darkness’ and which the darkness cannot overcome.
The physical ‘world’s midnight’ is reinterpreted as its ‘spiritual midnight’. The darkness and gloom of unbelief is pinpricked with a dawning light shining from the Incarnation of God’s Son who , in St. John’s words, is the ‘true light, which enlightens everyone.’ He was coming into the world.
The place of Light in the Christian tradition is always connected with Christ. We fill our churches with candlelight which, in former times, had a practical purpose, but as with most things Christian, is also resonant with a spiritual interpretation.
In many churches there is perpetually a light burning before the sacrament in the aumbry or tabernacle – a reminder of the light within contained in the Blessed Sacrament – a symbol itself of Christ’s perpetual presence amongst us.
How many, like me, have entered a church when it is dark and been drawn to that pinprick of light and have known that whatever life throws at us, there is always the light of Christ drawing us from gloom, darkness, life’s pain and confusion towards Him who is both Light and hope?
This is the essence of Christmas – a festival to banish the darkness of winter which for the world is symbolised by decorated trees, carols, songs and festive fare and much tumult but which has, at its heart, the silent pinprick of light puncturing the darkness and refusing to be overcome by it. What hope that contains!
So we move through Advent towards the certainty of that light and as we pass St. Lucy’s day we are reminded that whilst there is suffering in this life, not least throughout the pandemic which has marred 2020, – there is beyond it a real hope. This hope is to be found in the ‘meaning’ of Christmas which is a festival celebrated in darkness yet within that darkness is the faint glimmer of light which grows stronger as Christ leads us from Christmas to Resurrection.
How strong that glimmer becomes personally depends as much on us as on anything else. Christ has already lightened the yeare’s midnight. He has already come into the world. Whether he can penetrate through to our hearts depends on whether we are prepared to put our hopes and our trust in God so that in his Word to us at Christmas – which is Christ – we are drawn to celebrate his light – not as a cultural festival with all its trimmings which will be muted this year anyway– but as a profound sign that God really is in the midst of our lives, shining with the radiance of a love so powerful that not even our own worst fears, forebodings or the dark things that happen to us can drown him out.
Lucy, St Lucia – pure light gives us the word lucid – to make clear. In the morass of this present time may the light of hope, of love, of God become clear to us personally and shine in all our hearts and through us, into a world deeply in darkness and in need of Light.