As we rapidly approach the Winter Solstice, the day of the year with the least sunlight, the Church calendar and readings stick to the theme of light. This coming Sunday’s Gospel opens with John 1:6
A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light,
but came to testify to the light.
O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.
And today is the Feast of St. Lucy, whose name means ‘Light’.
According to the traditional story, she was born of rich and noble parents about the year 283. Her father was of Roman origin, but his early death left her dependent upon her mother, whose name, Eutychia, seems to indicate that she came of Greek stock.
Like so many of the early martyrs, Lucy had consecrated her virginity to God, and she hoped to devote all her worldly goods to the service of the poor. Her mother was not so single-minded, but an occasion offered itself when Lucy could carry out her generous resolutions. The fame of the virgin-martyr Agatha, who had been executed fifty-two years before in the Decian persecution, was attracting numerous visitors to her relics at Catania, not fifty miles from Syracuse, and many miracles had been wrought through her intercession. Eutychia was therefore persuaded to make a pilgrimage to Catania, in the hope of being cured of a hæmorrhage, from which she had been suffering for several years. There she was in fact cured, and Lucy, availing herself of the opportunity, persuaded her mother to allow her to distribute a great part of her riches among the poor.
The largess stirred the greed of the unworthy youth to whom Lucy had been unwillingly betrothed, and he denounced her to Paschasius, the Governor of Sicily. It was in the year 303, during the fierce persecution of Diocletian. She was first of all condemned to suffer the shame of prostitution; but in the strength of God she stood immovable, so that they could not drag her away to the place of shame. Bundles of wood were then heaped about her and set on fire, and again God saved her. Finally, she met her death by the sword. But before she died she foretold the punishment of Paschasius and the speedy termination of the persecution, adding that Diocletian would reign no more, and Maximian would meet his end. So, strengthened with the Bread of Life, she won her crown of virginity and martyrdom.
Lucy’s legend did not end with her death. According to later accounts, Lucy warned Paschasius he would be punished. When the governor heard this he ordered the guards to gouge out her eyes; however, in another telling, it was Lucy who removed her eyes in an attempt to discourage a persistent suitor who greatly admired them.
When her body was being prepared for burial, they discovered her eyes had been restored.
Before you dismiss this as sheer pious fantasy, you might want to read this David Warren essay. I’m inclined to believe that the bare bones of the story as factually correct, and that there’s something behind the more legendary claims, even if they might have suffered some embellishment in pious hands. The Church has long held that there’s little harm in pious legends, and much good if they inspire us to greater holiness.
Be that as it may, the feast of St. Lucy has some interesting history and traditions around it. Due to the subtle inaccuracies of the Julian Calendar, the Winter Solstice had slowly crept earlier over the 15 centuries since that calendar’s promulgation. Pope Gregory’s team proposed an equally subtle correction in 1582. That’s the calendar we use today.
Even though the Gregorian Calendar is a better calendar in all practical senses, keeping the days of the solstices and thus the seasons more or less fixed for millennia to come, the Pope had no authority to enforce this change. He could only appeal to reason. We know how far that will get you in a politically charged (to say the least!) environment. Plus, there was a correction needed: the papal bull specified that Thursday, October 4, 1582 under the Julian calendar be followed by Friday, October 15, 1582 in the Gregorian calendar. Tough break if your birthday falls into those now-vanished days!
In the end, Catholic countries pretty much got on the bandwagon pretty fast, while Protestant countries, being Enlightened and all, resisted doing the logical, practical thing for a long, long time.
When John Donne wrote A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day around 1627, the British were still using the Julian calendar (better to get one’s calendar from a pagan emperor than a pope!), according to which the Winter Solstice had crept forward to indeed fall on (or very near) St. Lucy’s Day. As mentioned in this earlier post, our European ancestors were much less bent out of shape by claims that coincidences showed the hand of God, in fact, they expected God to work through accidents. Thus, that the feast of the saint named Light would fall on the day with the least light would seem appropriate cause for contemplation, portentous, even, to a man of Donne’s time.
Thus has St. Lucy been remembered since the 6th century on. More recently, as in the last 1,000 years or so, Scandinavians have celebrated St. Lucy’s Day as part of the Christmas celebration in this manner: eldest daughter wears white that day, and wears a crown of candles. She is charged with serving food to the family, in commemoration with a legend that has it that St. Lucy did this to have both hands free to serve the poor.
There is a procession, and, in church, appropriate hymns are sung.
The love of Scandinavians for St. Lucy, a Sicilian, is explained by how her feast fell close to the pagan Norse celebration of the Winter Solstice. Those Norsemen would build big bonfires during the longest winter night to drive off the darkness and invite back the light. Lucy’s Day timing, name and story seemed a good segue from pagan to Christian.
And who doesn’t like setting stuff on fire?