Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Martin Luther once said, “Next to Holy Scripture there certainly is no more useful book for Christendom than that of the lives of the saints especially when unadulterated and authentic.” Well, now that the Sunday School children are away I can tell you the real story of Saint Lucia of Syracuse. It is the story of depicted on the bulletin cover.
Admittedly, it is difficult for a stoic Lutheran like me to meditate on authentic and unadulterated story. After all, like countless Scandinavians and Scandinavian- Americans, I have been raised on the romanticized legend of Santa Lucia who brings light and joy into the world’s midwinter darkness. My wife Janna and I have been celebrating Lucia for the entire 35 years of our marriage. One of my earliest gifts to her was a music box of the Lucia processional which plays the traditional Neapolitan melody. We both remember affectionately one distinct Sancta Lucia morning, when we were startled by the entrance of pre-dawn burglars into our home. We quickly shoved a heavy dresser in front of our bedroom door and waited quietly. Suddenly, we heard the click of a cassette player and sounds of music up the stairs. We then peaked out the narrowly cracked door and saw my boss’ teenage daughter wrapped in miniature Christmas tree lights ascending the stairs. For most Scandinavians, Sancta Lucia is a popular figure essential to the celebration and wonder of December, and they would prefer to keep it that way. But my trip to Rome in May, taught me that the early Christian martyrs especially women seldom enjoyed a romantic life.
In 284 AD, Emperor Diocletian came to power. He was the most remarkable imperial organizer since Augustus, and that talent, unfortunately, was not lost on Christians. In 303, Diocletian was encouraged by his co-emperor Caesar Galerius, to rouse patriotic feeling among the Roman population by hounding the Christians, even though his own wife belonged to the faith. It was the first time in almost 50 years that an emperor had taken the trouble. Yet, as never before, the motive of this Great Persecution was the total extinction of Christianity. It was, it seems, the final struggle between the old and new orders, and therefore the fiercest. The first of Diocletian’s edicts prohibited all Christian worship and commanded that all Christian writings be destroyed. It was into this world that Lucia of Syracuse was born in 283 AD.
The same year Diocletian became emperor, Lucia’s father died. Despite being born into a wealthy household, young Lucy was encouraged to share her good fortune with the poor by her bereaved mother who was suffering from an incurable disease. Fearing an early death, her mother arranged for Lucia to be married to a wealthy pagan man, but Lucia had undertaken solemn vows of celibacy. Her devotion found strength when her mother was miraculously cured of her disease, and so Lucia began to give away her fortunes to the needy in the name of God. Unfortunately, these were the fortunes that her future husband and his family were due to inherit. Her furious husband-to-be denounced her to the Governor of Syracuse. She was sentenced to live out her days in a brothel, but when the guards came to take her, she wouldn’t budge. It was said that the Roman guards tried to drag her to the brothel by attaching her to a cart drawn by oxen. When this didn’t work, the guards tried to set her on fire, but the flames wouldn’t catch. This still wasn’t the end. Finally her eyes were gouged out and she was stabbed in the neck. When her lifeless body was being prepared for burial, her eyes miraculously reappeared. For this reason, Lucia is the patron saint of the blind.
Sancta Lucia’s story and her martyrdom quickly became famous and spread across Europe. In the 6th century, she was one of the few female saints named in the canon of Pope Gregory the Great, which designated December 13th, the shortest day of the Julian calendar as her feast day. When the first Catholic missionaries arrived in Scandinavia around 1000AD the inhabitants incorporated this new faith including Lucia into their own Nordic religious tradition. But instead of focusing on Lucia’s martyrdom and being blind, the Scandinavians focused on her eyes being restored and her tie to the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year. They noted her sharing with the poor and she soon became the ultimate symbol of light. Even the significance of her white robe of victory, and the red sash of a marty, were lost. But she was not forgotten.
So today, we have before us two Lucias, one the historic martyr of the 4th century, forever the virgin bridesmaid, and the other, the romantic symbol of light and love sublime which has been passed on through culture and tradition. And maybe that’s fine. After all, the Christian faith is paradoxical. Jesus himself is the shepherd and the lamb, the host and the guest, the victim and the savior.
Perhaps no one expressed this struggle to understand Jesus more than his own relative John the Baptist. John had drawn the crowds out into the wilderness to be baptized in the Jordan River and warned them that the Messiah, who would follow him would baptize not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This Messiah would exercise judgment in the fashion of a mighty swashbuckler. But Jesus did not fit that character. Instead, Jesus came into the world born in a stable in Bethlehem. He proclaimed that the kingdom of God would come like a mustard seed. He healed the sick, and surprisingly, befriended tax collectors and sinners. Was it any wonder that John, now sitting in prison with time on his hands, questioned whether Jesus was the one to come or not.
Jesus, however, answered with one of the clearest statements of his mission, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus did not come to gain earthly power. He came among the people to serve them, bringing life. Instead of casting away those who were already at the margins of society, men and women whom many would want to send away and out of sight, it was precisely these people that Jesus came to restore and save. And that includes you and me. That is the true message of Advent.
Unfortunately, John the Baptist was executed by King Herod before he could see the ministry of Jesus unfold; by contrast, we are “the least in the kingdom” who have seen the ministry of Jesus come to its completion. We know that God works in mysterious ways through a variety of means. And that he can even speak through two Lucia. Yes, there may be times when the spirit of Christ’s incarnation will need to come to you in the powerful story of the sacrifice of the historic martyr to inspire you to make a difference in the world. In other moments, when you are alone and sitting on the edges of life in darkness, it may be the hopeful light of Christ’s presence that is needed. You know that in God’s hands all things work together for good, but in this dark moment you need the encouraging light that comes to you in music and tradition.
My friends, you do not need to be anxious about whether Christ is the one who is to come, or whether you should wait for another. Nor, do you need worry whether your Christmas preparations are faithful and disciplined enough. Even your doubts and questions should not cause you to stumble. As Jesus promised, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense in Christ.” So let the light of Christ shine into the season, by whatever means. We know the end of the story- Christ’s kingdom does come, and what a joy and hope he brings. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.