St. Lucia: A Saint for the Season of Lights
The Rev. Peter E. Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
At first, you might be wondering about today’s topic…
How could an Italian gondola song, a faith miracle, sticky buns, evergreens, a Norse Goddess, and a Swedish folk festival ever be linked?
The connections, as you will hear, are found in the unifying ideals of light and love. These associations are all wrapped and presented to us in the story of St. Lucia, the patron saint of light and spiritual insight.
As We enter into the darkest two weeks of the year, it is part of our heightened awareness to pay attention to how light and spirituality share a common religious history. In all the world religions, myths, and stories light and theology are intermingled and one often illumines the other, and can serve to point to the same truths.
Not that much is known about the early saints of Christendom, especially the female ones. Lucia, like St. Barbara, and St. Agatha, and St. Catherine were often extolled as models of virtue and faith. They were powerful witnesses to how love overcame fear, and how light is as much an inner quality of vision and purpose as it is a sensory and seasonal fact.
According to a synthesis of historical accounts, Lucia was born in Syracuse, Sicily in approximately 300 AD . From early in her life, she was programmed and prepared for an influential marriage to one of the sons of eligible aristocracy.
This fellow who was to be her husband by a prearranged pact between the two Roman families- families who were “politely religious,” in that they observed all the Greco-Roman pagan rites and rituals of their day.
However, Lucia was discontent about these hard and fast locked in arrangements. When she came of age, she requested repeated delays, while the groom’s family grew increasingly impatient. Then something dramatic happened that would alter Lucia’s life even more. Her mother became gravely ill; none of the local doctors could find a cure. Lucia was deeply troubled. She asked for advice. She was desperate.
Through the grapevine, she heard of people called Christians who gathered at the tomb of St. Agatha. There, people were supposedly able to cure people or help them in their distress.
Secretly, she accompanied her dying mother to the tomb, and waited for a sign. Nothing happened at the time, but soon after, her mother recovered fully! Lucia was amazed and resolved to find out more about those curious people called Christians. She became aware of all their good works, and their generosity to the poor and needy around the city. She experienced a change of heart. She decided that she would become a Christian, too.
Now she knew definitely, that she did not want to marry that man that her family chosen. With an independent and faithful spirit, she informed the groom that she declined the betrothal. The groom and his family were furious! She offered to give back her abundant dowry but they refused!
So she turned around and gave it all to the poor! The groom’s family became incensed. They found out about Lucia’s visit to the saint’s tomb and her interest in the Christians, and indignantly dragged her before the Roman judge. Then, In a public trial, they accused her of being a Christian! At that time, this was a horrible indictment, since it occurred during the times of severe religious persecution.
She stood accused of a heinous crime of not paying homage to the pagan gods but seeking out a new one for her mother’s cure. The judge sentenced her to be burned at the stake for her crime.
On her way to her execution, something strange happened in the city square. Somehow, Lucia gained great strength, and the soldiers could not move her any further toward the fire. They pushed and pulled, they even tied oxen to her, but she would not be moved! So determined to punish her, the authorities poked out her eyes- still she refused to recant her faith or be moved toward the flames. The vengeful family then insisted that the flames be rebuilt around her, and still she remained unmoved by the fire. Some accounts attribute that only evil, magical sword had to be used, and only that finally killed her.
All through this ordeal, the young maiden projected a serene radiance- people remarked about her calm and bold trust, her unwavering faith, her special countenance and its affect on the crowds. The people saw that this frail girl became so strong and resistant within her newfound faith that even hot pokers, and the fires of resentment and hate could not touch her. ….
After her death, and when Constantine declared the Empire to be a tolerant one that promoted Christianity, the body of St. Lucia was transferred from Sicily to Constantinople, then the official seat of the Roman Empire. Later, her remains were threatened by the Crusades, and so her relics were brought up to Venice, and there they were housed in the magnificent church of Santa Lucia.
The legend about Lucia and her eyes of faith spread through the canals, and she became the patron saint of lamplighters and gondoliers. She was believed to light the way so that all could walk by faith, and not just by sight, and her spirit guided the boats safely through the waterways and dim canals. As the legends grew, St. Lucia became the patron saint for all those who experienced eye diseases, vision difficulties, or problems with perception.
In his poetry, Dante referred to St. Lucia as the “Queen of Supernal Light” Whatever you might think about the idea of having a patron saint, a guiding spirit or some protective intercessor on your behalf, the story of St. Lucia is among the most beloved in Western thought and legend.
As Christianity spread northward, it began to encounter various Teutonic pagan beliefs and their earth centered festivals. As I have previously noted, our modern holidays decorations and myths such as Halloween, All Souls, and Now Christmastime have many of its origins, from pumpkins to evergreen trees, in these pagan Northern festivals of the Teutons, Celts, and Druids.
In studying the spread of Christianity and Western Civilization, I remain amazed how a Middle Eastern religion, with a Mediterranean culture, could fit or be accommodated to Teutonic, Celtic, and Druid festivals. When looked at through our modern eyes we can see that all religious cultures contain the same truths placed or adorned in different packages- the key to this inclusion or accommodation of different traditions is an open attitude of appreciation, and a willingness to become aware of how we can all benefit from acknowledging our interfaith roots and celebrations.
In Northern Europe, principally among the Danes, and the Scandinavian people, there was a rich and elaborate mythology that guided their lives and directed their worship.
Known collectively as Norse mythology, it was every bit as enthralling and complex as the Greco-Roman versions. ( The world tree, Yggsdrasil, Thor’s day, mistletoe, and many famous tales …)
One of the most enduring and important festivals for the Norse people was the acknowledgment of the harvest and the season of darkness covering the Earth. Living in a intimate relationship with nature, and not being influenced by a city state mentality and its
governmental regulations, the seasonal cycle was the all important consideration that guided their lives. In the cold Northern climates, and according to the old calendars, December 13th was the shortest day of the year. (Later, it was known as the twelfth day before Christmas or as the unofficial start of the Christian observances. (From the 13th to 12th Night and Epiphany on January 6th)
This most important date, December 13th, was the feast day of the goddess Lucina, or Lucinda. Along with other goddesses such as Freja, they governed the harvest season and acted as female protectors of hearth and home. Lucina, instructed the villagers to build bonfires, to urge the Sun to come back and gain in strength for the coming spring. As a part of their gratitude, the people were told to offer hospitality, and share their food and drink with all their neighbors and kin. Lucina was known for the common cup of mead- a fermented drink made of grain that was hearty and stout, that each family would serve to its many visitors helping them to become happy and helping each person to ward off the winter chills.
With the Christianization of Europe, over the centuries,
St. Lucia and the goddess Lucinda became merged into one holiday celebrating the season of light and hope and the promise of spring. Still celebrated in many Swedish homes, St. Lucia’s day remains a popular family event.
One daughter, from every household would be designed as the “Lucia Bride” for that year. She would be dressed all in white, with a red sash. On her head would be a crown of evergreens, red loganberries, and it would support seven encircling candles. Her task was to rise early on the 13th, and prepare a special treat of coffee, candy, and special sticky bun pastries and offer them to every parent and grandparent in the home as a sign of gratitude and love.
To summarize, the archetype or ancient symbolic teachings found in the St. Lucia story can still hold value for us today. Remembering St. Lucia’s day is another way of remembering how darkness is dispelled by light, ignorance by truth, fear by faith and loneliness by love.
For the women of the world, the image or role model of a powerful yet compassionate woman serving humanity by offering gifts of light and caring can be appreciated in many ways:
It could be a metaphor for holiday cooking and entertaining family and friends- Or more seriously, a time when the dis-eases of perception are looked at and faced and when the purpose for one’s life and the importance of one’s relationships becomes illumined.
For me, the archetypal truth of St. Lucia that lives on in her celebration is that humanity, in rhythm and resonance with the seasons, gives thanks for all who bring light to our world, and that whatever spiritual understanding we have or chose concerning this season, we can claim that it is a truth that transcends creeds and cultures. That each of us is to live in the light and love of God.