It is already dark at four thirty. This is that time of year when darkness predominates, and when one hears so many people complain about the darkness. The season of Advent takes place in the dark, at least in the northern hemisphere. And despite the complaints about this time of the year in which the time of darkness increases every day, we thank God for this time of preparation for Christmas that forces us to contemplate what that feast means at the darkest time of the year. These thoughts were especially present as I read Vespers for the feast of St. Lucy. This early Church martyr about whom we know very few historical facts is so very much a deep part of the Christian Tradition that she appears in the Roman Canon, not by accident but by grace.
If one goes into an Italian parish in the northeastern part of the United States, the odds are good that you will see a statue of St. Lucy, holding her eyes on a paten that she holds out before her as if inviting us to look and see. Tradition tells us that she was a martyr in Sicily and that part of her torture was that she had her eyes plucked out of her head. And so she became a saint associated with light. I say “and so” even though the world would not understand the relation between being made blind with light. But in some way, it is very simple. If one lights a candle at noon in July, the light of the candles fades in the bright sunlight. It is barely seen. But when one lights a candle at night, the light of the candle is not only seen but seems to push back, even in a small way, the darkness that surrounds it.
St. Lucy inspired not only Neapolitan sailors to pray to her and sing songs entreating her intercession as they sailed along a rocky coast. She became part of a lovely tradition in the Scandinavian countries where on the feast of St Lucy one of the young girls in a family walked down the stairs of her house wearing a wreath of candles on her head while the rest of the family sang a traditional song about St. Lucy. It may be true that this does not often happen any more in this time and in those places, where now the fact of cold and darkness are dismissed as mere weather and season and where St. Lucy is just part of a national tradition shorn from its Christian roots. But it was there. And it was real.
The feast of St. Lucy points so gently and so beautifully to the feast of Christmas that is the feast of coming into the world of the Light of the world. So many of the great paintings depicting the birth of Christ use the technique of chiaroscuro to bring to life what this birth means. The background is in darkness, and there is a light that surrounds Mary and Joseph, and the source of that light is both the Child in the manger and the angels that brighten up the dark night of winter. This calls us to understand that the Light of the Word of God came into the darkness of this world and that most did not see this Light at that time because they assumed that in the darkness there is nothing to see. And the same is true today. Christmas “happens” to come at this time of year. Liturgical debunkers will prattle on about the pagan feast of the Solstice and that this is why the Church “chose” this particular day of the year to celebrate Christmas. They are boring and do not get it at all. They seem to have never read the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel.
As I drove home this evening, many homes had candles in the window in anticipation of Christmas. I am amazed, and my heart causes my throat to catch and my eyes to tear as I am surprised by this dogged attachment to the power of the candle in the darkness, those who place these candles in the window, whose depth of belief in Christ runs the gamut even down to the vaguest of belief, that nevertheless recognizes the image, the icon, the light in the darkness.
Santa Lucia, ora pro nobis.