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By the light of burning martyrs

by
10 December 2021

Our Advent series by Gregory K. Cameron continues, exploring the scriptural background to, and history and tradition that have grown up around, a figure associated with Christmas. It is illustrated by the author’s adaptation of a work of art

Gregory K. Cameron

THE date of 13 December is a feast day for another saint connected with Christmas, but not part of the scriptural story: Lucy. Who is Lucy, and what part does she play in the Christmas story?

 

I Scripture

LIKE Nicholas, Lucy does not appear in the Bible, but, because her feast day is so close to Christmas, she has got caught up in the Christmas story. The Bible, however, does bear witness to the fact that to be a follower of Jesus is to be open to the possibility of persecution, and to becoming a “martyr”: “Blessed are you, when you suffer insults and persecution and calumnies of every kind for my sake,” said Jesus knowingly (Matthew 5.11).

The Greek word “martyr” merely means a “witness”, but the Bible speaks of being a witness to Jesus as potentially being prepared to die: “Be faithful till death, and I will give you the crown of life,” Jesus is recorded as saying in Revelation (2.10) and, very soon, the first martyr’s death is recorded in Acts. Stephen is stoned to death after he gives his testimony to Jesus as the Messiah.

An early Christian writer, Tertullian, recorded that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” and many have followed in the path that Stephen first trod.

 

II History

LUCY is recorded as a martyr in the last great persecution by the Roman emperors before the conversion of Constantine. She was martyred at Syracuse, having been accused of being a Christian by a jilted suitor. She was said to be from a wealthy family, and has been remembered as one of the foremost martyrs of the Early Church.

We do not know the ethnic background of Lucy, but I have chosen here to portray her as of African heritage, drawing on an anonymous portrait of the 16th century by the great Italian artist Paolo Veronese. Too often, Christian art draws on its European heritage, forgetting that Christ himself was a Middle Eastern Jew, and that disciples of Jesus have been drawn from all nations.

Ancient Rome, however, was much more ethnically diverse than is often credited: at least one line of emperors were African, and it is entirely possible that Lucy herself came from an African family.

 

III Tradition

LIKE many of the accounts of martyrdom from the earliest years of Christianity, the account of Lucy’s martyr’s death glories in the violent. The saints, it appears, did not give up their lives quickly, but demonstrated great fortitude. Lucy is reputed to have been blinded (which is why she is the patron saint of the blind) before various attempts to put her to death by fire; she was finally stabbed in the neck.

Such accounts are rather gruesome to modern readers — as is the practice of relics, by which the holiness of a person is understood to endure in their mortal remains. The belief that a Christian may benefit from the grace and holiness of a saint by coming into contact with their relics promoted great veneration of relics, and the relics of the earliest martyrs were particularly prized.

Perhaps that is why the head of Lucy is reputed to be at Bourges in France, while her body was taken around the Mediterranean, before coming to rest in Venice. A separated arm is believed to have been smuggled to Luitburg in Germany. The Latin name Lucia means light, and, given that Lucy’s feast day is on 13 December, close to the winter solstice, those who reverence her came to associate her with the light of God.

As her fame spread, so did the traditions attached to her feast. Like Nicholas, Lucy has become a gift-giver in Italy, with a close connection to a hot chocolate and milk dessert. In darker climes, in Scandinavia, Lucy’s memory is celebrated by choosing one of the young girls in the congregation to represent her on her feast day. The chosen girl is dressed in a white robe, symbolising the saint’s sanctity, with a red sash to commemorate Lucy’s martyrdom. She is crowned with a wreath bearing lighted candles, and leads the worship of the congregation as they pray for God’s blessing during the dark days and long nights of the winter season.

Perhaps what is so remarkable about all this is the way in which Lucy’s memory is celebrated in ways far different from her roots and context in life. Her journey has not, perhaps, been as far as that taken by Nicholas, but it has evolved into a myriad of different forms.

 

IV Faith

SOME of these traditions will seem strange, even bizarre. Others will seem rich in symbolism and faith. Perhaps the very diversity of ways in which Lucy’s memory is kept alive reminds us that different things will hold a variety of meanings for different people, and strangeness is not proof of idolatry. We should seek to understand before we seek to distance ourselves.

The real test of religious devotion is whether it gives rise to mere superstition, or to a transforming love of God, of our neighbour, and of our society. Many of the folk customs we have inherited actually have their origin in bringing people from across society together and into relationship and interdependence with one another.

The martyrdom of Lucy, and the fervent respect in which she is held, should perhaps provoke us into thinking how strong our witness is to our faith, and whether we would have the courage to endure like her if challenged. It is also a witness to the fact that a strong love for God that results in a love for humanity is an attractive witness to the love of God to humanity in Jesus Christ.

Let us pause to reflect on the strength of our witness to the love of God, and not forget to pray for those who, like Lucy, may face persecution for their faith in our own day.

 

God of Love, whose care for the world has inspired devotion that cannot be quenched even by the threat of death, help our faith to burn with a love for you, and bless all those who face persecution for their faith in our own day, that they may know your strength and reflect the light of your love to the world. Amen.


The Rt Revd Gregory K. Cameron is the Bishop of St Asaph.

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