As we continue through the Advent season, our task is to make ourselves ready for the coming of Christ in glory even as we prepare to celebrate with joy the coming of Christ in history in the holy womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The saints are our example and guide, showing us by their lives and examples how to do this, so I wanted to reflect a little bit on the saints of Advent, who sometimes get almost forgotten during this busy time. Today (December 6th) we celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas. I have fond memories of this feast day as a child, because, like many families with German or Eastern European roots, we made a big deal out of this in the home. Every year, we would remember to put one of our shoes out by the fireplace on the evening of the 5th. When we woke up in the morning (usually frantically looking for one shoe, because in our morning sleepiness, forgot that it was St. Nick’s day) – we would go downstairs to find St. Nicholas had filled our shoes with gold chocolate coins, maybe a tangerine and some pfeffernusse cookies (a traditional German anise cookie that Mom made only once a year for this occasion). It unofficially marked for us the beginning of Christmas preparation season and all the excitement that brought to us as children. My grandmother would tell the story that, since she grew up in poverty, they would get an orange only once a year, on St. Nicholas Day. (How affluent we’ve become since then!).
There is far more to St. Nicholas of Myra (the precursor to Santa Claus) than just someone who delights children with treats. The real saint, from the 4th Century in modern-day Turkey, was a heroic figure as bishop and spiritual shepherd of his people. He is venerated widely, especially in the eastern Catholic Church, and many legends have grown about his solicitous care for those who were innocent but falsely accused, his work to convert criminals such as thieves, and his concern for those who were economically desperate. One such famous story has him throwing three bags of gold at night through the window of a desperate man who believed he had no alternative to selling his three daughters into prostitution. We can see the link between the stories of Santa Claus sneaking into houses with gifts.
We might be better off as Catholic families telling our children and grandchildren the real-life stories of the saints dating all the way back to Christ himself, instead of focusing exclusively on the Santa Claus stories from the 19th and 20th centuries. While our children can’t become Santa Claus, but they can become saints with our help and God’s grace.
Another saint of Advent (popular in norther Europe) is Lucy (December 13th). She probably died in the early 4th century, martyred like so many early saints by the cruel Roman Emperor Diocletian. We have evidence of her tomb in modern-day Sicily and so many were devoted to her, that she is one of the many women martyrs remembered in the Roman Canon of the Mass to this day.
The legends about her help us know why. She was an astonishingly courageous and devoted young woman. She suffered tragedy when her father died young and made a vow to God to remain consecrated to him for life. Her mother was worried about her financial well being so kept pressing her to marry a pagan. But in the Lord’s providence, her mother changed her mind when she was the victim of a near-fatal illness. Lucy convinced her mother to pray at the tomb of St. Agatha (also martyred some 50 years before Lucy). Through her intercession, Lucy’s mother was immediately cured and stopped pressing for the marriage. But Lucy’s would-be suitor was furious that he could not marry the beautiful girl, so out of revenge denounced her to the emperor as a Christian, knowing this would mean her certain death. There are many fascinating stories about how the Romans tried to get her to recant her faith in Christ. One says that the judge had her eyes gouged out, others that they tried to force her into prostitution, but could not move her and so on. None of that worked. Lucy remained faithful to the Lord, her mystical spouse, to the last. A great lesson in faith for our children, especially our daughters and granddaughters.
Finally, we can’t think of Advent without thinking of Our Lady. In addition to the feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th (patronal feast day for the United States), smack in the middle of Advent on December 12th falls the celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of all the Americas, because she was gracious enough to appear to a peasant saint near Mexico City (St. Juan Diego, December 9th), to intercede on behalf of the indigenous peoples to come to Christ. Through her intercession, they were saved not only from the cruel religious practices of the majority indigenous peoples who practiced human sacrifice, but also lifted up as a people in their own right, often used to being exploited by some of the colonial powers who had come to Mexico. While they brought the great gift of the Catholic faith to Mexico, some of the worst of them were more concerned about their own wealth than the spiritual welfare of the people.