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For Christmas this year we’ve chosen the nativity scene painted by Correggio around 1529. A group of angels overhead has been been cut from this cropped version of the painting. (They are badly composed and unnecessary; we don’t miss them.) It’s sometimes called Adoration of the Shepherds, because those are shepherds on the left. Almost hidden in the right background is the figure of Joseph — a person often relegated to the margin in paintings of this family. At the time it was painted, the work was valued primarily for what it portrayed and somewhat less for its technique. Nowadays, the work is probably admired more for its structure and craft than for the event it captures. The scene is realistic, no one has a halo and the shepherds are real people. Furthermore, Mary’s face expresses her love for her child, not religious worship as in so many painting which nowadays strike us artificially pious. Everyone in this otherwise completely realistic and earthly scene is illuminated by the almost blinding radiance emanating from the child; indeed, the woman on the left holds up her hand as if to shield her eyes. Correggio’s painting makes visual the words that infant will later use to describe himself — “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Correggio’s work reminds us that in this season of darkness and we need all the light we can get, no matter if it’s 1529 or 2012.
Our friend Jo Page, fiction writer, essayist and journalist, is also a Lutheran pastor. She’s more informed than many of us when it comes to the liturgical calendar, and in this Christmas season she’s written about the beautiful —and, as she notes, strange —celebration of of St. Lucy’s Day. Perhaps you’ve seen the procession of St. Lucy Day, at least in photographs. In fact, it’s extraordinarily beautiful; nowadays the young women wear crowns of electric candles, but not so long ago those were real candles — the youth, the beauty and the danger were all there together. Here’s Jo in her own words:
On Dec. 13th, St. Lucy’s Day, in many Scandinavian countries and in Lutheran communities in the United States, young girls wearing crowns of candles and bearing plates of saffron buns—to represent St. Lucy’s gouged-out eyes—come before their families to sing “Santa Lucia.” Originally this was a Neapolitan sailor’s song, but the words to the Scandinavian versions plea for the return of light and for the release from winter’s darkness.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. One of the weirdest things about the observation of St. Lucy’s Day concerns the legend of the saint and how then how this 4th-century Sicilian saint came to be venerated by Lutherans, who tend not to put much stock in saints.
St. Lucy was a 4th-century Christian martyr during Emperor Diocletian’s widespread persecution of Christians. St. Lucy’s crime was that she had consecrated her virginity to God and wanted her dowry to be distributed to the poor.
Well, when her pagan fiancé found this out, along with her refusal to marry him, he did the stand-up guy thing and denounced her to the Roman authorities. After she refused to burn a sacrifice of the Emperor’s image (this was done to show fealty to the Roman authorities and to reject Christianity), it was determined that a fitting punishment would be to stick her in a brothel where she wouldn’t be able to protect her virginity.
The legend says that when the guards came to take her away they found her so filled with the spirit of God that she was as stiff as a board and too heavy to move even when they hitched her to a team of oxen. In some traditions St. Lucy is tortured by having her eyes gouged out with a fork. In another legend, her fiancé comments on the beauty of her eyes and she gouges them out herself, declaring, “Now let me live to God”.
(This explains why she is seen in paintings bearing her eyes upon a plate and also why she is the patron saint of the blind and those with vision problems. It also explains the grisly custom of having saffron buns represent her eyes. Does put a damper on the appetite.)
Whether or not she was actually burned on a funeral pyre is unclear, but many martyrs under the Emperor Diocletian were. And in St. Lucy’s story, she continues to confess her faith in God’s love while burning to death. Even a spear thrust through her throat could not silence her.
So how does a 4th-century Sicilian martyr become the poster child for the mid-December tradition of putting candles into a crown and having a procession of girls in white robes with red ribbons come in singing a lilting Italian song that had originally been written to request favorable winds while sailing around the bay of Naples?
Well, it’s not clear.
But the lyrics to the Scandinavian versions all share in common the plea for the return of light amid winter darkness:
The night goes with weighty step
round yard and hearth,
round the earth, the sun departs
leaving the woods brooding
There in our dark house,
appears with lighted candles
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.
It is, indeed, a strange and beautiful tradition, but more than its strangeness is how it speaks to that common need for light to return and to outlive the darkness, not merely of winter and of night, but the darknesses we find in our lives. When Christina Rosetti wrote “In the bleak mid-winter, long ago/Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone,” I think she was talking about a lot more than just the climate. She was talking about existential isolation and the hope—the need?—for redemption, which for her came with her faith.
In the Santa Lucia processions, almost pagan in their evocations of nature and the spirit of St. Lucy, I think we find that same deep yearning for restoration, for light and for renewal. Because the storied St. Lucy, bearing her eyes on a plate, represents a vision for more than what our eyes, in this darkness, can see.
Christmas. These are ancient and sacred days. And now the sun has begun to lift slowly northward, the days have begun to lengthen, this is a season of hope.