As we continue our prayerful journey through Advent, this week we’ll examine the various feast days the Church has given us during the season to help enrich our anticipation of the coming of Jesus.
We celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6th. Needless to say, the image of the secular Santa Claus has gone through quite the evolution through the years and across cultures. Depending on the country or time period, his clothing and symbols change, as well as the people’s perception of what he represents. Today, in America, he is more associated with shopping and presents, rather than the celebration of the birth of Christ. However, we, as Catholics, know that “Santa Claus” is based on a person who actually existed – St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas (c. 270-343) was a bishop from the city of Myrna in Asia Minor, which is located in modern-day Turkey. His parents died when he was young and, as a result, he inherited a large sum of money. By all accounts, he was a pious, virtuous, and generous man. A popular story about him highlights these very traits. A widower was going to sell his three daughters into prostitution because he could not afford the dowries required for them to get married. Upon hearing about this terrible situation, St. Nicholas tossed three bags of gold into the widower’s window over the course of three nights, providing the necessary dowries to save them from their terrible situation. There are many other examples of his holiness, including his participation in the Council of Nicaea (AD 325), where he fought hard against the heresy of Arianism, which denied the divinity of Jesus. It is said that in his righteous anger, he punched the heretic, Arius, in the face in defense of his Lord. St. Nicholas died on December 6th, earning him a place in our Advent celebrations.
Our celebration of St. Nicholas highlights the divinity of the One for whom we wait, as well as the obligation of Christians to be generous with others, not just materially, but also spiritually. Additionally, we are reminded of how generous God has been in giving gifts to each of us according to our needs, just as St. Nicholas did for the poor widower. This Advent, how can you be more generous to those in need? Can you seek out opportunities to do more good deeds than you usually do? In the spirit of St. Nicholas, generously share yourself with others, knowing that it reflects the divinity and generosity of the Savior of the World.
Next, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th. We should first make a clarification about this feast. It is common for people to incorrectly think that the Immaculate Conception is the miraculous conception of Jesus within Mary’s womb. However, that is celebrated on the Feast of the Annunciation. Original sin is a condition that is inherited by each human being from his or her parents, a cycle that began with our first parents, Adam and Eve. Because of this unfortunate inheritance, and to protect both Jesus’ divinity and humanity, it was necessary for Mary to be conceived within her mother’s womb without the stain of original sin. Thus, Mary was immaculately conceived. With this understanding of the truth, we can now more clearly see why it is so appropriate to celebrate this feast during Advent. As we await the coming of our Divine Savior, we celebrate the clean vessel, or tabernacle, that carries Him to us. Where Eve said “no” to doing God’s will, bringing sin into the world, Mary said “yes” to God’s will, bringing about the victory over sin. Spend some time contemplating the mystery of the Immaculate Conception and how Mary being a perfectly clean vessel to carry our Lord, highlights His divinity and thus enriches our Advent experience. This is not just any baby we are waiting for, but God Himself.
The third special celebration of the season is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on December 12th. At first glance, it might not be quite as obvious how this feast relates to Advent. Mary appeared to a peasant named Juan Diego in what is present-day Mexico in 1531. At the time, there was much conflict between Christians and the Aztec people. The Aztec religion was a gruesome and violent one. The Aztecs would build pyramid-type structures with altars on top where they would commit human sacrifices to their supreme god, Huitzilopochtli — the sun god and god of war. With an approximate population of 10 million people, it has been estimated that over 50 thousand people were horrifically sacrificed every year to the Aztec gods. Mary came to put a stop to these practices. She asked Juan Diego to approach the local bishop to have a church built in her honor. To make a long story short, the bishop asked for proof that the Virgin Mary had made the request. This ultimately resulted in her image being imprinted on Juan Diego’s tilma, which is the image we are all familiar with today. It is filled with symbolism of how Jesus comes to triumph over evil. Look at the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Rays of light are coming out from behind her, she is standing on the moon, and her mantle is covered in stars. This should evoke the description of the woman from the book of Revelation:
A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
Mary is standing in front of the rays of light to proclaim that God is more powerful than the Aztec sun god. The Aztec moon god is associated with hell, darkness, death, destruction, and evil. By standing on the moon, Mary is illustrating God’s triumph over evil. In the image, she is also pregnant. Just as she carried the Savior in her womb to St. Elizabeth at the visitation, so too, she brings him directly to the natives of the time. The stars on her mantle indicate that she comes from heaven. Upon extensive research, it has been shown that the stars are placed in exactly the same positions they would have been on the early morning of December 12, 1531. Also, on her dress are nine flowers, which represent the nine Aztec tribes. Reflected in Our Lady’s eyes are the images of Juan Diego, the bishop, and those present at the miracle of the tilma.
After Mary’s appearance, over nine million natives converted to the Catholic faith. In other words, Mary came to proclaim that God, her Son, is coming to triumph over evil and that is precisely what He did. There is no doubt that many of us feel the oppression of evil all around us today. However, we can see from the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, that real evil has existed in all times and cultures. So, we should gaze upon an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and be grateful to the pregnant virgin who is soon to deliver to us the means of our salvation and eternal joy, void of any evil. This image of Mary is so incredibly important to this season of waiting.
The final feast day we will reflect on is that of St. Lucy on December 13th. St. Lucy wanted to give her life over to the Lord and remain a virgin, but her mother had her betrothed to a less than virtuous man. After her mother was miraculously cured of a hemorrhage, she changed her mind and allowed Lucy to donate her dowry to the poor and consecrate herself to God. This, of course, upset her betrothed and he turned Lucy over to the Roman governor, Paschasius. Paschasius was working under the Emperor Diocletian, who was a well-known persecutor and murderer of Christians. Diocletian ultimately had Lucy sent to a brothel where she would have been violated. St. Lucy was protected by God however, and the soldiers were unable to carry her off. They then attempted to burn her alive, but were also unable to do so. Eventually, her eyes were cut out and she was killed by a sword.
St. Lucy’s significance in the advent season, while being a tremendous example of faith, lies in her name. Lucy is derived from the Latin word lux, which means light. So, as we wait in darkness (not with our physical eyes, but eyes of faith) we anticipate the coming Light of the World. Jesus will come to dispel the darkness of the world and St. Lucy reminds us of that fact. It might be helpful to reflect on another truth in conjunction with St. Lucy. The name of Lucifer is also derived from the same root lux and means “the light-bearer.” In naming him Lucifer, God had intended Satan to be a very special sort of illumination of the Truth, but instead, by his own prideful obstinacy, he turned his own eyes away from God and now lives in eternal darkness. Reflect on the juxtaposition of St. Lucy to Lucifer. How can you see through the darkness with eyes of faith so as to keep from turning away? How can you personally bring the light of Christ to the world by the way you live your life?