Sunday, December 14, 2014

Oh, Lucy

   Third Sunday of Advent   B 
As a kid, I remember being fascinated by books
that told of Advent and Christmas customs
from around the world.
(Truth be told: I still love those kind of books!)
I could recognize so many of the traditions described in there
as the source of so many of the curious things
we still do here at this holiday time.
But there was always one set of customs
that looked nothing like anything I’d ever seen…
…and those were associated with St. Lucy’s Day.

Yesterday, December 13th,
was the memorial of St. Lucy, virgin and martyr.
A hero of the early Church,
Lucy died for her faith in Jesus 
around the year 303.
And, according to legend,
one of the cruel torments she endured for being a Christian
was having her eyes cut out.
Thus she’s become the patron saint of sight.
We’re blessed to have a relic of St. Lucy
on the altar at this Mass today.

Devotion to St. Lucy 
was rather popular back in the Middle Ages,
and particularly so in Scandinavia—
which is a bit peculiar,
when you consider we’re talking about a woman
who died in far off—and far warmer—Sicily.
As I learned in those children’s books,
it’s still customary in Sweden on December 13th
for a young woman—often the oldest daughter of the family—
to dress up as St. Lucy.
She puts on a long white robe with a red sash:
white for Lucy’s purity, red for her martyrdom.
(Lucy, you see, was killed
because she refused to violate the virginity
she had dedicated to Christ.)
The girl also wears a crown of burning candles,
since Lucy’s name means “light.”
(Picture a small Advent wreath sitting atop her head.)
And the young lady then goes from house to house
with a tray of baked goods,
spreading joy to all she meets.
Other than the obvious fire hazard 
of setting your daughter's hair on fire,
I can see the appeal of this unusual tradition:
in the cold, dark days of winter,
who wouldn’t be attracted by someone
whose sole mission is to bear to others
warmth and sweetness and light?

And when you put it in those terms,
St. Lucy is a shining example of the most basic vocation
of each and every one of us Christians.

This is the third Sunday of Advent—
the midpoint of the season.
In scripture and song,
in prayers and a brief break from somber purple,
the Church tells her children, “Rejoice!”
It’s a message we desperately need to hear…
…and not just because Christmas is getting closer.

I had a conversation with a parishioner this past week
who shared that, despite her belonging here for many years,
she often doesn’t feel very welcome
when she walks into our churches for Mass.
Oh, there are the formal welcomes
of someone with a bulletin at the door
or the reader before Mass begins.
But she’s rarely greeted—or even smiled at—
by anyone else in the pews.
I’ve heard similar things said over the years,
especially by new parishioners who find it very hard
to break in and feel like they’re accepted.
I’m not sure where this standoffishness comes from.
(Maybe all the exposure to winter’s cold seeps into our bones!)

But what I do know is that there’s another way.
When Catholics leave to join another congregation,
in not usually over a matter of doctrine,
and rarely actually caused by any scandal.
It’s usually because our Protestant neighbors
are really good at fellowship:
extending warm welcome, making others feel at home,
radiating the true joy of the Gospel.
(It’s probably no accident that the Lutherans
seem to be the ones most inclined
to hand out cookies on St. Lucy’s Day!)
And our own patron, St. André, gives us good example, too.
As the doorman for his religious order,
and later at St. Joseph’s Oratory, 
his chief occupation was to bring people in
and make them feel welcome—
giving joy and hope to those who were suffering
in body, mind, or spirit.

As Cardinal Dolan of New York likes to say,
“Happiness attracts!”
Yes, our faith is serious business…but that doesn’t make it dour.
Christ came to announce glad tidings—good news.
The world needs us to be witnesses to that joy!

Despite the bright shade of my vestments today,
being a people of joy doesn’t mean
pretending things are all fine and rosy when they’re not.
We should not—we cannot—ignore the tough stuff in life.
Isaiah’s joyful message this Sunday was first delivered
to a people returning after a long and painful exile;
faced with rebuilding both their country and its culture,
they seemed to be up against a nearly impossible task.
The Virgin Mary’s jubilant canticle—her Magnificat
is sung by a young, unwed woman, visiting an elderly cousin,
both of them quite unexpectedly pregnant…
…and no doubt concerned
about what all their neighbors would think.
And St. Paul’s encouraging letter is written to a town
where he’d made some converts and started a small community,
but was then spitefully harassed and eventually driven out.

We, of course, must deal with the difficulties
of our own time and place:
personally, we’ve all known heartbreak and loss;
as a community, we’re dealing with
a struggling economy, harsh weather,
and even uncertainties about the future of the Church.
But as Christians,
we find joy not apart from hardship and suffering,
but right here in the middle of it.
Yes, we acknowledge the pain and sorrow…
…but we can see through it.
Marked as we are by both Christ’s Cross and his Resurrection,
we know it’s not the whole of the story.
That’s what sustained St. Lucy:
she could endure brutal torture and even death
because she firmly believed that there’s something more.

In the midst of so much darkness and cold,
who wouldn’t be attracted by someone
whose sole mission is to bear to others
warmth and sweetness and light?
My friends, that’s our calling!
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon us to be messengers of joy!

John the Baptist was sent by God to testify to the light.
“There is one among you,” he would say,
“whom you do not recognize…”
If only the Lord always came to us
with a tray of cookies and a crown of candles on his head,
we’d never miss him in his many disguises!
But by faith we can still see him, and rejoice,
even on the darkest of days.

Let us ask good St. Lucy—
that saint of light and of sight—
to gain for us clear vision—
both of the eyes and of the heart.
If we can recognize Christ present with us
in the midst of every struggle,
we discover the only true cause for joy—
a joy that can’t help but overflow,
and which never fails to attract others to him.

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