Saint of the Day – St. Lucy of Syracuse: Hope for an End to Religious Violence
December 13 is the feast day of the early Christian martyr, St. Lucy of Syracuse (283-304). There is really very little that is known about her, except that she was killed under the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian. She was revered by the early church and her name has been included in the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass in Rome from the early centuries.
This lack of information did not prevent subsequent generations of Christians from creating an elaborate legend. In it a beautiful young woman decides to dedicate herself to God as a virgin, gives her dowry to the poor, and her rejected suitor denounces her as a Christian. Her beautiful eyes are gouged out, but God miraculously gives her an even more beautiful pair of eyes. This led to Medieval and later depictions of St. Lucy carrying her gouged out eyes on a plate.
In northern Europe and Scandinavia, celebration of the feast of St. Lucy adopted pre-Christian elements of worship of the goddess Freya and observances of the winter solstice. Freya’s chariot is pulled by cats across the winter sky. Distributing cat shaped rolls on St. Lucy’s day is still a popular custom. Lucy means light, so the association with the winter solstice is not surprising. Candles were lit on St. Lucy’s day and girls would sometimes wear wreaths with lighted candles in their hair. (Please do not do this at home, or anywhere else for that matter!)
While the legends associated with St. Lucy elaborate the sufferings of a martyr, what is overlooked when we separate historical fact from fantasy is the reality of violent religious persecution and the witness of Christians in the most dire of circumstances. We might have the impression from our notions of ancient history that the wholesale murder of Christians occurred only under certain Roman emperors. However, persecutions and the witness of Christians have continued to the present day. There are some estimates that 65% of Christian martyrs actually gave their lives in the 20th century and the trend is continuing in the current century.
From Palestine to India to China and North Korea, through Africa and Latin America, Christians are being oppressed and killed for their faith. The conflicts are with Moslems, Hindus, Communists, right wing dictatorships, and leftist guerillas. Certainly, Christians have oppressed and killed members of other Christian and non-Christian groups. Clearly, religious, ethnic, tribal, and political conflicts will continue to lead to oppression and death. Many times the veneration of martyrs of any group is used to move a community to violence.
Nevertheless, as Christians, when we commemorate martyrs such as St. Lucy, we should re-commit ourselves to the beatitudes, especially “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Our witness – the Greek word is marturia – should be to remove the social and political causes of violence and oppression for all groups. This is a naive and foolishly unrealistic goal, but so is the Kingdom of Heaven, as testified to by martyrs like St. Lucy.