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The Saints of Advent

Saint Martin of Tours
November 11th

St. Martin was born about 316 in Pannonia (modern Hungary). At the age of 10 he became a catechumen and at 15 he joined the army, serving under the emperors Constantius and Julian. The most famous story about Martin tells how on a cold day he met a beggar who asked for alms. Having nothing else to give, Martin drew his sword and cut his cloak in two, giving half to the beggar. Christ appeared to him in a dream the following night, clothed in half a cloak, and said, "Martin, the catechumen, has clothed me with this mantle!" At the age of 18, he was baptized and wished to leave the military, but stayed for two more years at the request of his commander. Following a successful campaign against the Teutons, he went before the emperor who was distributing rewards to his men. Martin, however, declined the bounty and asked instead that he be released from military service. He said, "Up to now, I have served you as a soldier; allow me henceforth to serve Christ. Give the bounty to these others who are going out to battle. I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight." Julian accused him of cowardice and imprisoned him for a time. When he was released, Martin sought out the saintly Bishop Hilary of Poitiers, under whose direction Martin lived a solitary life for a time, until he was joined by others and founded a Benedictine monastery at Ligugé.

Martin became famous for his holiness of life, his preaching, and for his gifts of healing and spiritual discernment. People often sought him out for help and when the bishop of Tours died, they chose Martin to be their new bishop. He declined the honor and responsibility and hid from the people when they came looking for him. However, a goose revealed his whereabouts with her honking and Martin was unable to resist the will of the Church that he become a bishop. The goose is one of Martin's symbols. It is also a popular food on his feast day. Martinmas is the last day before the traditional 40 day fast before Christmas (St. Martin's Lent). The new wine is usually ready to drink on Martinmas, which is also the traditional day for slaughtering livestock for the winter, so it is a kind of harvest festival and a late fall Mardi Gras all rolled into one.

St. Martin was an exemplary bishop, and much loved by his people. He visited every church in his diocese once a year and founded several more religious communities, including the monastery of Marmoutier near Tours, where he lived with 80 monks. He lived to the great old age of 81 and was so renowned that he came to be known as the "Glory of Gaul." The hymn Iste confessor was composed in honor of St. Martin in the eighth century, and was later appointed to be sung as the Office Hymn on the feasts of confessors. Click here for an English translation by Laurence Housman, set to a metrical tune.

For a modern observance of the feast, this would be a good day to sort through drawers and closets to gather good used clothing that could be donated to a local ministry to the needy, or to a thrift shop. Contributions to a food pantry or soup kitchen would be in order, as well. In many communities in the U.S., churches or other service organizations provide a free Thanksgiving dinner to any and all. Martinmas would be a good day to find out if there is such a meal served in your community and to sign up to help or to contribute money or food to the effort. If you are keeping St. Martin's Day at home, roast goose and a bottle of this year's Nouveau Beaujolais might top the menu, especially if you will be starting the St. Martin's Lent fast the next day.


Our Lady of the Sign
November 27th

Our Lady has several major feasts in the season of Advent, as well as a host of lesser known, locally observed feasts. November 21st is the feast of the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, a feast that is kept in the West but is more popular in the East. It marks the dedication of Mary to God as a child. November 27th is the feast of the Icon of Our Lady of the Sign, an Orthodox celebration of one of the major icons of the Mother of God. On December 8th the Church celebrates the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Since 1854, Roman Catholics have celebrated this as a day of obligation marking the Immaculate Conception of Mary.  Finally, on December 12th, the West keeps the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

Mary serves a triple role in our salvation. First of all, she is the Mother of God, the chosen vessel in whom God himself became incarnate. From her, God takes flesh and dwells among us. These Advent feasts of Mary underscore her particular and necessary role in the Incarnation. To fulfill this role, she had to be conceived and born, and it was because of her special relationship to God, signified by her youthful dedication to God, that she was prepared for this role. Mary's second role is to point us to Christ. That is the role of all of the saints. Thirdly, in her particular closeness to God, bearing him in her womb, caring for him as a child, and standing by him even at the Cross, Mary is first among the saints in showing us that our vocation is to be one with Jesus, in his Incarnation, in his Cross, and in his Resurrection life in the new Creation.

In Orthodoxy, icons play a major role both in worship and in personal devotion. An icon is a "window to heaven." When praying in front of an icon, it is said that a person looks through the icon to the heavenly reality behind it. To show reverence to an icon is to worship God.  Orthodoxy makes a careful distinction between worship, which may be given to God alone, and reverence, which may be shown to icons and other symbols which direct us to God.  Some icons are so significant, either because of their origins or because of miracles that have occurred in connection with them, that they are accorded their own feast days.

The Icon of Our Lady of the Sign is seen here in a version generally thought to have been written originally in Yaroslavl, Russia, in the thirteenth century.  Its full name is "Mother of God, Great Panagia (Orans)."  The third ecumenical council of the undivided Church, held in 431 in Ephesus, declared that, as Mother of Jesus Christ, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, Mary should be called Theotokos, "God-bearer" or "Mother of God."  Panagia, "All Holy," is another Greek title for Mary. The Icon of the Sign is the pre-eminent Advent icon, depicting the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14: "The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel (God with us)." In this icon, the Blessed Virgin Mary is shown with Christ/Immanuel in a mandorla  on her breast, signifying that the unconfinable God was confined within her womb. The mandorla, a kind of halo which encompasses the whole body, represents heaven, divine glory, uncreated light. The Holy Child’s hands are raised in blessing, while the Mother’s hands are held in the ancient gesture of prayer (orans). 

In the season of Advent, Mary calls us to prayer and meditation on the mystery of the Word made flesh within her. So often, Advent is a season characterized by rushing about, filled with hectic preparations for Christmas, as well as premature celebrations of the feast. It can be anything but reflective. This feast and this icon call us to imitate Mary who stands in silent contemplation of the mystery that is within her, and within us, Christ Jesus himself who came to dwell with us and will come again to take us to dwell with him. After the shepherds visited the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born, they went out and told the world. Mary, on the other hand, "kept all these things, pondering them in her heart." Through the ages this has been Mary's third role, calling us to prayer, to ponder these things in our hearts. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has written a book on this theme. It would make a good starting point for an Advent rule of devotional reading and meditation.

Saint Andrew the First-Called
November 30th

Although his brother Peter tends to get a good deal more attention, St. Andrew is a man who got around. The list of places of which he is the patron is extensive, including Achaia, Constantinople, Greece, Romania, Russia, and Scotland. He did not visit all of them (as far as we know), but his influence, and in some cases his relics, have. His patronage of so many eastern venues, together with the fact that he was invited to be a disciple before his brother Peter, reminds us of the rivalry between the great Churches of the East and West. However, such a rivalry would have been far from the mind of this simple fisherman from Galilee. In spite of his status as the first-called and his blood relationship to Peter, Andrew is not mentioned as a member of the inner circle of Jesus that consisted of Peter and the brothers James and John. On the other hand, Andrew does play a unique role in the Gospels. Andrew leads his brother to Jesus and Andrew leads others to Jesus, as well, including the Gentiles who come to him and Philip in John 12 asking if they might see Jesus. It is also Andrew who identifies the boy with the loaves and fishes when a crowd has gathered around Jesus in the wilderness with nothing to eat.

Tradition has Andrew preaching the Gospel in Scythia and, of particular interest and importance, traveling as far north as the future site of Kiev in Ukraine, where, nine centuries later, Prince Vladimir and the Rus accepted Christianity and were baptized. Andrew died a martyr's death at Patras, in Achaia, where he was condemned by the proconsul to be tied to an x-shaped cross. For two days Andrew preached to the crowds who came to see his execution. The x-shaped (saltire) cross came to be known as St. Andrew's Cross and is his principal symbol. St. Andrew's relics (or a portion of them) were taken to Scotland by St. Regulus, who was custodian of the relics in Patras in the fourth century. In a dream, an angel told him to travel to the far north. He ended his journey in Scotland where he built a church and became the bishop of St. Andrew's. From there he evangelized Scotland for thirty years.

The modern shortened Advent begins on the Sunday nearest St. Andrew's Day, so this feast marks the end of the liturgical year. Since weddings were traditionally forbidden during Advent, there are some folk customs and superstitions related to marriage on St. Andrew's Day. In Hungary, unmarried girls put slips of paper with the names of potential husbands in a pasta dish that is eaten on this day. Since Andrew was a fisherman, this is a day to pray for fisherman, a custom that has special resonance in countries like Greece and Scotland where fishing is an important part of the economy. The Scots have many national customs on their patronal day and, not surprisingly, food plays a major role. The Scottish specialty called haggis (a concoction of oatmeal and various parts of the sheep, stuffed into a sheep's stomach and cooked) is served with great ceremony and some people actually eat it. Scones and fish are also served. We think this is also a good day to eat shortbread. In England, there is a pastry called Tandra Cakes, which take their name from "Tander", a name sometimes given to the feast.

Blessed Nicholas Ferrar
December 1st

This Anglican worthy has his own page on Full Homely Divinity.


Saint Barbara
December 4th

St. Barbara lived in the third century in what is now Turkey. She was the daughter of a rich man who locked her in a tower to protect her from suitors he considered unsuitable and also to keep her from becoming a Christian. The tower had only two windows, but on his return from a journey, her father saw that there was a third window. When she was confronted, Barbara informed her father that she had been baptized by a priest, disguised as a physician, and the third window had been added in honor of the Holy Trinity. This enraged her father who denounced her as a Christian to the local authorities. They condemned her to death, but she escaped. She was captured by her father, who beheaded her himself. For this, he was rewarded by being struck by lightning. Barbara is often depicted holding the tower in which she was imprisoned.

While Barbara was imprisoned in her tower, she kept a branch of a cherry tree in a bowl of water. On the day she was beheaded, the branch blossomed. Thus, on her feast day it is the custom to cut a branch from a tree, usually a cherry tree, but an apple tree or any blossoming tree or shrub may be used. These "Barbara branches" are placed in bowls of water in a warm room. If the branch blossoms on Christmas Day, it means good luck for the coming year for the person who cut the branch. In a household, the person whose branch has the most flowers is considered to be "Mary's favorite." In some traditions, the branches (called barborky by the Czechs and Barbarazweig by German speakers) are cut by unmarried girls. If the girl's branch blooms, it is supposed to be a sign that she will marry within the coming year. Also, the flowering branches are placed at the crèche as a gift to the Christ Child and as a reminder that he is the Branch of Jesse.


Saint Nicholas of Myra
December 6th

St Nicholas strikes Arius at the Council of Nicaea - Icon in the Monastery of Caves, KievThere is a real saint behind the American Santa Claus and similar characters who appear in other cultures in December. In fact, we would maintain that the real Nicholas was a far more appealing and impressive figure than the kindly, but rather limited gift-givers who have displaced him in the popular imagination. Nicholas was born in Asia Minor, in the city of Myra, around the year 260.  The many wonderful stories (legends?) about Nicholas tell us a great deal about the saint and are undoubtedly founded in reality, but one of the less well-known events in his life really sets forth his significance as one of the foremost of the saints of the Church: Nicholas was one of the 318 bishops who attended the very first ecumenical council of the Church, the Council of Nicaea in 325. Furthermore, while we know relatively little about the daily deliberations and interactions of the members of the Council, we know the details of one very dramatic encounter at the council. The council was called to address the critical question: Who is Jesus? A priest from Alexandria, Arius by name, was at the center of the controversy because of his claim that Jesus was fully human, but not actually divine. Jesus, Arius insisted, was "like" God, but he was not God. A deacon of Alexandria, Athanasius, vigorously championed the orthodox view that Jesus is truly God, one in "Substance" (or "Being") with God the Father, as well as truly man. The council had been called by the emperor Constantine, who had put an end to the persecution of Christians, but not before Nicholas and other members of the council had suffered imprisonment and physical suffering. Nicholas himself was regarded as a living martyr. The debate in the council was heated and NicholasSt. Nicholas restores the pickled boys to life - retablo by Charles Carillo took an active part. Having suffered for the faith in the face of threats from without, Nicholas was not about to stand idly by when the faith was threatened from within. And, in a particularly heated moment, Bishop Nicholas boxed the ears of the heretic Arius. In that act, Nicholas demonstrated the essential connection between faith and life, between believing and acting. The bishops of the council did not condone the violent act and disciplined Nicholas, but in the end they affirmed the orthodox view and condemned the heresy of Arius.

The connection between believing and acting characterized everything Nicholas did, even when his methods, as at the council, were not entirely exemplary. His empathy with victims of misfortune and disaster and his generosity, no matter what the cost to himself, established  his fame and made him one of the most beloved saints of all time. When an impoverished father was on the verge of selling his three daughters into prostitution, Nicholas came to the rescue with sacks of gold to provide dowries for each of them to be able to marry. When innocent men were condemned to death, Nicholas intervened with the authorities and secured their release. When a wicked innkeeper killed three lost boys, chopped them up, and pickled them, Nicholas discovered the crime and restored the boys alive to their mothers. When a ship was floundering in a storm and about to sink, Nicholas calmed the storm and saved the lives of the sailors. Whenever possible, his good deeds were performed in secret and, needless to say, they have continued long after his death.

The stories about the saint have led to many customs for keeping his feast, and have also led to alterations in his personality. While the details vary, it is the custom in many countries for children to leave their shoes outside of their doors when they go to bed on December 5th, the Eve of St. Nicholas. Some leave notes for the saint, some leave carrots and hay for his horse, to be sure that he will stop at their house. Sometimes assisted by a boy named Black Peter, St. Nicholas leaves fruit (usually an orange) and candy and other treats in the shoes--unless the children are undeserving, in which case a lump of coal is all they get. The origin of this custom lies in a version of the story of the gold which was left for the impoverished girls. The gold was an anonymous gift that Nicholas tossed through a window in the middle of the night and it landed in the shoes or stockings of the girl for whom it was intended. An orange is a good look-alike symbol for a lump of gold. When they can be found, gold-foil-wrapped chocolate coins also serve the purpose well. In time, and as it migrated to new lands and languages, the name of St. Nicholas, and also his character changed. The German Sankt Niklaus and the Dutch Sinterklaas became the American Santa Claus, whose mitre became a floppy elf's hat and who lost any semblance of a bishop of the Church. In other places, he lost his name entirely and became simply Father Christmas. This was, perhaps, inevitable in a predominantly protestant culture that cared little for saints. American Episcopalians contributed to this movement via the influence of one of the most popular Saint Nicholas stories, Clement Clark Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," now more popularly known as "The Night before Christmas." Moore was a professor at the General Theological Seminary in New York. Though the jolly elf of the poem is still called St. Nicholas, he is otherwise very much the prototype of the modern Santa Claus, who gives gifts on Christmas, rather than December 6th, the feast day of the saint.

Whether gifts are given on St. Nicholas Day or Christmas, this holy and kindly saint can inspire the way we keep both days. He reminds us that generosity and self-sacrifice are central to our faith as Christians and care and concern for children, the poor, and all who are in danger or need is a particular responsibility of Christians. A visit from the saint on his day, or perhaps on the Sunday nearest if he is to be remembered in a parish observance, can include gifts and special treats for children. But it would enrich the feast a great deal if participants in these celebrations also brought gifts to be distributed to those in need--toys for the children of needy families, food for the hungry, blankets and clothing for the poor and the homeless, scarves and sweaters for sailors, cards for those in prison, perhaps a contribution to organizations that work to free those who have been wrongly accused and imprisoned. An old custom, the giving of oranges, can easily be transformed into a modern reminder of the needy and our proper attitude toward them. Here is a prayer that might be used in connection with the giving of oranges.

Almighty God, who blessed the Church of Myra by raising up Nicholas to be their bishop, to teach them and to lead them by his example of love and his care for all who are in need: Grant that as we are nourished by the golden fruit of these oranges, so may we have hearts of gold like his, and with selfless generosity assist the needy, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and strive to spread the truth of the Gospel as we have received it in your blessed Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

A Hymn for St. Nicholas' Day (pdf file)

St. Nicholas deserves a page of his own. In fact, he deserves a whole website--and he has one. For many more interesting, useful, and fun ideas about keeping the feast of this popular saint, visit the wonderful website of the St. Nicholas Center.



Our Lady of Guadalupe
December 12th

In 1520, the capital of the Aztec Empire in Central America was overthrown by Spanish forces. In less than twenty years, nine million inhabitants of the conquered empire had converted to Christianity, an amazing transformation of an ancient culture once thoroughly dominated by a powerful and brutal priestly caste. The history is not an entirely proud or happy one, but there can be no question that a major event in that unprecedented and swift conversion took place in 1531, when a poor Aztec Indian named Juan Diego was on his way to Mass. As he approached Tepeyac Hill, near modern day Mexico City, he heard music. When he turned aside from the path, he heard the voice of a woman calling him by name. Climbing the hill, Juan Diego found himself in the presence of a young woman. By her features and her dress, she appeared to be of his own people, but she identified herself as the Virgin Mary. She had a task for Juan Diego: he was to tell the bishop to build a church on that very hill to be a missionary center for the conversion of the people and to be a source of consolation to those in need.

Juan Diego was a humble man, but he obeyed the Lady and went to the bishop with her request. The bishop, however, was doubtful, so Juan Diego returned to the hill to tell the Lady that he had failed in his mission. Nevertheless, she sent him back to the bishop with the same message. The bishop wanted to believe Juan Diego, whom he perceived to be an honest and faithful Christian, but he wanted proof; he wanted a sign. Needless to say, this presented no difficulty for the Mother of God. Although it was the cold month of December, and Tepeyac Hill was a barren place in any season, when he returned Juan Diego found a garden like Eden, abloom in roses of every kind. He carefully cut a large bunch of roses and gathered them in his tilma. The Virgin arranged them with her own hands and Juan Diego returned to the bishop. When he arrived, the servants of the bishop refused to let him in for quite some time, until they noticed the roses poking out of his cloak. At last, they admitted him to the bishop and Juan Diego opened his tilma, allowing the flowers to spill to the floor. It was then that a second miracle occurred, for when the flowers fell, the bishop beheld a miraculous image of Our Lady, imprinted on the inside of Juan Diego's tilma. The bishop fell to his knees, his doubts having been dispelled by the double miracle of the roses and the image. He ordered a church to be built on Tepeyac Hill, with the precious relic of Juan Diego's tilma enshrined therein. Tomie de Paola has illustrated this story in one of his beautiful books for children, The Lady of Guadalupe.

Word of the miracle spread quickly and in very short order the nation was converted to Christianity. Although the original church deteriorated over the years and has been replaced by an immense new basilica nearby, the tilma of Juan Diego remains as a testimony to the apparition and an object of devotion. This, in fact, is the third miracle, for the tilma was woven out of coarse cactus fiber and should have disintegrated centuries ago. Nevertheless, over 500 years later it is still in excellent shape. Chemical analysis has found that the image is not made of paint and its nature remains a mystery. William G. Storey has developed a novena in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Here are two prayers from the final day of the novena in his book Mother of the Americas:

God of power and mercy,
you blessed the Americas at Tepeyac
with the presence of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe.
May her prayers help all men and women
to accept each other as brothers and sisters.
Through your justice present in our hearts
may social justice and peace reign in the world.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Holy Mother of God and Queen of Heaven,
at Tepeyac you promised to show
all the nations of the earth,
your love, compassion, help, and protection.
Because you are our merciful mother,
hear our laments and remedy all our miseries,
        misfortunes, and sorrows.
Stamp your priceless image on our hearts,
unveil your precious will for us,
and hold us in the hollow of your mantle
where you cross your arms,
now and always and for ever and ever.  Amen.

Mother of the Americas, pp. 82-83

The celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a fiesta--a feast! Feasting means food and it would be especially appropriate to keep this day with a traditional Mexican menu. The Catholic Culture website provides a menu and some recipes, including Mole Poblano, chicken in a spicy chocolate sauce.


Saint Lucy
December 13th

St. Lucy was a young woman of Sicily in the fourth century who, like many other early Christian women, was prepared to give her life rather than submit to a pagan husband. One tradition has it that she had her own eyes plucked out in order to mar her beauty and make her unattractive to a suitor. Another tradition says that when she refused to marry the man her parents had chosen for her, the man denounced her to the authorities as a Christian. The authorities ordered her eyes to be plucked out and they attempted to burn her, but the fire kept going out. Finally, she was stabbed in the throat and died.

St. Lucy is often depicted in art with her eyes on a platter. Her name means "light" and light plays a major role in customs connected with her feast. In the old Julian calendar, December 13th was the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, and bonfires were lit to celebrate the renewal of the light as the days began to grow longer. Even after calendar reform moved the solstice to a later date, the bonfires continued to celebrate the saint of light, Santa Lucia. Although the saint lived in Sicily, her feast day became popular in the far north, in Scandinavia, where the darkness of winter is especially deep. In Sweden, the oldest daughter in a family is the Lussibrud, or Lucy Bride. Dressed in a white gown, with a red sash, for martyrdom, and wearing an evergreen crown with seven lighted candles, the Lucy Bride wakes the family with coffee and traditional foods, including Lucy cakes and ginger snaps. There are also town and city processions with an elected Lussibrud who is accompanied by other girls dressed in white and carrying candles and by star boys and baker boys. The star boys are also dressed in white and wear conical hats decorated with stars and moons. They carry lighted paper lanterns on long sticks. The baker boys help distribute the various baked goods that are traditional on the feast. In Sweden today there is even a national Lussibrud.

Luciadagen in Sweden

Night goes with silent steps
Round house and cottage.
Over the earth that the sun forgot
Dark shadows linger.
Then on our threshold stands
Whiteclad, with candles in her hair,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia.

Traditional recipes, served by the Lussibrud (Lucy Bride): 
Lussekake (Lucy cakes)
Pepparkakor (ginger snaps)

Another St. Lucy customs stems from a miraculous intervention by the saint. During a famine, the people of Syracuse prayed to Santa Lucia for help. Their prayers were answered by the arrival of a cargo ship full of wheat. In remembrance of her timely aid, Italians mark St. Lucy's day by eating a simple wheat porridge known as cuccia. It is made by soaking whole wheat in water for 24 hours. The wheat is then rinsed and boiled for several hours until tender. The porridge is completed with the addition of honey, grated dried orange peel, and walnuts. This is also the day when St. Lucy's wheat is planted. Seeds are pressed into a bowl of soil which is kept moist. In a few days it will sprout and by Christmas it is several inches tall. The wheat is placed by the crèche as a gift to the Christ Child who was born in Bethlehem, "the House of Bread," and who feeds us with himself, the Bread of Heaven.


Saint Thomas the Apostle
December 21st

Caravaggio (1571-1610) - The Incredulity of St. Thomas

It may surprise us a bit to find ourselves hearing a story of the Resurrection just days before Christmas. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church has moved the feast of the apostle who doubted to July. However, Thomas seems to us to be a very appropriate saint for Advent, especially in an age that has done its best to suppress any thought of the mystery or true meaning of the season. Thomas demanded evidence of the Resurrection, but his response to the evidence was profound--not merely a humble acquiescence but a fervent expression of recognition and faith. There is little else that we know for certain about Thomas. Tradition has him carrying the Gospel to India and eventually suffering martyrdom there. The Mar Thoma Church traces its roots to Thomas as its founder.

There are customs associated with the celebration of his day. Traditionally, it was the day when preparation for Christmas began in earnest, with cleaning and baking. In England, poor women went "a-Thomasing", begging food and gifts so that they, too, could celebrate the coming Nativity of Jesus. Almsgiving was a sanctified practice in the medieval world and on this day it was customary to give them wheat by the quart. This in turn was used to make a pudding to be served on Christmas. Called frumenty, it consisted of wheat, milk, eggs, raisins, sugar, and spice. Our friends at Catholic Culture have a recipe.


Full Homely Divinity Home

Rediscovering Advent

Hymns of Advent

A Devotion for the Last Days of Advent

Keeping the Twelve Days of Christmas