Saint Lucy’s name comes from the Latin word “lux” which means “light.” This is appropriate for a saint whose feast falls during one of the darkest nights of the year. Perhaps this is why Saint Lucy is so popular in Scandinavian countries where the night stretches on so long in the winter, giving way only briefly to the day.
Saint Lucy herself was not from northern Europe but Syracuse, Sicily. She was born to wealthy parents but when her father died, Lucy and her mother were left in a tenuous financial situation. Lucy was a Christian and seemed unworried with her circumstances. She decided to consecrate her virginity to God and to donate her subsequently unnecessary dowry to the poor. Her mother was either unaware of Lucy’s desire or she ignored it, betrothing her daughter to a young nobleman. Her husband-to-be was not a Christian and didn’t share her intentions of chastity or charity. So he was enraged when he found out Lucy was giving away what otherwise would have come to him in the form of a dowry. He had Lucy taken to the Governor of Syracuse. This was during the persecutions which took place under Emperor Diocletian. The Emperor was devoted to the Roman Pantheon and demanded everyone make sacrifices accordingly. Christians who refused were fined, tortured, and often killed.
When the Governor ordered Lucy to make sacrifices to the Roman gods, she refused and so was sentenced to death. Tradition says her guards couldn’t move her from the spot — not even with a team of oxen. It was decided to burn her at the stake so wood was brought to be piled up around her for a pyre. When the fire wouldn’t start, she was finally executed by sword. Later tradition says her eyes were gouged out before she was killed. This is why we often see Saint Lucy holding out a pair of eyeballs in liturgical art. Rather gruesome perhaps but eyes, the organs by which we see, are an appropriate attribute for a saint who whose name means “light,” the element which makes sight possible.
Many question whether Lucy really did have her eyes gouged out or not. There is no record of the event in the earliest sources. Of course, it doesn’t seem at all unlikely considering the brutal methods of torture and death carried out by Diocletian against Christians. Others also question elements of Lucy’s story such as her immovability even when hitched to oxen. Personally, as someone who happens to believe God became man, was born of a virgin, died, and was resurrected, I have no problem also believing this same God could fix someone in place if he wanted. I also wonder which is more spectacular, being physically unmoved by oxen or being spiritually unmoved in the face of death? Saint Lucy was wholly committed to Christ and nothing would dissuade her from loving him, not the promise of wealth and not the threat of death. Against that level of devotion, no team of oxen would stand a chance.
Just as Lucy’s spiritual immovability was reflected in her physical immovability, so did the removal of her physical sight show her “blindness” to earthly concerns. Images of St. Lucy often show her holding eyes on a tray. But the saint doesn’t have empty spaces where her eyes once were. Instead, Lucy looks out with restored eyes and clear vision. This is because Lucy was never really blinded. At least, not in a spiritual sense. Saint Lucy embraced the words of Scripture in Hebrews 12:1-2 “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (NASB) Lucy fixed her eyes on Jesus and never looked away.
The way Saint Lucy “saw” her savior meant that she was able to perceive more than most people. Saint Paul says in 1 Corinthians that “now we see in a mirror dimly.” (NASB) But, because of her faith, Lucy could clearly see beyond earthly threats and promises. This sight caused her to live up to her name, reflecting the light of Christ in her courage, faithfulness, and perseverance. And ultimately this is what it means to be a saint. Not just to achieve exceptional piety but to shine with Christ’s light. This is what we need in this season of Advent; light in the dark of winter and light for the blind who stumble in an often bleak world.
Saint Lucy, help us see the light of Christ and help us hold up that light today.