As we embark upon the Advent season—the time when we celebrate Christ’s birth and look forward in hope and faith to His Second Coming—here are ten saints to accompany on your journey.
1. Holy Mary, Mother of God: A teenaged Jewish virgin who was told that she would miraculously conceive by the Holy Spirit and give birth to the savior of the world, Mary is the ultimate Christian believer, a humble woman whose faith was more on the order of a mountain, than a mustard seed. Mary was one of the lucky few who witnessed Christ and His miraculous ministry on earth, but it was a journey that began and ended in dark night of the soul—darkness at first in being unable to see the promise delivered to her, and then, utter, horrible blackness at the end when her hoped-for Savior was put to death on a Cross. As Pope Benedict once wrote: “For Mary, as for Abraham, faith is trust in, and obedience to, God, even when he leads her through darkness. It is a letting go, a releasing, a handing over of oneself to the truth, to God. Faith, in the luminous darkness of God’s inscrutable ways, is thus a conformation to him.” This is the faith that seeks understanding, but doesn’t demand it—the faith that remains true to the very end, even when all seems lost.
2. St. John of the Cross: It may be no accident that St. John of the Cross’ feast day is celebrated during the Advent season (December 14). For it is he who is best known for his moving account of the “dark night of the soul” that all Christians must experience on their way to God. This darkness may be terrifying, but it is no cause for despair. As one Carmelite nun has written: “The darkness of that Bethlehem night held the glory of God’s greatest gift to humanity. The Carmelite friar’s description of going to God through the night is not a sad dirge at all. He tells us that the night he describes is really God coming to us with the intensity of a light so dazzling it overwhelms our capacity to see. We walk through the nights of our lives with the assurance that we will see a new dawn, more glorious than any we have looked at before.” Indeed, to paraphrase this writer, much like the shepherds waiting in the darkness of that night in Bethlehem, so too are we standing vigil for the Second Coming of Christ.
3. St. Joseph: As a sort of foster father on earth for Jesus, St. Joseph was entrusted with an enormously important task. In an Advent sermon, St. Bernard of Clairvaux says God treated Joseph as a man “to whom He might safely commit the most secret and sacred mystery of His heart: to whom, as to another David, the manifested hidden arcana of His wisdom, which had been known to none from the beginning of the world.” Joseph not only got to see and hear what so many kings and prophets of old had desired to see and hear, St. Bernard adds, he also got to “carry in his arms, to lead by the hand, to nourish and to watch over the Infant Savior.” Faithful stewardship over the gifts of God—the ultimate gift, His Gift of Himself—this is Joseph’s mission.
4. St. Francis of Assisi: This great saint’s extraordinary awareness of the Incarnation not only manifested itself through his famous stigmata—it also led him to set up the first Nativity Scene in an Italian town of Greccio in 1223 AD. This was not your dining room crèche—it was a full-blooded, living Nativity Scene, complete with an actual ox and donkey and a life-sized manger. One onlooker reportedly even saw a vision of St. Francis holding the Holy Child. St. Francis saw the living Nativity Scene as a way to “excite the inhabitants” to commemorate Christmas with “great devotion,” according to Bonaventure, one of his early biographers. It appears to have had its desired effect, as Bonaventure describes it: “The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ.”
5. St. John the Baptist: St. John the Baptist’s entire existence was meant to point to that of another: Jesus Christ. As the Gospel of Matthew recounts, his was a voice crying out in the desert, the one called to prepare the way for Christ, as prophesied by Isaiah. St. John the Baptist’s message is a simple one: How do we prepare the way for Christ—in our lives and others? Do we cry out for Christ?
6. St. Nicholas: No list of Advent saints would be complete without St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus as he’s known in popular culture. Everyone knows who Santa Claus is—and although this might be yet another reason to mourn the commercialization of Christmas—it is also an opportunity to witness to others. Who was the real St. Nicholas? A fourth century Christian who shared in the action and passion of his time. As a young man, he journeyed from his home in modern-day Turkey to study under the Desert Fathers in Egypt. Upon his return home, he was ordained a bishop and likely attended the Council of Nicaea, which formulated the Creed. His dogged defense of orthodoxy is famously portrayed in a fresco depicting him slapping the heretic Arius. St. Nicholas, whose feast day was yesterday, also suffered under the Diocletian persecution and was incarcerated for his faith (source: Catholic News Agency.) It’s a story to keep in mind next time someone (an older child, presumably) asks if Santa Claus really exists.
7. St. Martin of Tours: With a feast day all the way back on November 11, it may not seem like St. Martin has much to do with Advent. But in the Middle Ages, this date marked the beginning of Advent and was known in Latin as Quadragesima Sancti Martini, or “the forty days of St. Martin.” Originally this was a period of fasting and St. Martin’s feast day, or Martinmas, was somewhat akin to the pre-fasting revelry of Mardi Gras today. St. Martin is best known for cutting his cloak in half to clothe a beggar and for quitting the Roman army to serve Christ. So, although Advent is no longer associated with St. Martin by name, but it can’t hurt to invoke St. Martin’s intercession as you embark upon this blessed season.
8. St. Lucy: St. Lucy is another saint whose feast day, December 13, is well-timed for Advent. A third-century martyr, Lucy chose torture and death by burning rather than break her vow of virginity. Because her torture reportedly included the gouging out of her eyes, Lucy, whose name means light, is associated in a special way with Christmas and the biblical image of Jesus as the light of the world. Her feast day is a major holy-day in Scandinavia and usually marks when the Christmas season comes into full swing in Sweden. Often her feast day is celebrated by candlelight processions, usually involving girls holding candles or wearing a wreath of candles. If St. John of the Cross teaches us about the darkness that precedes our encounter with God, St. Lucy reminds us to look forward to the heavenly light that will follow. For tips on how to celebrate, click here. For a selection of prayers to St. Lucy, click here.
9. Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: Also known as St. Therese of the Little Way, for her emphasis on the importance of sanctity in the small things, this Carmelite nun had a great devotion to the Child Jesus. For St. Therese, the Christ Child embodied a spirituality centered on simplicity and humility. In her autobiography, Story of a Soul, here is her description of how Jesus the Infant helped her on Christmas Day to overcome a childhood tendency to throw temper tantrums: “On that blessed night the sweet infant Jesus, scarcely an hour old, filled the darkness of my soul with floods of light. By becoming weak and little, for love of me, He made me strong and brave: He put His own weapons into my hands so that I went on from strength to strength, beginning, if I may say so, ‘to run as a giant.’” This Advent let St. Therese teach you how to become more devoted to the Holy Child and His simple yet profound ways.
10. St. Teresa of Avila: The third Carmelite on this list, St. Teresa of Avila teaches us how to be devoted, in turn, to St. Joseph. According to her autobiography, she believed that while other saints assist in some things, St. Joseph could also be counted upon for his assistance and intercession in all matters—a trait that she believes stems from his special relationship to Jesus. (Click here to read more.)
St. Teresa of Avila also penned a prayer of preparation for Advent that puts one in exactly the right frame of mind and heart for this season. It’s a prayer that calls to mind the longing of the Old Testament prophets and asks God to fill us with the true spirit of Advent: “I wish to prepare for Your coming with the burning desires of the prophets and the just who in the Old Testament sighed after You, the one Savior and Redeemer. …I want to keep Advent in my soul, that is, a continual longing and waiting for this great Mystery wherein You, O Word, become flesh to show me the abyss of Your redeeming, sanctifying mercy.” Click here to read the full prayer.
Don’t just say this prayer once. Repeat it throughout the season, even if it’s just one or two lines you mediate on throughout your day—at your lunch break, in the evening when you’re driving home, and at night before you go to sleep. Let the spirit of Advent be more than just a morning breeze to lift you at the beginning of the day—let it breathe throughout your whole day.
What saints are inspiring and informing your devotion this Advent season? Please e-mail me your stories, tips, and ideas at [email protected]
Photo Credit: Nativity Scene at Assisi from www.RomeCabs.com