Remember “The Love Boat?” It was a somewhat unfunny but long-running TV show that took some major and not so major celebrities and cast them in little vignettes that were wrapped up in the context of a cruise. Well, wrapped up in the context of the Season of Advent (a somewhat penitential and preparation season leading to Christmas), are some vignettes featuring our Catholic celebrities of holiness – the saints. While we think of Advent as the season in which we prepare the way for the birth of Christ, it also features a number of saint days that remind us how these saints lived preparing for life with Christ in heaven. Now, while we won’t hear of “Love Boat” type-folks like Charo, Jimmy Walker, Jamie Farr or Norman Fell, we will hear about great holy men and women who served God well. To wit, here are the saints of Advent:
• St. Andrew (Nov. 30). This one isn’t as clear-cut as it looks. Sometimes the feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle is within Advent and sometimes it isn’t. However, Advent has in some sense become “normed” by his feast day. The Sunday that is closest to Nov. 30 is always the first Sunday of Advent. So, sometimes the feast of St. Andrew comes before the first Sunday of Advent and other times on or after it. St. Andrew was the first Apostle called by Christ, and he is the patron of both Russia and Scotland. He suffered a martyr’s death by being crucified on saltire (an “x” shaped cross); we see that “x” shaped cross on the flags of Scotland and Florida.
• St. John Damascene (Dec. 5). If you see a beautiful stained-glass window in a church showing one of the saints or a scene from the life of Christ, thank John Damascene. Born in 675 A.D., John Damascene was a priest who fought against the iconoclasts. The iconoclasts were folks emanating in the Eastern Church who opposed the use of any images in sacred places. They deemed that these images created a violation of the Old Testaments proscription against worshipping “graven images” of the Divine. Bolstered by Emperor Leo III, the iconoclasts (meaning “image breakers”) went about destroying many images. St. John Damascene defended valiantly the use of images and stirred up the faithful to refute and rebuke this movement. His writings would play a key role at Second Council of Nicaea; the church council that settled the icon dispute once and for all. There’s much more I could write about the iconoclasts and St. John Damascene, but you get the picture.
• St. Nicholas (Dec. 6). Though there is no record of him coming down a chimney or driving a sled led by deer, the real St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra, born in the late third century, was the inspiration for the Santa Claus we speak of today. St. Nicholas was a bishop in what is modern Turkey. He was famous for his generosity. In one story, a man in his community had gone broke and could no longer support his family. Nicholas found out that the man was going to take his three daughters and put them on the streets as prostitutes as a way to make income. That night, Nicholas secretly hurled three big round sacks full of gold into the window of the man’s house, to provide money for the family and dowries for his daughters. It’s said that those three round sacks of gold provide the origin of three golden balls that you see on pawnshop signs. St. Nicholas died in 345.
• St. Ambrose (Dec. 7). Ambrose was a convert to the faith who was so highly regarded, he was ordained a priest and a bishop on the same day. It’s said that St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, was a power preacher whose words moved St. Augustine to move from his wicked ways and became a great saint of the church. The accolade “honey-tongued doctor,” was given to Ambrose in honor of his gifted preaching; that honorific began connecting Ambrose with bees (i.e., the makers of honey). Ultimately, St. Ambrose became patron saint of beekeepers, and to this day, his name gets a lot of good buzz (ouch).
• The Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8). Our Blessed Mother, Mary, gets two special holy days during Advent, and this is the first of the two. Many folks believe that the Immaculate Conception speaks to the idea of Jesus being conceived in the womb of Mary by the Holy Spirit. But they would be wrong. The Immaculate Conception, celebrated nine months to the day before the birth of Mary (Sept. 8), recalls the conception of Mary in the womb of St. Ann. Mary was conceived by St. Ann and St. Joachim, however she was preserved from the taint of original sin which was passed onto us by the original sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve. On Dec. 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX declared infallibly that the long-standing teaching about the Immaculate Conception was in fact a dogma of the church. Our Blessed Mother, the Immaculate Conception, is the patron saint of the United States.
• Pope St. Damasus I (Dec. 11). St. Damasus was pope in the late fourth century. His claim to fame: He directed St. Jerome to complete the translation of the Bible into Latin, the language of the day in the Roman Empire. This was completed shortly after his death.
• St. Juan Diego (Dec. 9) and Our Lady of Guadalupe (Dec. 12). St. Juan Diego was born in 1474, but he wasn’t baptized until 50 years later. On Dec. 9, 1531, our Blessed Mother appeared to St. Juan near Mexico City; she asked him to go to the bishop and asked him to build a shrine in her honor at Tepeyac. Diego met with the bishop, who looked askance on his story. The bishop wanted proof. Juan again encountered Mary, and though it was winter, she told him to gather up flowers. He obeyed and found roses blooming. He gathered the roses and took them to Mary. She placed them in his mantle and told Juan to take them to the bishop. When Juan went to see the bishop, he opened his mantle to present what he thought would be the miracle of having roses in the winter, after some of the roses fell to the floor, there in place of the flowers was an image of the Blessed Mother as she appeared to Juan Diego at Tepeyac. When we place our faith in Mary, everything comes up roses! Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico and of the Americas (North and South).
• St. Lucy (Dec. 13). Sicilian-born St. Lucy came from a noble family and was wealthy. She took a vow of virginity and divested herself of all wealth, giving it to the poor. This ticked off a man who had hoped to marry Lucy one day and he appealed the local authorities that Lucy should be his. They concurred and approved that this man could violate Lucy’s virginity. When he approached her, she stood firmly in place and was unable to be moved; he then gouged her eyes out. She was later beheaded; suffering martyrdom but remained a virgin. It is said that when her body was being prepared for burial, her eyes were restored. This was God’s way of saying to the faithful: “I love Lucy.” And he did, greatly. She is the patron saint of the blind and those with eye trouble.
• St. John of the Cross (Dec. 14). St. John of the Cross bore many crosses. One of his greatest achievements yielded him his greatest sufferings: He worked to reform his Carmelite order, and while his reform was approved by the powers-that-be, the senior members of the order did not take kindly to John’s changes. They accused him of apostasy and imprisoned him; eventually he was released but was treated badly by his brethren. His greatest writing was a book called “Dark Night of the Soul.” While not as exciting as “The Dark Knight” movies, it was a powerful spiritual work. St. John called the spiritual journey we are on “The Dark Night” because drawing closer to God’s light means shedding much of the things of this world, which oft bind us in darkness. For John, life is journey from darkness to the light of Christ. He died in 1591 at the age of 49.
• St. Peter Canisius (Dec. 21). St. Peter Canisius was born in the Netherlands in 1521 around the time of the Protestant revolt, led by Luther. He became a priest in 1546. He is remembered as a great defender of the church against the Protestants, the writer of many catechisms, and key player at the church’s Council of Trent.
• St. John of Kanty (Dec. 23). St. John of Kanty was a Polish priest, born in 1397 in the town of Kanty; he was known for his sanctity. The story is told that St. John was attacked by robbers who took everything from him. They asked him if he had anything more, and St. John replied that he didn’t. After they left, he found two gold pieces sewn into his clothing. He took the two gold pieces and ran after the crooks. Not wanting to have lied, he told them that he did have more to give them and presented them with the two gold pieces. The robbers were so moved by his honesty, they gave back to St. John of Kanty all his belongings that they had stolen. I guess that that was his way of getting his two cents in.
Father Lentini is pastor of Holy Cross Church in Dover and Immaculate Conception Church in Marydel, Md.