14 December 2021

Praying in Advent 2021:
17, Saint Lucy of Syracuse

The shrine of Santa Lucia di Siracusa or Saint Lucy of Syracuse in the Church of San Geremia in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Christmas is almost upon us, and today I am putting the final touches to the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols to take place in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, next Sunday afternoon (19 December).

But, before this busy day begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

Each morning in my Advent calendar this year, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during Advent;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The shrine of Saint Lucy in Syracuse in Sicily (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I was reflecting yesterday (13 December) on the life of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) of Lichfield. But 13 December in the Calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship also commemorates Saint Lucy, who was martyred at Syracuse in Sicily ca 283-304.

Saint Lucy’s relics are kept in a shrine in the beautiful Church of San Geremia, facing onto the Grand Canal in Venice, between the Palazzo Labia and the Palazzo Flangini. Because of her relics, the church is a popular place of pilgrimage.

Apart from her martyrdom in Syracuse in 304 during the persecution of Diocletian, we know little for certain about Lucy, although her cult began soon after her death and spread widely. An inscription dating from ca 400 is found in Syracuse. Her name appears in the First Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Rite and also in the Ambrosian rites as well as in the oldest Roman liturgical texts, in Greek liturgical books and in the marble calendar of Naples.

There are churches dedicated to Saint Lucy can be found in Rome, Naples and in Venice, where the Church of San Geremia, near the railway station, claims to have a partially incorrupt relic of her body.

According to her Acts, which have little historical value, Saint Lucy was a wealthy Sicilian Christian during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian. She consecrated her virginity to God, turned down proposals of marriage to a pagan, and gave away her dowry to the poor. She was betrayed as a Christian by the man who wanted to marry her to the governor of Syracuse. A judge ordered that she should be sexually violated in a brothel, but miraculously she could not be moved from where she was. He then tried – unsuccessfully – to have her burnt so she was finally executed by the sword.

In mediaeval accounts, her eyes were gouged out before her execution. Saint Lucy’s name (from the Latin word lux, ‘light’) also played a large part in her being named as a patron saint of the blind and people with eye-trouble.

Artistic representations reflect these stories in her Acts. Her eyes sometimes appear on a plate she is holding. The earliest known image of her and showing no symbols is in a frieze of virgins in the sixth century mosaics in the church of Saint Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna.

Giorgio Maniace, a Byzantine general who captured Syracuse from the Arabs in 1039, brought her body to Constantinople. But it was stolen by Venetians who sacked Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

At first, her body was kept in the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, on the island of the same name opposite Saint Mark’s Square. Boats carrying pilgrims from Syracuse capsized in rough seas in 1279, and some pilgrims were drowned. It was decided then to transfer her relics to a church in Cannaregio. This church was named Santa Lucia and was rebuilt by Andrea Palladio in his Palladian style in 1580.

When Palladio’s church was demolished to make way for the new railway station, her body was moved to San Geremia in 1861. This new train station is still named Santa Lucia.

The fa├žade of San Geremia facing the Grand Canal has a large inscription: ‘Saint Lucia, Virgin of Siracusa, rests in peace in this church. You inspire a bright future and peace for Italy and the entire World.’

The Patriarch of Venice, Angelo Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII, had a silver mask placed on the saint’s face in 1955 to protect it from dust.

The saint’s body, once stolen in Syracuse in 1039 and again in Constantinople in 1204, was stolen a third time in 1981, this time when two armed criminals forced the main doors, entered the church and smashed the glass of the shrine holding her body.

In their confusion, the thieves left behind her head and the silver mask. They demanded a ransom, but local police retrieved her body in the lagoon area of Montiron and she was returned to the church on her feast day, 13 December. Although her body has now has been in Venice for many centuries, the city of Syracuse where she was born still claims her body.

In Scandinavia her feast, held on what was the shortest day of the year in the old calendar, has become a festival of light. The youngest daughter in the family, dressed in white, wakes the rest of the family with coffee, rolls and a special song.

In Sicily and in many other places the song ‘Santa Lucia’ remains enduringly popular.

San Geremia and its great dome seen from the Grand Canal … the church houses the relics of Saint Lucy since 1861 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 21: 28-32 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 28 ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29 He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.’

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (14 December 2021) invites us to pray:

We pray for a world in which women and men are safe from violence and abuse.

Yesterday: Samuel Johnson

Tomorrow: Saint Nino of Georgia

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice … the relics of Saint Lucy were moved from there after a drowning tragedy in 1279 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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