Almighty God, who gave to Lucy the grace of complete devotion in body, mind, and spirit and the courage to proclaim her faith in the day of persecution: Grant to us, your servants, that same resolute holiness and unshakable commitment to the Bridegroom of the Church, our Lord Jesus Christ who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
CONSIDER the lively examples set us by the saints, who possessed the light of true perfection and religion, and you will see how little, how nearly nothing, we do. What, alas, is our life, compared with theirs? The saints and friends of Christ served the Lord in hunger and thirst, in cold and nakedness, in work and fatigue, in vigils and fasts, in prayers and holy meditations, in persecutions and many afflictions. How many and severe were the trials they suffered—the Apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins, and all the rest who willed to follow in the footsteps of Christ! They hated their lives on earth that they might have life in eternity (A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Book 1, Chapter 18).
Wednesday is the first of the winter Ember Days. We’ve spoken before, at least in passing, of Ember Days: four sets of three days — always Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday — distributed seasonally among Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall. These days are designated for the church to fast and pray specifically for those called to Holy Orders. Those candidates for Holy Orders observe Ember Days by writing letters to their bishops, letters of reflection upon the candidates’ academic, personal, and spiritual formation and progress toward ordination. I remember writing them myself several years ago now.
So, before we go further, let’s offer the appointed Ember Days collect.
The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, the giver of all good gifts, in your divine providence you have appointed various orders in your Church: Give your grace, we humbly pray, to all who are [now] called to any office and ministry for your people [and especially to Bruce]; and so fill them with the truth of your doctrine and clothe them with holiness of life, that they may faithfully serve before you, to the glory of your great Name and for the benefit of your holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Ember Days are not fixed dates on the calendar; they are determined relative to other holy days. The Spring Ember Days start on the Wednesday following the first Sunday of Lent, for example. Summer Days follows the Day of Pentecost and the Fall Days start on the Wednesday after Holy Cross Day (14 September). What of the Winter Ember Days: when do they start — why today? The Winter Ember Days begin the Wednesday next after St. Lucy’s Day, a commemoration held on 13 December. St. Lucy’s Day was Monday of this week and this is the Wednesday next, hence the beginning of the Winter Ember Days.
All this is detailed in the calendar instructions in the ACNA Book of Common Prayer, p. 689 if you’re interested in that sort of thing. It is one of only two places — that I’ve been able to find — that St. Lucy is even mentioned in the Book of Common Prayer. There is no collect of St. Lucy, no lectionary readings or Eucharistic preface provided for her feast day. St. Lucy’s Day functions simply as a marker on the church calendar by which we determine the start of Ember Days. St. Lucy herself, for the most part, is a cipher, a blank, in the Anglican spiritual imagination. Certainly, one reason for this is that little is known about St. Lucy. But, I suspect another reason may be more fundamental. St. Lucy is primarily known for her holy virginity and her commitment to it, a commitment even unto death. The Roman Catholic Church has always had a cult of virgin martyrs, has always accorded these women a special place of honor. But not so much the Anglican Church; we have not preserved and emphasized that same place of honor, perhaps, in part because Henry VIII abolished monasteries and convents, perhaps in part due to what the Anglican divines considered an excessive emphasis on the saints. If you look at the collects for commemorations in the Book of Common Prayer, you find prayers for these groups: martyrs, missionaries or evangelists, pastors, teachers of the faith, monastics or religious, ecumenists, reformers of the Church, renewers of society — but no mention of holy virgins. The Book of Common Prayer has a rite for Holy Matrimony, but no corresponding rite for the dedication of oneself to a celibate life of service to the Lord. This is not a critique; it is simply an observation as we reflect on St. Lucy.
So, who was this woman? What little do we know about her?
Lucy was born in Syracusa, a city in Sicily, to affluent, Christian parents, who raised her in the faith from her birth. Her father died when she was young, and her mother Eutychia had a serious health issue also. As with the woman in the Gospel, Eutychia had suffered for four years with a flow of blood the doctors were unable to stanch. It was Lucy who insisted that she and her mother travel to Catana to pray for healing at the tomb of St. Agatha, a holy virgin martyr of Sicily. It was there — or at least as a result of the prayers offered there — that Eutychia was healed. And, perhaps it was that incident that confirmed in Lucy her own desire to offer herself fully to God as a holy virgin and to distribute her portion of the family wealth to the poor. She made this vow secretly; she did not reveal it to her mother.
Not knowing about her daughter’s vow, Eutychia sought to arrange a marriage for Lucy, as was the norm. An agreement was made with a young nobleman, but he soon began to suspect something was amiss. He noticed that Lucy had begun selling her jewelry and other possessions and was distributing the proceeds to the poor. That practice was highly unusual, except among one group of people: the Christians. Knowing now that he had been misled — inadvertently misled by the mother, but misled nonetheless — he denounced Lucy to the authorities as a Christian. All this was transpiring under the final but brutal persecution of Christians under the Emperor Diocletian. Without going into the details, Lucy refused to submit to her betrothed and to renounce her faith; she was tortured and died as a result of her wounds in A.D. 304.
Lucy was venerated as a holy virgin martyr and saint as early as the sixth century, within some three hundred years of her death. By the eighth century, her popular devotion had spread to England, where her feast day was observed until the Reformation. As I understand it, the Church of England now observes St. Lucy’s Day as a lesser feast of the Church, but not so the American Anglican Church.
So, what are we to make of this, of the life of one who was so committed to holy virginity that she was willing to die for it? It is difficult for our culture, which prizes virginity hardly at all, to understand such a committed life. And, even as the Church, we must be very careful to get our theology right on this matter; frankly, it is foreign to most of us, too. In many — perhaps most? — churches, the Singles’ Group, is just the Christian alternative to eharmony or match.com: not as much support for those called to celibacy, but a matchmaking service for those looking for a Christian mate. So, what can we say about this? What should we say?
Holy Matrimony and holy virginity — perpetual virginity consecrated to the Lord — are both honorable — and yes, holy — states of life, neither more blessed than the other. A holy virgin consecrates herself, or himself, to the Lord fully — in body, mind, and spirit — not because there is something inherently impure about human sexuality within marriage, but solely because she or he is called by God to this unique expression of full Gospel self-sacrifice. St. Paul exalted marriage as the earthly, incarnational icon of the relationship between Christ and the Church: pure and holy. But, he also recognized celibacy — holy virginity — as an honorable estate, and, on occasion, a more desirable estate than marriage.
1 Corinthians 7:32–35 (ESV): 32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
For Paul, the choice between virginity and marriage is a spiritually practical one: a virgin may devote all her or his undivided time and attention to the Lord and to the Lord’s work, while the married person must attend to the demands of family life.
But, the decision between the two estates is more than just practical; it is also a matter of calling.
1 Corinthians 7:8–9 (ESV): 8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
Male and female were, in the beginning, made for one another, and human sexuality was and is part of that, part of what was pronounced good by God within the context of marriage. The Church has sometimes gotten that wrong, has sometimes looked upon sex as somehow inherently degraded. It is allowed within marriage as a sort of concession, so that a man and woman can satisfy their physical needs without sin. But, the Church has sometimes gotten the other estate wrong, too, and has looked upon holy virginity as something abnormal, something that a good Christian Singles’ Group can remedy. Contrary to these errors, Paul insists that both estates are holy, that to choose one over the other is a matter of gifting. If God has not given you the gift of sexual self-control, then God has not called you to perpetual holy virginity. Marry, be faithful, raise children as God blesses; that is honorable and holy. But, if self-restraint is God’s gift to you — self-restraint and the ability to live without the emotional and physical intimacy of marriage — and if you wish to make a sacrifice of your sexuality, of that human intimacy, then that, too, is honorable and holy. The Church must make room for both of these holy estates. And more than make room: the Church must honor and support both estates. Jesus blessed the marriage at Cana, even while he himself remained a holy virgin.
In the end, one is not made holy by either state of life, virginity or marriage. One is made holy by one’s faithfulness to God expressed in and through a particular state of life. We do not honor St. Lucy just because she was a virgin, but rather because through her virginity she expressed her complete self-offering to God, a devotion for which she was willing to suffer martyrdom. That is the Christian goal, the Christian purpose, in any state of life to which God has called us — all of us. Amen.