That All Bubbled to the Surface

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – For longer than I can remember, the New Testament has been referred to by believers as the Greatest Story Ever Told. If you judge by longevity, it’s a runner-up to the older stories of Genesis (think Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, and Joshua); but if you judge by influence and social impact, it has no peer. There was even a 1965 Hollywood movie of the same title, which featured a galaxy of cinemati from John Wayne to Sal Mineo, and Angela Lansbury to Shelley Winters. The film itself turned out to be the Most Expensive Story Ever Told up to that time. Watching it today, it feels pretty clunky in its obvious slavishness to its Biblical sources, as if the writers and director were quite aware of the impending judgments of the faithful.

It doesn’t really matter whether you believe the story; that is, think it factual. It’s still an amazing one, and has inspired a couple thousand years of study, inspiration, conflict, and repression. Surrounded as I was by clerics from infancy through adolescence, and shadowed by the same ever since, I get it. Informed in adulthood and now senescence by scholarship and what I hope is healthy skepticism, I can see it more and more as a story (as distinct from history) intended by its authors and promulgators to, as the verse in “Proverbs” declares, show us the way to go, so that even in old age we shall not depart from it.

That all bubbled to the surface this week when I visited my old church in Hanover, where my wife and I were members for about 40 years, prior to moving to Vermont. This past Sunday the church celebrated the Feast of Saint Lucy (Santa Lucia, Sankta Lucia), a commemoration not coincidentally observed at the darkest time of the year (Lucy is derived directly from the Latin “lux,” meaning “light”), and probably most ardently in Scandinavia, where it gets darker for longer than in most of the rest of Christendom. On December 13, or on the Sunday nearest, young girls dressed in white, each bearing a candle, walk slowly in procession behind another similarly dressed, but wearing a red sash symbolizing martyrdom and a headdress of burning candles (in these risk-averse days, battery-powered) and all singing “Santa Lucia,” whose tune we all recognize, even if we don’t know the words: “Sankta Lucia, jusklara hägring…”

The symbolism is almost too heavy for even a healthy troupe of young women to bear, all of it deriving from poor Lucy’s life in third-century Siracusa, on the island of Sicily. There’s a reason. As one of the earliest saints (she was executed, in spite of mysterious interventions, in 304 AD during the Diocletian Persecutions), she has, like an old tree, long invited carvings in her bark. Some versions of her demise include her eyes being gouged out – either by herself or her executioners – so she’s venerated as the patron saint of the blind. Add to that (I’m quoting from Wikipedia) “authors, cutlers, glaziers, laborers, martyrs, peasants, saddlers, salesmen, stained glass workers, and…Perugia, Italy. She is invoked against hemorrhages, dysentery, diseases of the eye, and throat infections.”

Reading all these attributes and considering the supposed facts of her life, it’s hard not to wonder where in the world all that came from. The answer, I suspect, is not far away. Just as the stories I was infused with as a child were intended to lead me on the straight and narrow path, the lives of the saints (there are hundreds, from the earliest – Saint Peter – to, last month, Artémides Zatti) are set out as examples for us.

But what’s going on here? Who has a stake in creating saints? They’re clearly designed to be paragons. One pretty good hint appears in the life story of Saint Lucy, who apparently possessed a pretty hefty dowry and was betrothed by her ambitious mother to a prominent young non-believer. However, after a miraculous curing of her mother at the shrine of the martyred Saint Agatha, young Lucy dedicated her virginity to God and asked to be allowed to distribute her wealth to the poor. Her mother, aghast, suggested it might better be a bequest, but Lucy responded (quoting again) “…whatever you give away at death for the Lord’s sake you give because you cannot take it with you. Give now to the true Savior, while you are healthy, whatever you intended to give away at your death.” Anybody smell a vested interest in this episode?

In the early Christian Church, God and the priests spoke Latin, which was inscrutable to the commoners who made up the congregations and were largely illiterate, anyway. So, just as the magnificent stained-glass windows of the cathedrals illustrated the stories of Scripture to the unlettered, the lives of the saints – just humble folk like you and me – were created to show the rewards of faithfulness in the face of imperial authority or impossible circumstances. Never mind that the rewards often included beheading, dismemberment, slavery, or crucifixion; achieving them assured immortality, both here and in Heaven. Who wouldn’t aspire to such a glorious fate as that?

What’s a story, after all? And what’s its most important feature – fact or relevance? In his delightful book “The River Why,” David James Duncan mentions the episode after Christ’s crucifixion when his resurrected self appears incognito on the shore and recommends that his struggling fishermen disciples cast their net on the other side of the boat. In the happy chaos that follows, as one of them exclaims, “It’s Him!” another actually takes the time to count the fish (153). For him, the fact outweighed the moment.

So we turned in our pews in the darkened church to watch the white-surpliced children coming up the aisle singing, each with a candle held close before them (one kid bore an electric candle; I wondered what the story was there) and recreating the ancient Scandinavian tradition. Any consideration of historical accuracy became utterly immaterial. Lucy’s was a lovely, if tragic story, and to all of us at that moment that was all that mattered.