In the revision of the church calendar after the Second Vatican Council an effort was made to reduce the celebration of saints feast days and emphasize the celebration of the mysteries of Christ during season like advent and Christmas. Why then, in this first week of advent are we still celebrating feasts of the saints, for example, St. Francis Xavier (Dec 3), St. John Damascene (Dec 4), St. Nicholas (Dec 6), St. Ambrose (Dec 7) and the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (Dec 8)?
The reason is that saints are a sign of the universality of holiness. Holiness is not found only in biblical times, but in every age. Holy people are not only in the bible; they’re found yesterday, today and tomorrow. Saints are signs that God’s plan, which we celebrate in feasts and seasons– unfolds in time. The saints, who express the mystery of Christ in their time and place, ask us to do the same in our time and place.
St. Francis Xavier (December 3) witnessed in his time the message powerfully proclaimed in Advent, especially by the Prophet Isaiah. God wills that the gospel be brought to all nations. He says to us “Portuguese merchants and officials brought me to the Indies. How are you bringing the gospel to all nations today?”
St. John Damascene (December 4) is an 8th century saint of the Eastern church, whom the Roman church included in its calendar and named a doctor of the church in 1890 during the pontificate of Leo XIII. By recognizing his teaching, the Roman church also recognized the teaching of the Orthodox churches. John Damascene is a sign that God works, not just through one church, but through other churches as well. He asks us now: “How do you recognize God’s teaching in churches other than your own?”
John Damascene also defended the use of images against those who saw them as impediments to the knowledge of a transcendent God. He validated the work of Michelangelo and Bach and generations of Christian artists. Can you imagine a faith or a church or Christmas without them?
Is there a saint more closely connected to the mystery of Christmas in the popular mind than St. Nicholas (December 6)? The delightful story of Nicholas throwing pieces of gold into a house where three poor girls are threatened with slavery is a story that mirrors the story of the Incarnation. And Nicholas doesn’t want to be recognized for what he does.
Jesus, the Word made flesh, is a gift of God’s mercy, who comes hidden as an infant into our poor world and quietly gives us eternal life, humbly asking nothing in return. Nicholas, Santa Claus, asks us to give quietly, humbly, in our time, as Jesus did.
St. Ambrose (December 7) was born in the 4th century into a Christian family and became a lawyer and high official of the Roman government in northern Italy. He was called by popular acclaim to be bishop, though not yet baptized! Eight days after his baptism he was ordained bishop and became one of the great Christian bishops of our church
He studied the scriptures and preached God’s world. He wrote once to another bishop: “Drink, then, from Christ, so that your voice may be heard…He who reads much and understands much, receives his fill. He who is full refreshes others.”
One of those Ambrose refreshed with his preaching was St. Augustine, whom he awakened to the beauty of God’s word. He baptized Augustine and his friends, who looked to him as an example. His voice was heard, the voice of Christ.
He tells us, “Study the scriptures; they speak of Christ, and your voice will be more and more the voice of Christ.”
Saints are signs of Christ, yesterday, today and forever. Be signs of Christ today, they say.