In the church calendar revised 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 in seasons like Advent and Christmas. Why then, 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)?
It’s because saints are signs of holiness, and holiness is not found only in biblical times, but in every age. Holy people are not only people of bible times, they’re found yesterday, today and tomorrow. They reveal God’s plan unfolding in time. Expressing the mystery of Christ in their time and place, saints ask us to do the same in our time and place.
St. Francis Xavier (December 3) in his time fulfilled a message powerfully proclaimed in Advent, especially by the Prophet Isaiah– God wills his saving message be brought to all nations. Francis says to us “Portuguese merchants and officials brought me to the Indies in the 16th century. 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 as a doctor of the church in 1890 during the pontificate of Leo XIII. By recognizing him and his teaching, the Roman church recognized the holiness and 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 defended the use of images against those who saw them as impediments to knowing a transcendent God. He validated the work of Michelangelo and Bach and generations of Christian artists. We might not have Christmas creches today without him.
There’s probably not a saint more closely connected to Christmas in the popular mind than St. Nicholas, Santa Claus (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. Jesus, the Word made flesh, a gift of God’s mercy, 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 immersed himself in the scriptures and preached God’s word. He wrote once to another bishop: “Drink from Christ, so that your voice may be heard…He who reads much and understands much, is filled. 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 and was an example to them. His voice was heard, the voice of Christ.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is remembered in a number of feasts in Advent and she has an important role in Luke’s Gospel which we read towards the end of Advent. She helps us understand so much about the coming of Jesus Christ. That’s the reason to celebrate her in Advent and Christmas.
Saints are signs of Christ, yesterday, today and forever. They tell us to be signs of Christ in our time.