04 Dec Saint Barbara, Virgin and Martyr
Today is the feast day of Saint Barbara. Ora pro nobis.
O GOD, Who didst adorn Thy holy Virgin and Martyr Barbara with extraordinary fortitude in the confession of the Faith, and didst console her in the most atrocious torments; grant us through her intercession perseverance in the fulfillment of Thy law and the grace of being fortified before our end with the holy Sacraments, and of a happy death. Through Christ our Lord. Amen. Prayer in Honor of Saint Barbara
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
The holy virgin and martyr, St. Barbara, who, from the most ancient times, has been celebrated in the whole Christian world, was born of heathen parents in Nicomedia, of Bithynia. She was much beloved by her father, Dioscorus, on account of her unusual intelligence. He appointed a tower as a special place, well fitted up, for her dwelling, and chose the best masters to instruct her in art and science, but especially in paganism, as he feared she might be induced to unite herself to one not agreeable to him, or be seduced by the Christians, of whom he was a great enemy. But just this solicitude of her father gave her cause to think, and thus to arrive at the knowledge of the true God. She contemplated the heavens, the sun, moon and stars, in their regular course; she meditated on the changing of the seasons; looked on the wonderful creation of the world and its inhabitants, and justly concluded from it that there must be a Creator–that He alone must be the true God, and that the gods she worshipped had no power. To these contemplations she united prayers, and also led a most blameless life. The Almighty, who forsakes not one who aids himself, gave her opportunity to become instructed in the Christian religion, and to receive holy baptism, without the knowledge of her father.
Meanwhile, a suitor for her hand came to her father and asked his consent. Dioscorus was not unwilling to grant the wish, as the young man was his equal in rank and wealth; but he would make his daughter acquainted with the offer he had received for her before he gave his word. Barbara had a great many objections; and her father, who did not desire that she should hastily give her consent, and would not coerce her, urged her no further; and as he was about to set out on a long journey, he thought it but right to give her some time for consideration. Barbara requested to have, for her greater comfort, a bathingroom added to her dwelling, which Dioscorus gladly granted her. The object of the holy virgin was, to have a special apartment where, with those who, like herself, were secretly Christians, she could pray to the true God. The father ordered two windows for the new room; Barbara, however, had a third added, in honor of the three Divine Persons in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. The room was, by the pagan’s order, adorned with idolatrous statues, with which the holy virgin would gladly have dispensed. Looking at them, she wept over the blindness of her father, who desired that she should worship them as gods. Going from one to another, she spat upon them, saying: “Those who honor you as gods are worthy to be turned into what you are made of–wood and stone.” After this, she went to a column of marble, and with her fingers pressed the sign of the cross upon it, as if it had been wax. After her death, the health of many infirm, who devoutly kissed this miraculous cross, was restored.
No sooner had her father returned from his journey, than he desired to know his daughter’s resolution. Already prepared by prayer for the approaching struggle, she said, unhesitatingly, that she would never consent to marry a pagan, as, being a Christian, she had chosen a much more noble spouse, Christ the Lord. Her father was speechless at this unexpected answer, and, when able to control himself, told her either to renounce Christ, or prepare herself for the most cruel death. The greater the wrath of the blind Dioscorus became, the more fearless was Barbara. This enraged him so greatly, that he seized his sword to take her life on the spot. Barbara, to escape his rage, fled, while her father, sword in hand, pursued her out of the city. According to an ancient legend, the fugitive virgin came to a rock, which miraculously opened, thus offering her a passage, and shielded her, for the moment, against her father’s wrath. The latter, however, was not touched by this visible miracle, but passed over the mountain and pursued the maiden, as the hound pursues the deer. Barbara had, meanwhile, taken refuge in a cave, and would not have been found had not two shepherds informed the infuriated father of her retreat. Hastening towards the place, he found her praying. No tiger could assail his prey with more rage than this tyrant assailed his innocent child. He threw her on the ground, stamped upon her with his feet, beat her, and finally dragged her by the hair into the hut of a peasant, where he locked her up, until he had her brought back to his house by soldiers. Now began her martyrdom, which was so severe, that what she had before suffered was as nothing in comparison; for, Dioscorus was determined to force her to deny Christ. Seeing, at last, that all was in vain, he gave her up to the governor, Martian, that she might be dealt with according to the laws of the land.
Martian at first showed compassion for the Saint, in consideration for her youth, and endeavored to win her by flattery and kind words. Not succeeding in this, he had recourse to severity, and had her whipped with scourges, until her whole body seemed to be but one great wound. After this, she was dragged to a dungeon, where she was left to die. The Almighty, however, who had destined her to still more glorious combats, sent an Angel during the night, who healed all her wounds, and encouraged her to perseverance, with the promise that she would overcome all tortures by Divine assistance. The following day she was again brought before Martian, who, not comprehending how Barbara had been healed, ascribed it to his gods. The virgin, however, said: ” No, no, Martian! Wood and stone, of which your idols are made, have not this power. It is the work of the God of heaven and earth, whom I worship as the only true God, and for whose honor I am willing to die.” Martian, full of anger at these words, ordered her to be tormented more cruelly than on the previous day. After her body was all bruised and wounded, she was barbarously burned with torches, and at last both her breasts were cut off. The torture was very great, but the eagerness of Barbara to suffer for Christ’s sake was still greater. She gave no sign of pain, but turning her eyes to heaven, said: “Let not thy hand, O Lord, forsake me! In Thee I am full of strength; without Thee, I am powerless!”
A new martyrdom followed after this. The tyrant commanded her to be scourged in public through all the streets of the city. This was more terrible to her than all her previous tortures; hence she turned to the Almighty, praying humbly that she might not be exposed to the eyes of the heathen. She was immediately surrounded by a bright lustre, that veiled her form from all eyes. The barbarous Dioscorus was present at the martyrdom of his holy daughter, from beginning to end, and not only looked with satisfaction at the whipping, burning, and cutting, but animated the executioners in their cruelties; and when Martian, at last, sentenced Barbara to be beheaded, he asked, as a favor, to be allowed to take the place of the executioner, and behead his daughter. Having obtained his request, Dioscorus took her to a neighboring mountain, followed by a great crowd of people. Barbara rejoiced to be thought worthy to die for Christ’s sake; and no sooner had she reached the mountain, than she again thanked God for all the graces that He had bestowed upon her, and begged Him to assist her to the end. A voice was heard from on high, which invited the undaunted martyr to come and receive the crown that awaited her. Kneeling down, she bared her neck, and received from her father the fatal stroke. She was hardly twenty years of age.
Juliana, a pious woman, who had been present at the martyrdom, burned with the holy desire to give her life, also, for Christ, and was beheaded on the same day, after she had suffered great torments. Her body was laid beside the body of St. Barbara; but her soul followed the soul of the fearless virgin into heaven, Quite different was the end of the inhuman father. Whilst he was descending from the mountain, with the blood of his innocent child still on his hands, a terrible thunder-storm arose, during which he was struck by lightning, and sank dead upon the ground. Thus the father went to hell on the same day on which his daughter ascended triumphantly to heaven. We must not omit to remark that St. Barbara is especially invoked in the whole Christian world for the grace of receiving the last sacrament before death; and many facts have shown that this invocation has the desired effect. (1)
Barbara — one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers — was the beautiful daughter of a rich and powerful pagan named Dioscuros. She grew up in Nikomedia (in modernTurkey). To keep her a virgin, her father locked her in a tower when he was away, a tower with only two windows. Upon his return from one journey, he found three windows in the tower instead of two. When he asked Barbara about this, she confessed that she’d become a Christian after being baptized by a priest disguised as a physician, and that she’d asked that a third window be made as a symbol of the Holy Trinity.
She was then denounced by her father, who was ordered by the local authorities to put her to death. She escaped from her tower, but her father caught and killed her. When he dealt the death blow, he was immediately struck by lightning. She is depicted in art holding a small tower or standing near a tower or near a canon, and holding a chalice and/or the palm of martyrdom.
During her time in the tower, she kept a branch from a cherry tree which she watered with water from her cup. On the day of she was killed, the cherry branch she’d kept blossomed. From this comes “Barbarazweig,” the custom of bringing branches into the house on December 4 to hopefully bloom on Christmas (some reserve the custom for the unmarried).
Of course, the branches might not bloom at all, but if the temperature outside has been around 32 to 40 degrees for six weeks, they most likely will. Apple, chestnut, pear, peach, forsythia, plum, lilac and jasmine branches will work, also, but cherry is the tradition.
Cut stems today (the milder the weather, the better), looking for thinner branches with swollen buds. Mash the ends and put the branches in a vase of cool, not icy, water with a little sugar in it for several hours. Leave branches for a few days in a cool place. As soon as the buds appear to swell bring them into a warm room (not too close to the source of heat). Spritz them from time to time with lukewarm water, and when the blooms appear, place the branches on a window sill to give them lots of light and keep them in cooler air so that the blooms will stay fresh longer. Change water every day. Once they are in full bloom, re-cut the stems and put them in water with a little sugar, a tiny bit of bleach, a penny and a dissolved aspirin.
If the branches bloom exactly on 25 December, it is a sign of “good luck,” and the person whose branches produces the most blossoms is said to be “Mary’s favorite.” Maria von Trapp of the Trapp Family Singers (think “Sound of Music”) wrote in “Around the Year with the Trapp Family” (Pantheon Books, 1955) that the Austrian legend is that if a person’s branch blossoms on Christmas Day, he or she will be married in the following year :
There is a group of fourteen saints known as the “Holy Helpers.” In Austria they are sometimes pictured together in an old chapel, or over a side altar of a church; each one has an attribute by which he may be recognized–St. George will be shown with a dragon, or St. Blaise with two candles crossed. One of these Auxiliary Saints is St. Barbara, whose feast is celebrated on December 4th. She can be recognized by her tower (in which she was kept prisoner) and the ciborium surmounted by the Sacred Host. St. Barbara is invoked against lightning and sudden death. She is the patron saint of miners and artillery men and she is also invoked by young unmarried girls to pick the right husband for them.
On the fourth of December, unmarried members of the household are supposed to go out into the orchard and cut twigs from the cherry trees and put them into water. There is an old belief that whoever’s cherry twig blossoms on Christmas Day can expect to get married in the following year. As most of us are always on tour at this time of the year, someone at home will be commissioned to “cut the cherry twigs.” These will be put in a vase in a dark corner, each one with a name tag, and on Christmas Day they will be eagerly examined; and even if they are good for nothing else, they provide a nice table decoration for the Christmas dinner.
They are also used to decorate the crèche. The French (Provencale) variation of this custom requires the family to germinate wheat on beds of wet cotton in three separate saucers, keeping them moist throughout Advent. When the contents of the three saucers — which symbolize the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity — are nice and green, they are used to adorn the creche at Christmas. The French saying is “Quand le blé va bien, tout va bien” (“Quand lou blad ven ben, tout va ben” in the dialect of Provence), or “When the wheat goes well, everything goes well.”
St. Barbara is the patroness of artillerymen, fireworks manufacturers, firemen, stone masons, against sudden death, against fires, and against storms (especially lightning storms). She is usually depicted in art standing next to or holding the tower in which she was imprisoned, with a chalice, the palm of martyrdom, a feather, and/or a cannon. (2)
Image: Saint Barbara fleeing from her Father Peter Paul Rubens, painted c. 1620 (8)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff