“Only in the LORD, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength .” (Isaiah 45:23-24)
“Only in the Lord. . . are righteousness and strength.” So the prophet Isaiah tells us in today’s readings. We nod in agreement; of course, we say. Only in the Lord! We’re all Christians here. We know the right words. But do we really, deep down, believe it?
Speaking for myself, I constantly find myself instead obsessing about all kinds of problems and issues that are out of my control. Like Martha in Luke’s Gospel, I am “anxious and worried about many things” (Luke 10:41). It’s only rarely that I step back and remember that only “one thing is needful” (Luke 10:42). And, really, saying “I remember” is taking too much credit for myself. I don’t do it on my own: I need something to remind me.
The Example of the Saints
And for that reason the Lord has given us the Church, the Scriptures, and a host of other reminders, not the least of which is the example of the Saints. Every day of the year the Liturgical Calendar gives us the names of more than a few Christian forebears whose heroic virtue admonishes and inspires us. Today’s most prominent saint, for instance, is St. John of the Cross. St. John suffered intense hardship, including persecution and imprisonment at the hands of fellow Catholics. His trust in the suffering Christ sustained him through all his trials.
St. John of the Cross, of course, is not the only saint whom we commemorate today. One of the marvelous features of the Liturgical Calendar is that there are always more saints to teach and inspire us by their example. St. John shares December 14th with more than a dozen other formally recognized saints. Among these is St. Nicasius, a 5th century Bishop of Reims in what is now France. Nicasius founded the first cathedral in his city and is the patron saint of smallpox sufferers. Most significantly, he suffered martyrdom witnessing to the truth that “only in the Lord are righteousness and strength.”
Revive Me According to Thy Word
St. Nicasius met his worldly end at the hands of a marauding army of invaders. His sister Eutropius, his lector Jucundus, and his deacon Florentius experienced martyrdom with him. Sources differ as to whether the culprits were Huns or Vandals.
Whatever the case may be, the bishop had advised the citizens of Reims that a vision had warned him of the approach of the hostile horde. He advised his congregants against offering battle, which would only have led to their destruction. The saint knew that the strength of men wouldn’t save them. He understood that human righteousness would overawe neither Huns nor Vandals. He himself put his trust in the Lord. Remaining in his church with a few faithful companions, Nicasius immersed himself in prayer. The saint hoped to slow the invaders while the majority of the citizens fled to safety.
St. Nicasius did succeed in saving the lives of most of his congregants, much as Pope St. Leo the Great did when he went out to meet Attila the Hun outside the walls of Rome. Unlike Leo, however, Nicasius did not preserve his own life in the process. He won the victory nonetheless. The hagiographies tell us that Nicasius met his end in his church as he was reciting Psalm 119. The longest of the psalms, every one of its 176 verses celebrates the blessedness that comes of following God’s precepts. The enemy decapitated Nicasius as he was saying verse 25 of the Psalm. He had just recited Adhaesit pavimento anima mea (My soul cleaves to the dust) when the blow fell. His severed head finished the verse, intoning: vivifica me secundum verbum tuum (revive me according to thy word). Because he died in this way, depictions of St. Nicasius often picture him carrying his severed head.
The example of the life and death of St. Nicasius can point us in the right direction in this Third Week of Advent. He knew that his people could not achieve salvation through their own power. Likewise, our expectant joy is centered on a helpless baby sleeping in a rough wooden feeding trough. What could be a more stark reminder that our hope is not in human strength? And like St. John of the Cross, St. Nicasius teaches that true salvation only comes through joining ourselves to the Crucified Christ. Bethlehem is the first step on the Way of the Cross to Calvary.
And yes, strange as it seems, all of that is Good News. Tidings of Great Joy, in fact (see Luke 2:10). The child lying in the manger has come to save us, not from the passing trouble of the Huns and Vandals of this world, but from the eternal scourge of sin. So, let us wait in joyful anticipation of the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ!