Although in the Roman Liturgy St. Barbara is merely commemorated in the Office of St. Peter Chrysologus; yet the Church has approved an entire Office for the use of those Churches which honor the memory of this illustrious Virgin in a special manner. The Legend which follows, although of considerable weight, has not, consequently, the authority of those which are promulgated for the use of the whole Church in the Roman Breviary. Let us not, on this account, be the less fervent in honoring this glorious Martyr, so celebrated in the East, and whose feast has been for so many ages admitted, with more or less solemnity, into the Roman Church. The Acts of her martyrdom, though not of the highest antiquity, contain nothing in them but what redounds to the glory of God and the honor of the Saint. We have already shown the liturgical importance which attaches to St. Barbara in the season of Advent. Let us admire the constancy wherewith this Virgin waited for her Lord, who came at the appointed hour, and was for her, as the Scripture speaks, a Spouse of blood, because he put the strength of her love of him to the severest of all tests.
Barbara, a Virgin of Nicomedia, the daughter of Dioscorus, a nobleman, but a superstitious pagan, came readily, by the assistance of divine grace, from the contemplation of the visible things of creation to the knowledge of the invisible. Wherefore, she devoted herself to God alone and to the things of God. Her father, desirous to preserve her from all danger of insult, to which he feared her great beauty might expose her, shut her up in a tower. There the pious virgin passed her days in meditation and prayer, studying to please God alone, whom she had chosen as her Spouse. She courageously rejected several offers of marriage, which were made to her, through her father, by rich nobles. But her father hoped, that by separating himself by a long absence from his child, her intentions would easily change. He first ordered that a bath should be built for her in the tower, so that she might want for nothing; and then he set out on a journey into distant countries.
During her father’s absence, Barbara ordered that to the two windows already in the tower a third should be added, in honor of the blessed Trinity; and that on the edge of the bath the sign of the most holy Cross should be drawn. When Dioscorus returned home, and saw these changes, and was told their meaning, he became so incensed against his daughter, that he went in search of her with a naked sword in his hand, and, but for the protection of God, he would cruelly have murdered her. Barbara had taken to flight: an immense rock opened before her, and she found a path by which she reached the top of a mountain, and there she hid herself in a cave. Not long after, however, she was discovered by her unnatural father, who savagely kicked and struck her, and dragging her by the hair over the sharp rocks and rugged ways, he handed her over to the governor Marcian, that he might punish her. He, therefore, having used every means to shake her constancy, and finding that all was in vain, gave order that she should be stripped and scourged with thongs, the wounds to be then scraped with potsherd, and so dragged to prison. There Christ, surrounded by an immense light, appearing to her, strengthened her in a divine manner for the sufferings she was yet to endure. A Matron, named Juliana, who witnessed this, was converted to the faith, and became her companion in the palm of martyrdom.
At length Barbara had her body torn with iron hooks, her sides burnt with torches, and her head bruised with mallets. During these tortures she consoled her companion, and exhorted her to fight manfully to the last. Both of them had their breasts cut off, were dragged naked through the streets, and beheaded. The head of Barbara was cut off by her own father, who in his excessive wickedness had hardened his heart thus far. But his ferocious cruelty was not long left unpunished, for instantly, and on the very spot, he was struck dead by lightning. The Emperor Justinus had the body of this most holy virgin translated from Nicomedia to Constantinople. It was afterwards obtained by the Venetians from the Emperors Constantine and Basil; and having been translated from Constantinople to Venice, was deposited with great solemnity in the Basilica of St. Mark. Lastly, at the earnest request of the Bishop of Torcello and his sister, who was abbess, it was translated in the year of grace 1009, to the Nuns’ Church of St. John the Evangelist, in the diocese of Torcello; where it was placed in a worthy sepulcher, and from that time has never ceased to be the object of most fervent veneration.
Such is the account of the life and martyrdom of the courageous Virgin of Nicomedia. She is invoked in the Church against lightning, on account of the punishment inflicted by divine justice on her execrable father. This same incident of the Saint’s history has suggested several Catholic customs: thus, her name is sometimes given to the holy of men-of-war where the ammunition of stowed; she is the Patroness of Artillery-men, Miners, &c; and she is invoked by the faithful against the danger of a sudden death.
Of the Liturgical pieces, used in our Western Churches, in honor of St. Barbara, we will content ourselves with the following beautiful Antiphon, composed in the days of chivalry.
O immeasurable mercy of divine goodness, which did enlighten Barbara with the brightness of the true light, making her worthy, by her contempt for what was dazzling in earthly grandeur, to be admitted to a union with God! As the lily among thorns, as light in darkness, so shone Barbara. Alleluia.
The Greek Church is profuse in its praises of St. Barbara. We will take from the Menæa a few out of the many Strophes which are snug in honor of the holy Martyr.
HYMN OF THE GREEK CHURCH
When welcome death came before thee, O venerable Martyr Barbara! joyously and nimbly didst thou run thy course, and being immolated by the wicked hands of an impious parent, thou wast offered a victim to God. Now, therefore, art thou in the choir of the truly wise Virgins, and contemplatest the beauty of thy Spouse.
This lamb of thine, O Jesus, cries to thee with a loud voice: Thee, O my Spouse, do I desire, thee do I seek by my combat; I am immolated and buried in thy baptism; I suffer for thee, that I may reign with thee; I die for thee, that I may live in thee; receive me, therefore, as an unreserved sacrifice lovingly sacrificed to thee. Save our souls, O merciful Jesus, by her prayers.
Glorious Barbara! most sacred rose grown out of a thorny stem, sweetly perfuming the Church, and ruddy by the blood of thy battle! we this day most fervently proclaim thee blessed.
Neither the sweetness of luxury, nor the flower of beauty, nor riches, nor the pleasures of youth, could rob thee of thy energy, O glorious Barbara, most fair Virgin, espoused to Christ.
All stood in amazement at witnessing thy combat; for thou didst endure the tortures, and chains, and cruelties, of thy persecutors, O Barbara, of wide-world fame! Therefore, did God give thee the crown thou didst covet; thou didst run thy course with courage, and he healed thee.
Full of love for Jesus thy Spouse, thy bright lamp was well trimmed, and thy virtues shed forth their splendor, O Virgin, worthy of praise! Therefore didst thou enter in with Christ to the marriage-feast, and he wreathed thee with the crown of thy combat. We celebrate thy memory, O Barbara! Deliver us from danger.
By those three apertures, which thou wouldst have to thy bath, thou didst symbolize, O Barbara, the mystery of Baptism, which, by the light of the Trinity, imparts to our souls a cleansing that illuminates.
Fleeing the terrible violence of her father, a rock immediately opened a reception of safety to Barbara, as happened heretofore to the illustrious Promartyr of her sex, Thecla, for whom Christ worked a like miracle.
O Martyr Barbara! thou was sacrificed with a sword, by thy father, like in this to Abraham; but his devotedness was to the devil.
Jesus appeared to thee, O Barbara, in thy prison: he was surrounded by light inaccessible, but he came to animate thy confidence, heal thy wounds and make thee glad: this gave wings to thy love of thy Lord.
When for Christ’s sake thou wast stripped of thy garments, O venerable Barbara! a bright Angel clothed thee, as a bride, with a splendid robe, which covered thy wounds; for thou hast put on the stole which gives creatures a divine transformation.
Thy prophecy, O Christ, has been evidently fulfilled: for the father delivers his daughter up to death, may himself becomes her murderer; but this cruel parent of thy Martyr is, in a wonderful manner, consumed by fire from heaven.
Thou, most honored Virgin, having entered the path of combatants, didst resist thy father’s demands, and, as a wise virgin bearing her lamp, thou didst go into the mansions of thy Lord: he gave thee, O generous Martyr, the power to drive away pestilence; pray to God for us who hymn thy praises, and deliver us from our spiritual diseases.
To this the voice of so many Churches we join ours, O faithful Virgin! and thou we are unworthy, yet do we offer thee our praise and our prayers. Behold! our Lord cometh, and the darkness of the night is upon us; give to our lamp both the light which will guide us, and the oil which will keep in the light. Thou knowest that he who came for love of thee, and with whom thou art now united for all eternity, is coming to visit us too; pray for us that nothing may keep us from receiving him. May we go towards him courageously and swiftly as thou didst, and being once with him, may we never be separated from him again, for he is the center where we creatures find our only rest. Pray also, O glorious Martyr, that the faith in the Blessed Trinity may be ever increasing in this world. May our enemy, Satan, be confounded by every tongue’s confessing the Threefold light, and the triumphant Cross which sanctifies the waters of Baptism. Remember, O blessed Barbara, thou Spouse of Jesus, that he has put in thy gentle hands the power not of hurling but of staying and averting the thunderbolt. Protect our ships against the fires of heaven and of war. Shield by thy protection the arsenals where are placed the defense of our country. Hear the prayers of them that invoke thee, whether in the fierceness of the storm, or in the dark depths of the earth; and save us all from the awful chastisement of a sudden death.
Let us consider how the various nations on the face of the earth, though differing in customs and speech and interests, are all united in the expectation of a Deliverer soon to come. Neither the frightful corruption of morals, nor the long ages which have passed since the promises were given, have been able to efface the tradition, or the hope it inspired. At the very time when the world seems crumbling into dissolution, there is evinced a strong symptom of vigor, and from one end of the earth to the other there is heard this cry: The King of the universe is soon to appear; a new Empire, holy and everlasting, is to bring all peoples into one. It is thus, O Jesus! that Jacob prophesied on his dying bed, when he said, speaking of thee: He shall be the Expectation of nations. (Genesis 49:10) Men have, indeed, searched after, and found, the way to the lowest degradation; but they could not prevent the fulfillment of this prophecy: and by their expectation of a happier state of things, they themselves fulfill it; and by fulfilling it, are confessing that their misery has no remedy save thyself. Come, then, O Son of God! and cherish this ray of hope, of the ancient world, which renders thee this its only homage, even while falling under the weight of its own wretchedness. The expectation of a Deliverer is the bond of union between the two great divisions of the human race, those who preceded and those who have lived since thy Nativity. But if the pagan world, from the depth of its vices and errors, could sigh after thee, O Jesus! what shall we not do, who have inherited what was promised, now that thou art preparing to come and take possession of our souls? We already know thee, for thou has initiated us into thy Mysteries; we cannot do less, dear Jesus! we are longing for thee during these days of Advent. When the beautiful day of thy visit comes, mayst thou find that thy love is already in our hearts. Make our expectation more fervid, increase our faith, and Come!
RESPONSORY OF ADVENT (Roman Breviary, Matins of the First Sunday)
℣. We look for the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ; * Who will reform the body of our lowliness made like to the Body of his glory. ℣. Let us live soberly, and justly, and piously in this world, looking for the blessed hope and Coming of the glory of the great God, * Who will reform the body of our lowliness made like to the Body of his glory.
This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)