The Liturgical Year: Saint Barbara, Virgin and Martyr

Saint Barbara4 December

Although, in the Roman Liturgy, Saint Barbara is merely commemorated in the Office of Saint Peter Chrysologus, yet the Church has approved an entire Office for the use of those Churches which honour 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 honouring 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 honour of the Saint. We have already shown the liturgical importance which attaches to Saint 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.


About Saint Barbara

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 honour 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 orders that she should he 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 Saint 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 Saint John the Evangelist, in the diocese of Torcello; where it was placed in a worthy sepulchre, 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 hold of men-of war where the ammunition is stowed; she is the Patroness of Artillery-men, Miners, etc; and she is invoked by the faithful against the danger of a sudden death. Of the Liturgical pieces, used in our Western Churches, in honour of Saint Barbara, we will content ourselves with the following beautiful Antiphon, composed in the days of chivalry.

Antiphon

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.

Antiphon

The Greek Church is profuse in its praises of Saint Barbara. We will take from the Menaea a few out of the many Strophes which are sung in honour of the holy Martyr.

Hymn of the Greek Church

When welcome death came before you, O venerable Martyr Barbara! joyously and nimbly did you run your course, and being immolated by the wicked hands of an impious parent, you wast offered a victim to God. Now, therefore, are you in the choir of the truly wise Virgins, and contemplate the beauty of your Spouse.

This lamb of yours, O Jesus, cries to you with a loud voice: You, O my Spouse, do I desire, you do I seek by my combat; I am immolated and buried in your baptism; I suffer for you, that I may reign with you; I die for you, that I may live in you; receive me, therefore, as an unreserved sacrifice lovingly sacrificed to you. Save our souls, O merciful Jesus, by her prayers.

Glorious Barbara! most sacred rose grown from a thorny stem, sweetly perfuming the Church, and ruddy by the blood of your battle! we this day most fervently proclaim you blessed.

Neither the sweetness of luxury, nor the flower of beauty, nor riches, nor the pleasures of youth, could rob you of your energy, O glorious Barbara, most fair Virgin, espoused to Christ.

All stood in amazement at witnessing your combat; for you didst endure the tortures, and chains, and cruelties, of your persecutors, O Barbara, of wide-world fame! Therefore, did God give you the crown you did covet; you did run your course with courage, and he healed you.

Full of love for Jesus your Spouse, your bright lamp was well trimmed, and your virtues shed forth their splendour, O Virgin, worthy of praise! Therefore didst you enter in with Christ to the marriage-feast, and he wreathed you with the crown of your combat. We celebrate your memory, O Barbara! Deliver us from danger.

By those three apertures, which you would have to your bath, you did symbolise, 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 Protomartyr of her sex, Thecla, for whom Christ worked a like miracle.

O Martyr Barbara! you wast sacrificed with a sword, by your father, like in this to Abraham; but his devotedness was to the devil.

Jesus appeared to you, O Barbara, in your prison: he was surrounded by light inaccessible, but he came to animate your confidence, heal your wounds and make you glad: this gave wings to your love of your Lord.

When for Christ’s sake you were stripped of your garments, O venerable Barbara! a bright Angel clothed you, as a bride, with a splendid robe, which covered your wounds; for you have put on the stole which gives creatures a divine transformation.

Your prophecy, Christ, has been evidently fulfilled: for the father delivers his daughter up to death, nay himself becomes her murderer; but this cruel parent of your Martyr is, in a wonderful manner, consumned by fire from heaven.

You, most honoured Virgin, having entered the path of combatants, did resist your father’ demands and, as a wise virgin bearing her lamp, you went into the mansion of your Lord: he gave you, O generous Martyr, the power to drive away pestilence; pray to God for us who hymn your praises, and deliver us from our spiritual diseases.

Antiphon

To this the voice of so many Churches we join ours, O faithful Virgin! and though we are unworthy, yet do we offer you 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. You know that he who came for love of you, and with whom you are 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 you did, and being once with him, may we never be separated from him again, for he is the centre where we creatures find our only rest. Pray also, 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, you Spouse of Jesus, that he has put in your 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 your protection the arsenals where are placed the defence of our country. Hear the prayers of them that invoke you, 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.

– from the book The Liturgical Year: Advent, by the Very Reverend Dom Prosper Gueranger, Abbot of Solesmes, translated from the French by the Revered Dom Laurence Shepherd, Monk of the English-Benedictine Congregation, 2nd edition; published in Dublin Ireland by James Duffy, 15 Wellington-Quay, 1870