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December Commemorations in the Lutheran Church Calendar

12/3: Francis Xavier, missionary to Asia, 1552

Francis Xavier, the apostle to the Indies and to Japan, one of the greatest Christian missionaries, was born in Navarre in 1506 of a Spanish Basque family. He met Ignatius Loyola at the University of Paris and they, with five others, took vows to follow Christ in poverty and chastity and to evangelize. All seven were ordained priests at Venice in 1537. At the invitation of John 111 of Portugal, Francis left Lisbon to evangelize the East Indies. He set up headquarters in Goa and preached there, in India, and Ceylon. In 1649 he landed in Japan, returned to Goa in 1552, and left for China the same year, but fell ill and died on the island of Chang-Chuen Shan before he could enter the country. Francis' work is remembered for the extent of his journeys and for the large number of his converts.

12/6: Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, 342

Nicholas is a most popular saint about whom very little is known historically. There are indications that he was present at the First Council of Nicaea, where he would have been involved in the formulation of the Nicene Creed. Tradition reports that he was religious from infancy, devoted his life to good works, was generous to the poor, and died peacefully. He was much loved for his kindness, and perhaps more churches have been dedicated to him than to any other saint. In the 11th century his tomb in Myra, an important pilgrimage site, was robbed of his remains, which were taken to Bari and Venice in Italy. He is regarded as the patron of sailors, children (he is the prototype of Santa Claus), and of Russia.

18th century icon painter - Iconostasis of Transfiguration church, Kizhi Monastery,

Karelia, Russia

12/7: Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, 397

Ambrose, one of the greatest and most beloved of church leaders, was the son of the Praetorian Prefect of Gaul. He became a lawyer and governor of Aemilia-Liguria with a seat at Milan. Upon the death of the bishop, the people demanded that Ambrose succeed him, although he was not yet baptized and only a catechumen. He agreed, however, and was baptized, ordained, and consecrated bishop on December 7, 374. As bishop, he was a famous preacher and defender of orthodoxy. He is partly responsible for the con-version of Augustine and, because he knew Greek, introduced Eastern theology to the West. He was one of the first to write Latin metrical hymns, and his hymns are still sung. He died Easter Eve, April 4, 397. With Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great, Ambrose is one of the four doctors i.e., teachers) of the Western Church.

12/11: Lars Olsen Skrefsrud, missionary, 1910

The Apostle to the Santals was born in Lysgaard, Norway, to a very poor family. He was repeatedly frustrated in his early ambitions to become a pastor, a poet, and a drummer in the army. He became a farmer and a carpenter, given to drink. Apprehended in a bank robbery at the age of 19, he spent four years in prison. There, reading and talking to a visiting pastor, he devoted his life to Christ. He worked his way through a mission institute in Berlin. Skrefsrud left for India in 1863 and in the following year went to preach to the Santals, an oppressed tribe in northern India. He worked many years, was ordained by the Church of Norway, and returned to India, continuing his mission activity there until he died December 11, 1910.

12/14: John of the Cross, 1591

John of the Cross was born Juan de Yepes y Álvarez in 1542 of a poor converso family of noble origin (they were poor because his father had married a woman of a lower class and had been disowned by his wealthy family). John entered a Carmelite monastery and was ordained a priest in 1567. Dissatisfied with the laxity of the order, he introduced the reform of Theresa of Avila. He was imprisoned by his superior, but he escaped and the separation between the calced (shod) and the discalced (barefoot) Carmelites took place. In 1581 he went to Granada where he became acquainted with the Arabian mystics. From 1588 he was the prior at Segovia. Again he became involved in a dispute with his superiors, fell ill, and died at Ubeda in 1591. His writings expound his mystical thought and personal experience, nourished by Scripture and psychological insight.

12/14: Teresa of Avila, 1582

Teresa Sánchez de Cepeda y Ahumada was born in 1515 of an old Spanish family. In 1533 she entered a Carmelite monastery but remained without enthusiasm. In 1555, while praying, she was converted to a life of perfection, and she withdrew to form a community where the primitive rule of the Carmelites was observed. A woman of strong character and of great practical ability, her lasting influence as a spiritual writer lay in her enunciation of the states of prayer between meditation ("quiet") and ecstasy ("union"). She successfully combined a life of contemplation and a life of activity.

Teresa of Avila, Peter Paul Rubens

12/21: St. Thomas, Apostle

Thomas, called Didymus (Thomas is Aramaic for "twin"; Didymus is the Greek for "twin"), is referred to four times in the New Testament. The biographical information from John's Gospel presents Thomas as slow to understand. But for all his doubt, it is Thomas who makes the confession which is the climax of the gospel. Legend associates Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, Simon, and Jude, the five "Apostles of the East," and tells of his missionary journey to India and martyrdom at Madras. The Roman calendar has moved St. Thomas' Day to July 3 to get it out of Advent; the Lutheran and Episcopal calendars have kept this traditional date.

12/26: St. Stephen, deacon and martyr

Stephen, known as the first martyr, was one of the seven deacons ordained by the apostles, and he was the first to die for his faith. In his death he closely imitated the death of Christ, praying for his executioners and commending his soul to the hands of God. The celebration of this feast was established very early in the church's life, and it is possible that the commemoration occurs on the actual day of Stephen's martyrdom.

Medieval commentators suggest that the three days following Christmas reveal the three faces of martyrdom: Stephen, martyr in deed and in will; John, martyr in will but not in deed; the Innocents, martyrs in deed but not in will.

12/27: St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

John, with his brother James the Divine (i.e. the theologian), and with Peter, formed the inner circle of the apostles. From a school of John, if not from the apostle himself, came the fourth Gospels, the three epistles that bear his name, and Revelation. John is assumed to be "the beloved disciple" of the fourth Gospel to whose care Jesus entrusted his mother. Tradition says that John lived at Ephesus and there, in advanced age, died a natural death, the only one of the apostles not to be martyred.

12/28: The Holy Innocents, Martyrs

The Innocents were the children of Bethlehem, two years and under, killed by King Herod in his attempt to destroy the infant Jesus. Since they were killed for the sake of Christ, the church very early honored these Jewish babies and toddlers as "the buds of the martyrs," killed as soon as they appeared by the frost of hate. The Holy Innocents represent the Hebrew babies who were killed by Pharaoh. Like Moses, Jesus was spared to lead his people out of darkness.

Massacre of the Innocents; 1824

Leon Cogniet