St. Barbara (3rd century) is one of five Virgin Martyrs to which the Church turns our attention at the start of Advent.
Nicoemdia, a city in Asia Minor, was St. Barbara's birthplace. Prior to the construction of Constantinople (326 AD), this was the most important Roman City in Asia (the area now known as Turkey). Her father, Dioscurus, was a superstitious pagan nobleman. Fearing that his only child might learn to know and love the doctrines of Christianity, he kept her apart from interaction with most men. As she grew, he feared her great beauty might bring shame and insult upon him home, so he shut her up in a tower. Nevertheless, Barbara became a Christian. She passed her time in study, and from her lonely tower she used to watch the heavens in their wondrous beauty. She soon became convinced that the "heavens were telling the glory of God," a God greater than the idols she had been taught to worship. Her desire to know that God was in itself a prayer which He answered in His own wise way. By the assistance of divine grace, Barbara moved from contemplation of visible created things to knowledge of the invisible.
The fame of Origen, that famous Christian teacher in Alexandria, reached even her remote tower. Barbara sent a trusty servant with the request that he would make known to her the truth. Origen sent her one of his own disciples, disguised as a physician, who catechized and baptized her. Her only desire was to please Christ alone, whom she had chosen as her spouse. She courageously rejected several offers of marriage, which were made to her by rich nobles through her father. Instead, she practiced her new Faith discreetly, while waiting for a favorable opportunity of acquainting her father with her conversion.
This opportunity came in a short time. Dioscurus made a long voyage and commanded that another room with a bath be built in the tower, so that Barbara would want for nothing. He hoped that in his absence, the solitude would convince Barbara to accept a marriage proposal. Yet it was the exact opposite which occurred. When the workmen had made two windows, Barbara directed them to construct a third in honor of the Blessed Trinity. She also had the Sign of the Cross engraved upon the edge of the bath. When her father returned and saw this additional window, he asked the reason for it. She replied, "Know, my father, that the soul receives light through three windows, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and the Three are One." Dioscurus became so enraged upon discovering that she was know a Christian, that he would have killed his daughter with his sword right then and there, had she not fled. She ran towards the hills and a passage opened among the rocks for her (most likely by her guardian angel). Following this path she reached the top of the mountain and hid herself within a cave.
Unfortunately, her maddened father pursued her and within days he had her under his power. First he wreaked his vengeance on her in blows. He savagely struck and kicked her, Then he clutched her by the hair and dragged her over sharp rocks and rugged ways. He then thrust her back into the tower to prevent her escape. Next he tried every means to induce her to renounce her faith; threats, severe punishments, and starvation had no effect on the constancy of the Christian maiden.
Finding himself powerless to shake his daughter's perseverance in the Faith, Dioscurus delivered her to the procounsul, Marcian. He had her scourged and tortured, but without being able to make her deny the faith. During her sufferings, her father stood by, exulting in the torments inflicted upon his own child. The next day Marcian had her stripped and scourged with thongs, scraped her wounds with postherds, and then dragged back to prison. That night, Our Lord appeared to her in an immense light. He miraculously healed her wounds and strengthened her for the coming tortures with the divine assistance of the Most Blessed Sacrament. A matron named Juliana, who witnessed this, was converted to the True Faith and became her companion in martyrdom.
When Barbara appeared again before him, Marcian was greatly astonished to find no trace of the cruelties that had been perpetuated on her body. Again, she resisted his importunities to apostatize (deny the Faith). He had her body torn with iron hooks, burnt her sides with torches, and bruised her head with mallets. Throughout the ordeal she encouraged her companion to remain steadfast in faith, hope and charity. When Marcian realized that all his efforts were in vain, he pronounced the sentence of death. Barbara and Julaina were first publicly disgraced and then beheaded. Her wicked father, who had been hardened by hatred, claimed the privilege to execute it with his own hands. With one strong blow, the father severed his daughter's head from her body. The day was 4 December 237 AD.
At the moment of the saint's death, a great tempest arose and Dioscurus was killed by lighting, Marcian too, was overtaken by the same fate.
The emperor Justinius 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 object of most fervent veneration.
St. Barbara is the patroness of architects, builders, miners and artillerymen, and she is invoked against lightning, fires, explosions, tempests and sudden death. She is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers.
Since early times, St. Barbara has been invoked by those who desire the sacraments of the dying in their final illness, and many are the instances of the efficacy of her intercession.
Note: The five Virgin Martyrs of Advent are St. Bibiana, a daughter of Rome, St. Barbara, glory of the Eastern Church, St. Eulalia of Merida, one of Spain's richest treasures, St. Lucy, belonging to beautiful Sicily, and St. Odilia, claimed by France. Together these five span and represent the extent of the early Christian world. Through their heroic witness, Holy Mother Church calls her children to consider the great parable told by our Lord of the five wise virgins who were well prepared for the arrival of the Birdegroom (cf. Mt 25:1-13). This parable exhorts all mankind to "make straight and ready the path" for the glorious Second Coming of Christ when the King of kings will judge all. Advent is the time especially dedicated by the Church to remind us of this lesson and to encourage us to prepare our soul for His Coming. Let us be like the five wise Virgin Martyrs and not like the foolish ones who were caught unprepared without oil in their lamps, that is without sanctifying grace in their souls.