As I post this, it is the eve of the Feast of St Nicholas of Myra. A night when, all around the world in Christian homes, different kinds of wonders take place. In many parts, children leave shoes out in hopes of finding them filled with candy and treats in the morning. In other places tonight the community's children are terrorized by Krampus—St Nicholas's dark helper—only to be rescued and rewarded by the saintly bishop at the last moment. While his popularity in Christian imagination may not be what it once was, St Nick's enduring importance is worth a few minutes of reflection.
For the first six or eight hundred years of the church’s life in Europe, Nicholas was an extraordinarily popular saint. Hundreds of churches, schools, and hospitals were named for him all over the continent. His feast day, today, was—and is—cause for huge parties in many parts of the world. Many of the customs around St Nicholas’s Day are rooted in stories about him. His reputation grew consistently after he’d died, but even while alive Nicholas had a great reputation. So great, in fact that the legend continues today. I hope you’ve all seen the meme traveling around in the churchy parts of social media: a small child sitting on a mall Santa’s lap asking him “So, is it homoousios or homoiousios?” When the mall Santa looks perplexed, the child, profoundly disappointed says “You’re not the REAL St Nicholas.” It’s a nerdy joke, but it fits beautifully with Nicholas’s enduring reputation as a helpful, godly, bishop and theologian. We know for certain that Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, in what’s now southwestern Turkey, and died in the middle of the fourth century. There is a manuscript in the possession of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem that is said to have been written by the saint himself. From here on out, the stories may or may not be factually true. Factual or not, they’ve been told and retold for a millennium and a half because they relate something about the truth of Christian life. In one story there is a famine in the city and a boat in the harbour laden with grain that has been ordered by the emperor. The people are starving but the soldiers, fearing the emperor’s wrath, won’t give away the grain. Nicholas persuades them that if they unload enough grain to feed the city nothing bad will happen to them. Nicholas is a very charismatic man—and willing to punch you if you disagree with him in an oecumenical council—so the sailors unload grain for every citizen. To their surprise, when they have finished, the quantity of grain in the ship has not changed. Thousands have been fed with plenty of grain left over to plant in spring, and the emperor won’t know the difference. In another tale, Nicholas is traveling through the country, distributing food to the hungry during a brutal famine, as one does. He comes across an inn which, surprisingly, seems to have plenty of food. Even more surprising is that the inn has plenty of meat, difficult to get at the best of times, never mind during a famine. Nicholas’s intuition tells him something is wrong and so, after distracting the innkeeper and his wife, the bishop sneaks into the inn’s storeroom to find the remains of three young boys who have been lured in, butchered, and served as the day’s blue plate special. Nicholas lures the innkeeper and his wife into the storeroom and locks them in it, to prevent them doing further evil. Then, outside, he restores the three boys to life, with their bodies whole and healed.
One last story about Nicholas’s legend and I’ll move on, I promise. Nicholas is once again traveling the countryside, doing good deeds, robbing from the rich and giving to the… Sorry. Wrong good guy. In his travels he passes the household of a poor man with three daughters, born in three successive years. The man is so poor that he cannot afford dowries for his daughters, which means they will go unmarried. They will be condemned to an impoverished life with prostitution as their best chance for survival. Nicholas overhears a conversation about this and so, on the night before the eldest daughter comes of marrying age, he passes by in the middle of the night and throws a bag of gold coins through the window of the house, providing a dowry and ensuring her a good marriage. The next year, the night before the middle daughter comes of marrying age, he passes by and again throws a bag of gold coins through the window, providing a dowry and ensuring her a good marriage. The next year, with just one daughter left, the poor man wants to know who the mysterious benefactor is, so he stays up all night, waiting by the window, hoping to catch Nicholas. The saintly bishop, of course, is more clever than the poor man and on the third year, the night before the youngest daughter comes of marrying age, he climbs to the roof and drops the bag of gold coins down the chimney, keeping his identity secret.
Okay. Great stories, lots of fun, but what does it have to do with our lives as Christians today? Why should we care about a fourth century Greek bishop who, as Robert Elsberg says, has been hybridized with the features of an overweight Scandinavian elf? In this season of Advent where we focus on our remembrance of the first coming—the Incarnation—and our preparation for the second coming of Christ, Nicholas is very helpful to us. In the scriptural telling of the events leading up to the Incarnation, we hear Mary’s Magnificat and her description of what her son will do. The mighty will be cast down from their thrones, the poor will be raised up, the hungry will be fed, and the rich will be sent away empty. This is the world that God is making. Jesus affirms this in the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, and so on. Jesus affirms it again in the gospel passage from Mark that we just heard, where Jesus scolds the disciples for dismissing children—the epitome of poor, meek, and lowly in their society—and instead draws the children near to himself and blesses them. God, in the Incarnation, is making a world where the human order of things is stood on its head. The first are last and the last are first. It begins quietly, with a tiny baby in a manger, but the effect is no less dramatic than the plea of Isaiah that we heard on Sunday morning. “O God, that you would rend the heavens and come down, making mountains tremble and as when fire sets brushwood aflame!” Herod, one of the rich and powerful of the world, trembles in his palace at the birth of Jesus, going to terrible lengths to try to kill him. The life of St Nicholas, as we know it, embodies this inverted world through an imitation of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Jesus feeds 5,000 with loaves and fishes; Nicholas feeds a city with the emperor’s grain. Jesus blesses little children and raises Lazarus from the dead; Nicholas rescues three boys and restores them to life. Jesus supplies the wine for the wedding at Cana; Nicholas provides dowries that three young women might have weddings. In each instance, Nicholas is a reflection of the light of Christ, a spark of that changing fire from heaven, loving his brothers and sisters in the way that God loves them. He sees people in dire circumstances beyond their own control and takes it upon himself, with God’s help, to draw them up to the lives they were created to live. Not only is Nicholas a popular saint with a reputation for being good-natured and bringing candy and toys to small children, but he is the patron of children, prostitutes, repentant thieves, and, interestingly, students. All people who, in one way or another, embody and represent different kinds of vulnerability and an opportunity to love. Santa Claus may indeed be coming to town, an annual event that delights Coca-Cola with its marketing possibilities. But for us, for Christians, St Nicholas calls us to join him in working at shelters and food banks, in visiting the lonely and the imprisoned, in shoveling the walk of the widow on our block, in caring for those who are vulnerable and counted by the world as cheap and forgettable. And when we join him there, St Nicholas points to the faces of those we serve and reminds us that in loving one another as God loves us, there we meet God.