Reflection for December 6, 2015: The Feast of St. Nicolas

Malachi 3:1-4, Philippians 1:3-1, Luke 3:1-6

Today is the second Sunday in Advent. We light two candles, and we sing of the growing light as we prepare for Christmas. But it is also December 6, the feast day of St. Nicolas. And this year we decided to celebrate the feast of St. Nicolas, especially following worship, with a collection of food items for those in need, a sharing of our food together in a potluck, which may include some of our favorite Christmas foods, the fair trade sale for gifts, wreath making, and time together to visit. It’s one of those days when the fun after worship may overshadow the worship gathering. And that is good. It may be good to also focus our time in worship on St. Nicolas. Consider this a sermon on Santa Claus.
Behind the mythic sense of Santa Claus is a real historic figure: St. Nicolas. Our vision of Santa Claus is quite different from the historic figure. Some might say that the American Santa Claus is a corrupted version of the original, just as the name santaklauss is a northern European corruption of the name sanctanikolas. But even our corruption: a jolly old man with a sleigh and reindeer, living somewhere up north, who magically brings gifts to children each year, contains some of the original saint. For at the heart of Santa is a sense of gifting, of generosity, of caring for children, of joy rather than sorrow, and attending to those in need with compassion. Oh, the mythic Santa may have lost a great deal at the hands of a consumptive society, but the sense of generosity, caring for the young, and gifting is still there.
That is the sense of the historical St. Nicolas, who died on December 6, sometime in the 4th century in Asia Minor or present day Turkey. Nicolas was an orphan raised by his uncle. At his uncle’s urging, Nicolas became a monk and priest. He spent some time at a monastery in Palestine. Later he returned to Asia Minor. Eventually he became bishop of Myra, a port city.
Little is known about his life or his faith. Much more is known about his legendary compassion. The legends include anonymous gifts to poor, the hungry, to children, and sailors. He was known for his compassion and generosity. The anonymity of the gift was important. Children would mysteriously find a coin underneath their shoe. Food would mysteriously appear at the door of the poor. His compassion involved working with sailors on hunger relief during times of famine. And he was known for supporting young people and adults as they found their way in life. Although he was one of the original signers of the Nicene Creed, which we use in church, he is not remembered for that as much as for his deeds of generosity and kindness most frequently done without any desire for being thanked, recognized, or appreciated. Indeed, it was felt by many that miracles of healing and hope came from this generous bishop.
The wellsprings of such generosity are found in the readings. Compassionate generosity is grounded in the friendship and good will found in Paul’s letter to his friends, the Philippians. We all face the refiner’s fire of Malachi and those times in life when things get straightened out as in the message of John the Baptist. For some of us that straightening is harder and more difficult. For some of us the refiner’s fire threatens to consume us. And realizing that happens for some, in friendship for all: we are moved to assist as we can, to be compassionate and generous in the hard times.
Through the centuries in Europe the memory of this generous spirit grew. In the middle ages, on December 6, the day of his death, nuns from monasteries would deliver anonymous baskets of food to the hungry in nearby cities. And a sense of mystery or magic emerged regarding the generosity and kindness. How could so much gifting take place? What is the mystery that undergirds generosity?
Eventually, red became associated with St. Nicolas. Red is the general color for saints’ festivals. And by the nineteen century, with the emergence of the Victorian Christmas, the Santa Claus myth was fleshed out with sleighs and reindeer and the North Pole and all of those things.
But today we recall the one whose spirit of generosity lives on in the Christian community. To be honest, when I think of St. John’s I sometimes wonder if we were misnamed. St. John was a profound theological thinker. And we have theological thoughts. I think we are sometimes known for our fresh theological approach to things. But what makes us special, what gives us our identity, is not profundity, but generosity. For decade after decade, we have been caring for those in need, not expecting to be thanked, not expecting even to be appreciated, but with a sense of simple compassion. We delight in our young, and wish them well. We desire everyone to have a coin under their shoe and food at their door. We know that this winter many will need some special care. And we are passionate about providing shelter and financial assistance in the heart of this city throughout the year.
And it is time now to celebrate that. To share our food, our traditions, our family life together, to be generous, to raise up the compassion and generosity that mark this day and this season and our life together.