If you go to Winchester Cathedral and look at the beautiful black Tournai marble font, you will see scenes from the life of St Nicholas whose feastday this is. One scene shows a ship with a rudder, allegedly the first depiction of a rudder in English art (‘English’: a slightly questionable concept when talking about the font — is it Norman or English? But that is an aside.) It is a reminder that St Nicholas is the patron of seamen and we are an island race, forever linked with the sea, however distant our personal connection may have become. But that is not the whole story. All over northern Europe this morning children will be opening presents in honour of St Nicholas, for he is also a bringer of gifts, originally dowries for poor girls. But what was the gift he brought last night to the crew of the ‘Baltic Ace’ in the dark waters of the North Sea?
There is a tendency to edit out pain and suffering from the human story when we can. We celebrate life but often become awkward or maudlin in the face of death. As it happens, I had a sleepless night last night and was listening to the World Service when news of the sinking of the ‘Baltic Ace’ came through. It didn’t take much to imagine something of the horror those poor men were experiencing: the darkness, the cold, the confusion, the wind and the waves, and no one there to give comfort or reassurance. Like many others, my response was prayer. I believe that, though far removed from the scene, our prayer was heard; and in a way that a materialist would scoff at and a philosopher might repudiate, I believe that prayer made a difference, that it accompanied those men as they drowned and perhaps gave them comfort because it linked them with their fellow human beings at a deeper and surer level than any they may have previously known — in the heart of God, ‘who desires that all should be saved.’
That, I think, was the gift St Nicholas brought last night, and not just to the crew of the ‘Baltic Ace’ but to all of us who were united with them in their struggle as we prayed in the darkness.