St Nicholas and Santa Claus

Today marks the commemoration of St Nicholas of Myra, the original ‘Santa Claus’. In many parts of Europe children will be receiving gifts, adults will be nibbling on toffee and gingerbread, and a few more pedantic souls will be explaining that the three golden balls of the pawnbroker’s sign relate to the three bags of gold Nicholas allegedly bestowed as dowries on poor girls. Only one or two will be thinking about the Nicholas of historical record, signer of the Nicene creed, who was so fiercely opposed to Arianism that he punched Arius on the nose (his own nose was broken at some point in his career, according to Dr Caroline Wilkinson, who reconstructed his face as part of her forensic research). We prefer to forget that saints are not always what we would call ‘saintly’ in their behaviour; and if we can dress them up in red suits and long white beards and stick them in commercial grottos, we can forget the challenge they represent. For St Nicholas does challenge us, and in Advent his challenge is one we have to meet head on.

In recent posts I have written of the need to keep Advent simple, to make the most of this precious time of preparation and waiting, but not to be killjoys or misanthropes. Today’s feast reminds us that we have also to be generous, really generous. We cannot turn away from those in need. Isaiah assures us that when salvation dawns upon the earth, the Lord will wipe away the tears from every cheek. There will be no more sadness, no more emptiness. Matthew also tells us what the messianic age will be like: the lame, the crippled, the blind, the dumb and many others will be healed, and all will be filled with the abundance that comes from God. What we often forget when we read these texts is that, in an important sense, we are already living in the messianic age, and it is up to us to ensure that God’s abundance is shared among us. This is the season for giving. We tend to think of the little gifts in Santa’s grotto or the bigger ones we exchange on Christmas Day, but it is really during Advent that we need to think how we shall share our blessings with others.

A word of caution is necessary, however. Not everyone has the material abundance to give to others in the conventional way; but we can all pray. We can ask the Lord of all to bless, protect and supply the needs of everyone on earth— and, as anyone who tries to pray day in, day out, will be aware — that is not an easy option. It means reaching deep within ourselves, persevering, sacrificing — being like the real St Nicholas, prepared to give of ourselves not just our wealth.

St Nicholas came from what is now Turkey and I sometimes reflect on the landscape he must have known and its impact on him. I like the fact that both today’s Mass readings mention hills and mountains. From our oratory here at the monastery we look out onto the Black Mountains. They are a daily reminder of our duty of prayer, and a sign of God’s unending love for his people:

We exult and we rejoice
that he has saved us;
for the hand of the Lord
rests on this mountain.

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Mercy and Tears

There are some things we see most clearly through tears or after we have wept, and often the mercy shown us enables us to recognize what formerly was dim or distant. Mary Magdalene sees the Risen Christ through her tears, hears the word of mercy addressed to her and recognizes Jesus as her Teacher. Today’s Mass readings place us in the same dynamic. Sorrow turns to joy even as all hope appears gone. Isaiah’s vision of the Lord wiping away the tears from every cheek and furnishing his people with a rich banquet (Is 25. 6–10) becomes in the gospel Jesus healing the sick and providing an abundant meal (Matt 15.29–37). In both we see echoes of the Eucharist and of the Heavenly Banquet to come at the end of time. At their core, though, are those two elements: the experience of pain, hopelessness even, and the experience of mercy, of what the Bible calls ‘salvation’.

Advent is a time of joyful preparation, but it still makes demands on us. We see our sin through our tears: which means we see how far we have fallen short of the glory of God. That might make us despair were it not for the way God invites us to something better. He invites us to accept forgiveness and mercy in the person of our Saviour, Jesus Christ. We are to become a new creation and walk upright where formerly we were bent over under the weight of our own wrongdoing. In short, we are to be sons in the Son.

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