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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St Nicholas, Nelson Mandela and Us

The feast of St Nicholas of Myra is a day when we are encouraged to emulate his almsgiving (he allegedly provided dowries for poor girls unable otherwise to marry), pray for seafarers, eat toffee, and if we live in mainland Europe, give gifts to children. It is not advisable to emulate his punching heretics on the nose or any of the more aggressive virtues he seems to have practised. They were not what made him a saint. Indeed, his tendency to lash out at others was something he had to struggle with as un-Christlike, un-saintly; and it is a measure of his true holiness that eventually he managed to overcome such weaknesses.

I think it is much the same with Nelson Mandela. He was a truly great man, but I don’t think he was a secular saint as some are trying to make out.  I daresay there were actions that in his later years he regretted or came to view in a different light. I therefore pray for the repose of his soul as I pray for the souls of all the departed, especially during these days when his body is being prepared for burial and his family and friends are mourning the loss of someone they knew and loved in a way that outsiders never really can.

Where does that leave us on this Friday in Advent, when Isaiah assures us that the coming day of the Lord will mean that

the lowly will rejoice in the Lord even more
and the poorest exult in the Holy One of Israel;
for tyrants shall be no more, and scoffers vanish,
and all be destroyed who are disposed to do evil:
those who gossip to incriminate others,
those who try at the gate to trip the arbitrator
and get the upright man’s case dismissed for groundless reasons.

I think Isaiah’s words remind us that the Advent call to live with integrity, to pursue justice and peace, forgiveness and reconciliation isn’t an abstraction. St Nicholas tried to live a godly life and, by all accounts, succeeded. Mandela walked out of 27 years of prison saying that unless he left behind the hatred and bitterness he would be imprisoned still. His subsequent actions showed that he understood forgiveness much better than many of us who have not had that experience. Maybe our lives are more ordinary than those of St Nicholas or Nelson Mandela, but we can all of us try to avoid gossip, scoffing at others and those mean-spirited words and deeds that mark us out as unforgiving, unloving people. We can sweeten the lives of others, not by doling out toffee, but by being the kind of people it is good to know. The world is better for having had its saints like Nicholas and its great men like Mandela. Let us pray it may be better for having us, too.

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