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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After Charlie Hebdo

At the time that news of the Charlie Hebdo massacre broke, I was lying on a PET scanner, meditating on life and death and praying for the needs of my friends, online and off. I mention this detail because it underscores the fact that the most horrific events take place while most of us are unaware and quietly going about our own business with its small joys and griefs and interludes of boredom and dissatisfaction. We all  ‘knew’ something of this kind would happen ‘one day’, but when it did, we were unprepared. The rush to comment, to express shock and horror, reflects our unpreparedness. Some has been predictable. Many, especially professional media types, have been asserting that Charlie Hebdo stood for all that we most value in western democracies, especially freedom of speech and expression in which satire and humour play an important part; for others the murder of twelve people was an act of war by militant Islam against the West; others again, including the majority of French Muslims, maintain that this outrage was perpetrated by a sick minority who do not represent Islam and have called for unity and solidarity in line with that urged by M. Hollande; a few, who disliked Charlie Hebdo’s approach and thought it rash at best, have stuck with Voltaire’s view that one may detest what someone says but nevertheless defend to the death the right to say it; and, inevitably, a handful have trotted out the ‘all religion is violent’ line.

Where does this leave us the day after? Although I think we are still reacting rather than reflecting, I’d say that, first and foremost, it leaves those of us who pray with the duty of praying for the repose of the souls of those murdered. None of us knows how prepared or otherwise they were for death, what unresolved conflicts were weighing on them or those they love. This may not mean much to anyone in good health with, please God, a long future before them; but to anyone who knows their time may be short, it is the wrongs done to others, the sins of which we may have not repented, the things we may not be able to put right, that press most heavily. One of the (to me) most beautiful aspects of Catholicism is its confident prayer for the dead: we trust in an infinitely loving and merciful God, but we are in such awe of his holiness that we do not presume. To pray for those who have died is a work of charity, one we in the monastery undertake several times a day; and we do so not with abject fear but with what I call peaceful insistence. It is a way of sharing in the experience of, and expressing solidarity with, the whole human race.

We must pray for those who grieve. How many families said goodbye yesterday morning in a typical Wednesday morning rush, not realising it was the last goodbye they would ever say? It was not only the magazine staff who were gunned down, but also the police whose task it was to protect them, at least one of whom was apparently a Muslim. That surely drives home to all of us how senseless and brutal was that attack, and how very far from any conception of justice and right action. We must pray, too, for those who must deal with the aftermath: those who must search out the murderers; those who must maintain order in society and prevent further violence; and finally, and most importantly, we must pray for the perpetrators and whatever it was that inspired them to such a heinous crime and legitimized it in their own eyes and the eyes of many others.

It is that last point I find especially troubling. I believe in reverence and would no more mock or denigrate the beliefs of others than I would my own. But, of course, as a Christian, I distinguish between mockery of God (which I find painful) and mockery of the Church and her saints (which can be useful, and, if well done, extremely funny). It seems to me that many Muslims accord Mohammed an inviolable status we Christians give only to God, and not always to him. We don’t understand that the prophet is off-limits for any kind of jesting. There is in Islam nothing I can think of that corresponds to our medieval mystery plays, for example, where love and devotion are accompanied by poking fun at the object of devotion. That is a cultural difference, certainly, but I think it is legitimate to ask whether or to what degree western society, which is now largely secular, should accommodate to the cultural sensitivities of the many groups within it.

France is proudly secular and appears to be having great difficulty coming to terms with the very different world-views of some sections of its population, especially its Muslim population, which is the largest in Europe. As a westerner and a Christian I can sympathize with the difficulty, but we mustn’t forget that the men who carried out the murders at Charlie Hebdo were themselves Frenchmen. Much is being made of their Algerian descent, but it is a western principle that we do not have second-class citizens. We are French or British or American or whatever, with equal rights and obligations under the law, and our legal systems, although imperfect, are precisely what we rely upon for the working out of our differences. We do not take the law into our own hands. We do not privatise justice or exact personal vengeance. As Lord Denning once remarked, ‘Be you never so high yet the law is above you.’

I hope that the Charlie Hebdo massacre will not lead to further polarisation of our society, or attacks on Muslims, in France or elsewhere. At the same time, I also hope it will lead to more questioning. The question I have for my Muslim friends is very simple. What is it in Islam, however perverted a form of it we may be talking about, that leads people to think that they are doing a godly act by killing others, including that Muslim policeman gunned down outside the Charlie Hebdo offices? How is it legitimized? How can justice be privatised in this way? I truly do not understand, but until that question is answered, I think we shall all live in fear. I do not think the question can be answered by saying it is a response to western aggression in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the result of French colonial activity in the past. We are not talking about the past: we are talking about here and now, today, this very minute; and human beings who, for me as for many others, are created in the image and likeness of God, the holiest of all symbols of his presence and action in the world. To some, that will seem ridiculously naive. To others, it will merely be the truth, and the reason what happened at Charlie Hebdo has to be explained.

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