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.