by Philip Cunningham, vicar of Gosforth Parish Church of St. Nicholas
The basic story of St. Nicholas is simply outlined, showing how it may inform our own lives.
On the Feast of St. Nicholas—6 December
A Christian upbringing
Nicholas was born at Myra in the late 3rd century to well-off Christian parents and brought up in the Christian faith. As a young teenager he became a Catechumen—that is he offered himself to the life of the Church preparing for his baptism and confirmation. Being a member of the Catechumenate—indeed being a member of the Christian church—was in those days no light undertaking. The Catechumen undertook a commitment of several months of training and instruction in prayer, in the sacraments, in scripture and, most importantly of all, in beginning the great journey of being formed in Christ—of growing in Christ, becoming Christ-like. For the whole of Lent, Nicholas would have spent an hour or more every early morning being instructed by his Bishop—whom he came to deeply respect and love. Nor would the rigour and demands of Christian living be reduced after his confirmation at Easter.
In those days being a member of the Church really meant something—not a mere holy club for those who like that sort of thing, a mere conventional turn out on those Sundays when it suits us with a brief token gesture of prayer and little or no contact with our fellow Christians. The Christians of Nicholas' day knew that they were called by Christ to a job of demanding, hard work. They, we, are called to live Christ, to live and proclaim the Gospel, to work with the Holy spirit in claiming the whole world for Christ's healing, salvation and forgiveness. Nicholas knew that prayer and sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist are required by God—for God works in the world through prayer and the Eucharist. So is the saving work of Christ made present for all. So when Nicholas was confirmed and received the great gift of the Blessed Sacrament he knew that he was called by the Lord Jesus to dedicate every aspect of his life to God's service—his time, his relationships, his money (for his parents had now died and left him a small estate and quite a fortune).
Called to be bishop
Nicholas felt no call to be ordained because he knew that as a baptised and confirmed member of Christ's Church he was called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be part of the priestly Body of Christ—to pray for the whole world and to bring the love of Christ to all. Nicholas was very content to be a member of the Laos—the people of God. He felt happy there. But what we want and what God wants can be two different things! Nicholas' bishop died. The people of Myra prayed for a new chief pastor. In a dream it was revealed to one of the priests that the first person to enter the Cathedral on Sunday morning would be the new Bishop. And in walked Nicholas. At once it became obvious to all that here was the one God was calling. Nicholas was ordained and consecrated by acclaim—and became Bishop.
Nicholas—Bishop of Myra
He remained a deeply modest and deeply Christ-like man. He never wanted praise for himself—the praise must always go to God. He spent much time in travelling around his diocese—meeting many, talking to ordinary men and women of the things of God, sharing concerns and anxieties, bringing all to God in prayer, encouraging fellow-Christians to be more and more deeply committed to Christ—always pointing people not to himself but to God.
Nicholas and the three girls . . . and three murdered boys and three shipwrecked sailors
So when he heard of three desperately impoverished girls who were about to be sold into prostitution Nicholas took steps to rescue them. He used considerable quantities of his own money to pay off their father's debts and so rescue the girls from shame and abuse. He did so secretly—hence the story of tossing bags of gold in through the windows of their house. Later other stories grew up—of how Nicholas on his travels had rescued shipwrecked sailors. Of how he had brought three murdered boys back to life. Notice the recurrence of the number three—three for God the Blessed Trinity—for even though some of these stories be pious legends they bear witness to the essential truth about St.Nicholas—that always he points us to God—to Christ Our Risen Lord, to the Holy Spirit Sustainer and healer, to God the Father Creator. Nicholas is rightly patron saint of children, and also of money-lenders, of sailors and of prostitutes—and also of many countries—Belgium, Netherlands, Northern France, Hungary and others—for his whole life bids us reflect that God in Christ loves all and unites all. His whole life leads us all into God.
St. Nicholas our patron
We should be very proud and perhaps not a little overawed to be people of St. Nicholas. We need, I believe, to dedicate ourselves anew to living in ways that catch something of the spirituality of St. Nicholas—our Nicholas. Let me spell some of this out in terms of prayer, money and community.
First prayer. When I was asked to come here as your Vicar two main concerns were voiced—interlinked concerns: that I should seek to begin to build up again the numbers worshipping in our Church; second that we should try to attract younger families and children. These concerns have clear St.Nicholas themes. But this morning I must spell out clearly that what really draws people to Christ—young, old, married, single, children, octogenarians. What really draws people to Christ is a community of deep worship and prayer and consequent service. That depends to a considerable extent on each one of us here. Ask yourself today: do you make the Sunday Eucharist a priority in your life? Do you come to worship prepared and expecting that God is here and active? Do you come in an attitude of prayer and devotion? Do you pray regularly every day? Have you considered making it a custom to join me in praying the Daily office morning and evening? Could you come just one morning in the week, say? Do you do all you can to know Christ through the sacraments and through holy scripture? Are you really seeking to grow in prayer? St. Nicholas pointed his whole life to Christ through prayer—we must do the same—only so will others be drawn to our Lord Jesus.
Second we must speak of money. Nicholas was not ashamed of being wealthy. Rather he rejoiced because he knew that his money could be used by God to build up the kingdom of Christ. Last Advent the PCC (parochial church council) and I challenged all of us to grow by 5%. 5% more prayer; 5% more people in Church; 5% more financial giving. Thanks be to God: We have grown numerically; I dare to believe we have made some headway in prayer and worship—but we have not grown even by 5% in our giving. Now I know that few of us are rich by worldly standards—but we can all do simple things. We can ask ourselves whether our giving to the work of the Church is commensurate with the amount we spend on meals out or drinks in the pub or whatever? If we more readily spend regularly on a night out or a coffee in town than in giving to church we have to ask ourselves sharply whether we are really committed to the life of Christ's Church. If we all increased our giving just by a pound or two a week our financial situation would be much brighter and we could begin to make huge strides forward in terms of resources and service. We must ensure that our giving is regular and faithful—everyone should give by the most efficient method possible. Now that we no longer actually take a collection at parish Eucharist there is no reason at all why giving cannot be through standing order or some such—so that the Church benefits by knowing what our budget will be—and by knowing that the money will be there regularly come what may. Linked to this: we should ensure that every penny we give, if we pay tax, is gift aided so we gain the maximum amount through the tax system. St. Nicholas dedicated his whole life—including his money—to God. We can do no less.
And thirdly, as we give thanks to God today for our patron St.Nicholas we are called, I believe to dedicate ourselves afresh to being a community for service. Both a community—and a community of service. We need to be much more supportive of one another. Really to get to know one another. Ask yourself: Do you try to get to know and support your fellow worshippers as fellow members of the Body of Christ? Do you really try to welcome newcomers and rejoice in their presence with us? Coming to coffee after church is not some optional jolly—it is part of the sacrament of the Eucharist—meeting together and caring for one another. Ask yourself: when we need volunteers to help with the crèche, with Sunday school, with cucumbers, with the Christmas tea party—are you prepared even to think about it? When there is an opportunity to invite others to one of the social functions of our Church—are you prepared to come? Are you prepared to invite someone along? Ask yourself: have you considered offering to be trained and selected for our Lay Pastoral ministry so that we can better visit the sick, the lonely, the elderly and so in our parish?. In the Lord Jesus, St. Nicholas reaches out to all about him and brings together people of hugely diverse cultures and backgrounds—we are called to do the same—what are you doing to enable Christ's work to go forward?
Today's Eucharist readings bid us listen to God's message afresh. St. Nicholas is very much one of God's messengers. As we offer this Advent Eucharist today and as we appoint our Child-bishop to speak to us "out of the mouths of babes and sucklings" let us all dedicate ourselves once more in hope, in faith and in joy—knowing that "the one who began a good work among us will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ."
By Philip Cunningham, vicar, Gosforth Parish Church of St. Nicholas, Gosforth, England. Used by permission.