by the Revd Astrid Storm, St. Nicholas-on-the-Hudson Episcopal Church, New Hamburg, New York
This sermon was preached at the 9 am service for the Feast Day of St. Nicholas. The children and family service is at 10 am.
December 13, 2011
Today we're celebrating the feast day of our beloved patron saint, St. Nicholas of Myra, and since it's one of those Sundays where I only preach at the 9 am service, I can do what I did when I talked here about Noah on Vacation Bible School Sunday: give you the uncensored, adult version of a couple of the stories we tell about St. Nicholas.
But first, a little biographical information for those who haven't been here before on the Feast of St. Nick. The St. Nicholas that most of us know is filtered down to us through the customs of our European ancestors, who adapted the story of St. Nicholas to their particular context (and called him "Santa Claus" or, in the Netherlands where many of our customs come from, "Sinter Klaas"). The real St. Nicholas was born in the 3th century in [what is now] modern-day Turkey. He became a priest and then bishop and moved to Myra, where he served as bishop until he died, and where he was also buried. Sometimes you'll hear him referred to as "St. Nicholas of Bari" (Italy), and that's because sometime around the 11th century the Muslims conquered Myra and his bones were smuggled by some Christians to Bari, Italy, where they remain today in a [large basilica] named after him. And that's how his story spread out into Europe and became part of our annual celebrations.
St. Nick was the patron saint of a lot of people—in fact, the list seems endless: sailors, pawnbrokers, barrel makers, murderers, students, perfumers, thieves. You can be sure that, behind this list are lots of stories we would not want to tell our children. But since he's best known for being the patron saint of children, I'm going to tell you two "uncensored" stories about his work with kids.
The first is the best known and tamer of the two, the story of St. Nick and the three maidens. The story goes that, as a young man, St. Nicholas went on a walk through town and heard a bishop preaching on the street about giving your money to the poor. He was so moved by the sermon that he decided to do just that, but he wasn't sure how to begin.
A few days later, he overheard a man in the marketplace telling someone that he couldn't afford dowries for his three daughters, and so, having nothing to offer any prospective husbands, he would have to sell them into prostitution. So Nicholas followed the man home to find out where he lived, and that night, he snuck up to the man's house and dropped a bag of gold coins in the window. The bag fell into one of the daughters' shoes, which was just beneath the window. The next evening, he came back and did the same, dropping another bag of gold coins in the shoe of the second daughter. And the next evening, he dropped a bag of coins off for the third daughter. So all three daughters went on to attract husbands and were thus spared a life of prostitution.
There's really no kid-friendly version of the next story. According to this one, three boys were lured to the home of a butcher, who then chopped them up and put them in pickle barrels in his shop to sell to his customers. But lo and behold, somehow St. Nicholas caught wind of what had happened, showed up at the butcher's home, pieced them back together, and sent them on their way.
These stories are very Brothers-Grimm, aren't they? They probably were told to children at one point and, like those fairy tales, had some disciplinary purpose. In fact I find it interesting that this second story has various versions of who gets put in that pickle barrel. My favorite is the one where three seminarians studying to be priests are the butcher's victims!
Anyway, what I like about these stories is not just that they're fun, but that they remind us that St. Nick lived in the same messy, messed-up world that we live in, and that he wasn't afraid to confront that world to make it better. I don't remember how I lost my faith in St. Nick as a kid, but I do remember sort of skeptically thinking of him as a perpetual child up there at his North Pole workshop full of elves and toys—not someone I admired or felt a need to carry into my grown-up life. But in fact, the real St. Nick didn't just sit up in his snowy cabin inspecting toys by day and chewing candy canes in front of the fire with Mrs. Claus by night. He was out in the world in places that few of us dare or bother to go—to the homes of the poor, to places where things take place that we'd just as soon not know about or see: like violence against children, the most vulnerable members of our society.
And I guess it's because of these stories that my faith in St. Nick returned. I believe in St. Nicholas just like I believe in all people who aren't afraid to step out into the messy places of this world and offer a hand. So today, on the feast day of our dear patron saint, may God grant us the courage to both see and help those in need, following in the footsteps of St. Nicholas of Myra.
By the Rev. Astrid Storm, St. Nicholas-on-the-Hudson, New Hamburg, New York. Used by permission.