St. Nicholas & Jesus' Law of the Gift

by Richard John Neuhaus

Feast of Saint Nicholas
December 6
Luke 6.17–23; John 10

Standing figure with gold balls
Saint Nicholas of Bari
Gerardo Starnina, c. 1422
Photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

SAINT NICHOLAS HAS COME A LONG WAY: from being a fourth-century bishop in the distant Roman province of Lycia, through innumerable pious legends, until he became "Sinter Maas," which is older Dutch for Saint Nicholas; in our day Americans have turned him into Santa Claus, patron saint of the seasonal commandment to shop until you drop. What should Christians do about Santa Claus? Reject him or reclaim him? I suggest we reclaim him.

Over a hundred years ago, in 1897, a journalist by the name of Francis Church wrote a much-reprinted editorial, "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus." But of course there isn't. At least not that Santa Claus. But there was and is Saint Nicholas, and there is nothing wrong with calling him Santa Claus. For all we know, he may have been a fat man with a big white beard and dressed in red, although he certainly did not live at the North Pole.

The important thing is that he was a holy man. That is why he is called Saint Nicholas, for saint simply means holy. Now holiness takes many forms. From the stories that Christians told over the centuries, the strikingly holy thing about Nicholas is that he had learned from Jesus what we might call the law of the gift. The law of the gift is very simple, although most of us have a hard time learning it and an even harder time living it. The law of the gift is this: the more you give, the more you receive.

Jesus taught the law of the gift in many different ways. For instance, in Matthew 25 he tells the parable of the talents. (A talent was a form of money worth about a thousand dollars today.) One person received five talents, another two, and yet another one. Those who received five and two talents put them to work, investing wisely, and doubled their money. The master in the parable says to each, "Well done, good and faithful servant." The man with one talent, however, fearfully hung on to what he had been given, lest he lose it, and he ended up losing even what he had. We may take the parable as a lesson in money management, but much, much more important, it is a lesson in how to live.

"I came," Jesus said, "that they may have life, and have it abundantly." To live abundantly is to live generously; it is to live the law of the gift. The entire life and mission of Jesus is a gift beyond all expectation. Leaving behind the glory that was his as the Son of God, he gave himself to our sorry human circumstance, even to the point of dying our death on the cross. Having given all, he received all, for he was raised in glory to welcome as his brothers and sisters all who follow him and will live with him forever.

To live the law of the gift means to give of what we have and what we are, and to do so not calculating immediate returns but trusting the promise of eternal reward. Even now we have a taste of that reward as we discover in giving, the key to spiritual greatness, the key to life abundant. That was the greatness, also known as holiness, of Saint Nicholas, whom we know as Santa Claus.


Liberate us, we pray you, Lord, from the getting and grasping to which we are prone. Teach us the royal way of the law of the gift, that in giving not only things but ourselves we may know even now the life abundant you promise to bring to perfection in eternal life with you. Increase in us gratitude for your gift of yourself, and let that gift of gratitude inspire us to the greatness of living our lives as love in response to love.
Keep ever before our eyes the image of Nicholas and all the saints. Stir us to more daringly follow them in following you, so that, in abandoning all that stands in the way of greatness, we may in abandonment discover life abundant. Forgive us, we plead, our petty excuses for not being saints. Your love for them was no greater than your love for us. Your sustaining presence to them and in them is your sustaining presence to us and in us. You are for us, as you were for them, "Emmanuel, God with us."
From the deepest depth of our hearts, we cry to you, O Lord. No more excuses. Let this Christmas be the time when, at long last, we dare to live the gift already given.
Amen. Let it be.

From God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas, reflections by Scott Cairns, Emilie Griffin, Richard John Neuhaus, Kathleen Norris, Eugene Peterson, Luci Shaw © 2007 Greg Pennoyer, Paraclete Press. Used by permission.

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