St. Nicholas for Today

by Prebendary Alan Moses

St Nicholas banner
St Nicholas banner, St Nicholas Church, Harpenden
Photo: John Salmon, used by permission

St. Nicholas Parish Church
Harpenden, Hertfordshire
Patronal Festival
Sunday 10th December, 2017

Isaiah 61.1-3
1 Timothy 6.6-11
Mark 10.13-16

For several years, St. Nicholas played a part in my life: I was his landlord—that is in the larger than life form of his representative on earth—Canon Jim Rosenthal—who had set up the Society of St. Nicholas in order to rescue the real "Santa Claus" from captivity to the commercialization of Christmas. Supported by the Archbishop and Dean of Canterbury, when he lived there, he began holding events in which he would appear in the manner of German festivities, dressed as a bishop and explain to children large and small who St. Nicholas really was. I see from his Facebook page that he was doing it again in Canterbury yesterday.

The German version distributed sweets and nuts to children who had been good. He was accompanied by his servant Knecht Ruprecht, who spanked the ones who hadn't. I don't think that would get past the diocesan safeguarding team these days!

Across the Rhine in sternly Calvinist Holland, Sinter Klaus in bishop's vestments and on a white horse continued to visit children on the eve of his feast day. It was this popular figure who crossed the Atlantic with Dutch migrants who settled in New Amsterdam, now New York, and combined with the English figure of Father Christmas. His gift-giving activities were moved to Christmas and stripped of sainthood, this secularized figure found his bishop's robes replaced by the red outfit we are familiar with—but he kept his cheerful countenance and association with gifts.

In fact, we don't know all that much about the real Nicholas except that he was bishop in Myra in what is now southern Turkey in the 4th Century. He took part in the Council of Nicaea which gave us the Creed we will recite in a few minutes as the rule of orthodox belief on the divinity and humanity of Jesus. There is a story of him boxing the ears of the heretic Arius who rejected this belief.

He must have been held in high esteem as the emperor Justinian built a church in his honour in Constantinople and his remains were enshrined in his own city. When the city fell to the Muslim invaders, his relics were smuggled out by sea to Bari in southern Italy. There a new shrine was built to house them and there they remain to this day.

In the absence of hard facts, stories grew up around him. It was as if he was a blank canvas, which could be filled in as circumstances required. Some of them sound pretty far-fetched to us:

  • Nicholas as a precociously pious infant was supposed to have refused his mother's milk on the fast days of Wednesday and Friday;
  • He miraculously reconstituted three boys who had been murdered by an innkeeper, and put into a brine tub to be sold as pickled pork; thus becoming the patron saint of children.

Less fanciful are stories of his aid to the poor:

  • He once saved the three daughters of a destitute father from a life of prostitution by throwing a bag of gold through the window of their home for three successive nights, to provide them with dowries and so enable them to marry. So he became the patron saint of virgins. The three bags of gold became the sign of the pawnbroker.
  • He saved three men who had been unjustly condemned to death.
  • He aided sailors who were in distress off the coast of his diocese and once on a voyage to the Holy Land showed great courage during a storm, thus becoming the patron of sailors.

While we might well take some of this with more than a pinch of salt, it would be a mistake to think that a good deal of it is not still strikingly relevant today.

For all our culture's sentimentality about children, many of them still suffer cruelty and neglect, physical and sexual abuse, bullying and exploitation. Many in our own society, never mind far-off places, are trapped in lives of poverty and condemned to lives of low expectations.

The internet may have revolutionized our lives but it has a dark underside; including its use to groom and sexualize children. In today's Gospel, Jesus says, in the old language still familiar to many of us, "Suffer the little children to come unto me." He did not say, "Let the children suffer."

Young women are still being trafficked into our country, lured by promises of good jobs, or sold by ruthless parents, into what turns out to be a life of prostitution and violence. Prostitution is no longer confined to red light districts like the parish next door to mine, St. Anne's, Soho, but in "Pop-Up" brothels in Airbnb flats in respectable places like Harpenden. The smart addresses of the international super-rich in London conceal domestic slaves; imprisoned in drudgery and fear. The fruit and veg in our supermarkets are often picked by foreign workers equally trapped in exploitation. The sweatshops which produce the cheap clothes we buy in "Primani" are no longer in the East End but Bangladesh or the Philippines.

One of the practical expressions of ecumenism promoted by Archbishop Justin and Pope Francis is a campaign against this modern-day slave trade.

On a smaller scale, the Bishop of St. Albans and the Diocese of London, followed by the General Synod, have taken a leading role in raising concern about fixed-odds gambling machines. These have stakes of £200, so you can lose a small fortune in no time at all. Perhaps this would not be a problem, if they were only located in the playgrounds of the super-rich, but they are not. Quite the opposite, they are concentrated in the poorest areas of our cities—so that those who are already struggling—"only just managing"—as the prime minister would say—are tempted to gamble their way out of poverty—but are more likely to gamble their way into destitution. The bookies always win!

People are still convicted wrongly, even in our own justice system—and at least we have one worthy of the name. Every day in my church we pray for a Christian woman in Pakistan called Asia Bibi. She has been in prison, under sentence of death for years—convicted of blasphemy against Islam after a village row over a drink of water. A provincial governor who supported her appeal was gunned down by his own bodyguard. The Pakistani Supreme Court never gets round to hearing her case because not enough judges are brave enough to risk assassination if they should release her. At the same time, we pray for Nazanin Zhagari-Ratcliffe held in Iran—and clearly being used as a bargaining chip in a diplomatic poker game.

St. Nicholas' remains are in Italy because of conflict between Muslims and Christians. In today's Middle East and elsewhere, that conflict still goes on. The ancient Christian communities in the region are now at the greatest rick of extinction they have faced for centuries—caught between Islamic fundamentalists—as happy to kill their fellow-Muslims as Christians—and corrupt regimes aided by bungling western interventions.

We live in an age of ever-growing disparity between rich and poor and ever-decreasing social mobility. We have forgotten the lesson of scripture that, "those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered far from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains."

The day will come when those words from 1 Timothy will be read as our body is carried into church for our funeral: "for we brought nothing into this world, so that we can take nothing out of it."

In the meantime our faith should teach us that, "there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment . . . if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these,". . . that we should—men and women of God should, "shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness." (1 Tim 6.6-11).

We should do this because we are the disciples of the one who in the synagogue in his hometown read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland for ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
Isaiah 61. 1-3

Then he rolled up the scroll and said, "Today these words have been fulfilled in your hearing." I do not pretend to have easy answers to any of these questions, and none of us can solve all of them, but I do believe that Jesus calls us, his disciples, as he called Nicholas in his day, to play our part in making them a reality in ours. It is on these things that we will be judged.

By Prebendary Alan Moses, vicar of All Saints Margaret Street, preached for the patronal festival at St Nicholas, Harpenden, December 10, 2017. Used by permission.

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