Saint Nicholas Day
by Lord Carey of Clifton
Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks
December 6th 2004
Hebrews 13.7–16 Luke 6.20–26
I am grateful to the Master for the invitation to be your preacher on this special day when the Company gathers on the Feast of St. Nicholas, to share in two Communions—a spiritual one when we gather for Holy Communion and a decidedly more material and merrier one later. Eileen and I, together with two American friends, feel privileged to share with you.
Of course, as a former Archbishop of Canterbury I have known of the worshipful company of Parish Clerks for a long time and, indeed, once shared in a dinner with you. Your custom of ‘cross-toasting’ is certainly rather unique among livery companies!
St. Nicholas is rather a superior saint to have as a Patron. After all, it is he upon whom Father Christmas is based. If you have children or grandchildren and they reach the age when they begin to say ‘Santa Claus does not exist,’ you must refute them firmly and say ‘Father Christmas does not and has never existed—but Santa Claus most definitely did and is one of the most significant saints in the Christian calendar.’ Let me tell you what we do know about him and how Santa Claus became Father Christmas—and we have to travel back 1600 years.
Myra is now an obscure place in Turkey but at the beginning of the 4th century AD, Myra was a provincial capital in the Roman Empire and the place of a growing Christian community. Nicholas was its bishop, and we are told he was a humble and faithful man. He was imprisoned during the Diocletian persecution, but when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Nicholas was among the bishops gathered at Nicaea for the first Ecumenical council. He lived to a ripe old age and was buried in Myra. Later when Islam swept though Turkey his remains were transferred to Bari, in Italy.
And this is where the legends begin, although there is one that possibly has a grain of truth, that about a poor man who had three young daughters. The man could not afford a dowry for their marriages. Eventually his plight was so desperate that he was even considering selling them into slavery, which would have meant prostitution. Nicholas, the bishop, heard of this and sold some of his possessions and went late at night to the man’s house. He threw three bags of gold through the man’s open window and so saved the girls from an uncertain future. This was meant to be an anonymous act of charity but, somehow, got out—and Nicholas was soon revered as the benefactor of children.
And from that we eventually get presents coming down the chimney! Indeed, those three bags of gold are also the origins of the three golden balls you see outside pawn shops—especially here in London in a street called Carey Street. So, Saint Nicolas became Santa Claus, and from the Catholics of Bari, veneration of the saint spread quickly to the Protestants of Holland and then, just as swiftly, to Britain and America—eventually becoming one of the most popular cults in the world. There are more than 400 churches in England dedicated to him, and I was once vicar of one in Durham. Today, St Nicholas is the patron saint of Russia, sailors, pawnbrokers, and children. So, if you are a Russian child-sailor owning a pawnbroker shop, St. Nicholas is definitely in your corner!
However, the journey from St. Nicholas to Santa Claus to Father Christmas, so eagerly expected on Christmas Eve, offers us modern people something to hold on to—hospitality, generosity and faith. The epistle mentions the first, hospitality, very clearly: ‘Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have.’ Just a few verses before the section read to us, there is the admonition: ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.’ The writer is enlarging our perceptions about hospitality. It is all too easy to limit hospitality to our friends, to our class, to nice people, to people who might offer us hospitality one day. From the epistle to the Hebrews we are reminded that the neediest we help may possibly be, in God’s eyes, more significant than we realise. For us, in one of the most advanced and richest countries in the world perhaps, there is a challenge to be more hospitable to the stranger. We think of the 1.2 billion people living on under one dollar a day; we think of the burden of debt which still restricts growth in sub-Saharan Africa.
But with hospitality must go generosity—the kind of generosity shown by Nicholas in his attitude towards the poor man and his three daughters. The gesture does not have to be three bundles of gold tossed through a window, and does not have to be money at all. I think of the splendid work that clubs like Rotary, Round Table and Lions do throughout the year. I think of the work of the Salvation Army and other Christian churches in caring for the homeless and needy. Perhaps this Christmas we might consider taking a personal step towards offering hospitality to others—maybe around your Christmas table on Christmas Day or some other gesture of kindness. Do you know that verse by G. K. Chesterton?
There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.
Then there is faith, the forgotten currency of life in our dayVand yet, a currency that, if not used, leads to impoverished people and stunted culture. The Beatitudes, read as our gospel, is the gold standard of that currency and the basis of Christian faith, as it was for Jesus and as it was for saints like Nicholas. But faith is not the same as belief. As someone once said, ‘Belief is when someone else is doing the thinking.’
I am fond of the story of Cardinal Cushing who had an interview with a young priest who said to him, ‘Your Eminence, I am losing my faith.’ The Cardinal said to him, ‘Meaning no disrespect to your intellectual attainments, but you and I are too dumb to lose our faith. The great heretics like Martin Luther lose their faith. You and I just get bored!’ There is a truth in that, although I would not want to call Martin Luther a heretic.
St Nicholas hymn sung at the annual patronal festival of The Worshipful Company of Parish Clerks, 6 December.
By George Carey, Lord Carey of Clifton, Archbishop of Canterbury 1991–2002. He was vicar of St Nicholas Church, Durham, from 1975-82. Used by permission.