Gift Giving

by the Rev. Paul Howden, preached on the Feast of Saint Nicholas, 2000, Saint Luke's Reformed Episcopal Church, Santa Ana, California,

St Nicholas
Postcard: Austria
St Nicholas Center Collection

It is not very often that we observe a minor saint like Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, but Bishop Fincke has encouraged us to celebrate the minor saints for the examples of godly conduct they provide us. Their good works remind us how we can do good.

The problem with a man like Nicholas has to do with the reliability of the historical accounts themselves. He was born around the year AD 260 to a wealthy family. The legends surrounding Nicholas are pretty fantastic. For instance, while he was only about one week old when he was baptized. There is nothing abnormal about that. However, it is said that immediately after his baptism he stood up on his feet for three hours in the baptismal font; one hour for each person of the Trinity. Supposedly he sucked only the right breast of his mother as a symbol that he would one day sit at the right hand of the Lord. Moreover, as a baby he fasted every Wednesday and Friday during the daylight hours and waited until after dark to nurse when his mother was finished with her evening prayers. How many of these stories are we supposed to believe? This was surely one of the reasons that the English Reformers curbed the number of saints days the Church was to celebrate.

Also from St. Nicholas we derive the legend of Santa Claus. As the patron saint of children, he was believed to bring gifts to children starting on his feast day, December the 6th. Children could receive presents until January 6. However, this gift giving practice gradually became focused on Christmas Day. Actually it was Thomas Nast, the political cartoonist at the beginning of the century, who gave St. Nick his trademark red coat, long white beard, and black boots that we appreciate today.

Nevertheless we do want to honor a man who was surely a great Christian Bishop in the early Church. According to tradition he was kind and merciful to the poor. He fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and ransomed many from moneylenders. One story should illustrate his generosity.

"There lived in the town of Patara a certain man, prominent and rich. Falling into extreme poverty, he lost his fortune. This man had three daughters who were very beautiful in appearance. When he was already deprived of all necessities, so that here was nothing to eat and nothing to wear because of his great poverty, he planned to give his daughters to prostitution and turn his house into a brothel so that by this means he might obtain a livelihood for himself and acquire also food and clothing for himself and his daughters. It is horrible to what wicked thoughts extreme misery leads! Having this unclean idea the man was at the point of putting into practice his evil design. But the All-good Lord, in His love for mankind, placed a good thought in the mind of the holy priest Nicholas, and by inspiration sent him secretly to the man who was perishing in soul, for consolation in poverty and forewarning from sin. St. Nicholas, having heard of the extreme poverty of this man and knowing through revelation from God of his evil intention, felt great pity for him and decided to draw him out, together with his daughters, from poverty and sin, as from fire. However, he did not wish to show his good deed to this man openly, but intended to give generous alms secretly. St. Nicholas did thus for two reasons. On the one hand, he wanted to escape vain, human glory, following the words of the Gospel: "Take heed that ye do not your alms before men"; on the other hand, he did not want to offend the man who once was rich and now had fallen into extreme poverty. For he knew how painful and insulting alms are to him who has fallen into pauperism, because it reminds him of his former prosperity. Therefore St. Nicholas considered it better to act according to the teaching of Christ: "Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth." He so much shunned the praise of men that he tried to hide himself even from him whom he benefited. He took a large sack of gold, came at midnight to the house of that man and, throwing this sack in the window, hastened to return home. In the morning this man arose and, finding the sack, untied it. At the sight of the gold, he fell into great consternation and did not believe his eyes, because from nowhere could he expect such a favor. What a gift! Having rejoiced in spirit and wondering at it, he wept for joy, for a long time he pondered over who could show him such a favor, and could think of nothing. Attributing this to the action of divine providence, he continually thanked his benefactor in his soul, rendering praise to the Lord who cares for all. After this he was able to properly give his three daughters in marriage."

The example of Nicholas teaches us a couple of things: It illustrates the beauty of generosity. Christmas is a time to be generous. Generous to friends and family and especially to the poor. Secondly, once we do give a gift or present, we need to be careful of vainglory and the praise of men. Such vanity can become a trap that tarnishes our good motions. Lastly we need to remember that God is the Giver of every good and perfect gift. It is He who has been extravagantly generous to us. He gave us salvation by grace through the death of His Son Jesus Christ on the Cross. May we therefore dedicate ourselves to gratitude and generosity this day of St. Nicholas, and may this frame of mind carry through until Christmas and beyond. Let us pray.

Almighty and everlasting God, who didst enkindle the flame of thy love in the heart of thy servant Nicholas: Grant to us, thy humble servants, the same faith and power of love; that, as we rejoice in his triumph, we may profit by his example; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

By the Rev. Paul Howden, St. Luke's Reformed Episcopal Church, Santa Ana, California. Used by permission.

back to top