St. Nicholas: Mirror of God’s Love
by the Rev. Rachelle Birnbaum, adapted from a sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent, 1992, at Trinity Church, Boston
St. Nicholas is said to have quieted storms and tempests; he is the patron saint of sailors and seafarers.
Nearly four-hundred churches are dedicated to him in England.
Millions of Greeks and Russians venerate him as their national saint. In Holland on the eve of his feast day—December 6—children wait in glorious expectation for him to deliver their long-awaited surprise packages.
And yet very little is known about his life except that he suffered torture and imprisonment during the persecution under the Roman emperor Diocletian.
For one about whom so little is known, much has been expected. Indeed, Nicholas of Myra has become for us the most popular of saints. He is the only saint, as I discovered in my childhood, one need not be a Christian to venerate. He is, after all, Santa Claus.
To know so little about Nicholas and yet to hold him with such esteem in our hearts may sound like a sad case of wishful thinking at best, a delusional church at worst. It could be either of these if it were not for the fact that Bishop Nicholas of Myra was more thanthe legends which have grown up around him. For him to have become what he is for us today, Nicholas must have reflected something in his own person in his own lifetime.
It is possible, even probable, that Nicholas rode out storms and tempests, that he ministered to the poor and helpless, that he sat small children upon his knee and surprised them with holiday gifts. But precisely what he did may not be as important as the fact that, whatever he did, he did it in a way that clearly reflected his Lord to those around him. Whatever storms he quieted, he clearly reflected the Prince of Peace. Whatever gifts he gave, he clearly reflected the giver of all good gifts. Whatever status he accorded to children, he clearly reflected one who taught that children are our role models for the kingdom.
This ghostly figure, whose biography has never been written for lack of dependable information, is so popular not because of the legends that have grown through the years, but because in his own lifetime he was a faithful mirror of his Lord. In whatever he did Nicholas reflected most clearly the calling of all of us to be “other Christs” in our own time and place.
It is not the purpose of Advent to give us enough time to do our Christmas shopping, any more than it was St. Nicholas’ purpose to become Santa Claus. It is, rather, to make us aware of our individual callings to become other Christs” in this time and place.
When John the Baptist implores his hearers to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he asks us to hold up a mirror to ourselves, to take notice, to see whose reflection comes beaming back. If it is our own, filled with holiday distractions, constant crises, clawing ambitions, then there is no room at the inn of our lives for a child to be born. But John and Advent remind us that there is yet time to prepare the way, so that when this child is born he is not simply born long ago and far away; he is born into the very center of our lives.
John the Baptist doesn’t ask us to say, “I’m sorry,” but to dismantle our small and manageable worlds and prepare for a world much larger than anything we ourselves could possibly assemble, a world so radically different that it arrives by the birth of a child. Advent is a time for the upheaval and demolition of all the controllable in our lives, all those things that turn to dust and ashes when we try to control, all those things that prevent that which endures-a child born not only long ago and far away, but at the inn at the center of our lives.
When that child finally comes to birth we may find a Christmas gift as unexpected as anything that Father Christmas may drop from his sleigh, a gift maybe best described by a story: During World War II, when the great French Jewish humorist Tristan Bernard was arrested by the Germans after months in hiding, his fellow prisoners were surprised by his smiling face. “How can you smile?” they asked. “Until now I have lived in fear,” he said. “From now on, I shall live in hope.”
Advent is a time of repentance, a time to dismantle, to demolish, to prepare the way. It is a time when we are asked to hold a mirror up to ourselves and see if the reflection in it reveals who we are called to be. If we are unsure, let us take as our example good St. Nick. In whatever he did Nicholas reflected most clearly the calling of all of us to be “other Christs.” And that possibility, as Nicholas himself has shown, is hidden in each of us like a Christmas surprise. It is there because God put it there. God is, after all, the giver of all good gifts, the one who can turn a baby into a savior, an obscure fourth century bishop into Santa Claus, and all of us into the saints of God.
Merciful God, who sent thy messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer
The author formerly served on the staffs of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and Trinity Church, Boston. Adapted from a sermon preached on the Second Sunday in Advent, 1992, at Trinity Church, Boston.
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