A Sermon for St. Nicholas Day
preached by Lay Canon James Rosenthal at St. Matthew’s, Westminster, London, December 1999
Being in the midst of the Advent season and being bombarded on every side since, in some cases, the summer with Christmas decorations, Christmas cards, Christmas food, Christmas pudding, Christmas cakes. We have an opportunity today to stop for a moment and reflect in a joyful way on one of the greatest of all Saints. A man who was so great that it is hard to believe he was real. It’s so hard to believe he is real that we have turned him into a fictitious character and given him the name Santa Claus or Father Christmas.
But we in the Church, as we too become involved very appropriately with all the festivities of the Advent and Christmas, need to remember the true foundation of Father Christmas. I am talking none other than Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra and Saint of Bari.
Nicholas falls into that category of “too good to be true” and that’s why some churches have decided that maybe he was not real after all. To me, he is most real and becomes more real to me day by day. I have been doing an enormous amount of study about Saint Nicholas over the last year. My greatest aid in my work has been the Internet. If one types in Saint Nicholas, one receives back a notice that there are 89,000 entries about this Saint.
Here in Great Britain alone, over 500 Church of England churches are named after the beloved Saint. Why? What is it about Saint Nicholas that puts him at the top of the list of Saints and right up there with our Lady and the other great Saints.
The stories of Nicholas are many. They cover everything from mystically providing dowry money for three women in distress who were to be sold into prostitution if their father did not raise enough funds for dowry. Up on the housetop, Nicholas drops in gold coins to save them from this fate worse death.
Another of the stories is the incredible restoring to life three boys who were being pickled during a time of great famine to be sold for food. Nicholas wonders through the woods and comes by the butchers inn and restores the boys to health.
Might it be his confrontation at the Council of Nicaea with Bishop Arius who was the founding father of the Arian heresy denying the dual nature of Jesus Christ? Arius denied that Jesus was both divine and human. It was said that Nicholas slapped him across the face and was thus reprimanded by the other Bishops for this action, but later forgiven.
Maybe it’s because Nicholas symbolises that which is at the heart of our Christian faith which is the ability to give, to give, and to give again. To love, to love, and to love again. And to care, to care, and to care again.
Right now in America there is a famous phrase going around saying WWJD—What Would Jesus Do? Nicholas did just what Jesus would do. And he is one of the primary examples of what it means to be a follower of Christ. As we look at the lives of the Saints, Nicholas holds up for us an example how God can use us when we least expect it. Nicholas being chosen as a Bishop came as complete surprise to him as he entered the Cathedral of Myra and was pointed out by an elderly churchman as the next bishop.
Nicholas was a wealthy man and yet he realised to have true wealth was to give away all that he could. I’m sure Saint Francis of Assisi and other great Saints were influenced by the example of Saint Nicholas. Nicholas gave his all to the Church. He stood firm in the faith even under persecution—like so many Christians face today in parts of the World like Sudan, Pakistan, India. People facing persecution for what they believe because what they believe is a faith based upon a man who gave his life that all the world might have eternal life.
A new way of looking at the world, a new way of looking at God, a new way of looking at each other and a new way of looking at one’s self. Jesus Christ.
Diocletian threw Nicholas in prison, but Nicholas, I am sure was supported by the prayer of hundreds of people in his diocese, survived and under Constantine was released from prison and lived out his years as a faithful wonder working Bishop.
Oh that we had Bishops like Nicholas today. Bishops that we could hold our heads high and acclaim as true followers of Jesus Christ. Bishops who are faithful to their people. Faithful to the Church and faithful to their Lord. Thanks be to God that we do have many. But oh, we need more outward examples like Nicholas. Nicholas was not a person who sought recognition, as a good person does not need to seek recognition because people will be so eager and so willing to tell the good news that they experienced through the administrations of someone like Saint Nicholas.
I have very little time for people that get furious over the commercialisation of Christmas. You know when you hear the carols wafting through the stores. When you see nativity sets and crib scenes on street corners and you see people rushing about. Remember whether they realise it or not they are celebrating the birth of Christ. Their way of doing it may not be the way we want them to do, but the reality is you can not take the Christ out of Christmas. Nicholas helps us understand more clearly because in reality the notion of Father Christmas and Santa Claus need not be a competitive spirit within our existence as Christians in this world. But one that complements and helps us in our celebrations. That’s why I believe every Christian church should celebrate Saint Nicholas Day, not just those named for him but for Churches throughout the Anglican community. Indeed I have found through my research hundreds and hundreds of Churches named after Nicholas and wonderful places that do so many creative things on this feast day. Helping the hospices, helping children, celebrating, having a cause for rejoicing.
To me, the greatest lesson would be to be like Nicholas himself. You don’t need a cope and mitre, you don’t’ need a red outfit, you don’t need a bag of toys; what you need is a giving a heart, a loving soul and a willingness to share your faith, share hopes, share your dreams, share your fantasises, share even materially with those who come in contact with you day by day—whether it be at work or at school or at church or on a train or in a shop. For Nicholas was no respecter of person. For him, all people, no matter what classification we might put them in, are the loving children of one God—Nicholas’God, the God Nicholas worshipped and adored throughout his life.
So let’s not let the tradition of Nicholas falter; let us restore it with great enthusiasm. Let us embrace the celebration of Christmas with a new heightened reality—with even those who want to change Christmas into some sort of winter celebration or Yuletide festival. Let them realise even the image that they hold up as the most secular—Father Christmas and Santa Claus—belongs to our Christian family. Let us not be shy about it; let’s proclaim it; let’s share it with our children. Let’s not have one child not know that the reality is that Santa Claus is truly our Saint Nicholas.
Nicholas is revered to this day and there is great work of restoration being done at his Church in Myra, in Turkey. As you know the Church there suffered persecution and its presence is tolerated only to a certain extent. Only one service is held in the Church a year and that is on the feast of Saint Nicholas. So on Monday let us remember in our prayers the Church people who gather at this one time a year that they have an opportunity through Christ in this historic Church. Let us remember the work of the Santa Claus Foundation in Antalya, Turkey, that is trying through many ways to restore the Church and bring back a sense of devotion and praying for peace in that part of the world.
But also remember that Saint Nicholas’ bones and his relics were taken from Myra during the Islamic occupation and taken to Bari, Italy. Not exactly the easiest place to find, but it is worth it once you get there. I had the privilege of going last February and here —in this rather simple seaside setting, for Nicholas above all was the great Patron Saint of Seafarers—here in Bari, rests Nicholas. It is a place of prayer, pilgrimage and healing; to this day pilgrims flock there to seek the wisdom and understanding that was reflected in the life of this great Saint.
Nicholas continues to warm the hearts of boys and girls and men and women in all races and all classes and in all parts of the world. Let’s do all we can to teach our children, rather than a night-cap, he actually wore a mitre and that he was a truly committed Christian—a person who loved God and who loved the Church and who continues to be a source of enrichment and a blessing to people like you and me who look at the Saints for help—to be aided by their prayers, to be guided by the example of their lives.
Nicholas is truly a patron saint for all of us. He is patron of Russia, Aberdeen, Scotland, Greece, seafarers, pawnbrokers with their symbol of three balls, children. Patron of so many things, but let him be Patron of all Christians who want to—through the giving of gifts, giving of self, giving of love—seek to be more like Christ and to administer his love to those in our lives. May we be faithful, as Nicholas was faithful, and may we take time at this Christmas and every Christmas to share with our family, friends and children the true story behind Santa Claus or Father Christmas.
The marginalisation of Saint Nicholas has gone on far too long. It is time to restore him to a proper place in our hearts, and in our lives, and in our worship, and in our Churches, and in our communities. So join with me in enthusiasm for Nicholas; join with me in enthusiasm for this great time of the year. Be thankful for the stores and all the carrying on that they do. Obviously we remember those that are not able to join into the spirit of this season and those who find this a time of depression and anxiety. But with that in mind, let us make even more of a commitment to be more caring and loving in all that we do. In Christ’s name.
By Lay Canon James Rosenthal, preached at St. Matthew’s Westminster, London, December 1999.