Nicholas of Myra

by the Rev. Mark S. Bollwinkel, adapted from a sermon preached December 24, 2000, at Los Altos United Methodist Church, Los Altos, California

Luke 1:39-45

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'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through Los Altos,
All the creatures were stirring, and dashing through Andronico's.
The stockings were hung by the TV set with care,
In hopes that the Super Nintendo II soon would be there.
The children were sleeping, all sound and cozy,
With dreams of Segas, Barbie dolls and Obi Ben Kenobi.
And Momma in her flannel nightgown, and I in my shorts,
Had just settled down for a night of snores and snorts.
When out near the hot tub, arose such a noise,
I sloshed out of the waterbed, fearing naughty neighborhood boys.
Away to the window, I flew back the blinds,
Tore open the curtains . . . what I saw blew my mind.
The moon reflecting off the smog of our meadow,
Gave the shine of high noon to everything be-low.
When what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a gigantic Ford Expedition, filled with 8 tiny reindeer.
That little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment, it must be
St. Nick. . . .

Such a rendition of the famous Christmas Story might be appropriate for our suburban culture these days. It does illustrate how easy it is to change traditional stories around.

History has always been secondary to the importance of bringing the Christmas Story to new generations. This is especially true of the gospels of the New Testament. There is no consensus among Matthew, Mark, Luke and John regarding the birth of Jesus, other than it happened. Matthew doesn't have any shepherds, manger or angels. Luke doesn't report anything about a star in the East or wise men. Mark and John don't say anything at all about Christmas.

Only Luke records the encounter between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth in our gospel lesson this morning. Yet regardless of the enigma in New Testament diversity, we are amazed at the wonder and promise in Luke's scene as the baby in Elizabeth's womb leaps for joy simply being in proximity to the Mother of Jesus. Elizabeth's child would grow up to be none other than John the Baptist, the herald of the Messiah. Even before birth, God's plan to save humanity brings praise and surprise and hope.

Jesus' birth was an event unequaled in human history. God becomes fully human to leave the world forever changed.

No wonder it's not easy to get the Christmas Story straight.

Clement Moore's original story entitled, "A visit from St. Nicholas," itself was a major adaptation of various traditions and myths. His immortal poem has etched in our minds the description of St. Nicholas as the one whom we call Santa Claus. Yet, St. Nicholas was anything but Santa from the North Pole.

The real St. Nicholas was born about 300 years after the birth of Jesus. He was orphaned very early in life, his parents dying of the plague.

His uncle John took Nicholas in. Nick returned to his uncles' home in Patara, in the land now called Turkey, where he was nurtured with lots of love.

Nicholas' uncle John was the pastor of the Christian community in Patara. He was a scribe and scholar as well. Nick grew up hearing the scriptures read daily. Nick especially loved the story of the wise men. He was deeply touched by their gifts to the baby Jesus, how they did not identify themselves nor did they wait around for any measure of gratitude after giving their homage to the new born king.

When Nicholas was old enough he traveled to Myra to study in the Christian school there. As well as learning how to read and write, Nick had many opportunities to learn the art of giving.

At an early age Nicholas was assigned to assist the Bishop of Myraýs work with the poor, distributing food and clothing to countless families who struggled for survival. His parents had been well-to-do and Nicholas continued their practice of helping the less fortunate by using his sizable inheritance to help the those in need. As Nick grew into maturity, he dedicated his life to the work of the church in Myra. Nick became well known for his care and sensitivity to the children of the families he was assigned to serve. After visiting a family during the day, he would return silently at night, leaving clothing and other necessities for the children in a conspicuous place.

At the death of the old Bishop, the elders of the Myra church elected Nicholas as their new leader. In his humility, he insisted on being called "Father Nicholas" instead of "Bishop." He was commonly known as "Good Father Nicholas" or just "Good Nicholas".

Being elected Bishop allowed Nick the privilege of fulfilling a childhood dream. He was given a horse to travel his district, visiting families and churches. He named his white horse, "North Star," for the North star, which guided travelers home.

In spite of his many church duties, the good Bishop of Myra, continued his habit of giving secret gifts to the children of poor families late at night. He commissioned local weavers, bakers and carvers to supply sacks full of toys, clothing and cakes, which he would distribute to the poor he had visited during the day. He dressed in a heavy coat and fur hat, and let his beard grow long, to protect himself from the cold night air. He would approach the doorsteps or windowsills on which he would leave his unexpected gifts in total, almost magical, silence.

Everything was done in secret. Nevertheless, it came to pass that any gift given in the region by an unknown benefactor was attributed to the Bishop of Myra. Legends grew about the amazing generosity of this good man.

Such fame and love could not protect him from the persecutions of the Roman Empire. Nicholas was arrested and imprisoned far away from Myra for his failure to renounce his faith or disclose the location of the church's hidden copies of scripture. At the death of the emperor Diocletian, Nicholas was released and freed to return home.

Nicholas of Myra died on the 6th of December (345/352 CE). That day is still the Feast of St. Nicholas. Gift giving to small children on that day has been practiced by Christians in Europe for centuries.

Hearing about the history of the real St. Nicholas we can understand how Clement Moore wove such traditions into the poem, which begins, "'Twas the night before Christmas. . . ."

But there are some significant differences between Santa Claus and St. Nick.

St. Nick did not come just one day a year; he worked with the poor daily.

St. Nick did not give charity just at the Holidays but for him giving was a lifestyle.

Nicholas didn't just sit in the market place, he also lived with and served his people, who knew him by name and could come to him for help at any time.

It's not easy to get the Christmas story straight.

The point of Moore's poem, the story of St. Nicholas, the stories of Jesus' birth in the New Testament, are inspired by a common truth.

A baby born in an obscure village in Palestine 2,000 years ago left the world forever changed. Because of Jesus' teachings, example, death and resurrection, nothing has ever been the same since.

Now is the time to call out, "Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night . . ." not in celebration of a sentimental holiday of family nostalgia but in celebration of the advent of salvation into the human condition.

Into our condition, yours and mine.

We can read the Christmas story and hear it repeated in the church year after year. Or we can live the Christmas story, like good Nicholas of Myra.

Giving without thought of recognition.

Giving to children and those who suffer poverty.

Giving all of ourselves, as our God gave all of God's Self in the life, death and resurrection of that Jesus, born to us so many years ago, in the manger of a stable.


Adapted from a sermon by the Rev. Mark S. Gollwinkel, D.Min., preached December 24, 2000, at Los Altos United Methodist Church, Los Altos, California. Used by permission.

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