The Virtues of St. Nicholas
December 3, 2006
Sinter Klaas, the Dutch name that we Americans transliterated into Santa Claus, obviously refers to Saint Nicholas, one of the most beloved of all saints throughout the world, and whose memory we celebrate this week, on December 6. Travel across Europe and you can literally find thousands of churches named in honor of St. Nicholas. Greece and Russia look upon St. Nicholas as the patron of their country. In fact, in almost every port throughout Greece you will find a St. Nicholas Church or Chapel, signifying him as the patron of sailors. And not only sailors, but orphans and children turn to St. Nicholas as their patron and protector.
Although our American secular society has tried to turn this greatest of saints into a jolly, fat man who wears a funny red outfit and brings a good spirit and lots of gifts to children on Christmas day, we Orthodox Christians never want to lose sight of Nicholas the saint, whose real life has inspired so many people throughout the world that they have created countless legends and stories lauding his Christ-like spirit.
Since childhood, many of us have heard stories of Nicholas’ generosity, like when the saint helped the poor man with three daughters by tossing bags of gold into his house. Although certain stories or legends may seem far-fetched, we must take care not to lose their underlying meaning, which lift up one of the many Christ-like virtues which St. Nicholas so beautifully exemplified in his life, and which we also are called to cultivate in our own lives.
What were some of these characteristics? First of all, St. Nicholas, like all saints, stood up for the truth of God. Nicholas lived through the persecutions of Diocletian, one of the last Roman emperors who persecuted Christians in the 4th century. Under the threat of imprisonment and even possible death, Nicholas continued to preach the love of God and proclaim His truth. And he suffered for it. The Romans imprisoned him and threatened his life, yet he wouldn’t deny the truth, nor waver in his strict stance for the standards of the Gospel. This same zeal for the truth came out during the First Ecumenical Council, when Nicholas the bishop defended the fullness of our faith against various false teachings that were very popular during his day.
This courage and boldness to live out a Christ-like life, and incarnate the truth, even when the surrounding society ridiculed and even threatened such a lifestyle, is something with which we contemporary Christians must learn. Christianity, as an authentic way of life, is not for the fainthearted. Christianity was never meant to be a ‘status-quo,’ comfortable, easy religion of the masses. Christ called his followers to a life of divine love, which automatically implies a life of sacrifice and humble service to others. This is why Jesus reminded us that few people will have the courage and commitment to walk that narrow path!
And here lies a second quality that stands out from the life of St. Nicholas. As a bishop and a good shepherd of the Church, Nicholas constantly fought the danger of self-centeredness, and looked for ways to reach out to others, especially helping the oppressed, defenseless and all people in need. Bishop Nicholas was not a leader who reveled in power and authority, but he understood himself as a disciple of the One who washed His disciples’ feet and who constantly cared for the poor. Christian leadership is servant leadership, always placing the needs of others before ourselves!
We have many stories of Nicholas reaching out in compassion and kindness to the orphaned, to the estranged, to the prisoners, and especially to the defenseless. As I try to repeat in all my sermons, sincere Christianity points to “the other,” to those outside of ourselves. Love of God means love of our neighbor, and love of the other. Although I have heard some people negatively comment to me here in this church about how I am always trying to focus the Church’s attention, the Philoptochos’ attention, and the attention of other groups of the Church towards charity, outreach and mission, I cannot do anything but that.
Ultimately, the Church has meaning only in as much as we involve ourselves in charity, outreach and mission. Of course, worship and liturgy play a central part in our life as the Church, but a natural fruit of healthy worship is outreach and mission. Theologians have coined the phrase “living the liturgy after the liturgy.” The Greek word “liturgy” means “the work of the people,” and thus, after we have celebrated “the work of the people” in our worship within these Church walls, we should be so filled with the Spirit of God that we enthusiastically enter into the world, into our families, neighborhoods and workplaces, continuing this holy “work of the people” through our charity, compassion, kindness and love. Thus, worship intertwines with outreach and mission!
The world around us has become an isolated, lonely, often harsh, and even mean place to live. How bright our light will shine if we radiate Christ’s unconditional compassion, kindness, love and charity, as St. Nicholas did throughout his lifetime.
A third virtue I want to lift up from St. Nicholas’ life is his generosity. St. Nicholas suffered the life of an orphan, having lost both his parents in his teenage years. Yet from the moment that Nicholas received a rich inheritance, he understood good Christian stewardship, and generously distributed his wealth to those in need. He did not seek to use his wealth for his own well-being and comfort, but realized that his wealth represented a test and temptation, and thus used it to enrich others!
When Christ’s Spirit fills the heart of a disciple, we joyously want to imitate our Lord’s example by giving all that we have to help others. True joy comes from giving. True meaning in life comes from helping and serving others. And the generosity of our giving reflects the maturity of our faith!
A final aspect that St. Nicholas so beautifully exemplified in his giving was the spirit of anonymity. He gave generously, but never for fame or for praise. He simply gave because he understood how generous God was to him first. Everything he had was God’s, and he didn’t want to take credit for anything he gave away. How much can we all learn from that, in this day and age—to give in a secret manner, only for the glory of God!
A courageous and bold defender of the truth, a compassionate and loving helper of the defenseless and needy, and a generous and humble Steward of God’s gifts—these represent some of the many virtues of the true Santa Claus, St. Nicholas.
Throughout this Advent season, when we see and hear many references to that fat, jolly old man in the red suit, and even as we read books or tell stories to our children and grandchildren about Santa Claus, let us not lose sight of the real Santa Claus—St. Nicholas. Let us try to live out and then teach our children and grandchildren about the Christ-like virtues that made Nicholas one of the world’s most beloved patrons and saints!
By Father Luke A Veronia, Saints Constanine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church, Webster, Massachusetts Used by permission.