Saint Nicholas: The Image of Giving
As we celebrate the feast of Saint Nicholas of Myra in Lycia, the Wonderworker, we find that there is a certain unresolved tension that accompanies his person and memory. On the one hand, there are few “hard facts” about his life (to the point where many doubt his actual historical existence), while on the other hand, he is clearly one of the most beloved and universally venerated saints within the Church. A good example of an objective account of the few facts behind the saint’s life can be found in a short introductory biographical note concerning Saint Nicholas in the book, The Time of the Spirit: “Little is known for certain about the life of Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra in Lycia (Asia Minor). It is believed that he suffered imprisonment during the last major persecution of the Church under Diocletian in the early fourth century, and that he attended the first Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325. Christian tradition has come to regard him, in the words of an Orthodox hymn, as ‘an example of faith and an icon of gentleness’” [The Time of the Spirit, p. 69].
For those interested in the historical background of Saint Nicholas, the following note found in The Synaxarion, Vol. II, edited by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonas Petras, may prove to be of real interest: “Since the medieval period, Saint Nicholas of Myra has been confused with Saint Nicholas of Sion, who founded a monastery not far from Myra at the end of the 5th century. The Vita of the latter has come down to us but the incidents in it have been entirely ascribed to Saint Nicholas of Myra, with the result that Saint Nicholas of Sion has been forgotten in the hagiographical accounts…. See The Life of Saint Nicholas of Sion, edited and translated by I. N. P. Sevcenko [Brookline, MA, 1984].”
So, even if we are dealing with a “composite figure” when we venerate Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, we nevertheless are given a glimpse into the “mind of the Church” when it comes to an image of a true pastor. A powerful and enduring image of a genuine Christian shepherd has remained within the memory of the Church, regardless of the now unrecoverable “facts” behind the actual history of fourth-fifth century Asia Minor. It is this “unerring” intuition of the People of God to which the faithful respond up to the present day that remains as a solid foundation upholding all of the wonderful stories that endear us to Saint Nicholas. The Church always needs bishops of the type embodied by Saint Nicholas, a shepherd who was a “rule of faith and an image of humility” who both protected and interceded for his flock, according to the great Russian Orthodox iconographer, Leonid Uspensky. And he further writes: “This ‘life for others’ is his characteristic feature and is manifested by the great variety of forms of his solicitude for men: his care for their preservation, their protection from the elements, from human injustice, from heresies and so forth. This solicitude was accompanied by numerous miracles both during his life and after his death. Indefatigable intercessor, steadfast, uncompromising fighter for Orthodoxy, he was meek and gentle in character and humble in spirit” [The Time of the Spirit, p. 69].
Well known as Saint Nicholas has been, he is perhaps less well known in today’s world. In fact, he may be slowly slipping away from Christian consciousness. Santa Claus, that rather unfortunate caricature of the saintly bishop, clearly has something to do with this. But perhaps the very virtues embodied by this saint are slowly fading from our consciousness. Some time ago, I wrote a meditation that passed on the name our social and secular world has “earned” for itself through its rampant commercialization of Christmas—and that is “Getmas.” The author who coined this new term—I forget his name—claims it came to him based on a conversation he had had with a good friend about the “spirit of Christmas.” The friend of our author said that Christmas was about “getting things.” When the author countered by saying, “I thought Christmas was about giving,” the friend quickly retorted, “Sure, people are supposed to give me things!” Out of this sad exchange came the unfortunate, but accurate, “Getmas.”
But Saint Nicholas was about the proper understanding of “giving.” Perhaps the most enduring quality of his image is that of giving to children in need. Our children learn that those who already “have” more are those who will yet “get” more. And that is because they are taught this by their parents who yield to their childish demands. So we persist in widening the gap of imbalance between the “haves” and “have nots” without too many pangs of (Christian) conscience. Saint Nicholas wanted to restore a sense of balance, and so he looked first to those who were in need, so that they could also taste some childlike happiness from receiving an unexpected gift. In a simple manner, this imitates the giving of God Who gave us Christ at a time when everyone—rich and poor alike—was impoverished through sin and death. I sometimes fantasize that an ideal celebration of Christmas would find a relatively affluent family making sure that they spent more on those in need than on themselves. If Christianity is indeed the “imitation of the divine nature,” as Saint Gregory of Nyssa once said, then that need not necessarily be such an unrealistic idea. I do not believe that I have ever done that, so I convict myself through the very thought. Yet, I am convinced that our children would respond with an eager spirit of cooperation if properly prepared for some approximation of that ideal. Why should it be otherwise if, according to the Apostle Paul, Christ said that it is more blessed to give than to receive?