Lessons from St. Nicholas

preached by the Rev. Dr. A. Allen Brindisi, December 12, 2004, Davidson College Presbyterian Church, Davidson, North Carolina

Third Sunday in Advent, year A

Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:5-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Text: “Tell John what you hear and see: the poor have good news preached to them.”

St Nicholas, high altar, Church of St Nicholas, Prague
Postcard: St Nicholas Center Collection

Two Sundays ago I said to you in a rather stern voice that it is not yet the Christmas season in spite of what the rest of the world is doing. Let them wear red and green, in church we wear purple. Let them sing "Jingle Bell Rock," here we sing, "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence." I am afraid I came across as the Grinch. Within hours someone asked me if we are going to sing any carols before Christmas. Within days we were out celebrating Christmas in Davidson. Within a week I was listening to Christmas music in my car; it was Elvis who got to me, singing that this is the season of cheer. So I am here to redeem myself this morning. Grinch be gone! Let us talk about Saint Nicholas today. And Isaiah, and John the Baptist, and Jesus. But Saint Nicholas will be our guide.

Let me say that I have some wonderful memories of Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, the American version. My sister and I remember falling asleep on our mother’s lap at the Christmas Eve service, to awaken the next morning in our beds. Not allowed to go downstairs before our parents, we waited patiently while they went down to report back as to whether Santa had come during the night. Normally, the report was that not only had he come, but also what a mess he had made. Ashes from the fireplace were tracked across the carpet; crumbs from the cookies we had left were scattered on the floor; the carrots for the reindeer were gone, and there was often a hastily-scrawled thank you note on the mantle next to the bursting stockings. Sometimes we were convinced that we had heard sleigh bells during the night, but we never were sure if we had been asleep or awake for that. Years later, Ann and I enjoyed the moment every year when Santa called on the phone just before Christmas to talk to our two boys. With a deep ho-ho-ho and Mrs. Santa constantly interrupting, Santa would ask what our sons wanted for Christmas, with Ann and me listening apprehensively to hear how their last-minute lists had changed from what we had heard weeks earlier. The mystery of all that was always great fun; parents, treasure every magical moment.

Fast-forward to this past summer when Ann and I went to Prague and visited the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas, which overlooks the Old Town Square. It is one of 1200 churches in Europe named after St. Nicholas. This one is a massive Baroque-style building; Calvinists are overwhelmed by the ornate frescos and statues. Among them is a statue of Saint Nicholas with his long robe, pointed miter, crosier under one arm, and three gold balls in one hand . . . the traditional symbol of St. Nicholas. Our Czech guide reminded us, as she no doubt had reminded countless American tourists before us, that 1500 years before New York professor Clement Moore wrote, in 1822, a culture-changing poem called, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” . . . the original Saint Nicholas became one of the most beloved saints of the church because of his compassion for the poor, and his Christ-centered life.

His story is that Nicholas was born in the late third century in Asia Minor, about 350 miles northwest of Bethlehem, in what is now Turkey. His parents were quite wealthy, but it is said that even as a child Nicholas revealed his piety by refusing to accept nourishment on fast days of the church. He became a monk in a monastery, then was appointed Abbot. At a young age he became the bishop of Myra, his hometown. He suffered under the persecution of Diocletian. It is most probable that Nicholas was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325, where theological matters were debated long and hard. In fact, one story says that Nicholas became so upset with one debater whose theology seemed heretical, that Nicholas smote him in the jaw. As we Presbyterians say today, theology matters.

The most famous of the legends surrounding the life of Nicholas is in The Golden Legend, which concerns his benevolence to three daughters of a very poor man. In the fourth century parents arranged marriages for their children. In order to attract a worthy husband for a daughter, a father had to offer a dowry. The theory was that the more generous the dowry, the better the quality of the husband. But this one poor man had three daughters and not a penny to give them. He was ready to put them out on the street where they could sell themselves as slaves or prostitutes. The Bishop of Myra heard about this situation. Having inherited considerable wealth from his parents, Nicholas took all the gold he had and divided it into three bags. Now, there are different versions of this legend, but the one I like is that one night Nicholas crept quietly outside the poor man’s home and threw a bag of gold in through an open window. It thus became the dowry for the oldest daughter and she married a good man. Again, one night he crept by and threw a second bag of gold in, and that became the dowry for the middle daughter. By this time the grateful father was determined to find out who this anonymous benefactor was. So he kept watch, but Nicholas, not wanting to be discovered, climbed on the roof of the house and dropped his third bag of gold down the chimney, where it landed in a stocking hung by the chimney with care to dry. However, Bishop Nicholas was detected and news of his generosity got out. From then on, whenever anyone received an unexpected generous gift from a secret source, they thanked Nicholas. Various miracles are also attributed to him: like Joseph, he obtained a miraculous supply of [grain] to feed his country in a famine; like Paul, he saved sailors onboard a ship in a storm.

Upon his death around 350, the church made Nicholas a saint. He become the patron saint of unmarried girls, brides, seafarers, bankers, pawnbrokers, Russia, Greece, and children. His feast day is December the 6th. In many countries The Feast of Saint Nicholas is the day on which people exchange gifts. That, and January 6th, Epiphany, when the wise men bring their gifts to the Christ child. Christmas itself thus remains a purer Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus. Even then it is not that pure, because Christmas as we know it on December 25th is a weaving together of the birthday of Jesus with the celebration of the Roman winter feast of Saturnalia. But there is something to be said for separating the Feast of Saint Nicholas from the birth of Jesus Christ.

The custom of delivering gifts to the needy, always secretly at night in honor of Saint Nicholas, spread throughout Europe. In the Netherlands children put their wooden shoes by the door on December 6 for him to fill with candies and nuts when he came by. Dutch immigrants brought San Nicholaas customs to America, and it did not take much to move on to Sinter Klaus. I was in a home the other day where a beautiful display of Santa Claus carvings adorned the mantle. How interesting to see the variety, from the ascetic-looking bishop with long burgundy robe, white beard, crosier, miter, and white horse—to the plump red-nosed gentleman in a red snowsuit with his reindeer from the North Pole.

If that is the life and legend of Saint Nicholas, it is time to move on to the lessons he has for us beginning with the scripture texts for today. I remind you that The Old Testament lesson was Isaiah’s vision that when the glory of the Lord is fully revealed some amazing physical changes will take place among the hurting people of the world: blind eyes shall be opened, deaf ears shall be unstopped, the lame shall leap like the deer, the dumb will sing for joy. As for the planet itself, waters will break forth in the wilderness, streams will flow in the desert, the sand will be plush and fertile. The glory of the Lord, in other words, will have a physical dimension to it.

The New Testament lesson found John the Baptist in prison, sending his disciples to ask of Jesus, “Are you the one who is coming, or shall we look for another?” With all due respect to the Council of Nicaea: it would have been a perfect opportunity for Jesus to say something about how he is the one sent from God because he is the only-begotten Son of God, God of God, Light of Light, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father; who, for our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit. Theology matters, but Jesus, the practical theologian, avoids all that and instead sends this reply: “Tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor have good news preached to them.” Again, the glory of the Lord is more than a warm glow in the heart; it has empirical physical evidence you can hear and see.

Finally, do not miss the way Psalm 146 echoes this theme. “I will praise my God all the days of my life?” Why? Because the Lord gives food to the hungry, sets the prisoner free, opens the eyes of the blind, lifts up those who are oppressed, watches over travelers and strangers, upholds the widow and the orphan. How practical! So when we look at the infant Jesus in the manger, and sing that the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee—we are taking all those expectations that things are going to get measurably better in this world because the Christ is among us, all those hopes about the poor and sick and handicapped and oppressed and enslaved—we are taking them to the manger with the realization that these are the changes the Christ child is going to make in this world.

The first lesson from these scriptures and from Saint Nicholas, is that our personal faith must always have a practical dimension to it. We must begin by confessing our faith with Peter and Thomas and the saints down through the ages: you are the Christ, my Lord and my God. There are moments when we should be lost in wonder, love and praise; when we should go to the mountain of transfiguration with Jesus and behold his shining glory; and like the disciples fall down in awe. But Jesus told them to get up and when they came down the mountain there was this boy whose epilepsy meant he kept falling into the fire, like the scarred children who come to the Presbyterian mission hospital at Kikuyu, having fallen into the fires in their homes and then never been treated. Knowing Jesus Christ as Lord sends us into this world of real needs, where people are hungry, homeless, handicapped, and hunkered down lest stray bullets come flying through their bedroom windows, or in Gaza, their classroom windows. Bishop Nicholas was canonized because his life revealed the kind of practical divine glory Isaiah looked for and Jesus pointed out as signs to John. His faith addressed the hurts of the world. So even as Advent is our call to reflect on our relationship to Christ, it also calls us to ask what our faith in Christ is leading us to do about real needs in this world. The epistle of James issues the challenge: Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

The next lesson is simply to remember the poor this Christmas. Remember that all the fun we attribute to Santa Claus had its beginning in a man of Christ who had a heart for the poor. Before they printed ads that say, “Quick stocking stuffers for under $500”—there was Saint Nicholas secretly giving his wealth to the poor. “And when you give alms, do it in secret and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Jesus said that a sign he was the Christ was that the poor have good news preached to them. That good news is that God chose to come among us in a hard-working poor family, and that poor shepherds were the first to know. It is that God does not judge the poor as the world does, by what they are wearing, or how they talk or where they live—but rather, with righteousness and equity God judges the poor. In the court of divine love economic differences mean nothing. The hungry and homeless are equal to you and me, and according to Jesus, they even have an advantage. The wealthy, on the other hand, are judged according to how they have welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked and fed the hungry. That is bad news for the wealthy but good news for the poor.

When we are making our lists and checking them twice, let us be sure that somehow each of us is working to bring good news to the poor. Write a generous check to your favorite charity; bring food to the White Gift service next Sunday; remember the Salvation Army, the Ada Jenkins Center, our free medical clinic in Davidson, Habitat for Humanity, the Housing Coalition, Bread for the World—you know what to do. Let us participate in the ministry of Jesus as defined in Matthew 11, where he declares that the sign of his Messiah-ship is healing ministry to the blind, deaf, handicapped, diseased, and the poor. In the spirit of Saint Nicholas, let us practice unselfish generosity.

Finally, St. Nick is our reminder to remember the children. Christmas is a time to remember . . .traditions, family, so much. We all receive those Christmas letters from friends and relatives that remember, month by month, all the infirmities that struck this past year. In January it was the knee, April was the neck, November was the flu, and so on. Lest we forget. Whatever your age, in the next two weeks let us remember the children. Our own children, of course, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren whose natural ability to love myth and marvel at mystery is precious to behold. But let us remember the children whose names are on the Angel Tree out in our hallway: here is a 13-year-old boy who needs a winter coat; here is a 14-month-old girl who likes musical toys. Have you taken an angel from the tree yet?

Remember the children at Children’s Hospital down in Carolina Medical Center, and the 32 beautiful AIDS orphans in blue sweaters standing on the steps of Sigona Church over in Kenya. Remember the children who are receiving 7 million shoeboxes being shipped to 95 countries by Operation Christmas Child. Let us remember the physical needs of children; but also their spiritual needs . . . so even as they love the story of jolly old St. Nicholas, let us help them love the story of the God who so loves us that he has come as the Word made flesh to live among us.

Protestants have never been much for saints, so after the Protestant Reformation Saint Nicholas declined in favor of Krist Kindl . . . the Christ Child. He is our focus, but I think there is room in our ecumenical spirits to learn what it means to let the glory of the Lord be revealed in our lives, with lessons from Isaiah and John the Baptist and Jesus, and from the Bishop of Myra, Saint Nicholas.

By the Rev. Dr. A. Allen Brindisi, Davidson College Presbyterian Church, Davidson, North Carolina. Used by permission.

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