From the Pulpit: St. Nicholas speaks
by Randal Nicholas, Salem United Church of Christ, Lena, Illinois
I was born about 270 A.D. in the town of Patara in Asia Minor. My mother and father were wealthy, yet sadly, they died in a plague when I was a little boy.
As I grew older, I traveled often and got into the habit of using my money to help people. When I was 51 years old, I took a trip to the Holy Land. During that journey, God spoke to my heart and I determined to go home and become a pastor in the church. This seemed the best way for me to really help people. So I returned to a village near my birthplace, a town called Myra.
My red bishop’s cape is a reminder of the blood of Christ that cleanses from all sin. My stole is a symbol of the yoke of Jesus, a simple reminder we are all his servants. And my staff is a symbol of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and how I care for his flock.
In my day, it was dangerous to be a Christian. Rome ruled our world. And Diocletian was the emperor. He made himself a god and ordered everyone to burn incense to his image, to bow before him, to chant “Diocletian is lord!” I refused and I taught that only Jesus is Lord.
For 22 years, I watched over my church. And during this time, I grew especially fond of children. You see, I was single. My parents were dead. So, my family became the church. And the children of others became as my own in the faith. One of my other joys was gift giving. Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Once, a man in my church went bankrupt, and to pay his bills, he would have to sell his three daughters into slavery. I prayed to God, our provider, collected an offering and in the dead of night stole past the man’s house and threw a bag of gold into an open window!
Another time, a young lady wanted to marry, but she had no dowry. Hearing of her plight, I gathered some money and was able to drop some coins down her chimney. The next day, she found the money and a wedding was announced. And because the gift was given in secret, there was no one to thank but God!
I was not just a minister with a soul for children and gift giving in secret. I was also a scholar. The church in my day was having trouble deciding what to believe about Jesus and the Bible and the Holy Spirit. So a church council was called to meet in Nicaea, in 325 A.D. There we canonized the Bible. We decided which books were to be included and which were to be left out. We also summed up our beliefs in the Nicene Creed.
Lest you think that I was perfect, let me confess I was a sinner, too. Once, at the Council of Nicaea, I so violently disagreed over a point of theology with another pastor that I punched him in the jaw. I was arrested on assault charges and spent the night in jail.
So, for 22 years, I was an elder to my people — teaching, evangelizing, offering communion, baptizing, burying the dead, performing weddings. But all the while, my favorite chores were always the children and gift-giving in secret.
Jesus called me home in 342 A.D., on Dec. 6. By then I was well known in the area. And many Christians had begun to follow my example in Christ and have ministries of their own. It became popular to hold a feast and worship service in my memory on Dec. 6.
The Puritans made it illegal to mention my name. During the 1600s it was forbidden to light a candle, exchange gifts, sing a carol, or make good things to eat. Christmas, it was decided, was not to be celebrated, but remembered at home, quietly, soberly. Because some in the church unwisely banned my name, the world took over and secularized my memory.
In England, I became Father Christmas. In France, I was called Papa Noel. In Russia, I became Father Frost. But in Holland, Christians were stubborn. And they refused to forget the life I lived in Jesus Christ. The Dutch pronounced my name “Sinter Claus” or Santa Claus.
As the memory of me began to fade, people soon began to make up stories about me that aren’t true.
In the 1820s, a dentist named Clement Moore wrote a poem for his sick child to cheer him up. In the poem, children were told I lived at the North Pole, drove a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, and that I was a fat little elf! Actually, I was rather tall and skinny, as I ate only on Wednesdays and Saturdays. My bones indicate that I was well over 6 feet tall.
In 1863, Thomas Nast drew a cartoon picture of me for Harper’s Weekly magazine. He, too, pictured me as plump. He gave me a long white beard, rosy cheeks, and dressed me in red with a sack of toys slung over my back. And a pipe. In my day, we didn’t even know that tobacco existed.
Today, many love Santa Claus so much they forget Jesus. And there are others like the Puritans of old who hate me. I say, remember the real me. I was a Christian who lived 1,700 years ago. I loved God’s people, especially children. And I gave gifts in secret.
A child once asked, “What is a saint of God?” Pointing toward the stained glass windows, which pictured heroes of the faith, I said, “A saint is someone who lets the light in.” That’s what I want to be for you. I am one of the great cloud of witnesses who stands to encourage you on as you run your own great race of faith.
I want to point you to Jesus Christ who saved me, who gave me children to love, who gave me a generous heart and a place to serve. I want to point you to the God who became one of us that we might become one of his.
No, I’m not omniscient. I don’t know if you’re bad or good. I have no way of knowing if you’re sleeping. And I’m not omnipresent. I can’t be everywhere at once on the same night.
Only God can be these things. Who am I then?
My name is Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. A child of God.
By the Rev. Randal Nicholas, Salem United Church of Christ, Lena, Illinois, for the Journal-Standard, December 12, 2018. Permission pending.