Sermon: ADVENT 2, December 4th, 2016
In the Name...
Two brothers owned a dry cleaners and, on Christmas Eve, one of them found a $100 bill in a customer’s trouser pocket. At once he realized he faced an ethical dilemma. Should he keep the money for himself, or, in the Christmas spirit, share it with his brother?
This Tuesday, the Sixth of December, is the feast of St. Nicholas of Myra. In some homes, and this was true in mine growing up, children awaken to find shoes or stockings full of treats - citrus, nuts, toys, and chocolate. It is a curious custom, but, there may be more to it than just the persistence of an old cultural tradition that has been overshadowed by the Coca-Cola / Montgomery Ward's Santa Claus character of our modern Christmas celebrations.
Actually, the only thing we know for certain about the real St. Nicholas is that we know nothing about him. He was Bishop of Myra, a city which is in modern Turkey, and that's it. We have no information about his seminary background and theological positions, social policies, ability to balance the diocesan budget, firm handshake, good teeth, or any of the other things that receive so much attention in today's bishop-search processes. What we do have, though, are lots and lots of legends about him.
Now this word, "legend." It comes from "legenda", the Latin for 'things that ought to be read'. In Latin, "legenda" has no connotation of "fairy tale" or something untrue - on the contrary. Legend is something we ought to read to guide us. We still use the word that way when we speak of a legend on a map, a guide which explains the little symbols for toll roads, exits, or where the public restrooms are. The legends of a saint are also guides, moral stories about how we ought to live.
Now, the legends about St Nicholas are more than a little strange. In one, he discovers that a butcher has killed and pickled three children in brine, intending to sell their flesh during a famine. The good bishop finds the children in their tub and miraculously restores them to a less saline condition. They, then, so the story goes, become choristers. Whatever.
In another story, he learns about three poor young women who need dowry money. So, late one night, he throws bags of gold (think stockings) through the window (presumably an open window) of the house in which live. The gold saves the women from poverty and disgrace and there is much rejoicing. And, in another legend, he remains calm during a storm at sea when the crew are ready to abandon ship and his confidence inspires them to trust in God, ride it out, and safely reach port.
Now, I don't know about you, but, I've never known someone who was pickled - in brine, anyway - or needed a dowry, or who was even on a sinking ship. So, it's really hard for me to connect. Why, then, should these stories and their protagonist have captured the imaginations of people whose cultures and beliefs vary so widely - Germans, Italians, Poles, English, Russians, Greeks, etc.? Why has he survived export throughout the world while other saints have not?
It may be, because, the legenda of St Nicholas, the things we ought to read about him, translate so easily into an agenda from St Nicholas, things we ought to do in light of what we have read.
You see, at their core, all of the legends of St Nicholas involve his perception of a human need and the response to that need. And, that is what we, as Christians, should always be doing. Seeking and serving those around us. Perhaps the first miracle in each of these stories is that Nicholas has an open set of eyes, an open ear, and an open heart. In other words, Nicholas is always alert to those around him and responds to their needs in love.
The reason for the persistence of St. Nicholas is that we can all be like him. We can all seek and serve those in need. We can all provide a practical example of what the love of Christ in our lives means to us and what it can do for others.
From his legenda to his agenda of finding people where he can make a gift of himself, he is well within our reach. In fact, it's been said that Nicholas may be the only saint with whom reasonable adults are comfortable, and even eager, to imitate.
For even though he has has been morphed by popular culture into a jolly old elf who pops down chimneys and rides in the sky with his reindeer, there is one thing about the popular Santa which was probably true about the real St. Nick - the glow on his face. Call it jolly or winking or beamish or whatever you like, but, the glow which comes from having found people and places where he could extend Christ's love and make them happy.
And, that is a Christmas spirit we can all share.
In the Name...