Friday, December 5, 2008

Jolly Old St. Nicholas

December 6th is the date many traditionally celebrate St. Nicholas, the man who would eventually become known as Santa Claus. What many do not know is that St. Nicholas was a real man who deserves to be more widely known. (Or at least, known as more than just a fat guy in a red suit who sneaks into your house on Christmas Eve.)

Nicholas was born in a Greek village on the coast of what is now known as Turkey. His parents, who were very wealthy, died in an epidemic and left a sizable inheritance to their son. Being a devout follower of Jesus, Nicholas used his money to help the poor, sick, and needy.

He was made bishop of Myra under unusual circumstances, seeing as how he was a layman, but served the people admirably. Under Emperor Diocletian, Nicholas was imprisoned along with many other believers. This gave him a special concern for those innocent of accused crimes. One story, which seems to have historical evidence, tells of him grabbing the executioner’s ax before it could behead an innocent man.

One of the my favorite stories of St. Nicholas was his involvement in the Council of Nicea (from which we get the Nicene Creed). Though some say it is merely a legend, it is said that in a fit of rage over Arias’ heresy, St. Nicholas actually punched the other man! He is also said to have destroyed a temple of Artemis upon returning to Myra and finding the city given over to idolatry.

Why should we care about Nicholas? First, because he has been associated with Advent for years and it gives us a great opportunity to thank God for his saints. Second, because he is the perfect antidote to Santa Claus. It has been said that Santa Claus takes away from the babe in a manger, but Nicholas points us to him. Finally, we should care about St. Nicholas because his life teaches us about compassion and charity, whereas many other Christmas celebrations teach only greed and selfishness.

For many years I have been telling my kids and parishoners about St. Nicholas and his life of service to Christ and his people. Sure, he doesn’t have a sled with flying reindeer and he can’t come down your chimney, but he can point us to Jesus, and that’s what Advent is all about.

Here's a song (sung to Angels from the Realms of Glory) that you can use to help celebrate:

Good Saint Nicholas of Myra,
deeds and legends tell his fame.
Saintly bishop, friend of children
We poor sinners sing the name:

Bless’d Nicholas, Bless’d Nicholas
He loved all in Jesus' name

Miracles and signs and wonders,
he performed to praise the Lord.
For a poor and weary people
source of care and joy outpoured:


Sailors, nations, people thank him
for the message that he brought.
Young and old now hail the memory
Of the lessons that he taught:


May his ways of true devotion
guide us on our earthly way.
Challenge us to be more like him
as Christ's gospel we obey:


Father, Son and Holy Spirit
bind us in community,
so that we with holy Nicholas
might eternal glory see:


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