Monday, December 5, 2011

St. Nicholas in Our Modern Time

Most of the world will be caught up in the dwindling number of shopping days until Christmas, or distracted by the harm or peril befallen someone on the news, or the teeter-totter pitch of the economy, and will have no idea of the passing of St. Nicholas Day tomorrow!  I find it a paradox that we quickly curse the secularization of the season, the loss of divine and holy awe, the glare of glitz and bling, and the self defined need for certain presents just for ourselves, and at the same time, have no connected idea as to what some of our actions are based upon.

Nicholas, born around 270 AD, lived in a world that was crumbling.  The Roman Empire was in corrupt decline, life was not a certain journey and could end abruptly at any turn of the days events.  His parents were blessed with wealth, perhaps due to his fathers merchant trade.  He was the by product of devout prayer by his parents who longed for a child.  The promise was made that the child would be dedicated to God if the blessing would become manifest.  Nicholas, (meaning - "People's Victor") was that prayer answering blessing.  It was not long however that both parents were taken by a massive plague that took nearly half of the population. He was taken into the care of his uncle, the Bishop of Myra, an influential region of the Early Christian Church.  Living among the monastic monks, Nicholas discerned his use of his families acquired wealth to aid and assist those in need.  It was under his uncle's tutelage that Nicholas was ordained Deacon and then Priest at an early age.

The story is well known of Nicholas leaving bags of gold coins to serve as the dowry for a family that had fallen upon hard times and his actions not only saved the oldest daughter from being sold into slavery or prostitution, but he did it three times for each of the merchant's three daughters.  The father stood vigil to find out who the benefactor was and caught Nicholas after the third delivery.  Nicholas directed his "thanks" to God alone, and then sternly charged him to tell nobody, but that he was therefore charged to go and do likewise for others!  Thus the pattern of "giving in secret".  It is also the basis that "helpers" grow in number as children mature and come into knowing just how Nicholas can make the world-wide rounds in one lone night.

The story that is not well known is that Nicholas was called back to Myra from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to find that his uncle had died.  It was a dream that led the head bishop of the replacement conclave to stand vigil in the early morning to meet the new candidate for bishop.  The vision said to anoint the first young man that entered the cathedral who's name was Nicholas.  And thus it happened as foretold!

It wasn't long afterwards till Diocletian began one of the most severe persecutions of the Christian Church.  Nicholas was one of those imprisoned for nearly 8 years.  Upon release, he was still young of age, but wore an older man's presence.  He quickly regained his popular status as a devout, caring and humble servant of the Lord.  Like most things that become less tested the Church itself started to show cracks in the perception of the Faith.  Nicholas was invited to be one of the over 300 bishops to attend a conclave that was called by the Emperor Constantine himself, to be held in the city of Nicaea during the Spring and Summer of 325AD.

To deal with the Arian Heresy, a movement to define Jesus as a "first creation" of God and yet not equal to the status of God, Constantine assemble 159 bishops to his left and 159 bishops on his right.  When the floor was given to Arius, the proponent of  "Arian Thought",  it was too much for Nicholas, who got up from his seat, strode to Arius and slapped him.  This was taboo to show any violence in front of the Emperor and was taken to a cell, stripped of his vestments and left in exile from the conclave.  It was a visitation by Jesus and His mother Mary that reinstated him and released him to regain his rightful seat at the Council.  Nicholas was a part of forming what many of us use today in our worship when we say the Nicene Creed!

It is only after the death of Nicholas that stories of him exploded worldwide.  The melding of St. Nicholas into Sintre Claus by the Dutch/Germans who later colonized the Pennsylvania/New York region of the United States that gives us the basis for Santa Clause today.  It is also the story of his generosity in secret to the dower-less maidens that we get the practice of filling shoes, stockings, or gifts under the tree.

I know it is a long background for a blog posting, however, if we understood the nature of the first real Santa Clause (St. Nicholas) perhaps it would be easier to catch an insight to the real meaning of Christmas Traditions and Celebrations.

Hopefully we can be as committed to defend our Faith in Jesus, be humble in accepting the many challenges and changes that come into our lives and to deal with them with as much Faith and Grace as He did in losing parents, relatives, wealth, health, freedom, and challenges to character and the ability to worship in a peace of mind and soul.  To move from the temptation of becoming bitter and numb to the pain or need of those in the world, and to move out instead with a generosity and love for our fellow man, and to kick it up even another notch to go and do something about it, in secret! 

I pray to capture a bit of the Spirit of St. Nicholas every year as his patron day comes by (December 6th) and make it an action to smile, greet others with Merry Christmas, to be patient when store clerks are frazzled and up tight. I'm going to be the one that affords Grace to the tensions that abound.  I want to be the one that leave a little bit more as a tip for the frenzied waitress.  I want to be the one that lives as if St. Nicholas has taken over my manifested presence and do my best to enable Peace on Earth, and Good Will to All Humankind.  Perhaps if enough of us would take on this mantle, maybe someday in our life time we will see it become a realty and not just a Hope that seems trampled by our blindness or rush to serve ourselves. 

Happy St. Nicholas Day to all of you elves out there that are doing the Lords work in a Frenzied World!

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