Thursday, December 10, 2015

What If St. Nicholas Really Did Come to Our Town? Keeping Advent Eyes Open in a Tired World

On the heels of St. Nicholas Day (December 6), I believe it's time for the annual post as homage to the most mystifying saint of the Christian Way.

Nicholas of Myra was born towards the middle of the third century in Patara, a town on the coast of modern-dayTurkey. Nicholas’ birth was surrounded by mystery and his earliest childhood laced in legends about piety- like how the infant rose from the baptismal font and pronounced a blessing to the congregation. 

As time passed and folklore grew, Nicholas’ faith and charity inspired the masses until one afternoon, upon a vision given to a local church leader, Nicholas walked into a sanctuary in Myra and was immediately anointed archbishop.

Apparently the Book of Order and Presbyterian polity had not yet arrived to Myra.

Nevertheless, Nicholas served as a prominent leader in this ancient-Turkish city around the time of the council of Nicaea. Legend has it St. Nickwas there, fending off heretics with his sandal. 

But this is not what historians and hagiographers most emphasize when they write about Nicholas. Instead, they underscore the Bishop’s obsession with advocacy, justice, and God’s concern for the poor, oppressed, wrongly accused, and victims of violence- especially children.

And much like our world today, there were more than enough reasons to advocate and intervene.

One such story tells of Nicholas, who had learned of a family on the brink of bankruptcy and about to sell their three daughters into a trafficking ring, secretly tossed two bags of money through the family’s window, which landed in their shoes. The amount was enough to pay a dowry and prevent life-long captivity and exploitation of the young girls.  

But there was still one daughter left.

Anticipating another act of covert generosity, the father camped out on the roof of his home and waited until he caught a glimpse of the Great Giver. That’s when one starry night he saw Nicholas, dressed in his red clerical robe, drop a bag of money down their chimney and into a sock hung out to dry.

Chimney. Stocking. Rooftop. Shoes. You get the idea. 

Wanting to maintain a spirit of anonymity and humility, the pious bishop made the father promise to refrain from revealing who had provided such elaborate funds. Thus the beginning of the mystery behind the man with a beard, red mitre, and prophetic witness.

Yet the story was too good not to be told. It was a glimmer of hope amidst their reasons to despair and fear. The prophetic and radical generosity of those who benefited from and followed behind other secret graces of Nicholas birthed new tales.

My favorite is the story of three men wrongly accused of a crime by the governor, Eusthatius, who in turn sentenced them to death. Just as the sword was about to come down on the innocent, Nicholas intervened, ran towards the platform, climbed the wooden steps, seized the downward thrusting sword in his calloused hand, tossed it aside in disgust, and refused to cease protest in the governor's courts until their accusations were expunged and wrongs righted.

Not your typical illustration of holly and jolly. 

As I made my final sermon preparations this past Sunday, with the images and stories of our nation and world swirling in my mind, the images of Nicholas laying his own life down for the lives of others took over my homiletical imagination. 

After all, his world was not all that different than our own.

So I wondered, what would happen if St. Nicholas really did come to town? 

On Monday he rode around Philly on a motorcycle blasting festive carols (see picture above). 

But I am not sure that's where you'd find him. 

Instead, I imagined the Archbishops's red cloak and mitre being spotted at rallies and protests alongside those who continue to demand that their lives matter. I imagine him echoing their chants from Baltimore to Chicago, Ferguson to New York.

I imagined the saint listening to the voices of those wrongly accused and unjustly sentenced in the midst of broken penal and justice systems fueled by racism and discrimination. 

I imagined letters with his signature at the end demanding the welcome of refugees fleeing nations torn by violence and religious persecution.  I imagined Nicholas housing such refugees in his church and home, regardless of the law of the land.   

I imagined St. Nicholas tossing aside guns and the broken legislation that makes them so readily available.  I imagined him at the office steps of his political representatives and demanding change. 

I imagined St. Nicholas waving his sandal in disgust, a sign of condemnation and offense, when he learned of the rally cries to carry concealed elicited by evangelical university presidents who claim to follow the same Jesus who said, "blessed are the peacemakers." I imagined Nicholas doing the same when candidates for political office suggested religious testing, registries, and exclusion of religious people groups as their only thoughtless responses to terror and immigration. 

I imagined Nicholas walking alongside persons of different faith traditions, shedding off fears of the other, and working to alleviate ignorance and prejudice. He would call them neighbor and friend. 

I imagined St. Nick coming to the poorest of towns and working tirelessly to end pervasive poverty and broken education systems that left children with a bleak future at best. 

Then I rememebered- there are many Christians and faith communities already doing these very things. They just do so in a way that doesn't always get noticed by the press or the public. They frequently work in subversive means for the sake of the common good- humble yet bold and determined witnesses to the gospel.

Sounds a lot like St. Nick. 

So this Advent, I am doing my best not too allow the despairing world and the irresponsible and unethical remarks of "Christian" and political leaders to overshadow the reality that God is with us, for us, and calling us to something far more gracious. I am keeping my Advent eyes open to the many faithful witnesses who have taken seriously their call to prepare the Way to God's coming peace and justice. I am looking on rooftops and street corners, in cities and suburbs, at protests and advocacy groups, and even in sanctuaries each Sunday morning, assured the same Spirit who moved and motivated the life of St. Nick equips and inspires saints 1700 years later. 

"The message of Advent about the coming of the light requires that we become people of Advent; people who persistently await the victorious light. Where there are such people, Christmas can happen. Christ waits for people who will not compromise the light with darkness, neither in themselves nor in anything else, but who are moved by the serious need for the light of Christ and who are aware of whence the help comes. May God give that we may go forth to the festival of Christmas as moved and motivated people. Then we will experience Christmas with the gifts of grace and blessing."
---Karl Barth

Helpful Links

Blogpost with Adam English and link to an excellent podcast about hardcore St. Nick: