Commemoration of St. Nicholas
Advent Midweek 1
December 3, 2014
One of the complaints that Christians often voice at this time of year is that Christmas has become too commercialized. Far too many people observe the Feast of Christ’s Mass without any acknowledgment of Christ at all. Everything’s about parties and presents and television specials and favorite Christmas songs, all the while overlooking the incarnation of our Lord, His taking on of our flesh to save us. The guy in the red suit with the big white beard – Santa Claus – gets more attention than Jesus.
Perhaps, however, this problem can begin to be corrected by understanding where the legend of Santa Claus comes from and the actual historical basis of who he is. Most of us have heard of Santa Claus referred to as St. Nick or St. Nicholas. And, in fact, that’s where the name comes from—Santa is a word for Saint, and Claus is a shortened form in Dutch of the word Nicholas. Santa Claus, St. Nicholas.
Today’s Santa Claus has become the stuff of fairy tales and has been influenced in many ways by pagan notions. But St. Nicholas was a real person who lived roughly 300 years after Jesus. December 6 is the day when St. Nicholas is commemorated because it is the day of his death in the year 342, his heavenly birthday if you will. He died of natural causes, not martyred for his faith, nor did not leave any theological writings. So who was this man, and how did he get to be so well known?
Well, very little is known historically of St. Nicholas. He was born into a wealthy family in Asia Minor, in modern day Turkey. He chose not to pursue a life of riches, but instead he devoted himself to the Church. He eventually became bishop of a city called Myra, which was a pretty corrupt and evil city. Through his tireless work and preaching Christ crucified, he became known for standing up against corruption and for his love for those in need, such as poor widows and orphaned children.
For example, there is a story that there was a man in the city of Myra who had three daughters. He didn’t have enough money to provide his daughters with suitable dowries necessary for them to be married, and possibly even leading them to life of prostitution on the streets. Nicholas was deeply troubled about this, and he decided to help.
On three successive nights, St. Nicholas went to this man’s house and threw a bag of gold into an open window, one for each daughter. Some variations, mostly told in colder climates, have it that he threw these down the chimney and they landed in socks hung by the fireplace to dry. It’s not a far stretch to see how this has been morphed into our modern day fairy tale of Santa Claus.
His generosity doesn’t end there. Later on, the Roman governor of the area was bribed to falsely convict three men of a crime, condemning them to death. Just before the sentence was carried out, Nicholas goes to the executioner and grabs his hands refusing him to execute these men. He then preaches such a powerful sermon that the Roman governor repents and he lets them all go.
These stories are what helped make St. Nicholas so popular, but there was much more to the man than this. He was supposedly one of the bishops who attended the great Church Council of Nicaea, from which the Nicene Creed was produced. This Council was called to discuss the heresy of Arianism, named after a priest, Arius, that claimed Jesus was not God, but a created being. Arius taught that Jesus was a creature, a high and exalted creature and the first that God ever made, but not equal to God the Father. It is much the same way that Jehovah’s Witness and Mormons believes.
As the story goes, Nicholas gets so frustrated at the debate with Arius’ denial of Jesus’ divinity, that he either slaps or punches Arius in the face. He gets suspended for a bit and other bishops take him aside, he repents and is forgiven, and continues with the council.
Now, this probably didn’t really happen. But what did happen was that not only did the Council of Nicaea roundly rejected Arius and the heresy that he taught, but they reaffirmed the scriptural position that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. “God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made, who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man…”
Whether or not Nicholas was actually present at that council, he most certainly was a defender of that faith, faith in Christ the Son of God as the only Savior from sin and death and the devil. Nicholas preached Christ and Him crucified. He baptized people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He absolved people of their sins in Jesus’ name. He fed them with the life-giving body and blood of Jesus. In a word, he was a good pastor. He spoke the word of God, exposed the sins of the wicked, was charitable to those in need, and he battled injustice where he found it with compassion and the love of the Lord.
This is the real St. Nicholas. He wasn’t a Santa Claus taking attention away from Jesus. He was a preacher drawing everyone’s attention to Jesus. He wasn’t one making a list and checking it twice to see who was naughty and who was nice. For he knew that all people were both sinners and saints at the same time and that all desperately need Christ’s forgiveness and mercy.
Nicholas sacrificed and gave of his own wealth to save the three daughters. Is that not what Jesus did for us? He sacrificed and gave himself for us to rescue us from being eternally violated by death and the devil. He redeemed us not with bags of gold tossed through a window, but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.
Nicholas courageously stood firm to defend those facing death, risking his own name and reputation. Is that not what Jesus did and still does for us? He stood between us and eternal death on the cross and thereby kept us from having to suffer that most capital of all punishments.
Nicholas stood up for and proclaimed the Christian faith, fighting against heresy and smacking down false beliefs when he encountered them. Is that not Jesus did and still does for us? He speaks the Truth against a world who denies Him, and then He smacks death upon the cross and by the empty tomb.
That same Christ is at work in you. In Baptism, in the Word, in His body and blood. In the most precious gift, the Son of God who became man for you, who died for you, who rose for you, who lives for you.
So is there a real Santa Claus? Of course, there is. You’re not going to find the real St. Nicholas sliding down your chimney. But, like all saints, like all believers who have gone before us, he is celebrating with us whenever we gather to worship in God’s house. For in Christ’s presence dwell angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, all partaking of the same feast of which we now enjoy a foretaste. Thank God that St. Nicholas lives. He lives forever because, just like you, he was baptized and he believed in Jesus, who was born, who died and rose for us all.