The pelican papers

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St. Nicholas: A bishop, not an elf

Posted by Ron George on December 23, 2013

Nicholas, Bishop of Myra

Nicholas, Bishop of Myra

St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) went virtually unnoticed by most U.S. Christians, whose children have been duped by American materialistic consumerism into believing in “Santa Claus” as a substitute not only for the real St. Nick but also, at least essence, for Jesus Christ, whose historic title gives us the first syllable of everyone’s favorite holiday.

Dec. 25 ought to be called Clausday, because that’s what it is, at least in America. It’s certainly not a commemoration of the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus despite pulpit pleadings by pastors torn between the need to appeal to the masses while holding the line against desolating sacrilege. 

The real St. Nick is a far more compelling figure than the dime-store imitation conjured up and exploited by the retail-business community, let alone that celebrating the mystery of the Word made flesh calls Christians not to the mall but to a deeper sense of their humanity, the compassion of God and the world’s continuous need for healing and renewal.

Nicholas, the legendary fourth-century bishop of Myra, was a formidable religious leader and perhaps one of the most popular in Christian history. His name appears among those who attended the Council of Nicaea in 325, but most of what has come down to us through the ages is no doubt larded with more imaginative storytelling than historical fact.

There is a charming Web site devoted to St. Nicholas – the real one, not the department-store knockoff. Every serious Christian, especially those of us who are blessed to be living in the United States, should browse stnicholascenter.org and spend a least a few minutes reflecting on its mission to retrieve a precious and significant chapter of our tradition from smarmy commercialization – and its intrusion into our communities of faith.

St. Nicholas, according to legend, was regarded as a holy man in his own lifetime. He is said to have embodied the attributes of Jesus Christ, especially in his care for the poor and dispossessed, and especially for widows and orphans, which should sound familiar to anyone who’s read Christian scripture. His jurisdiction on the southern coast of what is now Turkey probably drove his ministry to seafarers. There is no question that he became their patron saint and that he was regarded as such for centuries.

There is historical evidence that the first Christian church founded in the New World (by Vikings, in Greenland) was named for the ancient bishop of Myra. Columbus named a Haitian port for St. Nicholas on the saint’s day in 1492. Spanish explorers named an early settlement St. Nicholas Ferry, which later would be known as Jacksonville, Fla.

In short, the legends of St. Nicholas, Christian bishop and saint, are ever so much more vibrant and rich than those of the cheap imitation, who is said to be a laughable “jolly old elf” who visits children once a year in a flying sleigh full of toys. And yet, it is the latter that we let into our churches so children can be photographed on “Santa’s” lap! That may be good for business – at the mall and in recruiting families for church membership – but how can it be good for Christian congregations to seduce children with a pop-culture marketing tool and their parents with the cheap grace of scrapbook photos?

(No fewer than nine Christian congregations in my home town – Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist and Catholic – advertised “Breakfast with Santa” events on their grounds in early December. The only term for this is pandering. It’s certainly not evangelism.)

St. Nicholas Day always falls within the Advent season. It’s the traditional date of his death – Dec. 6, 343, at age 73 – and details are scarce, but for centuries thereafter his tomb was a place of pilgrimage. Liturgically, it is the work of the people on St. Nicholas Day to recall his virtues and his reflection of the light of Christ in the world. The values of St. Nicholas, those ascribed by legend and those few based on history, are values we are called to embrace the year round, but during Advent they are cast into reflections on our eternal destiny: How will our faith manifest itself in such a way that makes the world less terrible for the vulnerable?

The life of St. Nicholas is a wholesome Christian witness and, as such, worthy of our imitation; and, if not that in so many words, at least we may let ourselves be held to account for the many ways we have not embraced those values as well as our baptismal vows. Sorry, folks, but Advent is just that kind of season. Self-examination on a scale slightly less than that of Lent, but no less rigorous; and all that in light of the coming of Jesus a second time – or so our doctrines say – to judge the living and the dead.

Nicholas of Myra no doubt had a firm grasp of eternal consequences attached to temporal acts. I doubt, however, that he lived his life in fear of hell; rather, it’s clear, at least from the legendary stories about him, that he lived in hope of heaven, not only for himself but for all he cared for most: the poor, the marginal, the dispossessed, the sick and disabled.

If St. Nicholas Day means anything at all, it is a celebration of needs to be met by each and every child, woman and man created by God for life on this Earth. It is a celebration of giving not getting, of personal sacrifice and corporate responsibility not phony department-store props, Styrofoam sugarcanes, fake snow and a sedentary fat man dressed in red.

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One Response to “St. Nicholas: A bishop, not an elf”

  1. Jim Abbott said

    Thanks for the link to the web site. And yes, the true Christian message is always – ultimately more rich and satisfying (sorry for the food metaphor) than the imitation consumerist alternative. Be at Peace, Love one another. Jim

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