Sunday, November 29, 2020

Santa and the Window: Reflections on the Life of St. Nicholas

Yes, church, there is a Santa Claus. ...Sort of. Don't think of a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer. Get rid of the boots and the suit. No more belly shaking like a bowl full of jelly, or cheeks like roses, or nose like a cherry. Turn back the clock, and Santa Claus becomes Sinterklaas. Turn it back still more, and as the mists of folklore clear, you'll see a figure painted in more realistic tones, and yet vastly more splendid than the children's tales. You'll see St. Nicholas – a real man, anchored in history. The truth is, the man on the Christmas cards would be horrified to learn that there are people who think of some version of him as the central figure of Christmas. He would be aghast to think that anyone would pit him against Jesus Christ. The real 'Santa Claus' would hate the thought. He didn't want to stand in our spotlight, not like that. The holiday isn't about him, and he'd be the first to tell you that. Santa Claus versus Christ? No falser words could ever be said!

Because the truth is, Santa Claus is a Christian – a sold-out-for-Jesus servant, a faithful minister of the gospel, a devoted man of the church. He'd run like Dasher, fly like Donner and Blitzen, to kneel beside the manger. And this year, as we prepare our hearts and our lives for Christmas, I believe there's plenty for him to teach us about what it means to live for Christ. So over the next few weeks, we're going to learn his story – the real one, the history, not the make-believe. And under Santa's tutelage, may we grow to imitate him as he imitated Christ.

So join me on a voyage. We need to cross 1,750 years of time and a third of the way around the earth. Across the ocean blue, on the southwestern coastal tip of the land we call Turkey today, sat a once-great city called Patara. It stood there in New Testament times – the Apostle Paul, on his trip back to Jerusalem, changed ships there. It was one of the great trade centers of Lycia, famed for two things. One: it had a stunning lighthouse. And two: for six months out of the year, the Greek god Apollo made his winter home there, and so the local oracle was the place pagans went to get the inside scoop.

Over two centuries after Paul was in Patara, there lived a man and his wife. The pair were among the town's few Christian households. This couple had prospered, possibly as ship owners or being otherwise involved in the trades. They could have let their gold, their silver, their house and all that was in it, distract them from what really mattered. But they didn't. They'd made a commitment to Jesus Christ with their lives, and they didn't shy away from that. They lived in the middle of a pagan city, full of idol temples and the smell of heathen sacrifices, with pilgrims swarming in half the year to get advice from demons at the oracle. It was not an easy place to be a Christian. The gospel was not a comfortable fit there. And you almost wouldn't blame people in a place like that for deciding they didn't want to bring children into that sort of world.

But they had faith. And so one day, around the year 270, perhaps in the middle of March, that man and that woman welcomed into their family one child – one, and no more. He broke the mold, as it were. And this couple gave him a rather unusual name, at the time. And that name was Nikolaos. It's a Greek name; it means, “victory of the people.” When his parents surveyed the pagan culture all around them, when they reflected on the growth of their little church as it waxed and waned through the years, they were convinced that the real victory wasn't in some great triumph of Caesar, nor in some whispered secret of Apollo, nor in a windfall of prosperity. No, the real victory was belief in the gospel. And the gospel is for all people. One day, it would spread throughout Patara and throughout all of Lycia and beyond, and that would be the real victory of the people. And so, faithful in hope for that day, thus they named their baby boy 'Nikolaos' – we say, 'Nicholas.'

Nicholas grew up in the lap of privilege, with most all the luxuries his parents could afford. He was raised on a diet of fish, grapes, figs, olives, and whatever grains the ships brought to and fro. Most important, he was raised on a healthy spiritual diet. His isn't a story of coming to the gospel late in life; he was taught the faith from an early age. He learned about the darkness of sin and the Savior who'd been sent to light up the world; he learned about the Son of God, nailed to the cross; about the Good Shepherd, raised from the dead; about the Lord reigning and returning. Since childhood, Nicholas had a laser-like focus on the Christian life and its ways.

From little on up, whether at his house or a neighbor's, Nicholas would have met with other Christians each Sunday before sunrise, and maybe sometimes after nightfall, for worship, for fellowship, and for celebrating a holy meal of bread and wine. Sometimes, they met outside town at the local cemetery, to remember the martyrs – including people Nicholas' parents had known, like Leo, who'd marched into the Temple of Fortune and taken a stand against paganism by smashing votive offerings and toppling candles, and had been executed for it. Each year, on the anniversary of Leo's heavenly birthday, Nicholas and his parents would have gathered at his grave, praised God for his faithfulness, and worshipped with other Christians.

While the fellowship of believers raised Nicholas in the teachings of the faith and the way Christians should live, he meanwhile got the best schooling his parents could provide. Like most boys, he went through primary schooling between the ages of 7 and 12; but unlike many, he – as a son of privilege – could stay in school until he was about 18. Growing up in his teenage years, with his peers enjoying entertainment at the theater and various other then-sordid sorts of amusement, Nicholas could have been tempted, like most teens are. But his parents had warned him from his infancy not to be seduced by the temptations of the world. And he listened to all that they taught him, choosing to live his young life in a Christian way. He was determined to be holy.

Then his idyllic and privileged home life was shattered. Throughout his youth, a plague had spread throughout the countryside of all Lycia, reaching even down to the coast and its beautiful, broad beaches. The past year has given us a sobering glimpse of how plagues can't be bribed. Even now, the best medicine money can buy is no guarantee. How much less then, when doctors were still as likely to harm as to heal? So maybe the plague is what did it. But we know that, when Nicholas was in his late teens, his parents' earthly pilgrimage ended. Likely before the year 290 had arrived, his natural family was no more. If you've lost some loved one to the coronavirus pandemic this year, Nicholas can relate. He lost loved ones to a disease outbreak, too.

And that's how, as a young man, Nicholas became the heir of the whole estate. He may have been fatherless, he may have been motherless, but he was far from penniless. He had plenty of gold, plenty of silver, and plenty of property at his disposal. But his parents were gone. So what would he do? How would he find his way in the world? He could do just about anything he wanted – but what was right? Those were the questions on his mind at the ripe age of eighteen. Think back for a moment to when you were that age. If you had been left alone, but given a considerable fortune, what would your next step have been?

Well, I'll tell you how Nicholas responded. He remembered that, even with no parents on earth, he still had a Father in heaven. And so Nicholas began, day after day, to get down on his knees and pray. He told God that he and his life and all his belongings were at God's disposal, and he was ready to do whatever God wanted. And then he turned to one of his family's prize possessions – a scroll with the Greek translation of Psalms. He started to read aloud to himself, in the privacy of his home. And he started finding lines like, “Make me know the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul. … Teach me to do your will, for you are my God” (Psalm 143:8, 10). And that's exactly what he began to pray.

And then young Nicholas kept reading. “If riches increase, set not your heart on them” (Psalm 62:10). Those words got him thinking. His riches had certainly increased. He had more than he knew what to do with. But he couldn't afford to surrender his heart to them. He couldn't afford to be tied to his gold. He had to keep wealth at a healthy distance. It said so, right there on the page, in those words penned by David over a thousand years ago. Nicholas could have dismissed it as irrelevant, as a relic from a simpler time. But he knew better. He felt God speaking the words to his heart, probing at the depths of his soul.

Nicholas set aside the Book of Psalms, and he picked up the Book of Proverbs. There, too, he read: “Let not mercy and truth forsake you, but bind them around your neck: so shall you find favor and honest things in the sight of the Lord and of men” (Proverbs 3:3-4). “A merciful man does good to his own soul” (Proverbs 11:17). There it was again: 'Mercy.' Nicholas could feel God underlining that word. What does 'mercy' look like?

So Nicholas kept reading. “God loves a cheerful giver. … He that has pity on the poor shall be maintained, for he has given of his own bread to the poor” (Proverbs 22:8-9). There! That's mercy! Mercy is care for the poor – not out of some public storehouse, but from his own sustenance, his own bread, to care for the poor cheerfully by giving to them. That's mercy! Nicholas read onward: “Deliver them that are led away to death, and redeem them that are appointed to be slain” (Proverbs 24:11). Nicholas understood what God was telling him. Some of the poverty he saw around him led to death – not just death of the body, but death of the soul. And it was right there in the scriptures: God wanted Nicholas to use his wealth to rescue the poorest of the poor.

Some of the most respected Christians of the age, like the desert hermit Antony in far-off Egypt, had once been as rich as Nicholas. They had given it all away, in obedience to the Lord who'd once told another rich young man, “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). But some of those other rich young Christians had given away their wealth indiscriminately – not being intentional in their giving, just getting it out of their hands like a lump of burning coal. Nicholas didn't want to burn his hands with money either, but he wasn't the impulsive type. He'd read the whole way through. He wanted his giving to matter – to do the most good it could. He wanted to obey God's word in the best way – intentional, targeted, personal giving. And to do that, he needed to plan and study.

There are probably dozens or hundreds of now-forgotten stories about people whom Nicholas found to give his money to. But one story has been remembered ever since. There was a man in the neighborhood who had once been rich – in the same class as Nicholas and his parents, maybe. But things had taken a turn for the worse. He lost everything. And I mean everything. It was a catastrophe ripped from the pages of the Book of Job. And that man – formerly inclined toward the church – was desperate. Maybe he'd turned to pagan promises. Maybe he'd taken offerings to the Temple of Fortune and cried out with tear-stained cheeks for relief. But he got none.

This man had three daughters. In the custom of that day, it was the dad's responsibility to provide his daughter with a dowry, in order to marry her off. But now he was poor. So poor that none of his daughters could have a dowry; he just couldn't afford it. And no man in town would marry a woman without one. His daughters were rendered unmarriageable. He struggled to even put food on the table for himself, let alone to provide for them. And there weren't a lot of options. Times were tough, and, feeling abandoned, he turned his back on God. But then he made desperate plans. He would send his daughters to work the only work a single young woman really had back then – in the red-light district. In the brothel.

Somehow, Nicholas found out what that family was going through. He watched the situation. He saw that it was important. Marriage is important. Nicholas felt called to a different life personally – he knew that it wasn't in God's plan for him to ever get married. But that didn't mean marriage didn't matter. A lot of Christians in those days were starting to think it didn't. Some were adopting some really dysfunctional ideas against marriage – thinking that it was just a hindrance to spiritual life, and should be avoided. But Nicholas knew better. He could see that marriage was important to God, even if it wasn't his own path.

But it was important, too, because if the man went through with his desperate act, it would lead to death. Not death of the body, but death of the soul, for him and maybe his daughters, too. So Nicholas began to plan. He made his list, his list of important things to value in the situation. He wanted to find a way to save these young women from that fate and meet their needs. But he also wanted to preserve their father's dignity and honor. Nicholas knew that was important, too – not to embarrass the man or put him in awkward and humiliating circumstances; not to demean the man or treat him as just another charity case.

So, too, Nicholas wanted to keep himself humble. He didn't want praise and honor for anything he might do to help. He remembered what Jesus said: “When you give to the needy, don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be secret; and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:3-4). That was countercultural in the Greek world of his time. Secret giving just wasn't something people did. If you gave to somebody outside the family, the whole point was to get a good reputation out of it. That was the trade: money for honor. It's why the rich sponsored so many public works projects: to see their names inscribed and celebrated for all generations to come. That was normal in Patara. But to Nicholas, Jesus was much better than normalcy.

However long he mulled over the plan, finally Nicholas sprang into action, before it was too late. One night, long after dark, he found the house of the family in trouble. Stealthily, he crept as close as he could on the public street. From his pocket, Nicholas pulled a small bag. Back home, he'd stuffed it with all the gold it could take without bursting, and he'd tied the string tight. And now, in the midnight hour, he pulled back his arm and let it fly – fly, fly through the open window and into the man's house. And then Nicholas quickly and quietly ran through the night until he was home.

Dawn came, and that father found the bag. And when he untied it and saw the gold coins pouring out, he was astonished. Not just astonished – he was filled with joy and amazement. And as he wept with delight, he called out to God and gave thanks for the incredible provision. He counted out the coins. He saw that it would make a fine dowry indeed. And without delay, he made arrangements for his eldest daughter's marriage – that meant a good life for her, one less mouth to feed for him, and spared both of them from doing harm to their own souls.

After the wedding, Nicholas saw that God had taken his good deed and used it to bless the family. So later that night, Nicholas filled another bag with just as much gold. And what he'd done before, he did again: crept out in the night, took aim, tossed the bag through the window, ran home. Morning came, and the father saw the bag. He never expected it – not again. He fell prostrate on the ground, overwhelmed and speechless, but grateful to God and wishing he could find out what angel God had sent to answer his unspoken prayers.

The father made arrangements for his middle daughter's marriage. And some night soon after the wedding ceremony, Nicholas filled a third bag with coins of gold. He tied it tight. He crept once more through the night, during the quietest of hours. And there was the open window once again. He pulled back his arm. And there's the toss! The bag sailed through the air, through the window, and landed with a soft crash. But it did not, as before, go unnoticed. No, each night since the wedding, the father had kept vigil, waiting up and listening carefully for that sound. And so he was ready. He pounced into the street and ran after Nicholas, whose efforts to flee were unsuccessful. The determined father caught up to him, grabbed him by the arm, spun him around, saw his face – and recognized him. He knew Nicholas from around town and from back in his church days. He knew Nicholas had given these gifts because of Jesus. As the father fell to the ground and hugged Nicholas by the legs and thanked him with great sobs, Nicholas asked only one thing: to promise not to tell the public for as long as he lived. The father agreed. His youngest daughter was married soon thereafter, poverty was relieved, and they all returned to faith and to the church. To borrow the words of the psalmist, Nicholas “has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever, his horn is exalted in honor” (Psalm 112:9).

This is maybe the most famous story from Nicholas' life. It takes up about a third of his earliest biography. It shows up in art from some of the earliest portrayals of St. Nick we have. As the story kept being retold, it mutated and changed. In some versions, the bags of gold landed in the girls' shoes or stockings. And as the story spread to northern Europe, it came to climates where open windows at night just didn't connect with people. And so somebody tweaked the story even more as they retold it. It wasn't through an open window that the bags flew; no, no, the window wasn't open – the bags fell down a chimney. And ever since then, Santa in the public mind has sent his bag of presents down the chimney to bless all the children of the house.

The great thing about the original story is that you don't need miraculous powers to imitate it. You don't even need to be as wealthy as the young saint. You just need the desire to obey God and a willingness to take the money of your own bread and to use it for mercy to those in distress – those in danger, not just of physical harm, but of being pressured into spiritual harm. It may take some thinking. But that's why we're together as a church. And it's why we partner with ministries like Samaritan's Purse and CrossNet. None of us has to do it alone. We, too, can bless our neighbors, not just around the world but in this community – our Patara, if you will – where God has seen fit to raise us up. So go, and as his Spirit shows you, do likewise. Amen.

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