Sunday, December 6, 2020

Santa Behind Bars: Advent Reflections on the Life of St. Nicholas

Yes, church... there is a Santa Claus. If you were with us last week, you started to hear his story – the true story, not the myth. We traveled to a far-off city called Patara on the southwest coast of Turkey and met this young man named Nicholas, bereaved of his earthly family too soon, but using his wealth in strategic ways for intentional anonymous giving – just like Jesus his Lord had said. He was a man made of flesh and blood, this real St. Nicholas, trying to follow Jesus in a chaotic and challenging world – just like us.

And believe me, his world could get chaotic. His parents had lived through a time historians now call the Crisis of the Third Century. For about fifty years, the reigns of emperors could most often be measured in months or days, and very few enjoyed any sort of nonviolent death. It was a time of great political upheaval, a time of plague and invasion and loss. And even during Nicholas' own childhood in Patara, while he was being brought to church and made “acquainted with the sacred writings” which were “able to make [him] wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15), emperor after emperor had their reigns abruptly ended by disease, lightning strike, or – still most common of all – murder.

But then, one day, when Nicholas was a teenager, a new man rose to power. Diocles was a 40-year-old cavalry commander from the region of Dalmatia. And in November 284, when the emperor Numerian was found dead in his coach (perhaps assassinated by Diocles), the generals elected Diocles to be emperor. Promptly murdering his closest rival, Diocles changed his name to Diocletian, hunted down Numerian's brother Carinus in July 285, and soon began reorganizing Roman politics from the ground up. At the same time when Nicholas in Patara was throwing bags of gold through a poor father's window to save a poor family from spiritual death, Diocletian was forming the Tetrarchy, the rule of four. He'd chosen an old army buddy as co-emperor, an Augustus, to govern the west; and each of them took their son-in-law as a junior co-emperor, or Caesar.

Nicholas didn't have to pay much attention to Maximian and Constantius. Patara was in the east of the empire, right in the lands ruled by Diocletian and Galerius. Diocletian was a military-minded conservative. He was an army man who wanted to see the army restored to its former glory and the empire made great again. He was a staunch defender of traditional Roman values – he wanted to get back to the old ways, whatever it took to get there. Maybe some of you understand the feeling. That sounds like somebody you'd vote for. But traditional Roman values meant traditional Roman gods. Diocletian wanted to purify the empire religiously, and believed that “an ancient religion ought not be criticized by a newfangled one” – such as, for instance, that upstart called Christianity. Not great news for the church. Meanwhile, Diocletian's son-in-law and Caesar Galerius was rumored to have an anti-Roman streak, very different in temperament from Diocletian. Galerius was half-Thracian and half-Dacian – people whom the Romans had brutally subjugated two centuries earlier. His mom was a deeply superstitious woman named Romula, who resented Christians for never coming to her parties and who passed along a bitter anti-Christian zeal to her son. To have Diocletian and Galerius at the controls of the empire made it an uncomfortable time to be a Christian. It was very obvious to the church that those in political leadership in their land were, at best, bitterly unsympathetic – and, in fact, a hostile danger to watch out for.

As the third century drew to a close, something happened that would change Nicholas' life. About thirty miles east from his town of Patara, there was another town on the southern coast of what we now call Turkey – a town called Myra. And the bishop of Myra died. We don't know his name, but he had served for years as the head pastor of the city, directing the affairs of the church, devoted to the simple life of praying, reading, and preaching – he cared for the church, distributed charity to the needy, baptized and taught new believers. It wasn't a task for just anybody – and not a task many wanted, considering that being a bishop meant having a target on your back for harassment. Whoever stepped up next would need to be strong and wise. And so the other pastors of Myra and the bishops of some neighboring towns assembled to talk – and to pray, and pray, and pray. But still they had no idea what to do.

Then it happened. One of the neighboring bishops heard a voice. And I can't tell you whether that voice was a booming sound in his ears or an unspoken whisper in the depths of his soul. But it had a clear message to give him. And the voice said to him: “Go to the house of God at night. Stand at the entrance. Whoever comes to enter the church quietly before anyone else, take this man and appoint him bishop.” Now, there were plenty of different ways to pick a bishop, but that seemed absolutely deranged! And the voice followed it up with one more bit of information: “By the way, his name will be... Nicholas.” You see where this is headed!

That bishop shared his experience with the other bishops and the priests of the town. And they murmured in confusion. None of them had ever even met anybody with that kind of name. And it seemed like a very silly procedure. What were they to do, wait in the dark overnight outside the church? But... then again, who were they to argue with a voice that seemed to be the voice of the Holy Spirit, answering all their prayers? And it's not like anybody else had a solution. So, they gave the go-ahead.

Meanwhile, thirty miles west in Patara, Nicholas, after a decade of generous service to his local church and his community, heard about the death of the bishop of Myra. And Nicholas was deeply affected, and figured that it couldn't hurt to go pay his respects. Perhaps the bishop of Myra was an uncle, or perhaps it was merely a move of Christian care. But Nicholas set out on a journey along the coast. It took longer than he thought, and so he found himself arriving late, in the middle of the night, in the early hours of the morning, before sunrise. As he approached the doors of the church, the sun crept to the horizon. Nicholas felt a tap on his shoulder. Turning around, he saw a bishop standing suddenly behind him. In those dawning rays, this venerable bishop asked the young man's name – for Nicholas was just past his thirtieth birthday. And he humbly said to the bishop, “Sir, I am Nicholas, a sinner and a servant of Your Excellency.”

Can you imagine what went through that bishop's mind in that moment? The voice had been real! It had been telling the truth! Here was the man appointed, practically by prophecy! So this bishop invited the unsuspecting Nicholas into the building, where the rest of the synod was waiting – the other neighboring bishops, and these priests of Myra. And when the visionary introduced this young man as Nicholas, people's jaws dropped. This was the one they'd been waiting for. This was the man of God's own choosing, the one whom God had called – without letting him yet in on the secret! Soon, a small crowd of believers began to arrive, and they started rejoicing and thanking God for sending them a new bishop.

Now, this came as no small surprise to Nicholas! He was utterly unaware of the situation. He had only come to visit, to pay his respects and get back home. He had no aspirations for higher church service. And he was not exactly keen on the notion. So it took some convincing. The synod, the council of neighboring bishops and the local priests, explained to Nicholas what had happened. He didn't like it, not one bit. But after plenty arguing, they managed to get him into the bishop's chair. And as the crowd shouted its consent, these other bishops laid their hands on Nicholas. And the one with seniority began to pray:

God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ..., you established rulers and priests, and have not left your sanctuary without ministers... Even now, pour out from yourself the power of the Spirit of governance, which you gave to your beloved Son Jesus Christ, which he gave to the holy apostles, who set up the church in every place as your sanctuary, for the unceasing glory and praise of your name. Father, you know the heart. Grant that your servant, whom you have chosen for the bishopric, should shepherd your flock and should serve before you as high priest without blame, serving by night and day, ceaselessly propitiating your face and offering the gifts of your holy church. And let him have the power of high priesthood, to forgive sins according to your command, to assign duties according to your command, to loose every tie according to the power which you gave to the apostles, to please you in gentleness and with a pure heart, offering you the scent of sweetness. Through your Son Jesus Christ, through whom be glory, power, and honor to you with the Holy Spirit in the holy church, now and forever. Amen!

And in those words, under the bishops' hands, the Holy Spirit rushed upon Nicholas, made this young man into a bishop, a high priest in the church. Some of those who'd serve under him had been in ministry as long as Nicholas had been alive. And yet they handed him bread and wine. And for the first time, Nicholas celebrated communion, feeling the Holy Spirit act through his hands. Undeniably, Nicholas was the new bishop of Myra. And the best gifts Santa Claus gave were the words of the gospel he spoke with his mouth and the body and blood of Christ he offered with his hands for the spiritual food of many. Santa Claus had become a pastor.

As the fourth century began, Nicholas began to adjust to his new role. Patara was his past; Myra was his future. Nicholas started getting to know his flock, meet the people suddenly entrusted to his care. He had assumed the responsibility for all the souls in his town. And a few years went by. And things were good. His ministry there prospered. He preached the gospel. He offered the sacrifice. He led the prayers. He counseled and absolved.

But things were about to get difficult. It was the winter of 302, and Diocletian and Galerius were both spending it in the city of Nicomedia, about 450 miles north of Myra. They'd been trying to fix the empire's economy with price edicts, they'd been attempting to restore Roman glory, and the blame for a lot of the trouble seemed to be all these newfangled ways that had taken the Romans away from tradition. Galerius, in particular, believed that something needed to be done about the Christians. The gods hadn't been speaking – things seemed to go wrong in pagan ceremonies whenever they were around, making the sign of the cross, invoking their Christ. They consulted the oracle of Apollo, and it was out of order because of Christian influence. The emperors' pagan advisors all suggested something had to be done. Diocletian was convinced. And so, in February 303, he gave a sweeping new executive order: destroy the churches and burn the scriptures. Soon enough, news of this new law reached Myra. The church building was in danger. Nicholas had to hide the scriptures to protect the sacred saving word of God from being consumed in the flames. It was a tough time for Nicholas and his congregation.

And it was about to get tougher. Only a few months passed before Diocletian and Galerius laid down another law. They gave the order for civil authorities to arrest all bishops. The position was now an illegal one. And so the local magistrate commanded the police to put it into practice. And St. Nicholas was under arrest. Cuffed, processed, put in prison. Santa Claus behind bars. That's not part of our customary picture, I know. And the prisons of the Roman day were not comfortable at all. They were dank and dark, cramped and cold, and rats had free rein. At the time of Nicholas' arrest, he wasn't just the exact same height as me, he was also the same age as me – but the effects of his imprisonment would be with his body for the rest of his life. St. Nicholas was in a nasty prison. Too often today, we who claim the name of Christ have lobbied for harsher prisons, desiring that they should be nasty to punish those whom civil authorities send there. Seems short-sighted, given how often in history we've been the ones behind the bars, like Nicholas. For centuries, one of the main purposes of the offering taken up in worship was to provide for the needs of Christians locked up in these prisons.

Nicholas' first summer in the prison began to pass. And around the empire, the arrests of so many bishops and others started to put stress on the prison system, leading to overcrowding. Since Diocletian was getting ready to celebrate his twentieth anniversary on the imperial throne, he issued another order. Any jailed bishop who was willing to offer a pagan sacrifice could be set free. Those who resisted, though, would face torture. In some places, bishops who refused to sacrifice, refused to renounce Jesus, were executed. That wasn't the case where Nicholas was. He wouldn't be put to death. But he would be put through quite a lot.

Santa Claus in prison. Santa Claus being beaten, burned, branded. We hardly like to think of Santa Claus, that 'jolly old elf' of the children's stories, as a torture victim. But the real St. Nicholas was. He got bruises, he got broken bones, he got bloody. We'd like to not think about it. But Nicholas took it as a compliment. God must think well of him to let him share Christ's sufferings. For Jesus Christ was whipped and slapped and mocked and nailed to a cross, where Jesus himself was tortured, shamed for our guilt, sacrificed for our sins. And to be tortured like Jesus for Jesus, Nicholas took as a compliment straight from God. And he rejoiced in his jail cell.

Outside the prison, the flock Nicholas loved was soon under attack. By February 304, Diocletian and Galerius had doubled down, giving a fourth order that all Christians should sacrifice or suffer. A lot of Christians found ways to escape. Some slipped through the cracks in government records. Some fled into the countryside and couldn't be located. Some were hidden by non-Christian friends. But many Christians were put to the test. And some of them passed that test. They refused to sacrifice, even a little bit, to false gods; they refused to lend their support to traditional Roman religion. And some of those were killed, and some of those were put in jail with their bishop Nicholas. But other Christians buckled under the pressure, made compromises to save their skin – and no doubt that was true of some in Nicholas' church. Some didn't pass the test.

Those years were chaos. Diocletian became sick and retired to his countryside estate to farm cabbage. In 305, he promoted Galerius, who took his nephew Maximinus as his new junior co-emperor. Civil wars broke out throughout the empire. This Tetrarchy was a doomed experiment. As Paul might have remarked, “evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13). Meanwhile, Nicholas stayed chained in a prison dark, resisting the demands of the state. He treasured biblical promises like Peter's words, how “if you suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed; have no fear of them, nor be troubled” (1 Peter 3:14). He spent his time in prayer, pleading with God to uphold him and keep him strong, lest he prove unworthy by base denial and finally betray Christ.

Years passed. By April 311, Galerius was seriously sick, suffering intensely from what may have been cancer or gangrene. Galerius sensed it was the touch of divine wrath. And he became desperate. In his desperation, this fiercely anti-Christian emperor issued an order releasing all bishops from prison. He ended the persecution. Galerius begged the church he'd persecuted, the Christians he'd hated, to start praying for him – that he might either be restored or have his suffering ended. By the end of the week, Galerius was dead.

In those final days of Galerius' life in May 311, Nicholas stepped out of prison, limping into a changed world. His church had been destroyed, his flock had been demoralized. Some had had their faith strengthened – they'd become more passionate, inspired by the witness of the martyrs, determined to cling to Jesus. Others felt shame for having crumbled under pressure, and questions circulated over on what terms they could be welcomed back into fellowship and restored from their sin. Nicholas paced the rubble, briefly breathing a sigh of peace, glad to be back in contact with his people. But not many months passed before Maximinus, now in charge, broke that peace: he sponsored anti-Christian propaganda campaigns, he refused to let Nicholas and other bishops rebuild their churches, he renewed torture of some bishops, he even encouraged cities to apply for a permit to evict all Christians from their midst. We actually have a request from a town not far from Myra, asking Maximinus “that the Christians, who have long been disloyal and still persist in the same mischievous intent, should at last be put down and not be suffered, by any absurd novelty, to offend against the honor due to the gods.

None of these experiences had caught Nicholas by surprise, though. They'd catch us by surprise, if they came here. If the government ordered this church building to be torn down, if the government ordered the destruction of Bibles, if the police came to arrest me for being your pastor, we'd find that awfully surprising. And if they told you to make a token gesture – sacrifice to what they wanted, salute to what they wanted – or else face the consequences, you'd be quite surprised. But Nicholas wasn't surprised. He'd grown up visiting the graves of martyrs. He believed Paul when the Apostle wrote that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Nicholas had no other expectations. So when the pressure was on, he proved to be neither a coward nor a compromiser but a Christ-follower.

Nine sunrises ago, in Indonesia, terrorists invaded a village populated heavily by Christians. They burned the church and several homes, and they beheaded a number of men – fathers and husbands – for being Christians. A week later, this past Friday, an Israeli extremist attempted to burn down the church in Gethsemane where Jesus had prayed before going to the cross. At this very moment, I could name believers imprisoned for their faith in countries around the world – places like Eritrea, Iran, Somalia, China, and more. They will spend this coming Christmas the way St. Nicholas himself spent many: jailed for the gospel. And as the church in Myra supported St. Nicholas, so it falls to us to encourage and support the persecuted church around the world, in our prayer and in our giving and in messages of hope.

Yet these things are perhaps not all so far off as we'd think. Last month, in France, as believers rallied for the reopening of their churches, police warned them not to pray – because praying in public is illegal there. And when they knelt to the ground outside their shuttered churches to beseech their Lord for help, the government took action. Even here in the United States, the Supreme Court recently had to rebuke several sitting governors, reminding them that they can't mindlessly repress churches and other assemblies of worship. The day may someday come, even here, when the Diocletianic hearts of governors and presidents and bureaucrats will be less restrained. And then those desiring to live a godly life in Christ will indeed be persecuted – as Saint Nicholas could tell us. He knew what it was to be persecuted in prison for Jesus.

For Satan is a harsher tyrant than Diocletian or Galerius. A sin-infected world, and the demonic powers behind it, can imprison us in difficult circumstances. And in this world, we can be tormented by financial insecurity, or by political instability, or by social disharmony, or by disease. This year, we know a lot about that. This world can seek to stoke our anger, our grief, our bitterness, and our loneliness; it can tempt us toward sins of cowardice and of compromise. The question isn't whether we suffer, whether we grieve, whether we hurt. This year, we do suffer. This year, we do grieve. This year, we do hurt. The real question is how we'll handle it.

As Christmas approaches, we often don't like to think about these things. We like the sentimental picture of the Baby in the manger, of the angels singing about peace, of the warm glow of the star, of the cuddly animals and contented faces. That's the way we like our nativity scenes. We want to airbrush out the part about Herod's soldiers coming to butcher infant innocents. We want to airbrush out the distress on Joseph and Mary's faces as they rush out into the night to escape. But these things have always been part of the meaning of Christmas.

The reason suffering makes it harder to appreciate Christmas is simply that we've made Christmas something it isn't. We've stripped Christmas of its gritty realism and made it sentimental. We've made it about domestic happiness and cheer around the fireplace, with mugs of eggnog lofted high, with pristine snowflakes outside, with festive ornamentation and togetherness. But Christmas is about how God injected his living Light into a sin-darkened world so that he could share our suffering – and suffer so that we might share his. Christmas is about a hope that holds true even when the night is cold and the sheep are freezing, even when the night is long and the shepherds are sick, even when the wise men get lost and lose sight of the star, even when Bethlehem is unsafe and the children die – yes, even then, Christmas is still Christmas. Perhaps especially then, Christmas is Christmas. St. Nicholas knew that. Santa Claus spent his fair share of Christmases behind bars, perhaps was tortured on some of them – and those were the Christmases he most appreciated the song of peace on earth. If this Advent season is gloomier, if the coming Christmas should have less togetherness and less sentimentality, it will not take St. Nicholas by surprise or overcome his joy. He's had these Christmases before. So might we.

In the end, things looked up. By February 313, two of the emperors, Constantine and Licinius, issued an edict officially giving Christianity legal status. Maximinus tried to fight it, but Licinius defeated him, and so he felt he had no choice but to issue a similar order of tolerance. It restored full freedom and returned stolen property. And whatever fits and starts there'd be in the years to come, the direction was clear. Nicholas would live to see the day when Constantine would consolidate power as the first Christian emperor. And Nicholas could at last say, like Paul, “these persecutions I endured, yet from them all the Lord rescued me” (2 Timothy 3:11). St. Nicholas had patiently persevered. After the cross comes the resurrection; after the agony comes the hope; after the devastation comes the renewal. The road ahead would be hard, but the rebuilding could begin. So will it be for us after our trials, if only we imitate the persevering faith of our fathers in Christ – like St. Nicholas. Amen.

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