Sunday, December 20, 2020

Santa to the Rescue: Advent Reflections on the Life of St. Nicholas

Yes, church, there is a Santa Claus. And during this year's Advent season, we've taken the opportunity to learn a lot more about the real story behind the legend. Three weeks ago, we first met Nicholas, a boy born in Patara on Turkey's southwest tip around the year 270. We heard how his wealthy parents died, leaving him with the family wealth; and Jesus inspired him to anonymously toss gold through a poor family's window to secure dowries for three daughters and protect their souls. Then we heard how Nicholas was summoned by the voice of heaven to be ordained a bishop for Myra, just before Emperors Diocletian and Galerius launched a ferocious persecution, in which Nicholas was targeted, jailed, and tortured – and yet kept his faith and his courage in the face of opposition. Then we heard how Constantine rose as emperor, honored the church, and called bishops to meet in Nicaea to settle many questions. We heard that Nicholas was there, and how he stood up for the truth of who and what Jesus is: the uncreated Creator, who – being of the same essence as the Father – can connect us with the Father's divine life and will never turn away. When that truth was attacked, Nicholas defended it.

Leaving the scene of the council, Nicholas made his way back to Myra. And the Myra to which he returned was an exciting place. For perhaps just before the council, Constantine had made the decision to split the province of Lycia et Pamphylia in two. Lycia would now be its own province, and Myra was its capital. As the bishop of a provincial capital, then, Nicholas wasn't just a bishop; he was a metropolitan, an archbishop. And that would certainly be plenty to keep Nicholas busy!

Six years went by for Archbishop Nicholas, and the other bishops in Lycian cities, and the people. And one day, the winds died down across the Mediterranean. There was a group of ships sailing from the new capital city of the empire, Constantinople, which Constantine had founded and named for himself. Those ships were carrying soldiers bound for Phrygia, to quell a revolt there. But the winds weren't favorable. The ships had very little choice but to divert from their mission and harbor at Andriake, a port near Myra, to await better winds. Imagine you're one of the soldiers on those ships. You'd be itching for some shore leave, wouldn't you?

So they were. And their three commanders – Nepotianus, Ursus, and Eupoleonis – gave them permission to go look for food and entertainment. Out went the soldiers, fanning through the streets of Andriake. These were disciplined soldiers, in the service of this vast empire. They meant no one any harm. But a group of local hooligans saw them. The hooligans got an idea. They found uniforms that mimicked the look of a Roman soldier. And then the hooligans went through the town, looting and pilfering as they pleased. Naturally, they got caught. But to the townspeople of Andriake, it sure looked like Roman soldiers were busting up the town. And a riot broke out in the town square. Which put the actual Roman soldiers in a bit of a pickle.

Somehow, with the countryside naturally quiet, the yells of the riot could be heard all the way at the cathedral in Myra. And that's where Archbishop Nicholas was. In his late sixties, his beard had turned gray or white, but his ears worked quite fine still. They picked up the sound of trouble in the distance. And he wasted no time. In a moment of crisis, Nicholas would act. He set out and marched three miles to Andriake. And when he made his appearance, the rioters grew quiet at the sight of the dignified and determined archbishop. The soldiers and their commanders saluted him. He questioned the commanders, stilled the crowd, gave a speech. To the locals of Andriake, he warned them to end the riot and go home. To the weary commanders, he invited them to go with him to Myra – since they had a day or so – and be his guests at supper. That sounded mighty good to them.

Just then, a pair of men ran, winded and panting, into the town square of Andriake. They'd come freshly from Myra with an urgent message. “Nicholas, sir! No one in Myra could find you! Oh, sir, if only you had been there! If only you'd been in the city, you could have stopped it!” Stopped what? “The governor, sir. He ordered the arrest of three men, innocent of a crime, who've been handed over to death. Oh, Your Holiness, sir, they'll be beheaded! Everyone in Myra is upset, we don't know what to do!”

With the commanders in tow, Nicholas promptly rushed back uphill to Myra, as quickly as he could. He found the place of execution. A crowd had gathered around to watch, in morbid curiosity. There knelt the three men, chained, bound, their faces hooded with linen. Over them loomed their executioner, sword firmly in hand, lofted into the air. The men on the ground had no reason to think this was anything but their final seconds of life on earth. But in that moment, they heard Archbishop Nicholas cry out, “Halt!” They heard the speedy patter of his approaching footsteps. And then they heard a clang and clatter. Nicholas had marched straight for the executioner and stretched out his hand, grabbed the sword from his grasp, and hurled it to the ground. Nicholas had come between the killer and his prey; there was no execution unless Nicholas was to join them. He had come to personally interfere with the official business of the state. What would the executioner do?

The executioner backed away, that's what he did. He unchained the three men, released them from their bonds. And with them and the three commanders, Nicholas turned his face back toward the city. If this went all the way to the top, well, so would he. Nicholas marched to the praetorium, the great palace where the governor of Lycia lived, a man named Eustathius. Nicholas barged in, and Eustathius greeted him honorably – but Nicholas wouldn't have any of it. The soft-spoken saint fearlessly berated the governor. “You blasphemous spiller of innocent blood! How dare you greet me when caught in the midst of so many wicked deeds! Oh, I won't keep this quiet. Your sins are uncovered. You will not get away with this. At once I'll write a letter to Emperor Constantine, telling him what kind of governor you've really proved to be, how you administer the princely prefecture he appointed you to.” Breaking out in beads of sweat, Governor Eustathius fell to his knees, begging, “Good sir, please, please, don't be angry with me. It wasn't my fault, I promise!” He blamed others.

But someone had already let slip the secret: that, for whatever political or social reason, the governor had been bribed with a small fortune to see this wrongful execution through. So Nicholas refused to let the governor pass the buck. “No, I'll tell you the real culprit: silver and gold.” And he might well have added, if he felt so inclined: “Have you not heard the word of God? You shall not pervert justice! You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:19-20). Confronted with the fact, in tears and humility, the governor confessed. He swore he'd drop all charges against the innocent men. And he begged Archbishop Nicholas not to turn him in. The military commanders, likewise, urged Nicholas to forgive the governor, to show mercy on him. And so Nicholas pardoned him, embraced him, made him just. Governor Eustathius had learned his lesson.

What had been going through Nicholas' mind? Well, all life long, he was a student of the scriptures, a man of the church, a lover of Jesus Christ. And when he unfurled the sacred scrolls, he read there about a God “who keeps faith forever, who executes justice for the oppressed, who gives food to the hungry,” who “sets the prisoners free” (Psalm 146:6-7). He also read where God had said to his consubstantial Son, “I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, and from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isaiah 42:6-7). And that's the Jesus St. Nicholas had come to know: light and sight and liberty. Jesus had been born in Bethlehem with a life mission to fulfill: a mission to intervene in our execution. He'd take our guilt on himself, he'd face the executioner, and his perfect innocence would break the wheels of human injustice and interrupt the sorry cycle of our cruelty. Jesus was born to shine a light on all the shadowy machinations of an unjust world. Jesus was born to rescue us from our sad and sinful prison, and to set us free. And Nicholas gratefully basked in Jesus' justice. He simply asked himself, “I want to be more like Jesus! How can I be light and sight and liberty in him?”

See, Nicholas had never heard of the silly modern notion that 'religion' and 'politics' are categories that are never supposed to mix. 'Separation of church and state' is a phrase he was blessed never to hear. He knew that the very Jesus whose body on earth is the Church is also the Jesus who is Lord of Lords and King of Kings. And that same Jesus, therefore, will be the judge of whatever Eustathius or Constantine or any other governing authority decides to do. Political authorities then have an obligation to serve the church in its mission to restore and shepherd souls and to cleanse the world of injustice and violence. Where there's justice and mercy, Jesus is pleased; where justice and mercy are lacking, Jesus is displeased.

And St. Nicholas was called to bear the name of that Lord Jesus, to be the voice of that Lord Jesus. The gospel Nicholas knew was the good news of salvation, justice, and mercy, poured out through Jesus Christ and in the grasp of Jesus Christ and under the throne of Jesus Christ. And so the church he led, and our church now, had a mission to speak, live, and work for peace, justice, mercy, and grace in the world; to disciple the principalities and powers as well as the prisoners and the poor and all the people. And so in the name of the one Lord Jesus, Archbishop Nicholas spoke truth to the governor's power, no less than any Old Testament prophet had or would.

And this wasn't a one-off. This was Nicholas' way of life. We're told also of “his care and protection toward the oppressed and destitute,” and “his boldness and severity toward those who were eager to kill the innocent in civil lawsuits.” It tells us that Nicholas oversaw the doling out of grain and other food to everyone, that he “abundantly provided to those who were in dire straits according to their needs, showing himself to be a father to orphans and a champion to widows and a courageous comforter to the poor among the people,” and that “he so relentlessly convicted those who wanted to harm the innocent, that the tyrants didn't endure the assault of his just and reasonable rebuke, but, trembling with fear, they immediately bowed to his will.”

Indeed, the earliest report we have of his life tells us that when the commanders accomplished their mission and went back to Constantinople, they found themselves in a position not so unlike the three innocent men of Myra. Thanks to some more well-placed bribes and court intrigue, they were charged with a conspiracy against the emperor, and were going to be put to death themselves. But the commander Nepotianus, crying in his jail cell, prayed to the “Lord God of holy Nicholas” – he prayed that, just as God used Nicholas to save those three men who'd been falsely accused in Myra, so he'd use Nicholas again, somehow, even though he was so far away.

That very night, both the Emperor Constantine and his prefect Flavius Ablabius, who'd been bribed to kill these commanders, in a dream or a vision. And Nicholas warned them strongly that if they didn't do justice, Nicholas would bear witness against them before “the heavenly and immortal King Christ,” the highest authority there is. As an archbishop and a man of God, St. Nicholas was confident that he had a hotline to the King of Kings, and he'd warn any earthly power that he wouldn't hesitate to get Jesus on the line. Constantine listened. Smart. The commanders were acquitted, journeying slowly back to Myra. Once there, they thanked Archbishop Nicholas and brought him some gifts for the church that the emperor had sent with them: candlesticks and a communion plate and a Bible, all gold with jewels. And the commanders gave glory to God in the public square, celebrating what he'd done through Nicholas. And, gathering the poor of Myra, they gave away to them piles of clothing and gold and silver, in grateful joy. One good turn deserves another, after all, doesn't it?

So the story goes. Well, the years went by. Archbishop Nicholas continued living in just the way we've heard. When famine came and devastated the region, he managed to supply wheat so the people wouldn't starve physically, just as he lived to feed them spiritually. In later life, Nicholas dealt with constant headaches due to bone thickening in his skull, and his spine was wracked by severe arthritis, a chronic ailment. And in light of all that, I'm sure he began to look forward more and more to seeing his Savior and leaving his pains behind.

At last came the year of our Lord 343. At the age of about 73 years, on the sixth day of December, Nicholas traded the present earth's dimness for heaven's brightness – or, as an early biography puts it: “After anointing everyone with his sweet-smelling and all-holy life and episcopate, he left his mortal life and went to his eternal rest, rejoicing with choruses of angels...” Now, that was not the end of the story of St. Nicholas. His rejoicing goes on! His life goes on! Meanwhile, on earth, nearly a thousand years ago, after Myra was overrun by the Seljuk Turks in 1071, two Italian cities, Bari and Venice, both wanted to carry out a rescue mission to evacuate St. Nicholas. Sailors from Bari showed up first and carried away all the big bones they could carry (or steal, depending on your point of view); they brought them home to Bari, where a special church was built to hold them. Later, the Venetian sailors collected the smaller bones left behind, bringing them to home to Venice. The two towns share St. Nicholas, though with small fragments of his bones dispersed throughout the world.

There he rests. Here we sit. St. Nicholas, living in fourth-century Lycia, proved himself to be a courageous spokesman for prisoners, particularly the wrongly accused. Now we live in the twenty-first-century United States of America – the nation with the highest rate of incarceration in the world. About 0.7% of all Americans are incarcerated – that's seven of every thousand people in the country. So far, of that incarcerated population, one in every five prisoners have caught the coronavirus, including a few hundred in our own county prison. The COVID-19 mortality rate among prisoners is double that among the broader population. In the last decade, our own state's department of corrections underwent a three-year investigation by the federal government, which found widespread mistreatment of prisoners, especially those with mental illnesses or disabilities. And to make matters worse, it's estimated that between 2% and 10% of America's prisoners are actually innocent of the crimes of which they've been convicted. A year ago, two Philadelphia men were exonerated and released after 28 years in prison for a crime they had nothing to do with. To know stories like that, statistics like that, is to understand the prophet's outcry that “the law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth; for the wicked surround the righteous, so justice goes forth perverted” (Habakkuk 1:4). What might St. Nicholas say to that?

St. Nicholas was a big believer in the words of another prophet: “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Those were words by which Nicholas lived during his time on earth. Can we afford not to live by the same command? Here and now, St. Nicholas has his imitators. In our county, some of them work with Justice and Mercy, a local prison ministry and reform advocacy group. They help judges find alternatives to imprisonment, they coordinate compassionate care for prisoners, they train people to mentor those released from prison, they encourage the justice system to live up to its name. Some imitators of St. Nicholas work with the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which helps people qualify as official visitors with access to interview inmates and ensure proper treatment. Still others write letters of hope and wisdom, or pray for defendants and victims and judges, or dream of better ways. But most of all, those who imitate St. Nicholas live by justice and mercy in how they face each neighbor while walking humbly with Jesus. To follow, we can do likewise. Comfort and support neighbors afflicted with illness, grief, unemployment, crime and punishment, and the wheels of bureaucratic nonsense. Feed the hungry. Be a companion to orphans and widows. Be a lifeline to prisoners, refugees, the lonely, the homeless, and the poor. That's the church being church.

As we complete this season of Advent, we remember, on the one hand, how eagerly and desperately the people of Israel waited for centuries for their Messiah to come. The Messiah would be the justice-bringer. So often, Israel had suffered under injustice. They cried out with words like: “We all growl like bears, we moan and moan like doves; we hope for justice, but there's none; for salvation, but it's far from us” (Isaiah 59:11)! And not only were Israel (and we) victims of injustice, so too were they (and we) its perpetrators. For sin is both unmerciful and unjust, and we've all been those who “turn justice to wormwood and cast down righteousness to the dirt” (Amos 5:7). And we know that “whoever sows injustice will reap calamity” (Proverbs 22:8). But the prophets had promised the birth of One whose shoulder would bear the weight of government, who would uphold the kingdom of David “with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore” (Isaiah 9:6-7). And as the time of that Messiah's birth drew close, his mother Mary was elated to prophesy that in this Son, God “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).

Now we also wait for his advent – not as a Baby in a humble Bethlehem feed-trough, but as the Risen King to the rescue, as the Victor over death and devil, as the triumphant Lord of Lords with all his Father's glories on and all his angels with him. And when Jesus the Lord Messiah again sets foot on earth, he will “fill Zion with justice and righteousness” (Isaiah 33:5). He “will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth” (Isaiah 42:4). The good news is: Jesus, King of Justice, is coming! “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you, because the Lord is a God of justice! Blessed are all those who wait for him” (Isaiah 30:18). And we are waiting with desperate expectation. “Let justice roll down like rivers, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24)!

As we wait, how might we better imitate St. Nicholas as he imitated Jesus his Lord? How can we become more generous, more humble, more courageous, more devoted to knowing and sharing the truth, more outspoken for justice for all? How we answer a question like that will determine who Christmas morning finds us to be. Let us become, for our community and for all the oppressed of the earth, light and sight and liberty in the Lord! For this Lord, whom we serve, whom we stand for, is the joy of all the earth and the living jubilee of God. Amen.

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