Saturday, December 24, 2016

Unwrapping the gift of Saint Nicholas

My aunt made me a stole shortly after I was ordained, telling me “This is for the Christmas children’s service.” It’s kind of quilted and the main panels have a manger scene, complete with sheep, cows, a camel, angels, the star, Jesus in the manger… and a large man with a white beard wearing red. Mary and Joseph are nowhere to be found—but I’m pretty sure that’s Santa Claus at the manger. It is perhaps the least religious nativity scene ever—and yet I wear it every year, because I love my aunt.

Since my son is almost eight and is wrestling with his almost-disbelief in Santa, Santa has been on my heart and mind. He’s also been in the news a bit lately—there was a little kerfuffle over Santa at the Mall of the Americas in Minneapolis because for the first time there, Santa was being portrayed by a man of African descent. Many people thought that Santa reflecting the diversity of the children he was greeting was wonderful; other people probably just didn’t care; and a few people were hateful and cruel and racist. “Santa was white” they said, among other things.

My thought: “Santa was Turkish.”

I believe this is a year where we might want to unwrap the gift of Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra. He was born, as I said, in what is now Turkey in the late 3rd Century, and was acclaimed as a bishop because he was such a man of faith. There are many stories—and many variants of stories—of the miracles he performed, but perhaps one of them is most pertinent and isn’t a miracle at all—it’s just an act of mercy. He reputedly provided dowries, secretly, one at a time, for three daughters in a poor family, so that they could each be married rather than being forced into a life of prostitution. Later, during the persecution of Diocletian in 303, Saint Nicholas was beaten, tortured, and jailed for refusing to renounce his faith in Jesus.

Still later, having survived the persecution, the newly Christian emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicea to determine a clear creed for the new state religion of Christianity. The Council was called in large part by the perceived need to silence a bishop named Arius who history remembers as a heretic because he believed Jesus was not fully divine. According to legend, at Nicea, Saint Nicholas was so overcome by anger at the Arian heresy that he punched Bishop Arius in the face and ended the debate.

Don’t punch a heretic for Christmas.

The man we know as Santa Claus was a faithful follower of Jesus in a challenging and changing era of history, which led him to be a generous defender of women and the poor; to sacrifice his safety and freedom for his faith; and to uphold his beliefs in debate that was—shall we say—passionate and vigorous, rather than being polite.

What kind of Christian will you be in the challenging and changing era of our own? Jesus is born today, and we join Mary and Joseph and the Shepherds along with Bishop Nicholas of Myra and so many other Christians through history to marvel at this thing which has taken place. Here is Jesus, the Christ child, the savior of the world, born into the most vulnerable of circumstances: displaced, threatened, and mortal. On these tiny shoulders laying in the straw rest the salvation of the whole world.

Which could be bleak… or it could give us the most profound hope in the world. This baby did it. This baby grew up and lived and taught and died and rose again, and offered the promise of peace and love and eternal life to the whole world. There is nothing we can do—there is nothing anyone can do—to turn that clock back, and take away that promise. God’s work is done tonight.

And we don’t need to be miracle workers or magicians or wear fancy red suits to follow Jesus. We need not magically create presents or hop down chimneys; or dwell in a fairytale north pole. We can see injustice in our own time and circumstances and respond generously and with mercy like Bishop Nicholas. When our faith is in conflict with worldly powers in our own time we can hold firm like Bishop Nicholas, even at peril of our own lives, trusting that our witness matters. Our witness to that child lying in the manger tonight matters to the world, it matters to us and it matters to Jesus. So go out and share the good news with a world that is sorely in need of good news; share the news that the Prince of Peace has been born once again, as he was in first Century Bethlehem, in fourth century Turkey, and now tonight, in the midst of a world still torn by war and fear. "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

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