The 6th of December is the feast of St Nicholas, Patron of this church. Saint Nicholas is probably best known to people today as Santa Claus, from the Dutch for St Nicholas. It may surprise you to know that the jolly bearded man with fur-trimmed clothes is in fact real. He did exist. But St Nicholas is perhaps not quite what you’ve been led to believe. For a start, he doesn’t live at the North Pole, or have any reindeer. In fact, he was born on the South coast of Asia Minor, modern Turkey, in the late 3rd century AD. His parents were Christians, his uncle (also called Nicholas) was the Bishop of Myra. When his parents died, Nicholas gave away everything he owned to help the needy, sick, and suffering, and was ordained by his uncle, who put him in charge of a local monastery. Soon afterwards Nicholas was elected to succeed his late uncle as the local bishop.
Some time later, Nicholas heard about a man in Myra was a widow with three daughters. He was poor, and could not afford to pay their marriage dowries. As a result he was going to sell his daughters into prostitution. So, one night, Nicholas dropped a bag of coins through a window into their house. He did the same the next night. But on the third night he was discovered, but begged the father not to say anything until after his death. As a result of Nicholas’ charity the three young women were able to marry. This is the reason that St Nicholas is often depicted with three gold coins or balls. Later the symbol of the three golden balls was adopted by pawnbrokers as their sign.
On another occasion, through his prayers Nicholas saved sailors who feared they would die in a storm. He was also responsible for saving the lives of three young soldiers from execution. In time the soldiers were portrayed as young boys, and so Nicholas became the patron saint of children (and sailors). The Saint was imprisoned and tortured under the Persecution of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, and his nose may have been broken as a result. Nicholas was present at the Council of Nicaea, the First Ecumenical Council, which produced a Creed similar to the one we will say in a few minutes time. His relics are now in Italy, split between Bari and Venice, and he is loved and honoured around the world, including those people who built this wonderful church.
Nicholas’ generosity towards the three young daughters associated him with the giving of gifts. From this we can see how the modern idea of Santa Claus came about. The Dutch took him to New Amsterdam, which became New York. America then began its fascination with him. St Nicholas was not just a generous person, he gave away everything he had, and embraced a life of poverty. He suffered for his Christian Faith, and is an example to us of what a Christian life looks like, filled with love, generosity, and care for others.
St Nicholas demonstrated care for the poor, the broken-hearted, and captives. These values are proclaimed in the first reading this morning from the prophecy of Isaiah, words which Jesus recites in the synagogue at Nazareth. St Nicholas made the words real by living them out in his life, demonstrating love and care for his brothers and sisters. His gentleness and generosity point us to Christ, and show us how to live our Christian Vocation.
The First Letter of Paul to Timothy points out the danger which wealth can bring, when it is not used for the sake of the Gospel. Nicholas, like St Antony of Egypt before him, heard Christ’s teaching to give away your possessions to the poor. Most of us will not follow their example, but we can consider how we use what we have, and ask ourselves the question, ‘Am I living generously?’
Jesus said,“Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Mk 10:14-15)
As the patron saint of Children it is clear why today’s Gospel passage was chosen to celebrate the feast of St Nicholas. While children are innocent and humble, the point our Lord is trying to make may refer to the fact that children are unselfconscious, receptive, and need to be cared for by others. This is how the Kingdom should be received. It is a gift of God. None of us can earn God’s love, it is unconditional, and offered freely to all.
Jesus lays down His life for us, so we should do the same for each other. Thus, in society in general, loving service and self-sacrifice are the ways in which we should live. It is a generous form of life, because its model is Jesus, the most unselfish person ever, and was imitated by St Nicholas. Christ offered His life as a ransom on the Cross. We commemorate this in the Eucharist, where Christ continues to feed us His people with Himself, so that we might have life in Him. By being strengthened in this way St Nicholas was able to bear witness to Jesus as his Saviour, and his Lord, despite trials and persecution.
May we be aided by the prayers of St Nicholas and following his example be prepared to meet Our Lord. Jesus, who comes to us as a baby in Bethlehem and who will return as Our Judge. So let us live lives which proclaim Christ’s saving love, and follow the example of St Nicholas in honouring God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.