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Homily on St. Nicholas, Mark English

When you hear the name "St.  Nicholas," what comes to mind?  For many Americans, it's Santa Claus, which came from the Dutch "Sinter Klaas"--their name for St.  Nicholas.  Santa Claus was adopted as the American form shortly after the Revolutionary War.  The 1822 poem "A Visit from St.  Nicholas" solidified much of our current thinking about Santa Claus.  You know the poem--it begins: "T'was the night before Christmas."

But St.  Nicholas is older than America, older than the Reformation, and actually older than the December 25 date of Christmas.  He was born sometime in the late 200's to wealthy Christian parents who had tried to have a child for years.  His place of birth was Patera, on the Southwest section of Asia Minor--what we now know as Turkey.

His education and devotion led him to the priesthood.  When he was around 30 years old, the local diocese of Myra needed a new leader.  The outgoing bishop had a vision about Nicholas from an angel.  Nicholas was summoned and installed as bishop--a post he held till his death in 342.

Few further facts are known about him, but legends abound.  As an infant, it is told, little Nicholas would not nurse on the fast days of Wednesday and Friday until after sundown.  Later, as bishop, he learned that his poor neighbor did not have a dowry for his eldest of 3 daughters.  In that time and place, if a young woman had no dowry, her fate was to be sold off into slavery or prostitution.  It is said that Nicholas took some of his family's gold, wrapped it in a handkerchief and dropped it through the window of his neighbor.  The girl was saved from a dreadful fate.  Nicholas repeated the gifts for the neighbor's other 2 daughters.  Stories of his generosity began to spread and he became known as the patron saint of the disadvantaged He was called upon by lawyers and their clients.  He became the guardian of virgins and poor maidens.  Once, he is said to have appeared to sailors off his coast during a terrible storm to calm it.  Sailors began to claim him as their saint.

There is record that as a Bishop, he attended the Council of Nicea in 314, called by the newly converted Emperor Constantine, and was a staunch defender of the faith and of the divinity of Christ against the heretic Arius.  In the year 560, a later emperor, Justinian, dedicated a church in honor of Nicholas in Constantinople.  During the Middle Ages, more churches were named for Nicholas than for all the apostles combined But he is perhaps best known as the patron saint of the most vulnerable--children.  Another story told of him focuses on 3 students, traveling through Nicholas' diocese on their way to a distant school.  An evil innkeeper robbed and killed them, dismembered them, and hid their remains in empty pickle barrels.  The story goes that Nicholas appears at this Inn and calls to the students to arise from the barrels.  Slowly, miraculously, they arise, intact.  He came to trusted as a protector of travelers and guardian against thieves and violence.  He is the patron saint of Russia and of Greece, as well as of many cities.

Nicholas died on December 6, 343 and was laid in a tomb in Myra. Legend continued.  It is said that his tomb began leaking a viscous liquid perfumed with myrrh and that 1 drop could bring healing for blindness, deafness, crippled limbs, and other ailments.  In the 11th century, a band of sailors from Bari, Italy came to Myra to remove the bones from the Muslims and take them back to Bari, where they were buried in a cathedral. Every May 9, the day of their arrival is still celebrated with parades and festivities.

Nicholas was a popular, though paganized, figure by the time of the Reformation.  Instead of gift-giving by St.  Nicholas on December 6, Luther tried to promote gifts of the Christ Child (or Krist Kindl) on Dec.  25. However, popular thought changed the giver of gifts back to Nicholas while keeping it on Dec.  25.  And can you see the similarity of Krist Kindl and Kris Kringle?

But enough of this.  What do we Christians do with St.  Nicholas, indeed with all saints?  Allow me to quote Martin Luther's protege, Philip Melancthon in his follow-up to the Augsburg Confession: "Our Confession approves giving honor to the saints.  This honor is threefold.  The first is thanksgiving: we should thank God for showing examples of his mercy revealing his will to save people, and giving teachers and other gifts to the church.  Since these are his greatest gifts, we should extol them very highly; we should also praise the saints themselves for using these gifts, just as Christ praises faithful businessmen (Mt.25;21, 33).The second honor is the strengthening of our faith: when we see Peter forgiven after his denial, we are encouraged to believe that grace does indeed abound more than sin (Rom.5:20).  The third honor is the imitation, first of their faith and then of their other virtues, which each should imitate in accordance with his calling." (Apology of the Augsburg Confession.  Article XXI, p.  229.4)

So, as we remember Nicholas, we thank God for him, for his defense of the faith and his demonstration of generosity and mercy to the weak.  We look at the example and motive of Nicholas' good works--his love for Christ and for the people around him--and we reexamine how Christ loves and blesses us in this life with the goodness and mercies we experience and receive from others.  And third, we imitate that concern, mercy, generosity, and diligence to the faith as we have opportunity.

- Posted on Ecunet by Mark English, 2001