St Nicholas of Myra, whose feast falls on the 6th of December, casts a shadow into the 21st century which is far greater than the actual historic record justifies. He would presumably be somewhat bewildered to come face to face with a bearded man in a big red suit sitting in a grotto in an out of town shopping centre and be told that this is St Nick.
We know that St Nicholas was a Bishop in the 4th century in modern day Turkey, that he was buried in an elaborate tomb facing the sea, and that he was stolen by Italian travellers in 1087 who took him to Bari where his cult really exploded across Western Europe. It is also attested that he was a signatory of the Council of Nicaea in 325, although his name is not on the list of those who attended, and that he was suspended for slapping Arius on account of his heresy.
There is something wonderful for us to learn in the fact that his reputation is so much clearer and stronger than his biography. Nicholas raised three drowned boys to life. He saved three innocent sailors from execution. He dropped bags of coins down a chimney to save three impoverished sisters from a life on the streets. How can we live our lives in such a way that people tell stories like this about us, and are believed? How can we live our lives together as a Church in such a way that people tell stories like this about us, and are believed?
And how can we care so much that people know who God is, who God truly is, in all of his awesome majesty and his tender mercy and his passionate and ongoing engagement with us, that today we stand firm against the Arius’ we face? There are times to accept difference as enrichment and there are moments where truth is everything and we cannot just shrug our shoulders and move on. Some things are too precious and important for that.
St Nicholas, help us to love truth and to live truth as you did, that people might tell such stories of us, of God’s power working through us for good.
Perhaps Advent is gifted to us so that we might sit in still places and see even a glimpse of the truth of God’s heart and glory: and then might live in that true light always, serving those who Christ came to serve. For Nicholas that was (purportedly) the sailors and children of his seaside city.
Who is it for us? Who are we called to serve with the same generosity and commitment and focused faith that Nicholas showed?
“Almighty Father, lover of souls,
who chose your servant Nicholas to be a bishop in the Church,
that he might give freely out of the treasures of your grace…”
Richard Lamey is the Rector of St Paul, Wokingham and Area Dean of Sonning in the Diocese of Oxford.