December 6, is the feast day of St. Nicholas. That just means we remember him in special ways in the churches across Christendom because he lived a life that was not only worth remembering but a life that exemplified some of the highest Christian virtues to a very great, “heroic,” degree.
We don’t want to lose his memory! The stories of the real St. Nicholas that have come down to us help us to know why he was so beloved in both the East and the West. These stories don’t tell us the exact biography of his life, but they do tell us the meaning of his life.
We are told that Nicholas, born of a noble family in Asia Minor, and was a holy and devout child, full of faith and love for Jesus Christ. He grew to be a man full of love and generosity towards those around him.
Stories of his extraordinary life abound, but the most frequently told one is of his kindness towards a man who had lost his job and all his income. He had three daughters, ready to be married, but he had no dowry for them. In those days, no decent man would marry a young lady without a dowry, something we can scarcely understand today.
There was no help for him or for his daughters. After the man died, his daughters could stay alive only by selling the only thing they would have left, their own bodies.
Nicholas gathered gold enough for a dowry and placed it in a bag. Then in secret, in the night, he tossed that bag of gold into the house of the man with three daughters. He did that three times. All three daughters were able to marry and have normal moral and decent lives.
Dimly, oh, so dimly, is this act of generosity and kindness remembered even today:
The three gold balls traditionally seen outside of a pawn shop is a faint echo of the second chance given to the three daughters by the anonymous generosity of St. Nicholas.
Pawn shops are known to us, but we don’t want to lose the original example of almsgiving and aid to people around us. God is liberal in His goodness, and generous and kind towards us. If we are His children, then we should be like Him too, as St. Nicholas showed us.
During St. Nicholas’s lifetime times grew difficult and perilous for anyone naming the name of Christ. He was arrested, beaten, tortured, and imprisoned – indefinitely – for a time, until a later emperor, Constantine, made Christianity legal, along with all the other religions of the day. Christians were released from prison, and St. Nicholas, who had endured adversity with faith and courage, went on with his life, as bishop, now of Myra, a city in Asia Minor.
It is said St. Nicholas was present at the great Council of Nicaea and was one of the 318 Church Fathers who formulated – in clear words – what Christians had always known, that Jesus, the Son of God, is fully divine, being consubstantial with the Father, the First Person of the Trinity.
We don’t want to lose the teaching of this great saint about his Lord and Savior, and ours. Many people came to him for his great wisdom and learning and for his advice.
He continued to have a special love for the poor and for those in need and for the very young children. It’s easy to understand why he was so beloved down through the centuries.
Until, that is, our own benighted century, when we seem to have lost the knowledge and respect for all those who lived before us. From St. Nicholas to Sinterklaas to Santa Claus, his memory became merely a tradition of happy gift-giving in early December and eventually devolved into a frantic time of buying, overspending, and a bestowing of presents under a Christmas tree.
St. Nicholas is given to us now as Santa, a jolly symbol of happy material consumerism, a symbol owned and regulated by a large corporation who assoicates its own product with the image of Santa.
We have now a celebration of consumerism, remembering that this is all somehow connected to…the birth of the Holy Child in rough stable to two poor and humble people.
So much time has passed since St. Nicholas was alive. So much has been lost. So much has been deformed: his life, his example, his teaching, and the Truth about the Son of God, his Savior, Who was there at his death. “In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped,” was this saint’s last words to Jesus in this life, and “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”
December 6, a red-letter day on our calendar, when each year we can think of the real St. Nicholas. We don’t want to lose all that he stands for.