Sunday, December 4, 2011
Sermon for the Feast of St Nicholas
I wonder if everyone here knows who St Nicholas is. What are some of the names that he is called? Here’s a clue – for those who don’t already know…in some countries, he is known as “Santa Niclaus” – Santa being a Spanish form of the word Saint. Sometimes Santa Niclaus gets shortened to “Santa ‘Claus”. Yes, St Nicholas is the person we know as Father Christmas! And this is Father Christmas’ Church!
There are lots and lots of traditions concerning St Nicholas – and I’m sure you’ve heard many of them here over the years. But it’s perhaps worth recapping some of them.
It’s fascinating to see how St Nicholas is celebrated differently, in different parts of the world. In many places St. Nicholas is the main gift giver. His feast day, St. Nicholas Day, is December 6, which falls early in the Advent season. Some places he arrives in the middle of November and moves about the countryside, visiting schools and homes to find out if children have been good. Other places he comes in the night and finds carrots and hay for his horse or donkey along with children's wish lists. Small treats are left in shoes or stockings so the children will know he has come.
Where St. Nicholas is prominent, his day, not Christmas, is the primary gift-giving day. Instead of gathering to give presents on Christmas Day, like we do, parties are held on the eve, December 5th, and shoes or stockings left for St. Nicholas to fill during the night. Children then find treats of small gifts, fruit or nuts, and special Nicholas candies and cookies.
One vital difference between the way we receive gifts, in England, and the way that others do it, is that St. Nicholas gifts are meant to be shared, not hoarded for oneself. Whatever little treats St Nicholas brings – sweets, nuts, fruit, candies – these are to be shared, around the whole family.
We have an icon of St Nicholas in this church, as you know. It was painted by our good friend Carmen Orastean, who is a Romanian. In Romania, St Nicholas’ Day is a very great festival. On the night of December 5th, boots are cleaned and carefully polished to be put by the door or on the windowsill to wait for St. Nicholas' (Sfantul Nicolae) visit. He is generous to adults as well as children, putting a little present in each boot—usually nuts, tangerines, sweets and small items, like new socks. In some areas a walnut branch or thin twigs with gold, silver, or bronze gilded walnuts are left as a warning that behaviour needs to improve. On the sixth of December, gifts are given to friends, children, and those in need. It is one of the most important Romanian holidays.
More than 800,000 Romanians are called Nicholas, Nicolae or Nicola – or other variations of his name. They all celebrate their name day on St. Nicholas day, December 6th. Over 1000 churches are dedicated to St. Nicholas in Romania, at least 23 are in Bucharest.
It’s worth knowing about some of these traditions – because perhaps they help us to see the our own traditions in a new light. Perhaps they might even make us think a little about the way we have celebrated Christmas, for the last few decades. Everyone I meet agrees that we have become far too obsessed with presents, and that Christmas has become too expensive. And yet, no-one seems to be able to stop. We all feel under pressure to keep up with everyone else’s idea of what Christmas should be. The stories about St Nicholas from other countries encourage us to see Christmas as something a little more simple. A small gift, here and there – a bar of chocolate, a bag of nuts. Nothing too elaborate. Just enough to send a message of love.
Of course we all know what it’s like. You go to Toyz R Us, and you buy the biggest present you can find. On Christmas morning, you watch the eyes of your child go wide at the possibilities of what might be inside. Then, the wrapping is torn off, and the child is encouraged to explore the contents. “Look”, says you, “There’s a complete play-kitchen in here. There’s a cooker, and some saucepans, and some pretend fruit. There’s a little chair and table, and a pretend sink for washing up. Look, there’s a pretend iron and ironing board…so you can do the ironing….just like Daddy!”
But the child has other ideas. “Look”, says the child, “There’s a great big empty box! It could be a house, or a castle, or a motor-boat, or a car, or a bed. It’s fantastic.” So for the rest of the day, Daddy spends his time assembling small pieces of plastic which his child will never play with, while his child is happily sitting in the box, going “Brummm….brummm”.
St Nicholas invites us to use our imaginations. St Nicholas himself became famous because he was known as a generous giver. He understood how much God had given to him – life, health, friends, a community to live in. And out of his gratitude, St Nicholas wanted to give something back.
There are many famous stories about St Nicholas. The most famous tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands something of value— called a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man's daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. And so St. Nicholas is known as a gift-giver.
In France the story is told of three small children, wandering in their play until lost, lured, and captured by an evil butcher. In the French story, St. Nicholas appears and appeals to God to return them to life and to their families. And so St. Nicholas is the patron and protector of children.
Several stories tell of Nicholas and the sea. For example, when he was young, Nicholas made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There as he walked where Jesus walked, he sought to more deeply experience Jesus' life, passion, and resurrection. Returning by sea, a mighty storm threatened to wreck the ship. Nicholas calmly prayed. The terrified sailors were amazed when the wind and waves suddenly calmed, sparing them all. And so St. Nicholas is the patron of sailors and voyagers – so a pretty good Saint to have in a town like Portsmouth – and that’s why one of his symbols is a ship (as shown in our stained glass window).
Something that is consistent about all these stories is that Nicholas was someone who constantly looked for ways to help and encourage other people. Responding to God’s love, Nicholas wanted to share that love wherever he could. He was constantly on the look-out for ways to help other people. And his stories encourage us to think in similar ways.
Look, let me encourage you. Let me encourage you to think like St Nicholas, this Christmas. In a short while, many of us are going to give gifts which will be given to children throughout the City who otherwise wouldn’t get a present this year. For that, I am very very grateful – and I’m sure that St Nicholas is too. But there is one gift that every single one of us can give this year, a gift which can be given and received all through the year. It’s the gift of a question…
Here’s the question…”What can I do for you?”. Mummy, you’ve been cooking all day. What can I do for you? Daddy, you’ve been ironing all morning…what can I do for you? Neighbour…you haven’t spoken to anyone today…what can I do for you? Homeless person, sitting in the shop doorway in North End…what can I do for you? Starving person I’ve seen on the TV, whose crops have failed or been washed away…what can I do for you?
There’s another little thing that St Nicholas can teach us. St Nicholas is never seen. If we try to stay awake, to see him coming down the chimney…he won’t come. St Nicholas always gives his gifts in secret. He gives what we might call ‘random acts of kindness’. He gives in secret, without expecting any reward…though I know he’s always grateful for a glass of brandy and a mince pie for the reindeer! But he gives without looking for thanks – he spreads a little happiness as he goes by.
There are some lovely stories out there about Random Acts of Kindness. There’s the story of a woman in America who was going through a Starbuck’s Drive-In, on her way to work. It was a cold, grey morning, and she really didn’t want to go to work. When she got to the window, a little bit of sunshine broke out when the assistant gave her a cup of coffee, and said “It’s paid for, already”. It turned out that the taxi driver in front of her had paid for her coffee. The assistant explained “He does it every day, for one person”.
There are lots of random acts of kindness done in this parish too. Those of you who have brought presents today…thanks for the act of kindness. Those of you who are buying vouchers for the homeless – for people you will never meet…thank you for the random act of kindness. Those of you who filled up Shoeboxes for the annual shoebox appeal - thankyou. Those who gave to the Harvest appeal for food, or money for the Bungokho centre in Uganda – thank you. Those of you who give regularly, sacrificially, to the work of the church…St Nicholas would be proud of all of you.
And doesn’t it feel good? Doesn’t it feel great to know that today, your life counted for something? Today, you helped another human being a little further along their journey – however tough that journey has been.
Jesus taught us that it is giving that we receive. By giving out, we receive back a thousand fold – especially in that deep sense that today, we know we have made a difference.
St Nicholas stands as an example. According to all the legends, he is the giver who is never seen…and who is yet loved by all. That’s not a bad example for any of us to follow.