Christmas Sermon for St Nicholas’ Chapel Langstone
I’ve been taking a bit of a risk, this year. I’ve been enabling St Nicholas, or Santa Niclaus—Santa Clause—to play a part in our Christmas celebrations across the parish. At our Little Seeds group, for toddlers, on Friday, Mother Christmas and Grandma Christmas were present. St Nicholas set up a grotto in the Pallant Centre Play Café. He visited the Community Carol Service last night at St Faith’s, and even parked his sleigh outside the church with the help of Havant Rotary. Tomorrow night, I understand, there’s a chance he might appear out our Family Carol Service at 4pm!
St Nicholas is of course a real person...very real. He was a Bishop in modern-day Turkey, in a town called Myra, around 300 years after the birth of Jesus. He was a wealthy man - having inherited his fortune from his parents. Once he became a priest, and then a Bishop, he used his personal fortune to help as many people as he could. The two stories we’ve heard today are perhaps the most famous, but there are others too.
St Nicholas was especially known for his miracles, and for the power of his prayers. For centuries, he was especially loved by sea-farers, because of a couple of stories about his connection to the sea. In one story, he was travelling by sea to the Holy Land, when a great storm blew up. One of the sailors was killed while tightening the rigging - he fell to the deck, quite dead. But St Nicholas prayed for the man, and he came back to life, completely restored, and in no pain from his fall.
In another story, the town of Myra was experiencing a great famine. A ship was in the harbour, full of wheat, bound for the Emperor. Nicholas invited the sailors to unload a part of their cargo to help the town - which at first, the sailors refused to do. But Nicholas persuaded them that they would suffer no loss if they did as he asked. His reputation as a holy man was sufficient for the sailors to trust him - and sure enough, when they eventually arrived in Rome, they found that the volume of their wheat had not changed. Somehow, the wheat they had given away had increased miraculously in the hold.
Of course it is precisely because of these links with the sea that our chapel here in Langstone is dedicated to St Nicholas. As boats come and go through our harbour, we ask St Nicholas to continue to watch over all sailors, and to lift them up to God for protection. In other countries, especially in the Orthodox world, his status as protector of sailors is even greater. In Greece, for example, he is known as ‘The Lord of the Sea’, and he is the patron saint of the Greek Navy. Sailors in distress all over the globe are often said to cry out to St Nicholas for help.
St Nicholas is also, of course, the patron saint of children. And that’s because of a rather grisly story….
Around the time of the same famine we just heard about, a malicious butcher is said to have lured three children into his house, where, tragically, he killed them - placing their remains in a barrel to cure - planning to sell them off as ham! It sounds like the legend of Sweeny Todd, doesn’t it?! Somehow - we don’t know how - St Nicholas learned of this terrible scheme - and he confronted the Butcher. He then prayed over the barrels, and the three children came back to life, miraculously.
All of these legends - and many more - have grown up around St Nicholas. His name sounds different in other tongues. The Dutch, for example, called him Sint Nikolaas, which overtime became Sinterklaas. It was the Dutch settlers who brought the legends of Sinterklaas to America in the 1700s - and it is from America (and especially the Coca-cola company) that we now have the legend of Santa Claus - the enduring notion of a saint who continues to bring gifts at Christmas time - especially to children, whom he loves. In fact, St Nicholas doesn’t only deliver presents to children at Christmas time. In many Orthodox countries, he actually delivers them about a month earlier, on the 6th of December - which is his feast day. Which I suppose helps him with the task of delivering presents all around the world!
In many ways, I think it is a shame that - collectively - we have forgotten many of the stories about St Nicholas. For St Nicholas is much more than a sleigh-driver with presents. As a rich man, who used his wealth to help the poor, he stands as reminder to all people of wealth that we have a responsibility beyond our immediate families. As the patron saint of sailors, he reminds us of the many merchant and navy folks who will spend Christmas away from their families this year. As the miraculous resurrector of slain children in a butcher’s barrel, he reminds us that children all over the world are living in sometimes terrible conditions - as refugees or modern-day slaves - and he invites us to take action to save them. As the reliever of famines in Myra, St Nicholas reminds us that we can all take action to relieve the suffering of others.
The church teaches that we belong to a Kingdom of Heaven, which is coming into being on Earth. That Kingdom includes those holy women and men, like St Nicholas, who have lived on Earth before us - and in many parts of the church, it is quite normal for us to talk to - to pray to - such saints, and ask for their help. For, we believe, such saints live with God. It’s rather like sending a letter to Santa.
So, this Christmas, perhaps all of us, old and young, might take a moment to pray to St Nicholas - to ask him to teach us more about what it means to love and care for not just our immediate families, but for the whole of humanity...for children everywhere, for sailors, for the starving and for the poor.
Remembering of course the supreme example of poverty that we have been given - a child from heaven, who was born in a stable!