(Icon of St. Nicholas, 1294, Lipnya Church, Novgorod, Russia, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
(Originally written for Speaking to the Soul, December 6, 2011)
Readings for the feast day of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, December 6:
Proverbs 19:17, 20-23
1 John 4:7-14
In reality, we know next to nothing about Nicholas. We know he was a bishop. We know he was tortured and imprisoned under the emperor Diocletian. We have modest evidence that he could have attended the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325. That's pretty much it.
We do, however have intimate knowledge of the modern permutation of the legendary Nicholas, in the guise of St. Nick, aka Santa Claus.
Most of what we attribute to our modern Santa comes from legend involving Nicholas--things that endeared him to sailors, pawnbrokers, and most importantly, children. Many of the stories involving him are about giving money to those in need. The most spectacular legend about him (and my personal favorite) is the one where he raises from the dead three boys who had been killed and stuffed in a barrel.
We say we know who Nicholas was, but really, we know his larger-than-life, legendary shadow.
Our readings today focus on the disenfranchised--the poor and children--in both our Old Testament reading and from the Gospel.
We certainly know some legends about poor people, don't we?
Poor people are lazy and don't want to work.
Poor women are promiscuous and have lot of babies by different fathers.
Poor men are irresponsible and can't be depended upon.
Poor people by definition, do drugs, and drink a lot. They smoke a lot, too. They are poor because they spend the money they have on drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. They go to the ER and have drug-seeking behavior.
Poor people really aren't THAT poor, because in the U.S. they are often fat. They have cell phones. Some of them have bigger TV sets than mine. Some of them drive nicer cars than mine. They're not poor.
Poor people will always be poor. They don't want to help themselves.
There are two things I know for sure about legends. One is that somewhere in the legend is a kernel of truth. The other is, legends are easier to buy into when I have never met or interacted with the people of the legend.
That's the problem with legends. Sometimes there's a lot of baloney wrapped around that kernel of truth that obscures why the kernel of truth got there in the first place. Unraveling the baloney is tiring, a lot of work, and the amount of work involved is daunting enough to discourage us from ever accepting the possibility that there are other ingredients in this roll, and that there is a possibility that by changing some of the ingredients, the lives of individuals trapped in the legend can change for the better.
Now, as it worked out, the legend of St. Nicholas worked out to be one mostly used for good. It's good to have a legend where generally, it encourages us to be kind and generous to others, and it comes at a time of the year where I always hope the generosity of the season sticks with all of us.
But there's a problem with the St. Nicholas legend. The world of St. Nick's evolved character, Santa Claus, is also a world where all we have to do is make a list of our wants, be nice for a little while, leave out some cookies and milk, and we will get what we want. After all, we were "deserving" because we could manage to be nice for a little spell, right?
Happy legends are comfortable. They make us feel better. We don't have to move much outside ourselves to exist within them.
We can get that way a little bit about Legendary Jesus, too.
Legendary Jesus--rather white and fair for a Middle Eastern kinda guy, in a clean white robe, and with more teeth than a person of that era ought to have. Wouldn't hurt a fly. Loves the little children. All the children of the world. Oddly enough, it's those truck stop gift shop prints of "Jesus and the children" that distress me the worst. Oh, these days those kids come in various colors on that print, but it's what is NOT in the picture that bugs me.
There are no mentally challenged kids. There are no kids with physical deformities. There are no kids scarred by abuse, no kids dirty from neglect, no kids fearful of Jesus because a man who looked a little like him sexually abused them. There are no kids with bruises because the other kids bullied them. There are no kids wondering about their sexual orientation. There are no visibly malnourished kids.
The obscurity of Nicholas reminds us that there was probably much, much more to his life that was real, that would ask us to go deeper to love him the way we love Jolly Old St. Nick. In that, we should be reminded there is much to following Jesus that goes much deeper to feeling good as Christians about Legendary Jesus and calls us to get a little dirty searching for the truth of the message of Real Jesus.