Today is the feast day of none other but St Nick, better known in this day and age, and in this part of the world, as Santa. In the post-coca-cola world, it is easy to forget that St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, was a real historical Christian. He was born in an ancient Greek town situated in what is modern-day Turkey; very religious from a young age, spent a fair bit of time on pilgrimages and in monastic communities, raised by an uncle who was a bishop, later ordained priest and bishop himself, and imprisoned under the last, yet most severe wave of systematic Christian persecution under the Emperor Diocletian beginning in 303.
Twenty years later, the tables have turned, and the bishops were able to gather without fear at the Council of Nicaea (producing the Creed we use today) -- and, recorded as number 151 on the surviving fragment of the list of attendees is the name of our Nicholas of Myra. You might find it surprising that the supposedly gracious gift-giver Nick was participating at Nicaea with such fierce enthusiasm, that at one point he had allegedly physically slapped a bishop who held the opposing views! Later on of course, St Nick became shrouded with a great number of legends as a wonder-worker, protector of children and poor brides with no dowries, and a rescuer of sailors.
With St Nicholas feast day being so close to Christmas, in most European countries, the secret gift giving traditions and celebrations related to him became intertwined with those of Advent and Christmastide. But, during the soviet era in Russia, we did not celebrate Christmas or St Nicholas. However, even the communist regime could not suppress the people’s longing for a mid-winter celebration, a much needed distraction from the most bleak and darkest time of the year — a season for charity and restoring relationships. So, we’ve always celebrated the New Year’s Day instead. And of course, just as the adults could not pass on an occasion for a party, they also could not resist an opportunity to remember what it was like to be a child: to have this hunger for mystery, and an openness to a supernatural experience. Naturally, the most beloved saint of the pre-communist Russia had continued to visit our homes and leave presents under the tree, only then he started to come under the cover of Ded Moroz (Grand-Father Frost).
Because of St Nicholas’ cultural popularity, many Russian proverbs still refer to him, including the following: “If anything happens to God, we've always got St. Nicholas.” Hmmm… Personally, I have never heard this phrase growing up, but… isn’t that exactly what’s happened in the soviet Russia, and continues to go on even around us in Western world of today? Something HAS happened to God — well, to his place in our lives, that is — but we’ve always had, still do, and likely always will have Santa/Ded Moroz with the gifts... What form will God have to put on in order to be finally noticed by us?
I find it quite a telling sign of times, what happened at the church of St Nicholas in home town in Turkey. It’s been restored, and its Christian liturgies still attract many tourists. But get this: at one point, the Russian government donated a bronze statue of the saint to the church. Only five years later, the mayor of the town replaced the bronze statue with a plastic one (!), dressed in a red suit (!), because it would supposedly be more recognizable to the foreign visitors! With what images are we continually replacing God, in our own minds, to recognize him easier?
One such false image that comes to the forefront around this time of year is the veneer of niceness. By many Orthodox christians, St Nicholas is considered to be the nicest, kindest, most accessible and fast responding saint; so much so that one of the Russian titles for him is Nikolai Ugodnik — from “ugozhdat’”, to “pander”! Well, there was nothing pandering about the behaviour of the real bishops at Nicea… as there was nothing pleasant about John the Baptist when he addressed the Pharisees as “the brood of vipers” on the river Jordan. When it came to defending their beliefs, neither one has behaved “nicely”, but each one was motivated by the desire to give the people of his day the ultimate gift: that of hope that comes from faith.
The message I hear in the words of John the Baptist for us today, even as when they were spoken to the people of Judea a long time ago, is that it is in our nature to choose the lit-up plastic santa over the true “light of light” of the Nicean creed. We tend to strive for charitable receipts and check-marks for our own self-esteem -- over the genuine, discerning love of our God and neighbour. Indeed, something continually DOES happen to God, as every generation produces a construct of God that may or may not approach his true likeness all too closely.
The prophets whose idea of following God did not fit into the mainstream paradigm have always been regarded as odd; and with the passing of time, we raise the bar for cultural acceptance higher and higher. The asceticism of St John and St Nicholas may have seemed eccentric and fundamentalist to the people of their times; to us, they are merely simplistic and unrefined. But, what we all have in common is the undeniable desire for a connection with the Transcendent: for faith, hope, miracle, charity, love, in the image of which we are made. This might sound like a simple talk of a child waiting for Christmas; and indeed, the realities of this world may quickly extinguish these impulses. But there is nothing childish about the desire for a true mystical encounter, or about the longing for peace and harmony around and within us.
Why don’t we, this Christmas season, rather than trying to be superficially nice, or looking for that “perfect gift”, instead devote ourselves to helping each other to reclaim this child-like hope and faith that were once ours? The most precious commodity these days is what? Time. I’ve heard the stats that married adults, on average, spend 30 minutes per day talking to each other, and parents spend 14 minutes with a child. We may be perfectly “nice” to each other the rest of the day as we go about our individual tasks, but mere “niceness” is not going to be enough to cultivate peace and harmony in our homes, or to pass on to the children our beliefs regarding what we perceive to be the truths about God and the world. Yet, like the old St Nick, we can all become the “wonder-workers” in our own circles, if we choose to give each other the best gift ever: the time and effort put into our relationships. Thanks be to God.