The following is Chapter 3 from the Advent collection in my Pilgrim Year collection of devotional, multi-media e-books on the spirituality of the Christian calendar year. The complete collection—Advent, Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Eastertide and Ordinarytime— is available to read online, or through the dedicated app for $19.99, and can be found at www.pilgrimyear.com
Chapter 3 – The Feast of Saint Nicholas of Myra
Before taking some time to consider the life of Saint Nicholas (a.k.a. Santa Claus), here’s a word from Malcolm Guite about why the lives of the saints should matter to us at all:
And now, on to Saint Nicholas!
“He truly took the biblical command to look out for “the least among you” to heart in a serious way. He did something that was purely generous and purely good—for people who weren’t the concern of society in that day—and he did it without any hope of reward.” —Adam English, The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus
Poor ol’ Saint Nick (270-343 C.E.) has endured some serious revision over the centuries:
From his beginnings as the beloved Bishop of Myra and champion of the poor in the early 4th century, to the Coca-Cola endorsing, ruddy faced, red elf of the 21st century, Nicholas’ fame has been appropriated to inspire sincere empathy in some, and excessive consumption in others. In the 4th century, he was a living icon of Christ Himself. In modern times, he has almost become the high priest of a consumer cult which drives much of Western society.
Actually, little information is known about the man himself. The legends surrounding him are many and often fantastical, but the basic facts suggest that he was renowned for secret gift-giving, and that he had an uncommon compassion for children in an age when childhood was often grim.
One of the legends that I connect powerfully and personally with, tells of a poor man with three daughters. Without a proper dowry, the daughters were destined for a desperate future sold into slavery as prostitutes. Wanting to shield the family from the embarrassment of public charity, Nicholas slipped three bags of gold into their house under the cover of night, effectively saving the three young women from a life of bondage in the sex trade.
Historian, Adam English, remarks that it’s a surprising legend to come out of an era that had little concern for vulnerable people, especially women, which gives some historical plausibility to the legend.
In our own day, Christians are once again taking up the fight against poverty and slavery, especially as these things relate to the sex trade (see, for example: International Justice Mission). Perhaps Saint Nicholas of Myra might be a worthy spiritual patron of such causes. He clearly saw the link between chronic poverty and slavery, and acted selflessly to interrupt the devastating consequences of deprivation.
Here’s where the story gets personal for me:
Ruby-Lynne is a young woman who is dear to our family. She is of First Nations descent (Oji-Cree/Native Canadian) and bears the deep scars of a cruel history of cultural genocide inflicted on North American host peoples by some European settlers, who were often, ironically, escaping marginalization in their own lands. Her personal poverty (economic, cultural, emotional) along with the pain of belonging to a socially-marginalized people group, eventually contributed to a life of prostitution throughout most of her teen and early adult years.
I once asked her if she didn’t perceive other options for her life path. She spoke quite candidly:
Please don’t try to tell me I have the same options as your children. No one wants to see a ‘brown’ answer a job posting. When I walk into an office with an application, I can usually tell within a second that I don’t have a chance. It’s a flicker in the eye followed by over-politeness that tips me off, and I know I’ve wasted my time.
We often think of slavery as something that happens elsewhere. Because of my work as a singer/songwriter, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to many developing countries: India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Ethiopia, the Philippines. In each of these places, the sex-slave trade was cruelly evident. But it has many forms here at home as well. A recent publication by Covenant House in NY, reveals that human trafficking is a $9.8 billion dollar industry in the United States, and the FBI estimates that as many as 100,000 kids are forced into prostitution every year. Many of these kids are homeless, and that makes them especially vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation. I’ve come to understand that the cause of this pervasive issue is poverty and social alienation, which renderw the individual vulnerable to exploitation.
During Advent, those of us who claim the Christian story as our own, and who hope to reclaim the “true meaning of Christmas,” may want to redouble our efforts on behalf of the disenfranchised and vulnerable poor.
Perhaps we might join hands with jolly ol’ Saint Nick to embody, with our actions, one of the great mysteries of the Incarnation. That is:
Christ not only comes to us, but through us…
by Brian McLaren
lyrics adapted from the poem “Christ Has No Body” by Teresa of Avila,1515–1582
(performed by Steve Bell)
Christ has no body here but ours
No hands, no feet here on earth but ours
Ours the eyes through which He looks
On the world with kindness
Ours are the hands through which He works
Ours are the feet on which He moves
Ours the voices through which He speaks
To this world with kindness
Through our touch, our smile, our listening ear
Embodied in us, Jesus is living here
Let us go now, inspirited
Into this world with kindness