The Saint known as Nicholas was born in 270 in the city of Patara, a port city on the Mediterranean Sea in Asia Minor. Later in his life, he was ordained and appointed Bishop of Myra, which is part of modern-day Turkey. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, and children. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and is the model for our modern-day Santa Claus.
In one of Saint Nicholas’ most famous legends, a poor man had three daughters and he could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried, and would likely be unable to find employment and be ostracized in their community. Nicholas, hearing of their plight, decided to help them, but being too modest to help the family in public, or to save them the humiliation of accepting charity, he went to the house in the middle of the night and threw three purses, one for each daughter, filled with gold coins through the window into the house.
Whatever the traditions or folklore around Saint Nicholas are, it is clear that he had a servant’s heart, caring for society’s downtrodden and vulnerable: the poor, sailors, children… This special attention to the outcast seems to read straight from the Bible and the traditions around a homeless Jew from Nazareth. Basil, Bishop of Caesarea, wrote these words, which seem to reflect not just the life of Saint Nicholas, but that of the church during that time as well:
What keeps you from giving now? Isn’t the poor person there? Aren’t your own warehouses full? Isn’t the reward promised? The command is clear: the hungry person is dying now, the naked person is freezing now, the person in debt is beaten now –– and you want to wait until tomorrow? “I’m not doing any harm,” you say. “I just want to keep what I own, that’s all.” You own! You are like someone who sits down in a theater and keeps everyone else away, saying that what is there for everyone’s use is your own. . . . If everyone took only what they needed and gave the rest to those in need, there would be no such thing as rich and poor. After all, didn’t you come into life naked, and won’t you return naked to the earth?
The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry person; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the person who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the person with no shoes; the money which you out in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help.
What prophetic words for us to hear today… In the midst of a time and a season that seems to not just encourage an individualistic spirit and rampant consumerism, but to celebrate it, I think that these words from Basil are desperately timely for us. As we journey together in this season of patient expectation, of waiting, and of preparation, may we be increasingly mindful of not only those around us who have not, but of ourselves as well.
Questions for reflection: What can you be especially mindful of in this season of Advent? How do you feel about Saint Basil’s words above? What sorts of feelings or thoughts do they stir up inside you? How can we be better neighbors to those around us?