It’s been a little disheartening this Christmas season to not see as many decorations and lights as I used to. The stores seem barren of decorations, wreaths and Christmas nostalgia. (Really, Publix and Target, your sales would increase with a little more Christmas cheer! The paper decorations at the end of the store aisles is just being lazy.)
I drove through lovely neighborhoods on the way to parties and gatherings this year, and I only saw a sparse scattering of Christmas lights. I remember when I used to make a special trip to some of these neighborhoods just to see their lights. I know the recent years of economic downturn haven’t helped, but this is the time we should be clinging to our faith even more. In prosperous times, faith is often overlooked or perceived as not needed, or our motives are done for the wrong reasons. As I drove through the mostly darkened streets past the barely decorated stores, it felt as though everyone had forgotten about Christmas. Then I saw one house in the distance, beautifully lit with blue and white lights all over the yard. It was a spectacular site, not designer decorated but handled with much care and love. Its lights shown even more brightly in contrast to all the dark houses surrounding it. It represented hope, bringing light to the darkness. So let’s all spread a little cheer and hope this season – an extra bow on the mailbox or a string of lights in the window. It doesn’t have to cost much, but we can outshine the darkness, and it will make you feel good.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16
Here is an article I read on “Saint Nicholas, A Life Lived for God’s Service”, from Christian Community Magazine, Nov/Dec 2014. It is well-worth the read this Christmas season, as it reminds us of what one person can do to bring light to an otherwise dark world.
The man behind today’s legendary character is quite different than the world gives credit for. The real St. Nicholas was a devout Christian who lived simply. Many stories of “Nicholas” are based on legend, however there are enough historical resources that provide facts to frame significant details. The Greek Orthodox Church provides a great deal of history.
Nicholas was born in 280 AD in the town of Patara, an ancient seaport, located in the region of Lycia, Asia Minor, which is present day Turkey. He was born to an elderly Greek and wealthy Christian couple who were unable to have children. It is taught that they prayed similar to that of Abraham and Sarah for a child. They considered this child a direct gift from God with a special calling to help people. They named him Nicholas which meant in Greek ‘victory or hero of the people.’
As he grew, he became known for his virtue and became strong in the scriptures, predominately in the areas of fasting, abstinence and temperance. He entered the nearby monastery of Sion where he trained and was ordained into the ministry. He later became the Bishop of Patara, when his uncle, also named Nicholas and the current bishop, gave up his position to journey to the Holy Land.
Nicholas’ parents died of a severe plague, most likely from the smallpox outbreak of the “Crisis of the Third Century (235-284).” His parent’s death left Nicholas a very wealthy man. He was quite generous and used his inheritance to give to and feed the poor and needy, as well as paying “ransoms” for those who were taken captive by money lenders whom they could not repay.
This initial story of generosity, whether historical or fictional, is what leads this Nicholas into the gift-giving figure our Christmas is based on. In fact, several of our customs today can be found in his story.
There was a nobleman with three grown daughters who fell into financial collapse and became bankrupt. His creditors took his property leaving him penniless. The father’s hope was to marry off his daughters quickly before the creditors took them as their payment for his financial losses, thereby saving the girls from a life of slavery or prostitution. However, he did not have the money for their dowries which was necessary for them to legally marry.
Nicholas heard of this nobleman’s plight, so one night after dark, he threw a bag of gold coins through an open window for the eldest daughter’s dowry. News traveled fast throughout the town and she was quickly married.
The creditors were ruthless and came after the nobleman persistently. Nicholas repeated this action of kindness with another anonymous bag of gold coins through the windows so the next daughter would have a dowry to be able to marry. The nobleman prayed earnestly with thanksgiving to the Lord for redeeming his daughters while he asked for yet another miracle.
The third time Nicholas tossed a bag of gold coins through the window, it landed in a stocking that was hanging on the fireplace to dry. The father ran out to see who was rescuing him and his family, and he caught Nicholas at the window. Wanting to give God alone the glory for these blessings, Nicholas made the nobleman promise to keep his secret until his death.
Did you also know that Saint Nicholas is the Patron Saint of Pawn Brokers? The three gold balls in the Pawn Shop windows represent these three bags of gold coins.
There are also stories of Nicholas calming stormy seas, much like Jesus, during his many voyages. Stories include a time when a sailor fell on the deck and died. Nicholas prayed over him and his life was restored. These stories make him the Patron Saint of Sailors.
Nicholas desired a quiet life within the monastery, however the Lord spoke to him. The Lord said, “Nicholas, here is not the field in which you must bring forth the fruit I expect, but turn back and go into the world and let My name be glorified in you.” Nicholas later became Bishop of what is today known as the Episcopal church. He strove to be an example to the believers, in word, in love, in spirit, in faith, and in purity. He was humble of spirit and forgiving, shunning all vainglory.
Extreme persecution arose against Christianity during Nicholas’ life by Roman Co-Emperors of the East, Diocletian and Maximian. In 302 AD, a council at Nicomedia resolved to suppress Christianity throughout the empire and to “tear down the churches by fire.” Bishops and Deacons were jailed in large numbers. Atrocious and torturous deeds were performed on the imprisoned clergy in an effort to get them to renounce Christ and embrace idols. Many were massacred.
In 305 the vicious Emperor Diocletian stepped down from his throne because of intestinal illness, paving the way for Emperors Galerius, Constantine and Licinius to co-rule a split Roman Empire. In 311, the “Edict of Toleration” was issued by the emperors, which officially ended what was known as the empire’s bloodiest persecution of Christians.
Constantine was the first Roman Emperor who was a Christian. Details of his conversion are unknown, but it may have been because he was exposed to the faith by his mother, Helena, who was a Christian. He ordered the persecutions of all Christians to cease. Christians were freed from jails and dungeons, and allowed to return to their homelands. Bishop Nicholas went back to his city of Myra where he once again began preaching against idol worship which had become more widespread with the vacuum left by the imprisoning of the Christian leaders. One of his accomplishments was leading the people to tear down the Temple of Diana in Ephesus, which was known for immoral ceremonies, religious prostitution, and human sacrifice. This is the same temple written about in Acts 19 that the Apostle Paul confronted. It had been one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Bishop Nicholas became known as Saint Nicholas as stories of his answered prayers and miracles spread. He also became the Patron Saint of Children because of healings and supernatural rescues. It is difficult to determine legitimate facts from legend; however, he had a noteworthy following that had religious and spiritual merit and respect.
Saint Nicholas was invited to and participated in, the First Council of Nicaea in 325. Emperor Constantine commanded this ecumenical gathering to end Arian heresy which demoted Jesus to “less than” God. There were 118 church leaders who attended this conference from all over the Roman Empire. The Three Persons of the Trinity was affirmed and the Nicene Creed was established which continues to be the profession of faith used by many churches and denominations around the world.
Saint Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD. The tradition of secret gift giving on the anniversary of his death began when stories of his ministry spread through Turkey, Greece, and the Roman Empire. His legacy lives on today in many countries with variations of traditions. There are few men in history more loved and revered today.