Today is the feast of St. Nicholas. Among the Saints, few better embody the Way of Love and the spiritual practice of “Go” that we are invited to follow on this ninth day of Advent.
There is probably no other Saint more intertwined in popular culture than Nicholas. Through multiple generations, periods of suppression, and periods of reinvention, Nicholas has persisted, although altered through various cultural lenses, landing most recently for us in the mythology of Santa Claus.
Nicholas of Myra probably has little if anything to do with the jovial, rotund, rosy-faced, red-suited icon that we know as Santa Claus. Still, in Santa’s delivery of gifts to all Children, there is something rooted in his namesake.
Nicholas was born to a wealthy family who raised him in a devoutly Christian household. His parents, however, died in an epidemic while he was still young. After being consecrated as Bishop around the year 280, he would sell all he had and give his wealth to the poor.
Once, during a famine, when crops that supplied the city of Myra with food had failed. Nicholas learned of grain ships bound for Alexandria anchored in the Harbor and implored the sailors to dole out a measure of grain from each ship for the city. At first, the sailors resisted, fearing that the carefully measured and monitored grain needed to arrive at its destination, but then Nicholas assured them that the grain would not be diminished when they arrived at their destination. The story goes that they did as Nicholas asked, and then proceeded to their destination, where the expected amount was fully accounted for. Nicholas provided wheat for the city for two years with enough remaining to seed new crops.
Nicholas would also intervene for justice for three young men wrongly accused of rioting in the city of Myra. The story goes that he had gone to the port to help settle the disturbance. On returning, and in a moment that closely reflects Jesus’ raising of Lazarus, people approached him saying that if he had been there, the three young men would not have been sent to the executioner. Nicholas would run to the place of execution to find the three men face down, heads covered, and the executioner’s sword raised. He fearlessly rushed to grab the sword out of the executioner’s hand. The three men were then sent on their way while Nicholas vouched for their reprieve.
These stories are among the more realistic and believable, but all the stories of Nicholas point to an impulsive man, sometimes rash, and driven, but always to help the poor, to intervene for justice and mercy, and to live a Christ-like life in a way that preserved his legacy among the people as a beloved Saint across Europe and Russia. Perhaps it would serve us well to remember St. Nicholas in the weeks leading up to Christmas as it is God who intervenes through Christ’s incarnation for justice, love, and mercy.