Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Saint Nicholas and the sailor suit

Not much is known about the historical Saint Nicholas, except that he brought me
a sailor suit when I was four. This gift, albeit made through the proxy of my
great-aunt Carol, bore two of the marks of the saint's generosity. It showed his
love of children, and his patronage of sailors. The gifts of the saint himself,
however, bore two more marks: they aided a person in getting clear of a place of
personal distress or difficulty, and they guided the receiver toward holiness.

I am thinking particularly of the legends surrounding his rescue of sailors in
danger of shipwreck, where he came to them during a storm at sea, and of the
stories of his gifts that enabled poor children, and young women, to gain their
freedom instead of becoming victims of human trafficking. In the case of the
young women, at least, there was the further effort to rescue them for a life of
holiness - as opposed to the debauchery to which they were otherwise to be

What we really know about Nicholas, bishop of Myra (in Asia Minor) in the fourth
century, is very little. His service in holy orders began under the persecution
of the church, and he survived into the period of toleration. So he is a bridge
between the church of the martyrs and the church of the Caesars.

Nicholas is known, most of all, for his generosity and charity - and for his
concern for the welfare of the poor, the oppressed and forgotten. And in his
day, the most forgotten were the children - all but ignored, the odds against
them surviving childhood, even infancy.

Jesus said, "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will
never enter it." It is as if Jesus were telling us that we must be as dependent
on others, on the grace of God surely, as a helpless infant must be.

Confronted with this helplessness of childhood, the pagan world turned an
indifferent, stoic face. The church, led by saints like Nicholas, saw in each
child the face of God. Mortality - which worldly society could not abide - the
church took in as its own. To be able to accept, even embrace, suffering and
death, as its Lord and Savior had, was a gift that the Church, for all its own
human weakness, began to give to the world.

Of course we recognize we are not adequate to care for, or embrace, or
comprehend, the suffering of others on our own. We know we must rely on God's

God, whom prophets and mystics hailed as Mother.

"Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of
her womb? Even these may forget, yet I - God assures us - will not forget you."
(Isaiah 49:15)

Indeed, as the lady Julian of Norwich said, "This fair lovely word 'mother' is
so sweet and so kind in itself that it cannot truly be said of anyone or to
anyone except of him and to him who is the true mother of life and of all
things." (Showings, 60)

And so, as we proceed into the season when we prepare to welcome the Christ
Child into the world, let us also pray to God, as the Rosh Hashanah liturgy
prompts us, "If you regard us as your children, have mercy on us as a father to
his child."

And may we welcome each child in this, God's world, with the generosity and
compassion of Saint Nicholas, as we would welcome its infant King.

Mark 10 13-16
Saint Nicholas 2006 Trinity Cathedral Sacramento

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