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Symbols of the Season: St. Nicholas
Hebrews 13:7-8


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Second Sunday in Advent—December 6, 2009

Twas the night before Christmas,
And all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring,
Not even a mouse.

The stockings were hung
By the chimney with care
In hopes that Saint Nicholas
Soon would be there.

This morning we continue our series of sermons on “Symbols of the Season” by looking at St. Nicholas. 

Many people consider St. Nicholas, also known as Santa Claus, a symbol of everything gone wrong with Christmas: No longer a season of goodwill, but of greed; no longer a season of Christian kindness, but of crass commercialism; no longer a season of Joy to the World, but of journeys to the mall.  And, at the center of this materialistic metamorphosis of Christmas is a plump man in a red suit: Santa Claus, St. Nicholas. 

But, the problem isn’t really with St. Nicholas.  The problem is with us.  We have largely forgotten the true symbolism of St. Nicholas because we have largely forgotten the real reason for the season.

During Advent we mourn and lament our sin.  As John the Baptist proclaims in today’s Gospel Reading, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near . . . His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”  Because of our sin and evil, we deserve to burn eternally in the unquenchable fire of hell.

But, the Good News of Christmas is the gift of God’s love and forgiveness.  “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

That is the real reason for the season: The birth of our Savior, your Savior, Christ, the Lord.  “What Child is this who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?  . . . Nails, spear, shall pierce him through, the cross be borne, for me, for you . . . the King of Kings salvation brings.”

The little Babe of Bethlehem is come to redeem the world through his life, death, and resurrection.  “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”  That is the real reason for the season: “Remember Christ, our Savior, was born on Christmas Day . . . O tidings of comfort and joy!”  Christ is your Savor; God is not angry with you; he forgives all your sins for the sake of his Son.  “O tidings of comfort and joy!”

That is the real reason for the season.  And, believe it or not, St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, is a symbol of the real reason for the season.

Many people are surprised to learn that St. Nicholas was a real person.  He was born in Patara, now located in modern-day Turkey, about 300 years after the birth of Christ.  His family was prominent and very wealthy.  His parents were pious and devout Christians, and they generously shared their wealth with the poor.

When Nicholas was only nine years old a terrible plague struck Patara and both his parents died.  Left an orphan, he went to live with his uncle, also named Nicholas, who was a Christian bishop in a nearby town.

It is said of little Nicholas: “From the beginning he showed he wanted to please God.”  Under his uncle’s tutelage, Nicholas devoted himself to studying the Scriptures and was ordained at the age of 19.

It is said that as a pastor, “He lived a life of virtue and goodwill to all.  He was respected and loved by everyone for his goodness and humility.  He devoted himself to praying for his flock and teaching the word of the Lord and the way of salvation.  And he urged others to devote their own lives to pious service to God.”  Because of his faith and dedicated service as a pastor, and a very young age Nicholas was made Bishop of Myra, about 50 miles from his home town. 

In his day, Nicholas was known as the “fighting bishop,” because he vigorously defended the Christian faith.  For example, he personally tore down stone-by-stone a pagan temple at Myra. 

From the years 303 to 311, the Emperor Diocletian savagely persecuted the Christians because they refused his demand to worship him as a god.  Some Christians fell away from the faith; many more came to a martyr’s death, refusing to deny their Savior.  It is said of Nicholas during this time, “He gladly suffered all inflictions and remained in jail for many years, where he urged his fellow prisoners to be firm in their faith.”

In 313, the new Emperor Constantine became a Christian himself and stopped the persecutions.  But, now the Christian Church faced a new threat, enemies from within, heretics who denied the divinity of Christ. To settle this issue, Emperor Constantine convened a church council, which called the Council of Nicea because it was held in the city Nicea, also located in what is now Turkey.

All of the bishops were present, including Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, with the Emperor seated on his throne.  Roman imperial law dictated that the punishment for committing any act of violence in the presence of the Emperor was to have your hand cut off.  But, when the ringleader of the heretics spoke his blasphemy, Nicholas the “fighting bishop” was so shocked that he boldly stepped forward and slapped him.  Fortunately, the Emperor was so impressed with Nicholas’ devotion to orthodox doctrine that he did not impose the usual punishment.

That moment was the turning point of the council, which condemned the heretics and set forth the true doctrine of Christ’s divinity in the Nicene Creed: “God of God; Light of Light; very God of very God; begotten, not made; being of one substance with the Father.” 

And the bishop appointed by the Emperor to lead the committee which drafted this creed was none other than the “fighting bishop,” Nicholas, Bishop of Myra.  So, yes, there really was a Santa Claus, and he actually helped write the Nicene Creed!

But, this “fighting bishop,” who so staunchly defended the faith, was also a loving shepherd, a gentle man of goodwill, generosity, and Christian kindness.  Because of a large inheritance from his parents, Nicholas was quite wealthy.  Following their example, he freely gave gifts to the poor and needy.  It is said, “He was always ready to help anyone in need.”

And he was particularly generous with children, perhaps because he himself had been an orphan.  This is where we get the tradition of St. Nicholas as a giver of gifts, especially to children. 

His gifts were always secret and anonymous.  Often he brought gifts silently in the night, from which we get the tradition of St. Nicholas delivering his presents in secret on Christmas Eve.  If someone did find out who the giver was, Nicholas begged them to keep it a secret.  He accepted no personal thanks, but instead urged them to praise the Lord.  It was only after his death that the great generosity of Nicholas was revealed.

In his honor, the day of his death, which is actually today, December 6, was celebrated as St. Nicholas Day.  In remembrance of his generosity and Christian kindness, gifts were anonymously given on this day, said only to be from St. Nicholas. 

Over the years, St. Nicholas Day became a great Christian holy day.  At one time, St. Nicholas was the third most popular character in Christendom, next only to Christ and the Virgin Mary. 

In France, St. Nicholas became known as “Father Noel;” in England, “Father Christmas.”  In Germany, the “Christ-Kindlein,” the Christ-Child himself, was said to be the bringer of gifts, from which we get “Kris Kringle.”  And in Holland, St. Nicholas became, in the Dutch language, “Santa Claus,” a name brought to America by early Dutch settlers.

But, most of Santa Claus as we know him today was created anew in New York in the early 1800’s.  He retains the goodwill, generosity, and Christian kindness of the original St. Nicholas, and like the Bishop of Myra, Santa Claus is a giver of gifts, anonymous and secret, silently in the night. 

St. Nicholas’ red bishop’s robe and mitre, as pictured on the cover of the bulletin, have been transformed into a Santa suit and floppy cap.  And, although the original St. Nicholas was a thin, gaunt man, and was always pictured that way until 1860, we now think of Santa Claus as a “round old fellow.”

This transformation was the work of three New York gentlemen.  The famous author Washington Irving started it all with a story about a different style St. Nicholas.  A seminary professor of Hebrew, Clement Moore, continued the transformation when he wrote a Christmas poem for his children: “Twas the night before Christmas . . . “  Finally, the great illustrator Thomas Nast first pictured this new style St. Nicholas on the cover of Harper’s Weekly, and the transformation was complete.  Since then many more songs and stories have been written, many more legends added, about our new American Santa Claus.

But, even though our modern Santa Claus does not look much like the ancient St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, when you see him, see a symbol of the season, the real reason for the season.  St. Nicholas, beloved pastor and devoted bishop; St. Nicholas, the orphan with a special affection for children; St. Nicholas, moved by faith in Christ to extraordinary acts of generosity and Christian kindness; St. Nicholas, standing firm in faith, even when persecuted and jailed, refusing to deny his Savior; St. Nicholas, the “fighting bishop,” staunch defender of the faith, who actually helped write our Nicene Creed.  

Not a symbol of greed, but of goodwill; not a symbol of crass commercialism, but of Christian kindness; not a symbol of journeys to the mall, but of Joy to the World.  St. Nicholas, a symbol of the real reason for the season.

Amen.

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