Preparing for Christmas….. Matt 25: 31-40,
So today is the big day. There’s a parade in town to officially launch Christmas. There will be crowds, lots of music, plenty of cheering and clapping. Tractors and trucks will roll on by with scenes from fairy tales, there’ll be cultural groups, dancers, bands, all announcing Christmas is coming. And at the end of it all the fellow who everyone is waiting for – resplendent in his red suit and white beard is Santa! Santa Claus, Father Christmas.
But who is Santa? In many places he’s known as St Nicholas or just plain St Nic. He always seems to be a gift bringer but in some countries he brings gifts on December 6th which is his special saints day. In some countries to try and reinforce good morals Nic only delivers presents to good children and in Holland there is a character called Black Peter who is in charge of the book of St Nicholas, and if your name isn’t in the book then you’ll not get a gift.
For some reason he’s associated with the North Pole, and I think this tradition goes back to a series of cartoons published in Harpers Weekly in the 1800’s when the North Pole was still out there somewhere and not yet visited by human beings. Earlier in the nineteenth century reindeer had been associated with Santa.
In history the real home of St Nicholas can be traced back to Turkey and a town called Myra. Nicholas was the bishop of the area back in the 3rd century when Turkey was a centre for the Christian faith. If you go to Turkey today they are rather proud of the old bishop of Myra, but most of his body and relics ended up in an Italian city called Bari. There it is claimed that each year on his saints day, December 6th they exude a clear watery liquid which smelled like rose water, which was called manna or myrrh and believed by the faithful to possess miraculous powers. Vials of myrrh from his relics have been taken all over the world for centuries, and can still be obtained from his church in Bari. Sometime in the next few days a flask of manna will be extracted from the tomb by the clergy of the basilica, where the relics are still stored, but I have to confess I’ll not be ordering any of the so called myrrh over the internet.
The story of Bishop Nicholas’s life is I think worth knowing about. There is a famous story which tells us about a few of our Christmas traditions but which also I think challenges us. One day he was making his way home after conducting a wedding in the local church. The wedding procession was making its way through the crowded streets and people were cheering and wishing the couple well. Three sisters from the poorer side of town were also making their way home after a miserable day begging to try and make ends meet. Their worn out clothes were in stark contrast to the fine clothing of the wedding guests. The kindly Bishop smiled at the girls as they passed and made the comment that maybe one of the girls would be getting married soon. The girls responded with the honest but harsh reality that their father had no money to pay a dowry which was needed to attract a suitor. The bishop in his resplendent red robe and flowing white beard was saddened. He knew where they lived and the truth of what they were saying.
Twenty minutes later the girls made it home to their simple single storied one roomed shack. The shutters were closed in the wintry weather because there was nothing in the windows to prevent the cold wind from whistling through the house. From the chimney spiraled a thin curl of smoke as the girls started a small fire to try and bring warmth into the little hut they called home. “My feet are wet through,” shivered the youngest sister as she took off their worn out shoes by the fire. “We can hang our socks from the rod that holds the cooking pot and maybe they’ll dry a little overnight,” said the middle sister as they set about making a soup from some scraps of food they had procured during the day. So they made themselves as comfortable as they could in the dim light of the fire as the soup slowly boiled. Some time later their father returned from another day in which he had found no work. Together they ate their supper of bread and soup, hoping for a better day tomorrow. Together they said their prayers and went off to bed.
Meanwhile the bishop had gone to join the wedding guests at their feast. His mind, however. was still filled with the image of the three girls. He was well aware that they could well end up having to earn their keep at the local brothel and was wondering what he could do. His faith taught him that it wasn’t right that some people had more than enough while others languished in poverty. Even he as the bishop could not alter that reality overnight, but he could do something.
The father of the bride was in a generous mood that evening and when he caught up with Nicholas he pressed a bag of gold coins into the old mans hand, with profuse thanks for performing the wedding ceremony. “That should help keep the church going,” he said with a wink. Nicholas thanked him in return but already he knew what he would do.
Around midnight Nicholas excused himself from the joyful wedding party, put on his warm red cloak and stepped out into the freezing city. He made his way to where the three sisters lived. The place was shuttered and dark. He pondered what to do and then noticed an outer stairway on the next door house would enable him to lean over and access the chimney of the little shack.. Chuckling to himself he tipped the purse of coins down the chimney and hurried away, taking care of course not to slip and end up with a broken led or worse.
In the morning the youngest daughter woke and went to light the fire for some hot water. Before she did she removed the socks and went to put them on, but to her surprise a gold coin tumbled out. She quickly called her sisters who also found coins in their socks and also in the ashes of last night’s fire. They danced around the house with joy puzzled as to how the coins had made their way into their socks hanging in the fireplace, but also realizing their life had changed. Their dear old dad muttered to himself I think I’ll be talking to some of my old friends about who might make lovely brides for their sons. Out loud he exclaimed, “a gift has come from heaven itself, praise be to God!”
Somewhere in another part of town Bishop Nicholas watched the sun rise. He too chuckled as he thought of the joy that would be in the house he had secretly visited. With just a little love and kindness this world could be such a different place. With a bit of Jesus in our hearts heaven can indeed come to earth.
Just a story, but a story that I want to highlight as we come to our first Sunday in Advent. The time when we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus. A recent poll of Americans conducted for World Vision showed that Americans plan to spend more this Christmas season on consumer gifts than they did last year, but give less to charities and ministries that help the poor. Many say they are tightening their belts a little and the place they are planning on doing that is giving to help others. So in America at least there will be more Christmas presents this year, but less help for the poor. I suspect the same applies here in New Zealand. While retailers, economists, and politicians rejoice at news about higher consumer spending, the lower levels of support for the ones Jesus called “the least of these” or the neighbour in need should I think have us concerned.
Indeed, the Matthew 25 scripture that we read this morning is one of the few, and most, judgmental passages in all the New Testament. About some things, Jesus was non negotiable and harshly judgmental. The Gospel clearly says that how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Jesus. That’s pretty judgmental, especially when you go on to read what will happen to those who ignore Jesus call to generosity and kindness. Seeing the face of Christ is every person.
But rather than being judgmental, let’s do something about it. Two things:
1. Plan an act of unexpected generosity and kindness. Not something that is based on the few coins you have in your purse, but something radical and significant. A secret gift for someone who is struggling. If you can however acknowledge the birth of Jesus as the reason for the generosity.
2. Let’s start a “Christmas Tithe.” Let’s spread the idea to our kids, our families, our friends and neighbors. Let’s keep track of all our Christmas spending for gifts, food, and whatever this year, and then tithe a percentage of that amount to an organization or cause that directly serves the poor. A tithe is traditionally 10 percent, but you could decide to do less or even more. But make a decision about your Christmas tithe and pledge it to an organisation like Christian World Service, or to Waltham Cottage.
This is a time to give generously…more — not less. Sit down with your kids and grandkids and get them involved in a discussion about how we can do more for others who don’t have what we have. You may be surprised at how responsive they are to doing this together. Doing some thing for others touches our soul. The world proclaims this is a time of getting – let’s make it a time of giving! Let’s teach our kids and grandkids the true message of St Nicholas or Santa Claus, that giving is what is important and that giving can be fun!
Dugald Wilson 2 Dec 2018