Gordon-Conwell Blog

Advent Devotional Day 4: The Lessons of St. Nicholas

December 06, 2017

 

2017 Gordon-Conwell Advent Devotional

Day 4 | The Lessons of St. Nicholas

 

“…the stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.” (Clement Clarke Moore c.a. 1822)

We’ve no doubt all heard the famous poem attributed to the late Dr. Clement Clarke Moore, former Professor of Greek and Oriental Literature at New York’s General Theological Seminary, entitled “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Supposedly written as a holiday bedtime story for his own children (he had nine of them), the simple little ditty forever evokes our popular images of Santa Claus, the “jolly old elf,” complete with his white beard, rosy cheeks, plump belly and “bundle of toys.”

Based on convoluted versions of Norse and British folklore, the latter producing “Father Christmas,” and the ancient Dutch story of “Sinterklass” (Saint Nicholas), the contemporary version of Santa Claus is sadly quite wide of the mark. Of course, if you had grown up in an Eastern European household as a child, you would know that today, December 6, is actually the day when children receive gifts in honor of the 4th Century Bishop of Myra, the actual Saint Nicholas, not Christmas Day.

The Bishop, it is said, was born into a wealthy aristocratic family, and upon receipt of his inheritance considered quite literally the words of Jesus: “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me,” (Matt 19:21). Legend has it that in response to God’s grace, he did just that, and gave his wealth not only to the poor, but uniquely to poor children, especially young girls who would have otherwise experienced lives of destitution and exploitation. He was indeed a saint if ever there was one.1

So how did we go from celebrating the benevolence of St. Nicholas on his traditional feast day (December 6) to Christmas Day? The answer, it would seem, rests with none other than Martin Luther, the progenitor of the Reformation itself, the 500th anniversary of which we celebrated earlier this year. As legend has it, Luther found the veneration of saints to be unhelpful and a distraction to the proper worship of Christ alone. So he sought to redirect the popular tradition of exchanging gifts on the feast of St. Nicholas to the feast of the “Christkind” (the Christ child), a.k.a. Christmas.

In some respects, it wasn’t a bad idea. Surely we should focus our attention on the work of Christ and not the work of others. But in two very important ways, it turns out to have been folly. First, it backfired quite spectacularly. Instead of turning our attention to the great gift-giver himself, Jesus Christ, gift-giving in the form of crass consumerism has appropriated one of our highest holidays. Luther would be nothing less than scandalized to see what has become of Christmas. Second, we lost the truly inspirational story of the real St. Nicholas, whose retelling may inspire us to follow his example and use our material goods to bless the lives of others, in devotion and in response to the grace of the “Christkind.”


1http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/who-is-st-nicholas/


 

 

     Dr. Ken Barnes
     Director of the Mockler Center;
     Mockler-Phillips Associate Professor of
     Workplace Theology and Business Ethics

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