This week's "thought" follows the theme of Christmas. It's a selection I took from another Advent Devotional Series, this time sent out by my former alma mater, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where I received my MDiv. It was on Day 4, December 6th, and written by Dr. Ken Barnes, Associate Professor of Workplace Theology and Business Ethics. In it he gives us helpful historical insights into the part St. Nicholas has come to play in the Christmas celebration (at least here in the States) and how we could respond to his inclusion in it -- which is not likely to go away anytime soon.
I would like to take this time to wish all my friends near and far a Merry Christmas and pray that no matter where you are, or how busy things get, you might keep your eyes on the all-important truth the day is meant to emphasize -- the incarnation of God in Christ. As C.S. Lewis so poignantly reminded us: "The Central miracle asserted by Christians is the incarnation. They say that God became man." What truth could be more astounding or life-changing than that? Enjoy.
The Lessons of Saint Nicholas
“…the stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.”
(Clement Clarke Moore, 1822)
We’ve no doubt all have 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 “T'was 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, and not Christmas day, is actually the day when children receive gifts in honor of the 4th Century Bishop of Myra, the actual Saint Nicholas.
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.
So how did we go from celebrating the benevolence of St. Nicholas on his traditional feast day (December 6) to giving gifts on 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 feast of 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.”
As a pastor, I know how easy it is to critique the way Christmas is observed in many places around the world (not just America). The commercialization of the holiday has spread far and wide and made it difficult to simply focus on Jesus' coming, offer Him our grateful praise, and kneel in heartfelt adoration before the One who was "the Word made flesh." And that's the truth that's so life-changing. The other more superfluous aspects of the celebration can, and undeniably do, generate fond memories and sentimental feelings in believers and unbelievers alike. And that's fine I guess (though it can turn into idolatry when one seeks, desires, and delights in those things more than Jesus.)
Yet, what I've found to be true is that unless our primary focus is on Jesus and the miracle of His incarnation -- what C. S. Lewis rightly calls the "central miracle asserted by Christians" -- our holy endeavors will often end by New Year's Eve, or shortly thereafter. They tend to "lose the feeling of Christmas" once they take down the tree and put Jesus, the lights, the creche scenes, and decorations, back into the closet until next Christmas.
That's why it's so important to remember that the truth we celebrate at Christmas is not simply for Christmas! It's a truth that should change the way we view everything and do everything, every day of the year! For how can one believe that God the Son, the Word (ie: the Logos, or Wisdom of God, who was with God and was God from the beginning -- John 1:1-4) actually became flesh in the Christ child and not see the incredibly profound implications that has for all of life?
For is Jesus was a man, and nothing more, then the rest of the Gospel story is emptied of all its life-changing power and life-saving significance. If the baby in the manger was a mere human child and no more, the story is quaint, but no more worthy of our notice than the story of any other child, born in any other place, under adverse conditions.
Surely the Christmas celebration should involve JOY (who wouldn't rejoice that our Savior came to earth!), and it should also involve GIVING (after all, God gave His son), and it should invoke a sense of REVERENCE at the glories of heaven revealed in the birth of Jesus (as the Shepherds discovered). But most of all (if it's effect is to be lasting) it should be centered upon Jesus and lead the heart to worship and adore Him as the Christ. For it's only when the heart is driven to kneel in worship before Jesus, and see Him as the object of that worship, that we show we really comprehend what took place at Christmas.
Merry Christmas! Pastor Jeff