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Hallo again to all.

Dowry for three, coming right upToday, the sixth of December, is the Second Sunday of Advent. In almost every other year, it is the feast of St Nicholas of Myra. In some homes, children wake up today to shoes or stockings full of treats: citrus, nuts, toys, chocolate. Grownups play the saint's role for a late night or an early morning, hiding gifts for which they take no credit, and whose real origin they always deny knowing. It is a curious custom, but there may be more to it than just the persistence of an old tradition that has been co-opted or replaced by the involvement of Santa Claus in modern Christmas and pre-Christmas celebrations.

The only thing certain about St Nicholas is that we know very little about him; we have almost no information about what he thought or taught. He was Bishop of Myra in Lycia, which is in Turkey today. Istanbul (Not Constantinople) and all that, you know. Archaeology and historical research are not likely to tell us more than we can already read in any encyclopedia or hagiography. So we are left with a blank about the good man's diocesan policies, sleeping arrangements, ability to balance a budget, administrative skills, educational background, firm handshake, good teeth, or any of the other things that receive so much attention in today's bishop-search processes. What we do have are lots and lots of legends about St Nicholas.

Now this word, legend, bears some parsing. It comes from legenda, Latin for 'things that ought to be read'. The word itself has no original connotation of doubtfulness or invention when applied to saints' lives. Legend is used for incidents in a saint's life because it is meant to tell us something we ought to read, and usually by extension how we ought to be. The legends of saints are careful distillations of the ways in which their character was made known through the few recorded actions of their lives.

The legends we know today about St Nicholas are more than a little strange. In one, he discovers that a butcher has pickled three dismembered children in saltwater, intending to sell their flesh during a famine. The good bishop finds the children in their pickling tub and restores them to less briney lives. They then become choristers. In another story, with wide-reaching implications for Christmas observance today, St Nicholas throws bags (think stockings) of gold through the window of a house in which three dowry-less young women live. The contents of these bags save the women from a bad fate, and there is much rejoicing. In still other legends, he remains calm during a storm, filling a frantic situation with peacefulness and rootedness that become contagious.

Pickled no longerSo much for the legends. Having never known someone who needed a dowry, or who was threatened with pickling, and having never been on an unseaworthy boat on the Mediterranean, it is hard to really empathise. Why should these stories and their protagonist have captured the minds of Christians wherever our faith has gone? Why do people whose cultures and beliefs vary so widely—English, Greeks, Russians, Poles, Germans, Dutch, French, Italians in the first instance—seem to form such a determined attachment to St Nicholas? Why has he survived export, however diluted or distorted, throughout the world, both inside and outside of Christianity?

It may be that the legenda of St Nicholas, the things we ought to read about him, translate so easily into an agenda from St Nicholas, things we ought to do in light of what we have read. At their core, all of the legends of St Nicholas involve his perception of a human place or situation, a want, a gap, a need, an uncertain possibility, a desire or hope, where only the focused application of love will bring about a new and more joyful life. He finds these possibilities with an open set of eyes, an open ear, an open heart (this finding is the first miracle of all the stories) and puts himself and his love into them. Then, if we are to believe the sparseness of the legends, he goes back quietly to diocesan administration until some new opportunity for a miracle arises after convention and ordination season.

The reason for the persistence of St Nicholas—even if Vatican II removed him from the universal calendar of saints, even if most of us will never think of him as Bishop of Myra, even if he has been all but subsumed around the world by the peculiarly American version of Coca-Cola Santa Claus—is that we can all do the St Nicholas portrayed in hagiography. From his legenda to his agenda of finding places where he can make a secret gift of himself, he is well within our reach. It can be no mistake that Nicholas is the only saint we know whom reasonable adults are comfortable—and even eager—to imitate, whether as is most common through secret gifts to children, or in an unexpected packet or letter sent to a friend through the mail, as a calming presence in the midst of an unpredicted storm, or through surprises of all sorts that remind us we can love and are loved.* The glow on his face—call it jolly or winking or beamish or whatever you like—comes from having found the secret of discovering places to put love, and so to find it for himself as well.

Do we need St Nicholas today, even if it is the Second Sunday of Advent? You bet we do.

See you next week, stockings and shoes full of whatever you've found in them or put in them.

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Last updated: 6 December 2009

* Though we may like St Francis quite a bit, few of us want to preach to birds or remove our clothes in public. And then there are St Agatha and St Lucy and St Catherine of Alexandria, St Mary of Egypt—much admired, of course, but we have never known anyone who wanted to imitate them in externals ....

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