LIGHTING THE CANDLE
But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day. The way of the wicked is like deep darkness.
It was from my Dutch wife Rita that I began to learn the significance of December 6, “St. Nicholas Day”. It is this day that begins Christmas festivities in the Netherlands and in much of Europe. Tonight Dutch children will gather to watch St. Nicholas’s ship land in Amsterdam so that he can bring nuts and candies to fill the stockings and shoes set out for him. When the Dutch settled in America and established the city of New Amsterdam, children continued their eager watch for St. Nicholas on his feast day. Look closely at the name Santa Claus and see that Santa, meaning “saint”, is joined to “Claus”, a shortened form of “Nicholas”.
Christians have remembered the actual St. Nicholas through the centuries as a man whose light shined brightly before others, glorifying the Father in heaven. He lived in fourth century Asia Minor just when Christianity was beginning to spread across Europe. St. Nicholas was born into a wealthy family, but after his parents died from a plague, he shared their wealth with the poor. Nicholas was a devout follower of Jesus and was made bishop in the city of Myra on the southern coast of what is modern day Turkey. There are records of his participation in the Council of Nicaea, in A. D. 325, that gave us the Nicene Creed, which we still recite in our churches over 1,600 years later.
In addition to Nicholas’ many church responsibilities, he was widely known as a man who cared for the poor. There are many stories about Nicholas secretly leaving gifts at night for the children of the poor. Stalwart in the face of persecution, he was imprisoned for a time by Emperor Diocletian. But upon his release from prison, Nicholas continued his faithful ministry until his death on this day in A.D. 343.
One of the best-known stories of Nicholas’ generosity tells of his anonymous giving to a poor family whose parents could not afford dowries for their three daughters. When the parents were faced with selling their daughters into slavery or prostitution, Nicholas intervened. He went to their house late at night and threw three bags of gold through the window to save the daughters from a terrible fate. Although Nicholas intended his gift to be a secret, his generosity soon became known. He unknowingly began the long tradition of giving secretly at night to the poor.
“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”; his name is St. Nicholas of Myra, whose life we celebrate today! His life reads like today’s scripture, a righteous man whose life “shines brighter and brighter until the full day.” What a life of giving he models for us to lighten the darkness!
PALMS DOWN/PALMS UP
Gracious Father, we celebrate your many gifts to us and give thanks for people like Nicholas whose lives point us to you. We remember that in the face of plague, opposition, and persecution, they stood faithful. Lighten our lives today that we too might care for those in need, and glorify you who so loved us that you gave us your Son. Amen.