Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Legend of St. Nicholas

[In the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector we see] that there are two ways of relating to God and to oneself. The Pharisee does not really look at God at all, but only at himself; he does not really need God, because he does everything right by himself. He has no real relation to God, who is ultimately superfluous—what he does himself is enough. Man makes himself righteous.

The tax collector, by contrast, sees himself in the light of God. He has looked toward God, and in the process his eyes have been opened to see himself. So he knows that he needs God and that he lives by God’s goodness, which he cannot force God to give him and which he cannot procure for himself. He knows that he needs mercy, and so he will learn from God’s mercy to become merciful himself, and thereby to become like God.

Jesus of Nazareth 1, 62

Reflection – Happy St. Nicholas Day to you! You know, he really is an important saint in Christian history—it is actually of great value to rescue him from that bloated wreck Santa Claus who has devolved truly into basically a shill for consumerism and materialism—a living vending machine for more and more ‘stuff’ every year.

The saint is actually of great significance, even though we know almost nothing about him as documented historical fact. He lived in the turn of the 3rd and 4th centuries; was a bishop in Myra, now part of Turkey, and attended the council of Nicea where he is alleged to have socked the heretic Arius in the nose.

However that is not his claim to holiness, actually. What is significant in Nicholas is the legend of goodness and mercy he left behind him. He is known as the giver of gifts, the lover of the poor, the defender of children, an abundant overflowing fountain of mercy and generosity that resounds through the centuries. And this is of crucial historical significance for the Church.

Prior to Nicholas, saints had been in two categories: martyrs and ascetics. To be a saint, you had to die for the faith or you had to starve yourself in a cave in the desert. Nicholas was neither, living past the age of the Roman persecutions and serving as bishop. And so he revealed a new path of Christian holiness which countless others have walked in the following centuries.

This is the path of mercy, of charity, of loving without counting the cost. We don’t have to die a martyr’s death or leave everything for the deserts of Egypt, so to speak. We do have to love to the point of laying down our lives for our brothers and sisters and leave everything behind that is not love. Sanctity is never easy, but St. Nicholas shows us that it is available for everyone, since everyone can choose to love and be merciful as he did.

And so this beautiful passage from Pope Benedict resonates, doesn’t it? What does it take to be a man or woman of mercy? To know our need for mercy, and to turn to God to receive his mercy.

The Pharisee remains himself, locked in his own person, limited to his own stock of virtue and goodness. Undoubtedly he wasn’t any great villain—the Pharisees in general were the upright decent people of their day, the sort of folks you would see in Church every Sunday and maybe even during the week. But he is stuck being just himself, just a very small, very decent person.

This is not what we are made for. We are made to burst forth from the limitations of our own human flesh and human frailty and even human goodness. We are meant to be St. Nicholas, loving and giving with such a spirit of total generous mercy that the legend of it echoes down the millennia. We are meant to be so open to God that God makes us into lovers of men as He is the Lover of Man.
Well, this is the only way for us. To simply turn to God, to look to God, to cry out to God for mercy, and to have expectant longing hearts that know God’s mercy is real, is given, is here, is for us.

Receiving it, we can give it. Knowing it, we can live it. It is our true home, the home we are made to live in, and living there, we can love there, and so show the world that true joy comes not from ‘Ho Ho Ho’ and a bag full of goodies, but from being, becoming God’s love extended to the world, his mercy acting in the heart of the world for all people, the naughty, the nice, and everyone in between.

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