Thursday, December 5, 2013

Advent - Season of Children

Happy St. Nicholas Day! I'm heading off to my poustinia day (prayer, fasting, and silence) so am posting tomorrow's blog today. It is the feast of St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra, patron of children, sailors, thieves, prisoners, young women seeking husbands, Greece and about a couple hundred other groups comprising just about any trade or nation or occupation known to humankind. Basically, everyone wants a piece of him.

Well, so do we at Madonna House! We celebrate Nicholas right and proper here. As I speak I can hear our young guests in the kitchen making gingerbread cookies shaped and decorated like bishops for tomorrow. Another group of guests are practicing a skit dramatizing events and legends from his life, . At lunch a group of them were cutting out 'St. Nicholas gifts', commemorating his reputation for charity and almsgiving.

What does that mean in our MH context? Well, at supper, everyone will find one of those gifts at their place. They will write down their names on the back of the gift, and then all the gifts will be collected. Then at the end of supper, St. Nick himself (yet another guest in disguise) will put in an appearance and the gifts will be redistributed to us, and each will receive the 'gift', namely, someone to pray for this year, and someone whose job is to pray for you. Nice gift, eh? Then we scarf down our gingerbread cookies and watch the skit.

All of this in honor of this saint about whom we have scant historical knowledge, to say the least. He did exist, and he was bishop of Myra in Turkey, and he did attend the council of Nicaea where he did apparently punch the arch-heretic Arius in the face in a moment of pique. ('Punched out by Santa Claus' has to be one of the low points of anyone's career, I would imagine).

Beyond that, we are in the field of legend. Ah, but what legends! The three daughters about to sold into prostitution for lack of a dowry, and the three bags of gold thrown through the window of their house to rescue them. The sailors at sea miraculously saved by the saintly bishop's apparition. The children slaughtered and pickled by the wicked butcher (!) miraculously re-joined, re-animated and (I guess) de-brined. All leaving behind a legend, a reputation, an aura of lavish generosity, kindliness and a wee bit of a sense of fun. 

It is a feast for children, as the Dutch know well. And you may have noticed in my description of our customs that it is largely the guests staying with us who take the lead in the customs for the feast. In MH context, they are the 'children' - the youngest ones here, and the ones who come with childlike hearts to receive what we have to give. The feast here has a quality of fun and merriment, along with the more spiritual serious reflection.

That's good. Life is not always about spiritual heights and depths, thank God. Sometimes it's about gingerbread cookies and silly skits with costumes and a bit of slapstick, perhaps. Sometimes it's about getting your prayer partner for the year from a young man wearing a white beard and a cardboard miter. 

Nicholas was a new breed of saint, in a sense. He was neither a martyr dying in the Colosseum, nor a monk starving himself in the desert, the two categories of recognized holiness in the Church to that date. He simply loved a lot, and bore witness to the faith of the Church (even if he might have gotten a bit carried away with the punching...). And so he shows us the path of holiness for the mass of mankind, and it is no wonder that his feast is specially marked with a joyful, playful spirit.

He just loved. So today, to honour Nicholas... just love. Give a little here, do a little there, find a little more that we can do for someone somewhere. Just love, a little bit extra from what you usually do. And, happy feast day. Have some gingerbread.

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