For All the Saints – Nicholas

If you want to know the soul of a thing . . . follow the money.

I know, it seems like a pretty jaded way to start a conversation about St. Nicholas of Myra, beloved icon of generosity, giver of gifts and patron of children . . . and sailors . . . and merchants . . . and prostitutes . . . But, truth be told, if you want to see the true genius of St. Nicholas (and understand what holds all of these disparate patronages together) you really have to follow the money.

Let me show you what I mean.

The standard hagiography (saint story) on St. Nicholas goes something like this: Bishop of back-water commericial city gains great renown for his generosity and love in causing unexpected gifts of money to appear in the lives of the most vulnerable members of society (children, sailors, prostitutes, etc.). This inspires his community and countless generations of Christians to similar acts of charity. Moreover, a tradition arises, wherein a mysterious stranger clad in quasi-espiscopal vestments visits the homes of children and sailors and merchants, delivering enexpected gifts each year sometime in December.

On the one hand, the lesson to be learned from St. Nicholas is clear. Like God’s grace, St. Nicholas’ hostorical and even mythological gifts come unexpectedly and take no heed of the worthiness of the recipients. Even children, even prostitutes can avail themselves of these gifts freely given. St. Nicholas reminds us to be open to God’s grace. Simple.

But is that really the point? I’m not sure. Let’s follow the money.

History does not record the source of St. Nicholas’ funds. It does not appear that he came from a wealthy background. Moreover, I think it is safe to assume that the office of bishop in the early years of the church was not one that paid particularly well either.  So, the untold and perhaps more important story of St. Nicholas must lay in the way in which he convinced others to help him help the poor and lowly of the community. How else would his simple acts spawn a virtually world-wide tradition of generous action? Perhaps more like St. Paul than God or even Jesus, St. Nicholas’ great skill was not in the charity itself, but in inspiring others to greater acts of charity.

In many towns in Germany, the first church to be built – or at least the first church to be built by and for the people of the town rather than the local noblemen – was called St. Nicholas Church. This is, in part, due to the broad patronage of Nicholas: sailors and merchants and prostitutes and the like. He was, in some senses a saint for the “everyman.” But I also think that this may have something to do with Nicholas’ role as a conduit of community generosity, the very practice of sharing that makes small communities grow and thrive. Without the generosity of Nicholas, without the willingness to share what we have with whomever needs it, the “changes and chances of this fleeting world” would tear communities apart, be they made up of merchants and sailors or children and prositutes.

I guess I could be wrong. The “real” motivations of St. Nicholas and those early Christians who performed acts of generosity in his memory are, ultimately, lost to history. But thinking about the ways in which the historical Nicholas of Myra convinced his flock to commit to aiding those that they might otherwise have chosen to overlook: children and sailors and prostitues, seems like an important message for contemporary Christians to hear. Even just once a year.

Happy St. Nichlas Day everyone!

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