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St. Nicholas and true Christmas spirit

Kate Barrett | Thursday, December 6, 2007

Today is the feast of St. Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop in Asia Minor, now Turkey. This is not nearly as big a deal in the United States as it is in many European countries, where gifts are exchanged on Dec. 6 and Christmas Day remains a religious holiday. Ironically, however, we could probably use a great big dose of Nicholas-inspired sentiment here in the States, where the seasons of Advent and Christmas have been almost completely submerged by frenzied commercialism. Our participation in this month o’ shopping is practically our patriotic duty – aren’t you in favor of a healthy and robust economy? Well then, get out there and buy!

While not much is known about the life of Nicholas – there being no Facebook or MySpace in the 300s – we have held on consistently to several legends about him and his humble, usually anonymous generosity to others, especially the poor. Perhaps the most enduring tale tells the story of the family in Nicholas’ hometown of Patara, who, living in extreme poverty, feared for the lives of their three daughters. At that time young women who could not provide a dowry (and thus in that ancient culture find a husband) sometimes had to resort to desperate measures, even prostitution, to support themselves and not become an unbearable burden on their families. Nicholas, in possession of a great fortune after the untimely deaths of his parents, determined to give his inheritance away to those in need, and found in this family an opportunity. As the story goes, he dropped little bags of gold down the family’s chimney so the father could use it to marry off his daughters. Throughout the centuries, his generosity and selflessness have inspired countless people to provide for the poor and for children, following St. Nicholas’ example of caring for the most defenseless.

When we hear these stories of St. Nicholas, and when we (if we can) shut out the clamorous demands of our American commercialized “Christmas” and hear the Scriptures and prayers of the Advent season, then we truly can begin to prepare our hearts to receive Christ – as he came in the manger one night, as he comes into our lives each day, and as he will come again at the end of time. If we will welcome the Lord into our lives, however, we must make room, and we can’t do that if our hopes are all about what we might get for Christmas. We’ll make room for Jesus only by offering ourselves, generously, the way Nicholas did.

John the Baptist, in this Sunday’s gospel, urges his followers to prepare, for “the one who is coming after me is mightier than I.” As we begin the Mass this Sunday, the second Sunday of Advent, we will pray that God will “remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy.” What’s so hard to remember as we are blasted with a constant stream of Christmas carols and incentives to shop for more, more and still more, is that we cannot prepare for the Mighty One at the mall or at Best Buy. Why not try, this year, a completely different approach? Need a gift idea for someone on your list? Give to a charity important to them. Has somebody been asking you what you want for Christmas? Suggest Second Harvest, the Heifer Project or another worthy venture that will offer food or means to a livelihood to those who need Christmas gifts in a way we will never even understand.

While we may not know if every detail of the St. Nicholas stories are true, he remains a compelling character because in our deepest selves, we too long to be faithful followers of our Lord, as he was. Particularly during this time of the year, when our faith challenges us to be at odds with the overwhelming demands of our culture, we need a feast day like today’s. We need an example like Nicholas’ to point us toward Christ; to help train our focus on true generosity; to remind us of our call to show God’s deep love to others in every moment of our lives.

Happy St. Nicholas’ Day! May you celebrate as he would have.

Kate Barrett is director of Resources and Special Projects for Campus Ministry. She can be reached at kbarrett@nd.edu

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