Every Advent we have to listen to the raspy voice of a man named John, the Baptizer, crying out in the wastelands beyond the city of Jerusalem. He’s an unwelcome intrusion, a spoiler of what we call the “Christmas spirit.”
And yet, all four writers of what we call the Gospels, God’s Good News of Jesus Christ, describe him, and, by the fourth century, a Christian calendar scheduled a Season of Advent as a lead up time to prepare to celebrate God’s Christmas gift wrapped in Jesus…with this Sunday reserved to interrupt, and perhaps irritate us with John’s, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”
All four Gospels won’t let us get away from that pre-Christmas need to “repent” – to turn away from all that is pulling us away from a Christmas that has us receiving God’s Gift in Jesus that lets Him pour His Spirit and the fire of His energizing presence into us, (Matthew 3:11) and to find ways to turn to sharing His Gift with others,
and most especially with our children.
A wonderful model is a man who answered John’s Advent call in the fourth century, in his home in a place that is now Turkey. His name is Nicholas whom we should call “the REAL, the original SANTA” as he went around giving gifts on what is now celebrated on December 6th.
Nicholas’s parents died when he was a teenager and left him enough money to make him a very rich young man,
who went to live with his uncle who was a priest, a “pastor.” There he heard about people who were in need and responded in ways that come down to us as stories which we turn into Christmas customs and ornaments.
This Advent Sunday, two days before St. Nicholas Day, is a good time to tell stories from the life of Nicholas and listen for the echo of John’s “Repent,” and see how Nicholas turned that charge into joy-filled expressions of God’s love in Christ which he shared with others, especially with children….stories that help us give the perfect gifts to children.
Of all the stories here are three, told by showing a small bag filled with coins, a sock, and an orange.
First, a small bag filled with coins, and the St. Nicholas story behind it.
A father was too poor to have food for his family, and even worse he had three daughters who were old enough to get married.In that day the father had to provide enough money for what was called a “dowry” – a gift given to the bridegroom or his family.The father who had three daughters had no choice but to sell each one as slaves to get money to survive. The night before the oldest daughter was to be sold, she washed her stockings and hung them in front of the fire to dry.In the morning she found a lump in a stocking; it was a small,heavy bag filled with gold; enough for food for the family and her dowry!
The next morning the second daughter found a bag filled with gold. That night their father decided to stay awake and watch, but he dozed off and was awakened by the “clunk” as a third bag came through the open window and landed in the room. He jumped up, ran out the door, saw Nicholas ducking around the corner, and called out,
“Nicholas, it is you! Thank you for helping us. I hardly know what to say.”
“Please do not thank me – thank God that your prayers have been answered. Do not tell others.”
The storyteller, Carol Myers, adds “All his life Nicholas showed people how to love God by caring for each other.” (Adapted)
The perfect gift for children – a bag-of-coins-like gift given without a tag to someone in need, like that father and his three daughters.
Second, a Christmas stocking and the St. Nicholas story behind it which a grandmother carried on for a grandson to tell as his own story. John Pape, FortBentNow.com, Houston, Texas, December 24, 2010. Used by permission.
John Pape says his family of Texas Hill country Germans had a dress rehearsal of Christmas on Dec. 6th, St. Nicholas Day, when a stocking was hung on the bedpost the night before.The mixed emotion was to wake up in the morning and see if it was there, filled with treats, usually fruit, that meant he has been a good boy all year long. If not, the stocking would be gone. Nothing!
His family was too poor to have a fancy Christmas stocking like the ones he saw in the stores. All he could find was his grandfather’s old torn hunting sock.
In the morning he woke up to discover it was gone! Not only had St. Nicholas left him nothing; he took the sock!
But then he noticed the headboard and saw a bright red and green
Christmas stocking filled with goodies and a note: “Hope you like your new stocking. – St. Nicholas.”
Years later he realized his grandmother had taken scraps of cloth and made a stocking to look like the expensive ones in the stores, and he cherished it as a reminder that the Christ-like love expressed in the gift-giving of St. Nicholas lived on in his grandmother.
The perfect gifts for children, gifts that carry that love and the memory of the one who gave it.
Third, an orange, and the St. Nicolas story behind it.
A little girl sat on the step of her home – sad and alone because she was so selfish and mean she had no friends. St. Nicholas walled by, stopped and offered her a large shiny orange, but before she grabbed it, he pulled back and said,
“This orange is like the sun in the sky which shines on and warms everyone, and fills everyone with joy.
You can be like the sun if you give your love to everyone." (Adapted)
St. Nicholas’ lesson in the joy of sharing taught with an orange, which brings us back to that raspy voice piercing through this Advent Sunday with the call, “Repent!” Just what we may need to hear as we think of what we’d like to get as well as give, and turn into a gift-giving and receiving lesson for children,
so that we may have a St. Nicholas Christmas, whether on Dec. 6th or 25th – one that echoes with today’s letter first read in congregations in Rome:
Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God .
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope
by the power of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.