St. Nicholas’ Greatest Gift to Us
December 6, 2016
How does one become the patron saint of children, bankers, pawn brokers, sailors, perfumers, brides, unmarried women, sailors, dock workers, travelers, brewers, poets and prisoners? It doesn’t hurt to be the subject of many legends, as St. Nicholas surely was. In one such story, he upheld the human dignity of three young women and saved them from a life of prostitution when, on successive nights, he dropped a bag of gold on the window sill of their home so that their father would be able to provide a dowry for each of them to get married. Of course, it would have been even better had he done something to overturn the entire system of dowries and the reduction of women as property to be exchanged, but it was the 4th century after all.
St. Nicholas doesn’t need legends or even his popular association with Christmas to burnish his record of sanctity and service. This bishop of what is now part of present-day Turkey was a true shepherd to his people. Today’s first reading and gospel passage both use the image of God as a loving and caring shepherd who gathers and feeds his flock and is willing to go after one who strays. In John 10, Jesus the Son of God, speaks of himself as a Good Shepherd, and over the course of his ministry he passed that pastoral work on to his disciples. They in turn passed it on to others, and so it has gone to the present day.
Shepherding is hard work. It requires toughness, alertness, self-sacrifice and generosity of spirit. Nicholas embodied these characteristics. Imprisoned during the reign of Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th century, he later participated in the Council of Nicea (325 CE), which affirmed the divinity of Christ—“the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God”—against the Arians.
Those of us who have been privileged to serve as pastors in the Church can look to Nicholas as an example of one who met the challenge that St. Augustine mentions in today’s Office of Readings:
Do you love me? Tend my sheep [John 21:16]. Surely this means: “If you love me, your thoughts must focus on taking care of my sheep, not taking care of yourself. You must tend them as mine, not as yours; seek in them my glory, not yours; my sovereign rights, not yours; my gain, not yours….
So the shepherds of Christ’s flock must never indulge in self-love; if they do they will be tending the sheep not as Christ’s but as their own. And of all vices this is one that the shepherds must guard against most earnestly: seeking their own purposes instead of Christ’s, furthering their own desires by means of those persons for whom Christ shed his blood.”
Today we pray that through the intercession of St. Nicholas children everywhere will be protected from neglect, abuse and exploitation. We also give thanks for the greatest gift that he has left us: the example of a pastor who loves and serves those entrusted to his care.—JC