Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Advent Newsletter Article

This is my upcoming December article for the parish newsletter.
-The Archer

P.S...St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of Archers ;)
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The Curate's Corner
“Warning: The Following Might Not Be Suitable for Children.”

I have news for you: the church usually does not do things like normal people do things. One example of this is that the calendar of the church year is slightly different than the normal everyday calendar. The beginning of the church year does not start on January 1st, but rather on the first Sunday of Advent. Advent originally evolved as a Lenten-like period of fasting and waiting for the coming the Christ child on Christmas. The idea of an Advent fast has largely ceased in America, probably in no small part due to fact that secular Christmas has become a month long holiday extravaganza of cookies, candy, and all out Yuletide celebrations beginning sometime around or before Thanksgiving.

If you ask children (young or old) to name some things that comes to mind when you say the word “Christmas,” the name and person of Santa Claus is likely to be at the top or near the top of any such list. American Santa Claus is decked out in red with a white, poofy ball on the end an oddly pointy elf hat. He's always carrying a big bag of toys, and as the traditional depiction goes, rides around in a sleigh with flying reindeer and goes down chimneys on Christmas Eve to deliver gifts to the good and lumps of coal and switches to bad boys and girls.

Many people (usually grumpy adults) think that Santa Claus is simply a myth made up to foster greed and avarice in young children who are vulnerable to the materialistic excesses of our culture. Perhaps, in some way, contemporary Santa Claus has turned into that, but, I would argue that there is nothing particularly wrong with contemporary Santa Claus in you see him in his original form. He's a jolly old tradition, and (believe it or not) is not nearly as secular a figure as you might think. In his original form, in fact, he and his message are actually one of Christianity's enduring legacies to our culture.

The other name for Santa Claus belies his origins in Christianity: Saint Nick, or more properly Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was a Christian bishop in modern day Turkey who lived from around AD 270 to December 6th, 343. The 6th of December is still commemorated as his feast day on the church's calendar. St. Nicholas is remembered for many miracles, and is known in iconography as St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker.

Perhaps the most famous story that church tradition gives to us is of the good bishop's charitable work concerning three daughters whose father had no dowry and were facing the strong possibility of having to live on the streets. To save both the daughters and the father from the shame of having to accept charity, Nicholas under the cover of darkness threw three bags of gold coins into the window of the house where the family lived.

Much of what we see in contemporary depictions of Santa Claus are derived from his Christian history. One later version of the story tells of Nicholas throwing the bags of coins down the chimney, from which we get the modern story of Santa Claus coming down the chimney on Christmas Eve. Likewise, you can see if you stand up the stereotypical Santa hat that it has a strong resemblance to the pointy hat (called a miter) that the bishop wears when he visit. Even the color red is a derivative of the imperial colors that bishops of this era wore, as can be seen in many Orthodox icons depicting Saint Nicholas. Even the name of “Santa Claus” is the early American colonial attempt that subsequently stuck at pronouncing the name Sinterklaas, which is the Dutch word for Saint Nicholas.

Thus, when your children begin to think they are too old for Santa Claus, or Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, and that he is not real, you do not have to lie to them because Saint Nicholas is very real and is still praying for us, that we might likewise show generosity to those who need our help and to do so not for our own glory but the greater glory of God in thanksgiving for the coming of the incarnation, the Christ child we will all soon celebrate who brings with him our redemption.

This Advent, I invite you to reflect on the true meaning of Saint Nicholas' life and mission as a Christian, a mission I think we would be hard pressed not to adopt as our own and is best summed up by the collect prayer for the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas:

“Almighty God, in your love you gave your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness both on land and sea: Grant, we pray, that your Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

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