We celebrate St. Nicholas Day in our home.
On the night before December 6th, the boys will line up one pair of shoes near the fireplace, hoping St. Nicholas will stop by and put some goodies in it. And every year he does: an orange (a traditional Christmas delicacy), some candies, and chocolate coins.
The coins represent the ancient dowry that St. Nicholas, who would become a 4th Century Bishop in Myra (modern day Turkey), paid on behalf of three young maidens in his town whose father could not afford a dowry. The story goes that St. Nicholas, a rather short fellow with dark skin characteristic of his residence in the world, snuck by the house at night and threw the coins in the window. He repeated this pattern for two more nights, providing the needed monies to preserve the honor of the family.
How this short, brown Bishop was transformed into a larger-than-life white elf with rotund belly and red suit is no small mystery. This is what humans do with things: we mold them into the dominant image, usually for commercial gain.
I am not against the fat elf, mind you. We like Santa Claus in our home, and his enduring presence in our very human celebration stories speaks to his being more than mere legend. We attempt, I think, to make sense of generosity through this mythic story.
But we may try too hard.
Because the root of the story is so much better than the myth.
We don’t need flying reindeer or a chimney-crawling gift-giver to make sense of generosity. We just need a simple soul, in this case a slight guy in ancient Turkey, who saw a family in desperate need and decided that was absolutely unacceptable.
Generosity does not need magic to happen, but when it does happen, Beloved, we certainly find magic.
Every year when I was in the parish I would read a quote by a contemporary of St. Nicholas: St. Ambrose. The quote always came as a bit of a shock, especially because the scenario he paints happens daily here and now.
“The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds–and also big enough to shut out the voice of the poor…There is your sister or brother, naked, crying! And you stand confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering.”
Ambrose cuts to the quick, but I believe his words are magic. They are the kind of gospel magic that happens when our illusions are peeled away from our eyes and we see things in real time, at their root.
Advent starts with these calls from prophets and these apocalyptic readings in churches (“apocalypse,” by the way, is a fancy word for “unveiling”). And it does so to break the spells that are cast upon us by living in a world that is a bit too comfortable, a bit too commercial, a bit too Santa and not enough Saint.
Where is the need, Beloved?
Perhaps in this pandemic the dowry we can offer those on the verge of desperation is simply to watch a few more commercialized Hallmark movies every night.
I’m dead serious. Stay home. Give a gift to front-line workers.
The veritable coins through the windows of humanity this Advent is to hunker down and in, offering life to those struggling in these months.
And, of course, there are acts of generosity, and lovely presents to give out of love.
But there are presents we can give out of need, too. The magical present of non-presence. Of not showing up. It’s the most saintly thing we can do right now.
As you practice showing-up for the needy by staying in, know that you’re giving the best gift of all right now: love. Add St. George of the Harrison’s beautiful song “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” to your Advent playlist.
And then do your best to usher in peace by, right now, doing nothing, by God.