Thursday, December 6, 2012

St Nicholas the Wonderworker

Hebrews 13:17-21 / Luke 6:17-23

Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be filled.

Many miracles are associated with St Nicholas, so many, in fact, that he is given the title thaumaturgos, "wonderworker". Among the many stories told of Nicholas, quite a few, perhaps even most, attend to the holiness of the saint precisely as expressed in his fierce concern for and defense of the poor. In one story, Nicholas restored to life, and bodily integrity, three boys (or, in some versions, three clerks) who had been slaughtered and pickled (or baked as meat pies) by an unscrupulous butcher (or innkeeper). The villain of the story, we are led to understand, while no less wicked for the fact, was brought to this terrible act because of the severity of the famine which, in making meat unavailable, threatened his own livelihood, threatened to number him among the many who were poor and hungry.

Hunger and famine are also key to the story which tells of the ship filled with grain destined for the emperor in Constantinople. While docked at the port of St Nicholas' city, the holy man demanded that grain be taken from the ship to feed his people who were oppressed by a terrible famine. The captain and his sailors were understandably resistant; the emperor, after all, would require a full accounting for the grain, which had been measured and weighed upon departure, and so, while not unsympathetic to the people's plight, intended to give nothing of their store. When they acquiesced to the pleadings of Nicholas, they then left for Constantinople, only to discover that what had been taken for Nicholas' flock, enough to feed them for two years, had been miraculously restored to the ship as well.

The most famous story of St Nicholas involves no miracle at all, but is likewise bound up with the desperate decisions we make in the face of hunger and want. A father, desperately poor and unable to provide dowries for his three daughters, is tempted to turn them out to the streets, to make a sale of their virtue and innocence for the sake of another day's worth of food. The young bishop, hearing of their plight, secretly deposited gold coins in their home, in some versions into stockings which had been hung up to dry, and so saved the daughters from the terrible fate of sexual slavery and the father the moral corruption of having delivered them over to it.

When Jesus tells us that the poor and hungry are blessed, that theirs is the kingdom and that they will be filled, I do not expect him to mean that the kinds of miraculous, or at least providential, interventions of the kind made by St Nicholas are to be the lot of every believer. To be sure, we can and should rightly turn to God to aid us in our plight, and we should be rightly grateful when he comes to our aid, as Nicholas was sent to the sailors whose ship was tosser about at sea. However, what Jesus reminds us is that we must all of us turn away from the temptation to respond to need and want only from our own resources. While we must, of course, give our best to meet our own needs and the needs of those most in want, especially those closest to us, Jesus' beatitudes in Luke's Gospel, and likewise also the woes which follow, serve as a warning. They warn us of the horrible consequences, to others, but to ourselves even more, or the terrible consequences we must inevitably make, most often at the expense of the weakest in our midst, when we think that our own resources, alone or collectively, are all he have to meet the needs of the world.

Jesus Christ alone answers our need. Jesus Christ alone is the source of blessing, of happiness, of healing power, of kingdom and being filled, of laughter and rejoicing and leaping for joy. It is only by giving of ourselves from the inexhaustible riches that flow from the power of Jesus Christ, only by opening our own hearts to the extravagant generosity of the Word made Flesh, whose first coming we celebrate, whose truth Nicholas so fiercely defended, and whose return we await with deepest longing — only then can meet the needs of our own poverty, and the poverty of the world.

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