Today we celebrate St. Nicholas, the fatherly bishop of Myra (then a Greek city near the sea, now the Turkish city of Demre). Yesterday I told our schoolchildren how, around the year 310, he quietly left bags of gold at night in the home of three poor women, saving them from misery. The children looked up in wonder as they made the connection: “Saint Nicholas … Santa Claus!”
St. Nicholas provided joy for his people during the Great Persecution of the emperor Diocletian. Today the Church is again under persecution, but in more subtle ways. Clever use of digital media trivializes the Gospel, cheap products and contemptible entertainment corrupt our hearts, and many Catholics have apostatized. Faithful clergy and parents ask what can be done as their children lose the joy of faith, becoming vacant-eyed slaves to their i-phones.
Nicholas of Myra grew up as the Roman Empire was declining. Educational, economic, and political systems were coming apart. In 395 the imperial armies collapsed, and by 410 Rome could not defend itself from gothic invaders who overran the Imperial City. Nevertheless, the good bishop did not lose his joy. He kept his eyes on Jesus. Many families in my own parish have not lost the joy of knowing Jesus either. Despite the confusion and anger around us today, these families and individuals radiate joy.
Today in the chapel, after morning prayer, St. Nicholas gave me the gift of joy. God had given it to him, and he gave it to me as I read about his life: “After the death of his parents, Nicholas began to consider how he might make use of his great wealth…. Some little time later Nicholas threw a double sum of gold into a house. The noise awakened the man inside, and he pursued the fleeing figure, calling out, ‘Stop! Stop! Don’t hide from me!’ and ran faster until he saw that it was Nicholas.” Picture this middle-aged father who had despaired to the point of selling his own daughters into prostitution — a death sentence, really — racing after the fleeing Nicholas. A thrill of hope surged through my core as I considered the joyful energy of both pursued and pursuer.
Later, when the local prelate was looking for a new bishop for Myra, “Nicholas, miraculously guided by God, went early to the church and was the first to enter.… Filled with the simplicity of a dove, he bowed his head and answered ‘Nicholas, the servant of your holiness.’ Then all the bishops led him in and installed him on the episcopal throne. But he, amidst his honors, always preserved his formed humility and gravity of manner.”
I urge you to read the lives of the saints early and often. The little monthly magazine Magnificat has a one-page saint story every day, and publishers like Ignatius Press have produced hundreds of book-length biographies. It is the Bible, and the Lives of the Saints, that will keep us from despairing in our own time of decline. Ask the saints to give you the gift of joy so that you will be able to give that same joy to your own children. St. Nicholas, pray for us!
The above comes from a Dec. 6 posting in Father Illo’s blog. Father Illo is pastor of Star of the Sea in San Francisco.