Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.
Have you heard someone say, “In the life of a saint it says…” or “You have to read the life of a saint”? And have you wondered what exactly is the life of a saint? Is it a biography? Or is it a text of what a person did and why he or she is a saint?
The life of a saint is much more than biography of a person. I can read a biography of George Washington, learn something about him, about the time he lived in, maybe get inspired for something, but that’s about it.
When I read the life of a saint, I not only learn something about the person and the time, but I get a glimpse of what it means to live a life dedicated to Christ and for Christ. There is more than one path to holiness, to life in Christ, and reading the lives of the saints gives us many examples of what it means to be Orthodox Christian. In other words, the life of a saint presents us with something worthy of imitation.
Even though his feast day is tomorrow, but we will talk about St Nicholas today, since he will be visiting us later. St Nicholas was born at the end of the 3rd century in Lycia, which is in present day Turkey. After his parents died, he gave away all of his belongings to the needy. Almsgiving, giving away personal things to those who needed them more than he, defined his life and made St Nicholas well known among both Christians and non-Christians.
Is it hard to give away things that belong to us? Of course it is! They are ours and sometimes we just have this feeling that there is no need to share our things with others. So how did St Nicholas do it? He considered everything that he owned, everything that God gave him, not as his own, but as belonging to the poor, and he was simply a steward.
Among the many good things he did was saving three young girls from prostitution. Their father considered giving them away for this abominable work because the family had no money and were starving. So when St Nicholas heard about this, he secretly left money under their door and the girls were saved.
On many occasions, during his life and after his death, St Nicholas miraculously helped those in the sea and those traveling. And that’s why he is considered a protector and patron saint of all those who travel by air, land or sea.
It is sad that St Nicholas has been replaced with a chubby guy in a red jump suit, who has become the symbol of winter holidays. But it is easy to see why a holy bishop who lived some 1600 hundred years ago has become so closely connected with the feast of Christ’s birth. He was a man of simple faith, known only for his goodness and love.
The surprising thing about St Nicholas is that he is not known for anything extraordinary. He was not a noted theologian and never wrote anything, at least nothing that has been preserved to our day. Yet he is considered a zealot for Orthodoxy. He was not an ascetic and did no outstanding feats of fasting, yet he is praised for his possession of the “fruit of the Holy Spirit – love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).
All St Nicholas was was a good pastor, father, and bishop of his flock. Most simply put, he was a divinely good person.
We use this term “good” so lightly in our time. How often do we say or hear of someone, “He is a good man” or “She is a good woman”? A teenager overdoses on drugs, and the neighbors say, “But she was always such a good girl.” A young man commits a horrible crime, and people again say, “But he was always such a good boy.” A man dies on a golf course after a life distinguished by many years of gambling and cheating, and the reaction is the same, “He was a good and really nice guy.”
But what does “good” really mean in such cases? What does it describe? What does it express? In St Luke’s Gospel it tells us that one day a certain ruler asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus answered him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but God alone” (Lk. 18:18-19).
Jesus reacts to the question about goodness by referring it to its proper source. There is only One Who is good, and that is God Himself. If we speak of goodness, then we have to realize what and Who we are talking about.
St Nicholas was genuinely good. His life showed us that goodness is possible. And as Christ once said “with men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26). Jesus Christ has come so that human beings can live lives which are, strictly speaking, humanly impossible. He has come so that people can really be good.
One of the greatest and most beloved examples among the Orthodox Christians that this is true is St Nicholas, about whom nothing else is known, or needs to be known, except that he was good. For this reason alone he remains, even in his secularized form, the very spirit of Christmas.