Given the state of race relations in our country, it may seem superfluous to be writing about the remembrance of a person who is popularly portrayed in the culture as a white bearded jolly fellow in a red suit and black boots with a sack overloaded with presents for expectant children waiting and dreaming of what they will find underneath a beautifully decorated tree on Christmas morning. In actuality, December 6th is the Feast Day of St. Nicholas of Myra, a bishop whose kindness, generosity and concern for his fellow human beings made him renowned down through the ages, from his time to ours—and maybe this is a good time as any to step back and examine our present predicament through the prism of this saint’s life and example. And, perhaps, we can see/use Nicholas as a means for helping us overcome what has bedeviled our society since the beginning: the inability to see another human being as simply that, another human being.
Recent events in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York have stirred emotions in such a way that it is hard to believe that we are in a holiday season where we annually sing of “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” The reality is that we have very little of either attribute. Instead, there is an abundance of anger, frustration, bitterness, demagoguery and hatred—and not to mention, more than a little fear and helplessness. Out of this cauldron comes violence and destruction, which only promises more sorrow and more grief, which in the end accomplishes little and resolves nothing. And yet, all of this simmers while the tinsel and the multi-colored lights are straddled brightly across our Christmas landscapes in this Advent season.
We learn yet again, in these days, of the power of words: they can heal and they can hurt. There are words that can justifiably express pain and grief when they are needed as such an outlet. Words can also be used for nefarious purposes, when they are not meant to be heard in the quiet of the heart, but to inflict searing pain into the soul and in many cases, harming the body. Regrettably, it escalates into wanton violence and destruction. It is true that without justice there is no peace, but violence advances neither. Guns are powerful and so are fists and so are words—and, as we have seen of late, all have been grievously misused. Right now, the only word for this whole situation is incomprehension.
It is beyond belief that in the present day United States of America, these things have happened and are still happening. After all these years when our consciences were awakened to the injustice suffered by other human beings, and when we tried to redress wrongs by passing legislation in the hope of being better and doing right, we realize an unhappy truth: we cannot legislate morality, it can only come from the person in a person-to-person encounter, a conversation between persons. (Or, better yet, a conversion between persons.) As recent events sadly make clear, we have a long way to go to achieve what it is we say we believe in, but don’t really practice. It is the American dichotomy: we hail freedom, liberty and equality, but only for ourselves, not for the other person.
It has been said—correctly—in these past days that “black lives matter.” That is very true, but it misses the larger point: all lives matter. All our lives matter, whether we are black or white, young or old, rich or poor. The problem is that when we should be looking out for each other, we are often looking out for the perquisites of power, to the detriment of the whole. All too often we have seen this permeate the fabric of our society. Our institutions are compromised by this constant need and expression of power and this eventually seeps into the populace, poisoning our sensibilities, thus rendering that social fabric.
We are now in the holy season of Advent, where we prepare for the coming of the Lord, remembering the time when He was born in a hay-strewn stable in Bethlehem all those millennia ago. On December 6th, we commemorate the life of St. Nicholas, the prototype of our present-day Santa Claus. A holy man and bishop, Nicholas always looked out for his fellow human beings. Nicholas always gave to others out of his concern for them, for their welfare and well-being. Legends abound about him, the most famous of which was the time when, in the dark of night, he went to a house and threw three bags of gold coins through the window, so that the three daughters inside would have a dowry (and doing his good deed privately, so as not to embarrass the family publicly by his charity) in order that they would be prepared for marriage. It is good to remember Nicholas and his example as we look toward Christmas. It will also be good for us to act like Nicholas in these days of tension and high emotion, when good will is superseded by its opposite, and good role models are in short supply.
But most of all, we will do well to meditate on the Master Nicholas served to imitate, the Son of Man who was once the Christ Child. Jesus came onto this Earth as a simple human being, a baby (though at the same time a Divine One) amongst other human beings and that those who surrounded Him on those starry nights in the stable were black and white, rich and poor, powerful and powerless. The Child who would eventually grow up only to walk the way of Calvary would know something about injustice, alienation, and cruel death. But Jesus also knew that the Alleluia of the Resurrection awaited, and He went about His work. We should too, knowing that the Christ Child who was born amongst us, came to let us know one overwhelming fact: that all our lives matter. That fact alone should—for us—shine brighter than any star in the heavens that God the Father created. Let us devoutly wish and pray it to be so, everywhere, now, not just in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York, and not just at Christmastime, but for all time.