Monday, December 24, 2012

The Santa at the Manger

The Santa at the Manger
Julie Worcester in Abingdon press preaching annual relays a story of Christmas

“Advent and Christmas are always beautiful, but one of my fondest memories is of celebrating the season with my new spouse in our new church home, First United Methodist Church. The lovely sanctuary was made even more beautiful by the greenery adorning the windows, the walls, and the chancel area. Children’s eyes sparkled as they gazed upon the beautiful Christmas tree and heard stories behind the hand-stitched symbols and stories of the saints. One of the few decorations in the sanctuary that was not greenery or Christmas candles was the small statuette
of Santa kneeling at the manger. It sat atop the church’s organ. It was so unique, so different, so appropriate, and it piqued my curiosity. I asked the organist and some fellow choir members about the statuette following worship the Sunday prior to Christmas and was surprised by the varied responses. The comments ranged from, “I know, don’t you just love it?” to “Humph!” to “Yea, well . . . ,” and my favorite—“We don’t talk about it.”

Don’t talk about it? What was so controversial? Instead of laying the issue aside, I pressed on in search of an answer. I asked church members and our pastor. I first found out that those who knew who purchased it would not divulge the identity of the family for protective measures. Some in the congregation felt Santa had no place in church, some felt it childish, for some it didn’t matter one way or another, some liked it but were bullied by factions that didn’t like it. Those wonderful congregational disagreements; I know, another sermon for another time.

It took me almost ten years to find out the story of the statuette. The purchase was made by a fellow choir member. She and her husband had happened upon the statuette during a vacation in New Mexico. The purchase was made because this couple felt that Santa should be in the
church. It’s where Santa began and where Santa served. Church was most definitely where Santa belonged and where he should have been all along….”

Saint Nicholas was probably born near 270 C.E. in a port city known as Patara in Myra. Patara was the major naval and trading port of Lycia (Modern day Turkey), located at the mouth of the Xanthos River, until it silted up and turned into a malaria-plagued marsh.

Nicholas of Myra was born to wealthy merchant parents. Nicholas’ parents were Christian and the family worshiped in a congregation that was begun by the Apostle Paul toward the end of
his third journey where he had done some missionary work in the area between voyages.

Legend says that Nicholas’ parents were childless for most of their married life. They prayed every day for a child, and in later life their prayers were answered by the arrival of a son whom they named Nicholas, which means “God is victorious.”

Unfortunately By the time Nicholas was thirteen years old, he was an orphan. The plague claimed the lives of his parents. With no other family, Nicholas turned to God and the church for
solace. Nicholas gave his entire inheritance to the Roman Catholic Church and became a priest. He was appointed Bishop of Myra at the age of twenty-four and lived a life of service to others.
The young bishop was respected and beloved by his congregation and his community for his many acts of generosity.

Nicholas fought for truth, justice, and the Christian way. The gifts that Santa Claus brings are meant to be representative of the gifts and acts of kindness demonstrated by Nicholas for those in need, be it money for dowry or money to help a family pay their taxes to Rome that kept a child out of slavery, arguing before the Emperor Constantine for lower taxes on behalf of a community and region, or saving the lives of those who had been wrongly accused.

Nicholas died in 345 C.E., but within one hundred years of his passing the Santa we know today began to take shape. The stories of the Bishop of Myra spread to all parts of the Roman Empire, including present day England, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.

Saint Nicholas, Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession became known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and that is how he became the model for our modern concept of Santa Claus, whose modern name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas, itself from a series of elisions ( which is a removal of sounds) and corruptions of the transliteration of "Saint Nikolaos" 

In one story attributed to Nicholas a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. When he heard of this, Nicholas decided to help him, in order to be humble or more likely to prevent the man from being embarrassed by accepting charity he went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses(one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the man's house.

There are three versions of this story one has him throwing the gold through the window on three different nights, and another over three different years, each time just before the daughter comes of age.  The third year the father lie in wait to see who was bringing these gifts when caught Nicholas states that he should not be thanked but the glory should be given to God.  In a final version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead; and finally it may have been that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking.

See some traditions beginning in this story.

Over time the bishop’s robe, staff, mitre, and Bible were replaced with toys and other treats as symbols of St. Nicholas. His name even began to changed form  Sinterklaas toFather Christmas,
Papai Noel, Niklaus, Père Noël, Winter Grandfather, and Christkindl

Over the years Saint Nicholas became something for the children as opposed as a story of compassion and justice for all people.  He became a cartoon character finalized in a coke add in Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s.

Finally Back to where we started and Julie Worcester’s story of Jesus at the Manger she asks “Would Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, approve of the changes? No” she answers. “
 This pastor and priest, Nicholas, would have insisted that the focus be returned to God. Nicholas would have been directing our attention back to the manger of our Savior where Nicholas’ present-day likeness was kneeling. Like the good bishop, we should be pouring over God’s holy word and worshiping the One who came to this earth, fully human, fully alive and fully divine, the One who was sent to free us, free us from our own preconceived boundaries and allow us to be expressions of the God whose image we are created in.

If we look around, we will find that the kneeling Santa is us. As people of Christ, we, the modern day Santas, present ourselves to God with open hearts and open minds in search for opportunities to help those in need. As disciples of Christ, we should not limit to whom and when we should offer help, and we should seek justice for those who have no voice. We can accomplish all these things because of God’s amazing grace.

As I think of the image santa at the manger, I discover that, like Nicholas, I have been transformed. I have knelt before the manger and left as a new creation because of the grace and forgiveness found in Christ. Like Nicholas of old, and the kneeling Santa of today, may we live always in Christ and strive to live as the Spirit leads us, and may the Prince of Peace and Wonderful Counselor be with you and yours this coming new year. 

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