Sunday, 8 December 2019

The Prophets and Santa
prepare us in Advent
for the best gift of all

An icon of Saint Nicholas, celebrated on 6 December, in a church in Crete … how did he become Santa Claus? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 8 December 2019,

The Second Sunday of Advent.


9.30 a.m., Castletown Church, The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2)

Readings: Isaiah 11: 1-10; Psalm 72: 1-7, 18-19; Romans 15: 4-13; Matthew 3: 1-12.

‘In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea’ (Matthew 3: 1) … a mosaic in Saint John’s Monastery, Tolleshunt Knights, shows Saint John the Baptist with his parents Saint Zechariah and Saint Elizabeth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

In this season of Advent, we are preparing for the coming of Christ, not just the Christ Child in the crib, but Christ the challenging king, Christ at his second coming.

This morning, as we light the second candle on the Advent Wreath, we think of the prophets and kings who prepared the way for the coming of Christ.

In the Old Testament reading, the Prophet Isaiah looks to the coming Messiah, ushering in a kingdom in which the wolf shall live with the lamb, the calf with the lion, ‘and a little child shall lead them’ – a Messianic image that has inspired poets, painters and hymn writers.

The psalm prays that the coming king may bring righteousness and justice, defend the poor, crush the oppressor, so the earth will be blessed with prosperity, justice and peace.
In our epistle reading, Saint Paul urges us to welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed us in fulfilment of the promises to the Patriarchs and Prophets of old. He asks that God may fill us with joy, peace and hope.

In our Gospel reading (Matthew 3: 1-12), Saint John the Baptist is described in words from the Prophet Isaiah as ‘the voice … crying out in the wilderness’ (verse 3).

Saint John the Baptist is compared with the Old Testament prophets, particularly Isaiah and Elijah, and he emphasises the coming of the Kingdom of heaven (βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν, basileía tou ouranou, see verse 2). When God’s kingdom comes, his will indeed shall be done on earth as in heaven, and justice shall be firmly and truly established.

Advent is our time to prepare for the coming of those days.

As Saint John the Baptist prepares the people for the coming of the Kingdom, he may be trying to shock the Pharisees and Sadducees out of their false sense of security, and into spiritual awareness by using strong language: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’

If Saint John the Baptist is drawing up a list before the coming of Christ, there is no doubt that he knows who’s naughty and who’s nice.

With his long beard and his unusual clothing, his rare appearance, his cajoling and cautioning, could we compare Saint John with Saint Nicholas, with Santa Claus?

Now, I know Saint John is not handing out gifts, moving around with haste before the arrival of Christ – but is there a way in which Santa Claus also prepares us for the coming of Christ? A way he teaches us some truths about who Christ truly is?

The feast day of Saint Nicholas does not fall on Christmas Day, or even on Christmas Eve. His feast day was on Friday, on 6 December, even if he does not make an appearance in the Calendar of the Church of Ireland.

Saint Nicholas was such a favourite saint in mediaeval Ireland that many of our principal ports and towns have large churches named after him, including one in mediaeval Limerick, on Nicholas Street, close to Saint Mary’s Cathedral.

He is an important figure, not because of the roly-poly figure used by Coca-Cola and advertising.

Saint Nicholas, whose name means ‘Victory of the People,’ was born in Myra in Lycia, now known as Demre, near Antalya on the south coast of present-day Turkey. He had a reputation as a secret giver of gifts, such as putting coins in the shoes of poor children, so you can see his links with our Santa Claus today.

Saint Nicholas is the patron of sailors, seafarers, merchants, pawnbrokers, children and students, and the patron of many port cities. King’s College, Cambridge, known for the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, was founded in 1441 as the King’s College of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas.

Legend says young Nicholas was sent to Alexandria as a student. On the voyage, it is said, he saved the life of a sailor who fell from the ship’s rigging. In one version, on their arrival back in Myra, Nicholas took the sailor to church. The previous Bishop of Myra had just died, and the freshly-returned, heroic Nicholas was elected his successor.

Another story tells how during a famine, a butcher lured three small children into his house, slaughtered and butchered them, and put their bodies in a pork barrel to sell as meat pies. Saint Nicholas, who heard of the horrific plans, brought the three boys back to life through his prayers.

The best-known story tells how a poor man had three daughters but could not afford proper dowries for them. They would either remain unmarried or become victims of the trade in women and people trafficking. Saint Nicholas secretly went to their house at night and threw three purses filled with gold, one for each daughter, through the window – or down the chimney.

There are stories too of Saint Nicholas and the defence of true doctrine. In the year 325, the Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, attended by more than 300 bishops, to debate the nature of the Holy Trinity.

It was one of the most intense theological debates in the early Church. Arius from Alexandria was teaching that Christ was the Son of God but was not equal to God the Father, not God incarnate. As Arius argued at length, Nicholas became agitated, crossed the room, and slapped Arius across the face.

The shocked bishops stripped Nicholas of his episcopal robes, chained him and jailed him. In the morning, the bishops found his chains on the floor and Nicholas dressed in his episcopal robes, quietly reading his Bible. Constantine ordered his release, and Nicholas was reinstated as the Bishop of Myra.

As the debate went on, the Council of Nicaea agreed with his views, deciding against Arius and agreeing on the Nicene Creed, which remains the symbol of our faith.

In 1863, the cartoonist Thomas Nast began a series of drawings in Harper’s Weekly, based on the descriptions in Washington Irving’s fiction and Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, ‘A Visit from Saint Nicholas’ or ‘The Night Before Christmas.’ His drawings gave us a rotund Santa with flowing beard, fur garments, and a clay pipe, and the saint’s name shifted to Santa Claus – a phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus and the Dutch Sinterklaas.

Coca Cola, advertising and Hollywood later made Santa a commercial success, and the North American Santa Claus has since travelled around the world.

But for me, Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, remains the protector of children, the giver of gifts that make this a good world for children to live in. As the free-giver of gifts, without expecting anything in return, he is a reminder that God’s love is given freely and unconditionally at the Incarnation in his Son, Christ Jesus.

As the defender of the doctrine that Christ is God Incarnate, Saint Nicholas makes Christmas more than the birth of another prophet or someone who was important in history, and gives meaning to our celebrations of Christmas.

The stories of bringing the victims of murder back to life are reminders that Christmas is without meaning unless we connect it with Good Friday and Easter Day, that the significance of the Incarnation is found in our Redemption and the Resurrection.

If Santa gives good gifts at Christmas, then he prepares, he makes way, for the gift of love that God gives to us, all of us, freely, in the gift of Christ, the best of all gifts.

Enjoy preparing for Christmas.

Enjoy the anticipation and the excitement.

Enjoy the gifts – giving and receiving.

And prepare for the greatest gift of all.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

How was Saint Nicholas transformed into the modern Santa Claus? … a scene in Little Catherine Street, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Matthew 3: 1-12 (NRSVA):

1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight”.’

4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

Saint Nicholas with children … a stained-glass window in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Liturgical Colour: Violet

Liturgical resources for Advent:

The liturgical provisions suggest that the Gloria may be omitted during Advent, and it is traditional in Anglicanism to omit the Gloria at the end of canticles and psalms during Advent.

Penitential Kyries:

Turn to us again, O God our Saviour,
and let your anger cease from us.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Show us your mercy, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.

Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Your salvation is near for those that fear you,
that glory may dwell in our land.

Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day:

Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
Give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Advent Collect:

Almighty God,
Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness,
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and ever.

This collect is said after the Collect of the day until Christmas Eve

The Collect of the Word:

God of all peoples,
whose servant John came baptising and calling for repentance:
help us to hear his voice of judgment,
that we may also rejoice in the word of promise,
and be found pure and blameless in the glorious day when Christ
comes to rule the earth as Prince of Peace;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Introduction to the Peace:

In the tender mercy of our God,
the dayspring from on high shall break upon us,
to give light to those who dwell in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1: 78, 79)

Preface:

Salvation is your gift
through the coming of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ,
and by him you will make all things new
when he returns in glory to judge the world:

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord,
here you have nourished us with the food of life.
Through our sharing in this holy sacrament
teach us to judge wisely earthly things
and to yearn for things heavenly.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Blessing:

Christ the sun of righteousness shine upon you,
gladden your hearts
and scatter the darkness from before you:

An icon of Saint Nicholas of Myra in the Collegiate Church of Saint Nicholas, Galway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Hymns:

535, Judge eternal, throned in splendour (CD 31)
162, In the bleak mid-winter (CD 10)
134, Make way, make way, for Christ the King (CD 8)

Saint Nicholas defended doctrine that are central to the Incarnation and that make Christmas worth celebrating … the word homoousios (ὁμοούσιος) means ‘same substance,’ while the word homoiousios (ὁμοιούσιος) means ‘similar substance’; the Council of Nicaea affirmed the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are of the same substance, rather than of a similar substance

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

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