06 December 2020

How Saint Nicholas helps us
to ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight’

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

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 6 December 2020

The Second Sunday of Advent (Advent II)

9.30 a.m., Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, the Parish Eucharist

11.30 a.m., Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry, Morning Prayer

The Readings: Isaiah 40: 1-11; Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13; (II Peter 3: 8-15a;) Mark 1: 1-8

There is a direct link to the readings HERE.

An icon of Saint Nicholas in a church in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

Today is the Second Sunday of Advent. This is the Sunday in Advent when we remember the Prophets and how they looked forward to the coming of salvation and redemption. Our readings this morning give voice to this hope and anticipation.

Our first reading (Isaiah 40: 1-11) is familiar because of the opening words of hope and expectation heard in Handel’s Messiah.

In the Psalm (Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13), we are told of God’s restoration of the people, and God’s overwhelming forgiveness (verses 1-2).

In the Epistle reading (II Peter 3: 8-15a), which we might have heard this morning, we are reminded, ‘We wait for new heavens and a new earth’ (II Peter 3: 13).

And we heard the message of hope in the opening passage in Saint Mark’s Gospel (Mark 1: 1-8).

Mark, unlike Matthew or Luke, has no Nativity narrative, has no story of the first Christmas (see Matthew 1: 18 to 2: 23; Luke 1: 1 to 2: 40). Instead, Saint Mark begins his Gospel with his account of the Baptism of Christ by Saint John in the River Jordan (see Matthew 3: 1-17; Luke 3: 1-21; John 1: 19-34).

He tells the story of the Baptism of Christ as the story of a new creation, drawing together all the elements of the creation story in Genesis. God is pleased with the whole of creation, God so loved this creation, the κόσμος (kosmos), that Christ has come into it, identified with us in the flesh, and gives us the gift and the blessings of the Holy Spirit.

But today also commemorates Saint Nicholas, the role model for Santa Claus.

It is good to be reminded how, with less than three weeks to go to Christmas, Saint Nicholas too can remind us in dark days to be joyful and to look forward with hope and anticipation.

Saint Nicholas was a fourth century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, now southern Turkey.

Many of the stories about him concern his love and care for children, how he fed the hungry, healed the sick and cared for the oppressed. He saved three girls from a life of prostitution by providing them with dowries – and so developed the tradition of bearing gifts to children on his feast day, a practice that we have since moved to the Christmas celebrations.

But, why should a bishop who makes free giving to children a priority in his ministry be worth rescuing from marketing and merchandising?

Because Christ first himself comes to us as a little child with nothing at all, and yet is the most precious gift of all, given freely.

Saint Nicholas, whose name means ‘Victory of the People,’ was born in Myra in Lycia, now known as Demre, near Antalya in present-day Turkey. He had a reputation as a secret giver of gifts, such as putting coins in the shoes of poor children. Because of this, perhaps, he was transformed into our present-day Santa Claus.

Legend says that young Nicholas was sent to Alexandria as a student. On the voyage, he is said to have saved the life of a sailor who fell from the ship’s rigging in a storm. 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, raised 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, meaning they would remain unmarried or become prostitutes. Saint Nicholas secretly went to their house under cover of darkness and threw three purses filled with gold, one for each daughter, through the window – or down the chimney.

I prefer the stories that link Saint Nicholas with 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. As Arius argued his position 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 bishop’s robes, quietly reading the Bible. Constantine ordered his release, and Nicholas was reinstated as the Bishop of Myra.

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

After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered the colony’s nearly-forgotten Dutch roots, and the New York Historical Society promoted Saint Nicholas as the patron of the city. Washington Irving joined the society and published a story with many references to a jolly Saint Nicholas.

And so, began the legends about Saint Nicholas and New Amsterdam: that the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of Saint Nicholas; that Saint Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; that the first church was dedicated to him; and that Saint Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts.

Other artists and writers continued to transform Saint Nicholas from a saintly bishop to a jolly, rotund gift-giver. 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.’

Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus had become inseparable from Christmas.

But remembering Saint Nicholas this morning also reminds us to prepare for the coming of Christ; that without the incarnation there would be no Christmas celebrations; to ask how, without the birth of Christ, would we experience God’s salvation and redemption.

Saint Nicholas reminds us of the value of giving, giving with love and without expecting anything in return. Santa reminds us of the need to value children – as children themselves, and not because they are potential adults. Perhaps Santa should also remind us adults of the child within ourselves.

Prepare to give and to receive. Prepare to receive God’s love in his most precious present. And prepare to give and receive love for one another.

And, in Saint Mark’s words in our Gospel reading, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (Mark 1: 3).

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

Saint John the Baptist and the Prophet Isaiah … a window in Saint John’s Church, Wall, outside Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 1: 1-8 (NRSVA):

1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight”,’

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

‘We wait for new heavens and a new earth’ (II Peter 3: 13) … early morning on the River Slaney at Ferrycarrig, near Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Liturgical colour: Violet (Advent, Year B).

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:

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

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 for ever.

Collect (Saint Nicholas):

Almighty Father, lover of souls,
who chose your servant Nicholas
to be a bishop in the Church,
that he might give freely out of the treasures of your grace:
make us mindful of the needs of others
and, as we have received, so teach us also to give;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

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)


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:

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.

Post Communion Prayer (Saint Nicholas):

God, shepherd of your people,
whose servant Nicholas revealed the loving service of Christ
in his ministry as a pastor of your people:
by this Eucharist in which we share
awaken within us the love of Christ
and keep us faithful to our Christian calling;
through him who laid down his life for us,
but is alive and reigns with you,
now and for ever.


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

‘Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps’ (Psalm 85: 13) … the Mary Elmes Pedestrian Bridge in Cork commemorates Mary Elmes, who saved hundreds of Jewish children during the Holocaust and has been named among the ‘Righteous of the Nations’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)


126: Hark! a thrilling voice is sounding (CD 8)
136: On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry (CD 8)

Nicholas Street was the High Street of mediaeval Limerick … the site of Saint Nicholas Church is on the left (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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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