St Nicholas of Bari Rebuking the Storm, Bicci di Lorenzo
I never thought it was helpful to ask yourself “WWJD”? or, “what would Jesus do?”
Remember those bracelets and bumper stickers with WWJD on them? They were meant to make you think about your thoughts and choices, and imagine what Jesus would do in your situation.
That question is unrealistic and not too helpful, since Jesus is, after all, not only human but also fully divine -- the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
When it comes to choices, it is really better to ask yourself, “What would Mary, the Theotokos, do?” She is the first and best Christian, and the highest example of what it means to not only follow Jesus, but to enter into a lifestyle of repentance, and an eternal vocation of theosis (that is, become godlike in grace).
But in this week, and in this Christmas season of preparation, there is another Christian that we ought to think about … and we should think about him with happiness, delight, encouragement and wonder.
That Christian is St Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra. He is our Patron Saint. He is present in much of our Christmas traditions. He is the center of all the wonderful stories we have about Santa Claus. He is real, he is historically true …
… and he is here.
Originally, I was going to begin this meditation with an imaginary question: “What would it be like if we got a time machine and brought St Nicholas from the fourth century to this twenty-first century, here in modern American society? What would Nicholas say? What would Nicholas do?”
In other words, WWND?
But actually, Nicholas needs no time machine (they are impossible anyways), because St Nicholas is here, accompanying us in our own historic journey as we make choices, as we meet challenges, as we serve and work, as we feel emotions and as we think, and as we believe and pray.
We know this already, because we sing, in the third verse of O kto kto: “Holy Saint, hearken to our prayers, Let not life drive us to despair, All our efforts shall not wane, Singing praises to your name.” Well, maybe we don’t know this so well already, because we don’t sing that third verse as much as we should.
Despite this, our patron saint is with us, so I ask again, “What would Nicholas do?” or, “What does Nicholas think about this situation, this time, this modern world?”
These are legitimate questions, as Nicholas certain would and does have opinions. Actually, these opinions are “judgments,” and we know from the Bible itself that the saints are -- in this present millennial society of “on earth as it is in heaven” -- in the business of judging the world: “And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them” (St John, in the Apocalypse xx.4).
Just as we see in the icon of Pentecost, Mary the Mother of God, Nicholas and all the saints sit in judgment over the kingdoms of the world (whether or not they are called “kingdoms” -- these days, “kingdoms” hide behind other names, like “republics” or “democracies” or even “corporations”).
So what do you think, given what we know about him, what Nicholas thinks about the “here and now”?
We know that St Nicholas was charitable. He used ALL of his funds to help and rescue people. The stories about his gift-giving is the why we have the stories about Santa Claus today … and it is a sad, sad thing that Santa Clause has been generally erased from the marketplace today. As Pani Marsha has told me for years now, “At least the world was able to sense the religious meaning of this symbol -- and that is why the world is trying to erase him from the holidays.” Almost as much as the world has tried to take Christ out of Christmas.
St Nicholas was generous to the point of a “zero budget.” That meant that he did not try to recoup funds, or to make programs “self-generating.” In fact, Nicholas did not try to think in terms of “program” at all.
When it came to charity, he just DID it, without anyone knowing it. He did not wait for the paparazzi to take pictures, so that everyone would know what good things he did. St Nicholas snuck around, giving gifts in secret … just like our Lord Christ did a lot of miracles, and told the eye-witnesses to keep the spectacle a secret.
The “outreach” of the Orthodox Gospel, the “evangelism” of Jesus, is only by the deification of Christians, by personal witness to friends and neighbors, and not the “business model” of programs that are depended on by too many Christian groups today.
St Nicholas simply cared for his friends and neighbors, and wanted them to know the Risen Christ through his person, and in the Orthodox Church. Everyone -- is some way or another -- was poor around him, and he gave the mercy of Jesus Christ to everyone around him, secretly, unprogrammed, personally, only as a friend: business and numbers and institutional growth and survival were the last things on his mind.
I’m guessing here, but I think St Nicholas would tell us, in plain English, that the second-most important thing we should do is to show real love to everyone around us, and stop beating ourselves up about our size, our old-fashioned-ness, our limitations or anything else. We’ve criticized ourselves way too much: that is not the thing to do. God calls us to be faithful in the “here and now,” to “bloom where we are planted” …
… just like St Nicholas, to lead our family, our friends, our neighbors, into the Peace on Earth of this Orthodox communion … to give mercy, food, money, clothing, encouragement to the people that God has already put in our lives.
THAT is the “second-most-important thing to do.”
What is the first?
This is surprising. We all love the idea that St Nicholas was so generous, the first and truest “Secret Santa.” That is something that even the world understands.
But St Nicholas himself would say that Orthodox Truth comes first, even over charity.
We have a silly, foolish idea these days that you can be a Christian by just doing nice things once in a while. We have lots of people who think that they can be “spiritual” outside the Orthodox religion (and it is a “religion,” as the fulfillment of all religions). It is popular -- overwhelmingly popular, to an unprecedented degree -- that “all you need is love,” that you can be Christ-like (that is, loving, kind, good, merciful) without believing in Christ.
That is a horribly dangerous deception. It is worse than the Satanic infliction of anxiety upon the Orthodox Church these days -- the anxiety about our prospects for the future. That anxiety is bad enough.
But a far, far worse thing is the wretched notion that “all you have to do is to be nice, and you don’t need Christ or His Tradition.”
No, no, no, no. You cannot really live and love without Orthodox spirituality. You cannot be spiritual without Orthodox Tradition. You cannot live in Tradition -- the perfect “form” and design of human nature -- without learning, living, breathing and praying Orthodox theology.
BECAUSE only Orthodox theology witnesses completely to the beauty and goodness and truth of WHO JESUS CHRIST REALLY IS.
The main and maybe single reason why the Christian community has been declining in America is because Christians have tried too hard to become modern-American, and have not lived out the complete truths of Christ.
What I am referring to here -- and I’m pretty sure Svatyj Nikolaj says it first -- is the full Gospel of the Orthodox truth of Christ -- not merely the self-evident, simplistic Bible studies of other, non-Orthodox communities.
I’m quite positive that Nicholas would agree. After all, when was it that Nicholas got so angry that he punched out a priest in the First Ecumenical Council?
The guy he punched was the Arch-heretic Arius. And the reason why he KO’d Arius was because this priest from Alexandria had “simplified” the Orthodox Gospel, presumably for the sake of understandability and outreach. He “dumbed down” the Gospel to the point where Jesus was not God Himself, but rather the “first creation.” Jesus, according to Arius, was a Great Man, a Wise Teacher, a Super-Hero: it was too hard to think of Christ as God Himself with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. It didn’t make sense to this clever priest -- Arius in Alexandria -- that God is both One and Three.
So Arius tried to “fix” and “modernize” Christianity.
And he became wildly popular. His tele-evangelism brand of Christianity swept the entire civilized world to the point where there were many more Arians than Orthodox Christians (thank God the Orthodox Church has never voted democratically on doctrine, because Orthodoxy would have lost in popularity over and over again).
So at the First Ecumenical Council, Arius was sitting in the “catbird seat” so to speak. He had the people. He had the money. He had the buildings in the prime locations. And he said, boldly, in the Council:
“Jesus is not God. There was a time when God was not a Father.”
Which, you must know, ticked Nicholas off.
So he socked the heretic in the mouth.
Why? Why is Orthodoxy so insistent upon “Ortho-doxy” -- which means “right doctrine”?
The only way to fix humanity is for the infinite Divine to actually come into contact with fallen, sick humanity. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became the Son of Man: and in Himself, in His single Personhood, humanity is brought into complete contact with divinity.
And if we believe in Christ, in communion with His mysteries and in theological prayer, in constant repentance and thanksgiving, we enter into solidarity with Christ, and we are brought into complete contact with the Divine Nature.
The Holy Trinity repairs us and beautifies us. Christ teaches us in Orthodox doctrine to see His Creation with all its majestic splendor, He illuminates us and draws us into His deep friendship. Only in Christ can we see that “heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!,” that every creature is a glimmer, a sign, and analogy of the Glory of God that is infinite and beautiful.
None of this would be possible if Arius’ hideous insanity were true. None of this would be possible if Christ is the way He is taught, nowadays, so lazily, incompletely, so superficially, so materialistically, so weakly, so impotently. For too many people, young and old alike, the “Christ” they think of withers under the the onslaught of scientific-sounding “truths” like “natural selection,” materialism, the invalidity of Orthodoxy and the supremacy of death.
I take this to mean that we have not been Christological enough, not nearly enough. We have embarrassed St Nicholas by letting our own people get coopted by authority-figures who say they are smarter than Orthodoxy … who accuse us of being “close-minded” but who themselves are worshipful believers in death.
We have fallen short of the legacy of our patron saint, Nicholas.
Nicholas never, ever lost sight of the truth that St Paul proclaimed in the Epistle reading today:
“He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence” (Colossians 1.15-18).
This is the Christ Who is witnessed by Orthodox Holy Tradition. This is the Christ that modern America and your neighbors need.
This is the Christ that you need. The Christ Who is witnessed by Orthodoxy is the only Christ Who can, and will, save you, your family and friends.
As St Nicholas is our Krsna Slava (see the “Hymn of Praise” for what this means in English), then we had better do what he did, say what he said, think how he thought, pray as he prayed, give generously and secretly as he gave, show justice and mercy to our world as he did, stand firm and faithful about Orthodox truth as he did (maybe not punching heretics as he did, but being brave as he was, and is).
Holy Father Nicholas, pray for us:
“Let not life drive us to despair, all our efforts shall not wane.”