Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The real Santa Claus

Last week I let St Nicholas' Day go by without mentioning him on this blog. I more than make up for that today by passing on to you a wonderful homily preached last Sunday by the amazing Father Alexander Tefft, priest of St Botolph's Antiochian Orthodox parish in London (founded by the late Father Michael Harper). In fact, if you have some spare time during the Christmas break, one of the best places to linger is the website of St Botolph's parish. You will earn a lot. You will be inspired . . . and challenged, too!

“Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6.23)

‘Wherever Christ went’, said a bishop once, ‘they threw rocks. Wherever I go, they serve tea’. Wherever Christ preached, the eyes of murderers, harlots, and con men streamed with tears. ‘Wherever I preach’, says a vicar, ‘bankers and stock brokers yawn’. ‘Ha!’ says an Orthodox priest. ‘I’ve solved that problem. I don’t preach!’ Wherever Christ went, a filthy crowd of blind beggars, homeless cripples, bleeding women, naked men racked with the demons inside and bound in chains, trailed along. Whining and pleading, throwing up on the soil. Wherever his ministers go these days, they are lucky to find a seat on the train. Bishops are meant to be discreet these days. Priests, all the more so. Unseen, unheard. Hidden away. Orthodox priests are not immune. Some hide by dressing up like the vicar in a little white dog collar peeping up through a black clergy shirt. A soft, beardless face. Perfectly incognito. Passing through the blind, jostling crowds on Oxford Street, heaving a sigh of relief: ‘Thank God, no one knows I’m Orthodox. No one guesses I’m a priest!’ You can hide effectively behind a smokescreen of incense, in words mumbled into your beard in a dead language. You leave well enough alone. Hide away discreetly from the snickering laughter and cold stares. This season, you can hide in a little wooden crèche. A tree decked with tinsel. Best of all – the fat jolly elf with a snow-white beard, the merry old gentleman in red and white called … Santa Claus. A friendlier face than the icon of Christ, with those piercing eyes. No one throws rocks at Santa Claus. More tea, vicar?

It is easy to forget the gulf that separates ‘Christendom’ and Christ. Or Father Christmas and Saint Nicholas.

Christendom is pretty. A nice, white, clapboard or stone Victorian church, very suitable for concerts. A place to fawn over newly-christened babies; or cut business deals, make matches, get a tip on a property investment; or arrange the quiet funeral for the ‘dearly departed’ – at which no one cries. Christ is not ‘pretty’. He had no beauty that we should desire him. Pierced, crushed. A man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. The voice that prostitutes loved and Pharisees hated. Born not in a rich suburb but in an animals’ cave. Christendom is pleasant. Well-trained choirs, hardbound hymnals. A ‘talk’ about … well, after all, if all else fails, butterflies. Nothing too controversial. Christ is not ‘pleasant’. His first words in the Gospel according to Mark: ‘The time is fulfilled. The kingdom is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel’. Is this a pall of sorrow – a heavy, wet blanket laid on those poor losers called Christians? By no means. It is joy. Pure joy. So pure that the heart pounds in your chest, your breath surges upward. The soul leaps inside you, the eyes flash, and prayer shoots forth from your lips. Joy – real joy – is not the absence of sorrow. It is the presence of life. Life, bubbling up, erupting, streaming out and giving life to the dead.

Life that dares to take on everything. And everyone. A life like that of Saint Nicholas.

Bishop of a town near the mouth of the River Mýros, in the rocky little county of Lycia, a few miles ashore from Rhodes. They are poor, the people of Myra. Tombs, hewn out of solid rock, hold the dead. Like the cave in Bethlehem that held an ox, an ass, and a very unusual Child; and the cave outside Jerusalem that could not hold his Body, taken down from the Cross. Poor people. And a bishop, who is anything but discreet.

A poor man sits up all night, unable to give a dowry for his three daughters. His heart is heavy at the thought of them selling themselves, night after night, on the streets. After sleep overwhelms him, three sacks of gold drop ‘indiscreetly’ into three pairs of sandals left by the fireplace. Who else dropped them through the window but Nicholas, that most indiscreet of bishops? All night at the inn outside town, the remains of three schoolboys lie rotting in the barrel where the innkeeper hid the pieces. At dawn, three boys are alive again. Who prayed for them all night but Nicholas, the bishop who would not leave well enough alone? A judge, with a splitting headache, releases the three condemned felons from custody. Why go through with a death sentence when that meddling bishop stands over you for three hours defending the innocent? A calm sea and a safe voyage to the Holy Land. Who would know that gale-force winds whipped the little ship only last night, until the sailors gave up hope? No one but them – and Bishop Nicholas, who would not remain unseen, unheard, hidden away, but prayed up on deck until the storm ceased. A bishop who never held a word back, when the lives of poor, maimed, blind, lame souls, entrusted to his care, were placed at risk.

No soft, beardless face in a dog collar. A bishop that everyone on the street recognised. A bishop that some called evil – especially Arius, that pious priest, when he denied that Christ is God, and Bishop Nicholas slapped him in the face.

What? Santa Claus hit someone? Assault and battery, with intent. But at dawn, those politically correct bishops found Nicholas in his jail cell. The vestments that they stripped off him the night before, all perfectly in place. Bishop Nicholas had no time for excuses. The man who negotiated a field or five head of oxen. That young man who just had his wedding in church. No time for Communion. Nicholas had no time for ‘Christendom’. He had Christ on his mind, the poor in his heart. The maimed, the blind, the lame: all those wounded in body or spirit. The homeless from the highways and the hedges. The losers in the sight of this world, who need the Precious Body and Divine Blood offered here, at the banquet of the Master, who vested Nicholas that night – as they need Life Himself.

Excluded, reviled, his name cast out as evil. Or at least, indiscreet. Nicholas of Myra is a bishop that you throw rocks at and seldom have home to tea. But, beloved in Christ, he leaps for joy this season – whenever you have the eyes to recognise him under his red coat and white muffler, his snowy beard, his eyes twinkling with the pure flame as they always did. His voice – rich, round, and full – that never holds back a word of Life.

Holy Hierarch Father Nicholas, pray to God for us!


Post a Comment