Thursday, December 06, 2007

St. Nicholas' Day--2007

SAINT Nicholas. Day of death: (according to the martyrology) December 6, about 360. Grave: originally at Myra; since 1087 at Sari in Italy. Life (highly legendary): Nicholas was born at Patara in Asia Minor to parents who, having long been childless, had petitioned God with many prayers. Already as a youth Nicholas became noted for his zeal in helping the unfortunate and oppressed. In his native city there lived a poor nobleman who had three marriageable daughters; he could not obtain a suitor for them because he could offer no dowry. The contemptible idea struck him to sacrifice the innocence of his daughters to gain the needed money. When Nicholas became aware of this, he went by night and threw a bag containing as much gold as was needed for a dowry through the window. This he repeated the second and third nights. During a sea voyage he calmed the storm by his prayer; he is therefore venerated as patron of sailors. On a certain occasion he was imprisoned for the faith. In a wonderful way he later became bishop of Myra; his presence is noted at the Council of Nicaea. He died a quiet death in his episcopal city, uttering the words: "Into your hands I commend my spirit."

Nicholas is highly venerated in the East as a miracle worker, as "preacher of the word of God, spokesman of the Father." --Pius Parsch
The story of Nicholas brings me to Act One of this story, from This American Life. There are two things worth noting about it, in this season when we venerate gift giving and pay a very backhanded acknowledgment to the saint who supposedly threw three bags of gold through a window in order to save three girls from prostitution. One is the sincere American belief, represented here by John Pickle, that "third world workers" are better off being exploited, even in America. There's a deep vein of racism here, as well, though, of course, none dare call it racism. It's such an ugly word. It's the social equivalent of a death sentence. We reserve racism for truly heinous people; people like Hitler. We dare not use the word openly and honestly; such is the depth and breadth of the hidden wound of the "peculiar institution" in American culture.

The idea of factory workers having their lives improved by exploitation in factories is, of course, precisely the philosophy Romanticism rebelled against (see William Blake, especially). Brute economic exploitation is something even Swift condemned. But, as "V" said: "Ideas are bulletproof." Which goes for bad ideas, too.

The second thing to highlight is the lay pastor who helped these people, at great personal cost to himself. He reports without rancor (which is frankly more than I could do) that local pastors told him what he was doing was against God's will because it was difficult, because it cost him in time, effort, and social opprobrium. He reports this without rancor, and he doesn't apologize for what he did, nor does he complain about Christian pastors unwilling to help those he recognizes as his brothers. (I don't judge anyone who doesn't offer help, lest I be judged for my failings, too. But when you judge another and tell them they shouldn't help, well....that's when the judgment rightly falls heavily on you, and justly, by your own hand.) As he says, we like foreign missions; but when those missions come to our "comfort zones," well....

Which I still think is what Advent is all about. It really is a good place to begin the year. And it's not an impossible place to begin, because it ends so quickly, with Christmas. You know, sometimes I think the ancient Church really knew what it was doing.

It's also a good season, as well as a good day, to recall these words from the 4th century, lest our "comfort zone" grow comfortable again.

"What keeps you from giving now? Isn't the poor person there? Aren't your own warehouses full? Isn't the reward promised? The command is clear: the hungry person is dying now, the naked person is freezing now, the person in debt is beaten now-and you want to wait until tomorrow? "I'm not doing any harm," you say. "I just want to keep what I own, that's all." You own! You are like someone who sits down in a theater and keeps everyone else away, saying that what is there for everyone's use is your own. . . . If everyone took only what they needed and gave the rest to those in need, there would be no such thing as rich and poor. After all, didn't you come into life naked, and won't you return naked to the earth?

"The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry person; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the person who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the person with no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help."

4th Century

"The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds--and also big enough to shut out the voices of the poor....There is your sister or brother, naked, crying! And you stand confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering."

4th Century

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