Memorial of St. Nicholas
The Edge of Elfland
Manchester, New Hampshire
Today as we celebrate the memorial of St. Nicholas, I want to write to you about the Advent themes of hope and death.
In the current, Catholic, understanding of Advent, we spend the first half of the season thinking about the second coming of Christ. The readings all have to do with final judgment, with remaining awake for the day of the Lord. Yet, the first candle in a Catholic Advent wreath symbolizes hope. Often, can we see in the Old Testament that the day of judgment, the Day of the Lord, is a day of fear. And why wouldn’t it be? Sin was not so easily atoned for. But with the coming of Christ, this fear has turned to hope. We no longer need fear the judgment, or at least we don’t need to fear it in the same way, for Christ has overcome both sin and death in us.
But here is what I find most interesting. Apparently, in the old Anglican liturgy the four weeks of Advent, rather than being Hope, Faith, Joy, and Peace, they were Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. And I find that death and hope make good bedfellows. For death has been baptized, we need no longer fear it. As the Apostle Paul says, “Where, o Death, is thy victory? Where, o Death, is thy sting?” There is hope, then, not just that death is not the end, but that there is no end, there is only more life. In George MacDonald’s fairy-tale, “The Golden Key,” one of the characters, Mossy, passes through death.
‘“You have tested of death now,” said the Old Man [of the Sea]. “Is it good?”
“It is good,” said Mossy. “It is better than life.”
“No,” said the Old Man: “it is only more life.”’
The one who is Life has come into the world and passed through death, and will come again, so of course death has been overcome, has been tamed, baptized even. This is our hope.
Today is also the memorial of St. Nicholas, a fourth century champion of orthodoxy who may well have attended the Council of Nicaea in 325. Many stories exist around the man of St. Nicholas. His saving three young girls from prostitution forms the foundation of our modern gift exchange via stockings and, in some countries, shoes. He makes, for me, an excellent example of the theme of hope. Children the world over are hoping that Santa Claus, jolly, old St. Nicholas, will come to their homes on Christmas Eve and bring presents. He stands as an archetype, almost, of our hope not only for the coming of Christ, but of our resurrection. As a saint, Nicholas of Myra, is a constant reminder in this season that death means only more life for those in Christ. In fact, one could argue that St. Nicholas serves as a prime example of Hope, Faith, Joy, and Peace, coming together at this time of Advent and Christmas.
We face many struggles in this life. Some of us live impoverished and oppressed lives. Some of us live with physical and mental ailments that no balm can quickly or wholly heal. This first week of Advent reminds us there is hope, that the one who has suffered with us will redeem and heal us. St. Nicholas reminds us that God’s grace has come to us through Christ. He also reminds us of the truth, that Christ is God and man. And he will come again. This is not the end, and that is our hope.
David Russell Mosley