You better watch out – Santa Claus is coming.

This article (of the same name) is lifted directly from the Catholic World Report, not with permission but with love. Coming up to Christmas we celebrate the feast of St. Nicolas. Here is a great summary of his witness to Christ.

“There are hundreds of stories about St. Nicholas of Myra. He was born in Lycia on the southwest coast of modern Turkey. His wealthy, pious parents, Theophanes and Nonna, read to him the Holy Scriptures and faithfully taught him his prayers, but apparently died while he was still young. His uncle, Bishop Nicholas of Patara, ordained young Nicholas and made him his personal assistant. The zealous youth proved himself an inspiring catechist in the Christian community and an obedient servant to his uncle. During these dutiful years he showed great kind-heartedness and generosity by distributing his inheritance to the poor.

During this time, the three grown daughters of a formerly rich inhabitant were in danger of being sold into slavery because of their father’s pennilessness. Hearing of this, young Nicholas secretly visited the man’s house at night and threw gold in at the window to provide a dowry for one of the girls. The eldest daughter was soon married, and Nicholas again made clandestine donations for the other two daughters, with equally felicitous results. Modern children who awake to an orange or to gold-foiled chocolates in their stockings reenact this story because, by all accounts, one of Nicholas’ gifts landed in a sock that was hanging by the fire to dry.

The young Nicholas was blessed with a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. During the voyage, a storm came up that terribly frightened the crew but, through the prayers of the saint, the waves of the sea were becalmed and the passengers saved. According to Palestinian Christians, Mar Nkoula (St. Nicholas) lived in a cave as a hermit for three years after visiting the holy places. In a vision Nicholas was told to return to Lycia. Years later an Orthodox Church was built over the hermit’s abandoned cave at Beit Jala, and Palestinians still commemorate this saint by giving gifts to children on December 19.

Not long after his return to Asia Minor, Nicholas was made archbishop of Myra. Difficult years followed for the archbishop and his flock, who were forced underground by the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s brutal, expansive persecution of Christians. During this time the good archbishop, who had the charism of bi-location, often appeared to imprisoned members of his flock as a model of gentleness, kindness, and love, until the day he too was discovered in hiding. In jail Nicholas continued to sustain and exhort his fellow believers to endure torture and death for the love of Christ. After Diocletian’s death, Nicholas was released and returned to his sacramental duties as a “confessor of the faith”—a titled given to Christians who were imprisoned and tortured for their faith during this period, but not executed. They were extremely revered and respected by their contemporaries.

Archbishop Nicholas attended the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea (325), where he allegedly assailed the heretic Arius. In the middle of his hearing, Arius stood up on his seat in order to be better heard. Enraged by Arius’ denial that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, Archbishop Nicholas strode quickly over to Arius, pulled him down by his beard, and punched him in the face. The scandalized council fathers sprang upon Nicholas, stripped him of his pallium, and threw him in prison for his brutish behavior. That night Nicholas was visited by the Holy Family who loosed his bonds and vested him again in his apostolic garb. The bishops were astonished by this miracle and realized that Nicholas’ anger was righteous. He was honorably restored to his chair—where the aged prelate slept through much of the remaining proceedings.

During one of these naps, the holy confessor of orthodoxy bi-located again, this time to save more sailors at sea. When he awoke in Nicaea he was resentfully charged with sleeping through the entire council, whereupon the venerable Nicholas is said to have answered, “While you were talking, I was busy rescuing a disaster-driven ship at sea.” Some of the pious brethren took the ship to be an analogy of the Church. Others dismissed his words as the babblings of an old man. But not long after the council, the rescued sailors returned safely home and, traveling through Myra, recognized Nicholas as their deliverer. Not surprisingly, every Greek and Slavic Christian sailor for the past millennium and a half has sailed under the protection of St. Nicholas. In the midst of a storm, Greek sea captains still keep the ancient custom of promising St. Nicholas an effigy of their ship, called a tamata, if the holy wonderworker will save them from calamity.

Archbishop Nicholas peacefully fell asleep in the Lord on December 6, 343. He was immediately recognized as a saint and as the patron of travelers. He is called upon by Christians round the world for deliverance from flood, poverty, or any misfortune. He has especially promised to help those who remember his parents, Theophanes and Nonna.

St. Nicholas’ incorrupt relics were venerated for centuries in the local cathedral church of Myra. Like those of many other saints, his bones exude sweet-smelling myrrh. This holy myrrh has been used by Christian faithful to heal all manner of infirmities. During the Middle Ages the Turks conquered Byzantine Asia Minor and hitherto pose a constant threat to Christianity in that region. Because St. Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, his stories have spread to every Christian nation. In 1087, solicitous for the safety of St. Nicholas’ venerable remains, Italian sailors, who were devoted to this saint, plotted to steal the body and bring it back to their home village. St. Nicholas’ relics were thus taken from Myra and translated to the city of Bari, where the saint’s body continues to exude holy myrrh (in Italian, “sacra manna”) 17 centuries after his death.

A thousand years later, Italians are still hardcore devotees. It is difficult not to envy them sometimes. They’ve not only made St. Nicholas their “tooth fairy,” but once a year they commemorate the pirating of jolly ol’ San Nicola’s bones, sailing around the harbor at Bari with giant statues of the saint in their boats followed by a solemn harvesting of his tomb oils. Bari’s annual “Festival of the Translation of the Relics” is a three-day carnival with fireworks, processions, reenactments, fire-eaters, and Holy Mass, held every May 7-9. After High Mass on the 9th, the rector of the basilica crawls into a small opening in the crypt to drain the sacra manna out of St. Nicholas’ tomb into a glass vial. The manna is diluted with water and serves as an anointing sacramental and souvenir for pilgrims to Bari from across the globe.”

The truth of St. Nicolas points to the truth of Christ. Whatever you tell children, to me this story beats any other. But why let truth get in way of a good story.

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Stop; Look; Listen; Think.

There is an advertising campaign on TV which instructs young children on how to cross the road safely. The four steps are found in the title. Once you’ve approached the road you stop walking, look both ways for traffic, listen in case there is more you may not have seen and think about what to do next. (You’ve done the rest but could still walk out into traffic if you’re not being attentive.)
This sums up the attitude of Advent. Concluding our liturgical year we approach the coming of Christ. In preparation we stop, look, listen, think.

…Gathering lambs in his arms and leading them to their rest.

Stop

Advent, it is realized, is a time for slowing down. In its busyness life can pass us by – or rather we can pass it by. Stoping allows us time and space to recollect ourselves, breathe and remember the way we ought to live, the way of Jesus, without spot or stain. We begin the process of welcoming him again by separating ourselves not from the world necessarily but rather from the pace of the world. Don’t be afraid to stand still.

Let us see, O Lord, your mercy and grant us your saving help.

Look

Self examination has a long history in the church and this preparatory season is a perfect time to return to this practice. Looking internally we see our sins and our failings, our selfishness and our frailty. But this is counterbalanced with the recognition of our need of a saviour, for whom we long. Confession is a great way – I would say, a necessary way – to embrace Advent. Looking out with the eyes of Jesus we begin to see the movement of the Spirit in the world: a kind act here; encouragement there. Looking through the eyes of God we begin to recognize God; we see the great things he is doing.

The voice of The Lord has spoken.

Listen

It is no secret that we live in the age of noise. Silence is a rare commodity and is being infringed upon like logging to a forest. Our attention is demanded, our thoughts distracted. Even in prayer our minds can wonder. When we listen, truly listen, we deepen attentiveness. Enabling a connection beyond words, we listen to the tone, the rythym, the heart to which God speaks. We may be blessed to hear the still small voice of God.

Think before you do anything; hold on to what is good.

Think

Upon hearing the voice of God with our hearts we meditate, chewing them over in out mind. Are we to act? Where is our next step? Are we to remain? For how long? Despite these practicalities keeping our mind on God and being able to see where he has worked in our lives, we can be sure that we will recognize him when he comes.

And he does come. This is our certainty: that God becomes man; a mystery and reality far beyond comprehension. But we may grasp something of it if we are prepared to receive it. Stop. Look. Listen. Think.

The Emmausene Christmas: a reflection on this week’s gospel (Luke 24:13-35)

This week’s gospel is the famous and much loved Road to Emmaus. It is among my favourites. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say this is another form of the Christmas story. I know, I know! Straight after Easter, right?!

There are few features that makes this story Christmasy, though clearly absent are the Blessed Virgin Mary, angels and the wise men. I propose, for sake of brevity, that Jesus is the star that points the way to the wise and the heavenly messenger to the simple-hearted.

– Before the appearance of Christ at Christmas the world was still awaiting the Saviour to come. This Saviour would restore the hope and fortune of the chosen people of God, renew peace in the world by abolishing oppressive forces, and guide a lost people back to a loving God.

On the road to Emmaus Jesus restores hope to saddened people, replaces the overpowering sense of loss and frustration with renewed hope, and the two disciples return to Jerusalem, the house of God, with an invigorated faith.

– Christ comes unrecognized among people. There are a few signs, in the form of prophets, pointing to him but he choses to reveal himself at his time and in his way.

Incognito, Jesus walk with his faithful discussing these signs that point to him as the Messiah. Discussing the prophets first, Jesus later reveals himself as their fulfillment.

– When he finally reveals his identity it calls for a change. Yet this change becomes unifying or segregating.

At Nazareth Joseph and Mary lives were changed through angelic messengers; the wise men began their journey when the stars foretold the coming. But Herod remained unchanged and more resolute in his ways. At Emmaus, following the revelation of Jesus the two turn back and meet the other disciples thus becoming unified with a each other (through faith) while being segregated from the world which lives in doubt and stubbornness.

Joy results. Love is revealed. Hope is renewed. The lost are found. It demands from us a decision. We may not always recognize Jesus in our lives (and that is OK, Jesus is there nonetheless) but when we do recognize him, what are we going to do about it? Are we united in faith?

Our faith is sacramental in that it is grounded in a physical reality but points to a deeper mystery. It was through the breaking of bread (clearly Eucharistic) that Jesus chose to reveal himself. A link to Bethlehem – the “house of Bread”?

Jesus is the bread of life. He his also the one who lights our way in the dark, the one who finds us when lost, the one who unlocks wisdom to the wise and the one who offers unity and an encounter with the Incarnated God, the Risen Lord. And this encounter demands a choice – for unity or for segregation. Chose this day who you will serve. As for me and my house, we will serve The Lord.

Encountering Christ: A reflection on this weeks Gospel (Mt 2:1-12)

This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, a day earlier than the traditional date of January 6. These twelve days of the Christmas season (Christmas to Epiphany) is a time of encountering Christ, deeply submersed into the mystery of God himself. The God-man enters time and space, becomes an historical event and, through the subtle humility of poverty, brings an immediate and profound discord to all anyone ever thought they knew about God. And thus we are privileged to enter the mystery.

God, who has reveled more and more of himself to the Israelites as each generation passes, begins to penetrate humanity through the intimacy of babe who has the name above all names (Phil 2:9). Born in the Hebrew tradition, he as God comes as a light to enlighten the gentiles and to give glory to Israel, his people (Lk 2:32).

 

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The glory of Israel is its fulfilling of the many prophecies concerning the foretold Christ: a glory recognized by the Magi because of these prophecies. Drawn by the recognition of his star it is implied that others recognized it too by their arrival and inquiry at the palace. But this was not the case: the prophecies were clearly known (by the “wisdom” of the foreign occupants) but no one other than the Magi recognized the star. Two things can be taken from this; first the star was subtle enough to be seen by those who were paying attention and obscure enough for those who weren’t (therefore it is unlikely to have been something explicit and dramatic like a meteor or comet which everyone would have noticed), and secondly those who were seeking him were not in Israel (though some speculate that they may have had Hebrew linage, which is possible).

One thing is for sure: the triple representation of the Magi as gentiles, as the wise, and as “kings” (or leaders) becomes a contrast for the shepherds who are Hebrew, humble, and outcast. The universality of salvation and the openness of encountering God, no matter the situation or circumstance, becomes present from the first moment of the infants birth.

I find that my encounter with Christ began as a subtle internal recognition of little things that changed and reinforced the orientation of my heart towards God. This may reflect your experience too. This same process is seen in the coming of Christ; here is its conclusion. The encounter with Christ eventually leads to others outside of ourselves and our community through their recognition of the presence of God in their lives. This is personified by the Magi from the East. Once this presence is acknowledged a change is found which demands to be followed: the recognition of the presence of evil in our own lives and beyond which grows to the point of avoidance. The Magi after their meeting with Herod, who represents evil not just here but elsewhere in scripture, return home by another way.

After preparing for the coming of Christ through Advent and now receiving him in the season of Christmas, how are you continuing to be on watch for the ongoing presence of Christ? How do you plan on sharing Christ to others? Have you recognized the presence of evil in your life, from within or without? How do you avoid it? These will be a great way to begin a new year.                                        

Christmas Finishes

When all the gifts are opened,
And friends and family fed,
When things return to normal,
And you’re lying in your bed,
When shops offer their discounts,
Leave you spinning in your head,
Remember Christ our Saviour
Lies in his makeshift bed.

He came to offer all some peace
And grace, for all are lost:
A peace never seen before,
And grace without a cost.
His birth is an example –
Calm in a world rough tossed.
His death, too, an example,
As he embraced the cross.

His birth for us a prelude;
For this is why he came:
For when he hung covered in blood
He took upon his name
All our sins committed,
We will never be the same.
So, when your Christmas finishes
Still glorify his name!
Alleluia!

….to save his people from their sins: A reflection on this Sunday’s gospel (Mt 1:18-24)

There have been many reflections during this week pointing out particular parts of this weeks Gospel. One might look at the comparison between the two names given: Jesus and Emmanuel (which I will address later). One might also look at the commendable faithfulness of Joseph, who in his shining moment truly becomes a model of obedience through confusion. Another reflection might also look more deeply at the relationship between Mary and Joseph: the “righteous man” and the quiet divorce which reflects contemporary honour. Any of these might link into the readings of the day or of any other Old Testament reference as a support.
magi
I however choose to examine a different aspect, not to the negation of any other. One phrase strikes me as a little unusual particularly in regards to its placement: “…who is to save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). Mark (Ch 8) is a marque reference addressing the uniqueness of God being the only person who can forgive sins when the paralytic is lowered down to him for healing. This draws on the Old Testament priestly tradition where sinners were to offer sacrifice for their sins through the priest to God. This was done by use of a proxy (a sacrificial animal) who bore the sins of the penitent. (It is not hard to see the sacrificial role of Jesus in this context and is drawn out further, most significantly, in the letter to the Hebrews which designates Jesus as the Sacrifice and the Priest.)
But this is not about Easter – the moment of his sacrifice – it is Christmas! It is all “joyful and triumphant” not “it is finished”! But that’s the point. Why is it that there is a reference to sins during the birth of Jesus? We know now with the gifts of hindsight and faith why that is, but to Joseph this would not have been the case. The name “Jesus” has a fairly fluid meaning but is most accurately interpreted as “God Saves”: but from what? The Messiah they were waiting for was a liberator from oppression. While the name Emmanuel means “God-with-us” the name Jesus adds depth: God-with-us as a Saviour.
Where the deviation occurs is in the understanding of Saviour; what Joseph (and later many others) understood of the Saviour is different to what God has in mind. This is what God addressed by adding “… who is to save his people from their sins.” I am reminded of King Solomon’s prayer of dedication (1 Kg 8:22-53) that he prayed after the temple was completed. This beautiful prayer pleads to God for forgiveness of the sins of his people. Jesus, in “rebuilding the temple in three days”, becomes for us the place for us to go for our sins to be forgiven.
In the simple words “to save his people from their sins” God allows Joseph a glimpse into the mission, the role, and the mystery of his Son and Saviour. This simple phrase points to Christ as the Perfect Sacrifice, as the High Priest, and the Holy Temple. Already at his birth his death is prefigured; a prefigurement echoed in the gifts of the Magi: Gold for his Kingship at the Temple; Frankincense for his Royal Priesthood; Myrrh for his death as a Sacrificial offering.
Just as every mass celebrates the Paschal Mystery of Christ, so too does every mass celebrate the birth of our Saviour. There is, therefore, something eternal about every mass; every Christ-mas. This allows us a glimpse of eternity, a glimpse of God we may not understand but need to accept. Are we there ready to accept God like a faithful Joseph? Or to acknowledge it joyfully like the Magi? There is something eternal about every Christmas and is lived by our reception of God-with-us.