Well, folks, the end of the holiday season is approaching, along with the new year, and it seems a fitting time to talk about Santa.
First, I must remind you that Santa is real. Haters gonna hate, but it’s the truth! Santa was a real flesh and blood human being who lived roughly during the 4th century in Myra, an ancient Greek city located in what we know today as Turkey. Myra was a prominent city near the ocean with large backings of fertile lands that supported its status as a prominent and prosperous trade city. The city is also biblically relevant, mentioned several times throughout the Bible and was visited by a few of the Apostles. While it was under the control and rule of the Roman Empire, it was home to a rather large Christian population. Even today Myra is still recognized as a diocese of the Catholic Church. During this time our beloved “Santa” was known as Nicholas or officially as the Bishop of Myra.
Now the story of Jolly Old St. Nick has several versions (as all good stories do) depending on who is telling it. I am going to tell you the story I am familiar with about a bishop whose dedication to serving his people knew no bounds.
Once upon a time, in the city of Myra, there was a man with three daughters. His wife had passed away many years ago and the family lacked many comforts. As the years went on their condition worsened and their father, in need of money, tried desperately to find his daughters suitable husbands. But their poverty has stripped the girls of any means of a dowry making them unsuitable brides. Desperate, the father arranged to sell his daughters into prostitution. Now the Bishop of Myra at the time had an extreme interest in serving the poor and would often walk the streets of Myra at night assisting those less fortunate than he. On the night before the eldest daughter was to be sold, Nicholas overheard the family’s situation. He returned later that night and tossed into the daughter’s bedroom a bag filled with enough gold for the eldest daughters’ dowry. For the next two nights, Nicholas returned, each night tossing up a bag of gold into the open window of the daughter’s bedchamber. A bag for each daughter with enough gold coins to suffice for a dowry.
Today that story has become the mythic legend of Santa Claus. I realize that for many Santa is a representation of childhood, of a specific cultural tradition, or of certain societal values and norms. And I am not amiss in realizing that the capitalization of Santa has blown St. Nicholas further away from his own story than any re-telling.
The story of Santa is perhaps one of the greatest legends today rivaled only by the legend of King Arthur. But what about it makes it worth re-telling? Why do we as people insist on carrying on the mythic idea of Santa?
I would humbly suggest that it is not Santa himself that is worth the story rather the values that “Santa” lives out. Within the story of the Bishop of Myra are messages of hope, goodwill, faith and belief. The belief in the kindness of strangers and the belief of our own faith. St. Nicholas was a real person. Santa is the mythic embodiment of a message far greater of that person that we continue to hold onto and add unto to today. So, what is in the story of the Bishop of Myra that needed to be re-told? Perhaps a message that kindness, mercy, goodwill and faith are powerful elements of society that can traverse our most difficult situation. Whether it comes in bags of gold for a dowry, presents wrapped under a tree, or a photo with Santa, it’s what’s underneath that propels the legend forward that makes it worth re-telling.
As we approach our official LV halfway point, the story of Santa continues to remind me of an Oscar Romero Prayer that starts with “It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view…” Nicholas would never have been able to imagine his seemingly simple deeds becoming a mythic legend, propelling his story into the future, I’m pretty sure bubble gum would have astounded the man. In the moment Nicholas was a man, a bishop at best, who delivered a gift he had the ability to give. He was doing something in the moment. But that moment was a representation of what Nicholas valued and believed in and continued to do. Nicholas became Santa not because he was nice to someone once but because his repeated insistence to be kind, to give his gifts freely, and to persistently look at those who have less is what allowed us to create the legend of Santa. A man who valued and believed in goodness, hope, and kindness are the ultimate gifts we can give to each other.
I want to encourage my LV cohort, and all of you who are reading this, to take the long view. Zoom out. Away from your desk, your classroom, your site, your community, your neighborhood… What does our service mean in the long view? Look for the moments in which your daily life has created, instilled or shared hope, faith, belief and joy with others. Look for the moments where you gave a smile, a lesson, an ear, advice, hope, faith, belief – take the long view. Look at the legends you are re-telling and re-living in your own life. Are we not all someone’s Santa, creating hope and sustaining belief? Zoom out, who knows if you zoom out far enough you may even see Santa up there in the sky with his sleigh!
Archbishop Oscar Romero Prayer: A Step Along the Way
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Emily Redfern is a first-year LV serving at the Br. David Darst Center in Chicago, Illinois and is a 2017 graduate of Saint Mary’s College of California.