The scriptures referred to are Titus 2:11-14.
Kids aren't stupid. They see a whole bunch of old guys in beards and red suits and they wonder how can they all be Santa. And the explanation I got when I was a kid was that they were Santa's helpers. They looked like him but they were simply his representatives. Yet if we told one of them what we wanted for Christmas it would get to him.
The evolution of the historical St. Nicholas of Myra into today's Santa Claus is an interesting one. I wonder what that 4th century bishop would have thought of his image today. There's one thing he would definitely not be happy about, though, and that is the way the holiday of Christmas is now about him and not Jesus, to whom he had devoted his life.
The real St. Nicholas doesn't sound like the kind of person who would be popular among kids around the world. He was born in 270 AD in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, to Greek parents. They died and he was raised by his uncle, a bishop. Nicholas went on a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine. He became Bishop of Myra and was imprisoned in the last official persecution of the church, under the Emperor Diocletian. He was released when Constantine took the throne and came to the Council of Nicea, from which we get the Nicene Creed. The major controversy at the Council concerned the teachings of Arius, who said that Jesus was not equally God with the Father but was a secondary created god. Nicholas got so angry at this attempt to demote Christ that he slapped the heretic's face. Not so jolly, then.
Why did he become everyone's favorite saint then? There are stories of Nicholas miraculously saving sailors and miraculously reviving dead students. But the primary story about Nicholas regards his generosity. One of Nicholas' parishioners was a poor man who had 3 daughters. He had no dowry for them so no one would want to marry them. It was feared, therefore, that in order to support their family they might have to go into prostitution. To help the family without embarrassing them Nicholas is said to have gone by their house at night and thrown 3 purses of gold coins through the windows, one for each daughter. Some versions have him doing so over 3 nights or over a number of years as each daughter reached marriageable age. Some versions have the bags of money falling into the women's stockings which were hung by the fireplace to dry. Some have him dropping them down the chimney. In one version they are gold balls and that explains the 3 gold balls on pawnbroker's signs. You can see how the legend evolved.
Nicholas became the patron saint of not only pawnbrokers but sailors, fishermen, children, students, archers, pharmacists and repentant thieves! He is also the patron saint of Russia, Greece, Galway, Aberdeen, Liverpool, Moscow, Amsterdam, and the Hellenic Navy. He died on December 6, 343 AD. December 6 became his Saint's Day, and it was popular to secretly give gifts then. My wife's father, whose folks came from Poland, would fill their stockings with fruits and nuts on St. Nicholas' Day. You can see how this tradition migrated to Christmas just 3 weeks later.
Nicholas is one of the few saints of whose appearance we have an accurate idea. In 2005, using measurements of his bones, a forensic lab in England calculated that the real St. Nicholas was 5' 6” and had a broken nose. Did Arius hit him back?
Like a lot of the early saints, Nicholas was a real person around whom stories grew up over the centuries. What we do know about him is that he was a popular and courageous bishop devoted to Jesus, whose generosity had people talking about him long after he was gone.
I don't want to get into the long story of how Nicholas became Santa Claus. What I want to look at is the issue that got him worked up enough to do a very unChristlike thing to a heretic. Why was it so important to him and to the church that Jesus was part of the Triune God?
It was pretty remarkable that the early disciples, orthodox Jews who believed in one God and abhorred idolatry, would come to believe that Jesus was God. But we know they did and in a fairly short time, too. Paul's letters are the earliest documents in the New Testament, earlier than the gospels. Most scholars think his letter to the Philippians was written between 50 and 60 AD. And in the second chapter of the letter Paul says that Jesus was equal to God but did not think it was something to be clung to but emptied himself to take on our form. (Philippians 2:6-7) In his first letter to the Corinthians, written around 55 AD, Paul calls Christ “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:24) In AD 57, Paul uses the phrase, “Christ, who is over all, God blessed for ever.” (Romans 9:5) In our passage from Titus he calls him, “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Those were all written in just 20 to 30 years after Jesus' death and resurrection. That would be like claiming Jimmy Stewart, who died 20 years ago, or Jackie Gleason, who died 30 years ago, rose again from the dead and was co-equal with God. Too many people are still alive who knew them and who could refute the assertions. But Paul could say this without any qualms. It took literally hundreds of years for whoever it was that the legendary Arthur was based on to evolve from a mere battle leader to the magic-sword-wielding king of all Britain. The idea that the apostles changed the story of a man to one of his being God in 2 decades strains credulity.
But what does it matter if Jesus was not THE God? Well, that means that God delegated the redemption of the whole world to a another being. That means the life of someone less than God was somehow enough to balance out the sins of the world. And apparently that person was sinless so that he did not have to atone for his own bad thoughts, words and deeds.
It also means that God did not so love the world that he would fix the problem himself. He asked someone else to undergo unbearable torture and death, rather than bear it himself. If your parent or spouse told you how hard they worked to get you just the right present and then you found out he simply dumped the chore on his secretary, it would not be the labor of love you believed it to be. 1 John 4:8 says God is love, but if Jesus was some other being to which God gave the excruciating task of dying to save us, evidently God is not enough love to have some skin in the game.
But if Jesus is God, if he is an integral person in the eternal love relationship that is God, that makes a big difference. It means God loved us enough to become one of us, to suffer and die for us. The creator of life undergoes death to save his creatures.
If Jesus is God and God is love, it means he loves us despite our faults and failings, despite our destructive and self-destructive thoughts, words and actions. As Paul said, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) It's possible that someone might die for a really good person, but for a whole planet of screw ups? That's love.
If Jesus is God, it means his resurrection is not some magic trick, nor a reward for doing the tough task of atonement, but it is the God of life asserting his supremacy over death. Instead of being swallowed up in death, he will, in the words of Isaiah, “destroy the shroud that enfolds all people, the veil that is spread over all nations—he will swallow up death forever.” (Isaiah 25:7-8)
If Jesus is God and he conquered death, it means that if we are united with Christ, we too will experience resurrection and new life. And remember Jesus promised eternal life. Eternal means without ending or beginning. But we creatures have a beginning. To receive eternal life, therefore, means to receive his life, God's life. It means to enter into the life shared from all eternity by Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the life of the love that has always been and from which we've sprung. But Jesus can only offer eternal life if it is his to share, only if he is eternally God.
If Jesus is God, it means God knows what our lives are like from firsthand experience. Jesus had brothers who mocked and disbelieved him and thought he was crazy. Jesus had to deal with people who just didn't understand him. He had a friend who betrayed him. He had friends who deserted him when he needed them the most. He experienced pain, both physical and psychological. He knew what it was like to feel so alone it felt like God himself had abandoned him.
If Jesus is God, it means that when we pray, he hears us with the utmost empathy. He is not aloof and above it all. He has gotten his hands dirty; he has taken a dose of his own medicine, so to speak, though it is not he who turned the paradise he created into hell on earth. If Jesus is God, he is not indifferent to us and to our plight, nor does he want to condemn us to weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. In fact, he endured all those things so that we don't have to.
So you see why Nicholas of Myra felt this was not a trivial matter. The divinity of Christ tells us that when we deal with Jesus we are dealing with God Almighty. As Jesus said, “I and my Father are one.” (John 10:30) And as he told Phillip on the night he was betrayed, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) In Jesus we see what God is really like: just yet merciful, loving yet demanding, asking much but forgiving more. In Jesus we see the self-sacrificial love which powers creation.
And if Jesus is God, and we are created in the image of God, in Jesus we see what we can be. God made us to reflect his love. In Jesus we see the image of God unclouded by selfishness and sin, by greed and rage, by laziness and lust, by envy and arrogance. And when we let Jesus enter our hearts, when we let him heal us and make us whole, we gradually become who we were intended to be. We become more faithful, more hopeful, more loving, more Christlike day by day.
I started by talking about Santa's helpers, how they look like him and represent him. We are to be Jesus' helpers. We are to resemble him, not physically but spiritually, and represent him to a world that needs him, even if it doesn't realize it. For many people, who would not set foot in a church, nor crack open a Bible, we may be the only Christ they ever see. They may not remember the stories of Jesus but they will remember what we do for them in his Spirit.
Of course, some people get all puffed up about representing Jesus. Once again he sets the example and it is all about humility. When God became a human, he could have been born to a rich and powerful family. Instead he was born to a poor one. He wasn't born in a palace but a small room with animals on one side, the raised family area on the other and a feeding trough running down the middle. And he didn't sleep in a cradle but in that feeding trough. And I don't imagine the animals were any too happy about that. He wasn't greeted by princes and dignitaries but by shepherds. Could you imagine an exhausted Mary and Joseph getting up to answer the pounding of the door only to have a bunch of smelly, dirty people who worked outside all day with animals usher themselves in? I bet they told that story all their lives.
If Jesus is God, and God came to us as a poor working man, then it doesn't matter who we are or what we do. After all Jesus said we are to see him and serve him in the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the alien, the sick, the imprisoned, in the least important and least impressive of his brothers and sisters. What we do to them will get to him. If they, the helpless, can represent him, so can we, the helpful, just as we are and where we are, using whatever gifts and skills and experiences God has given us to do it.
And though Jesus expects us to spread his message of love and forgiveness and healing, if our gifts don't lie in words, don't worry. We needn't use fancy, churchy speeches to communicate the good news of Jesus to those we meet. We certainly don't need to get into fights about saying “Merry Christmas” or bring up politics or the latest religious controversy. We can just introduce ourselves and say, “Hi! How can I help?”