On the one hand, there’s this figure of John the Baptist, of whom we hear a great deal in the scripture lessons read on these middle Sundays of Advent, today and next Sunday. He’s this austere figure, with an austere lifestyle, and an austere message of judgement. He was clothed with camel’s hair, eating a diet of locusts and wild honey. He was depicted in Christian art (over the centuries) as this oddly dressed figure with wild hair and with a long, bony finger: a finger that was always pointed at someone. The finger was either pointed out in judgement at whoever was looking at the picture or pointed out in the direction of the Christ, as he declared “Behold, the Lamb of God!”
John was a voice crying out in the wilderness, a figure whom each of the four gospel writers found it easy to associate with the prophetic voice described by Isaiah as calling out:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert the highway of our God.
And it’s odd, though, that at roughly the same time as when we remember the role of John (with all his austerities) in the story of faith, we have a day (yesterday) when we remember that most un-austere of Christian saints, St. Nicholas, patron saint of:
- people who have been unjustly imprisoned,
- the nations of Greece, Russia, and the Netherlands,
- as well as the cities of Aberdeen in Scotland, Galway in Ireland, and New York in the United States (sharing this last – fairly demanding – saintly gig with St. Patrick).
Comparing St. Nicholas with John the Baptist, even if we disregard the way in which the fourth century Greek St. Nicholas morphed into the modern festive figure of Santa Claus (by an indirect route by way of the Netherlands and the United States), still there is a real lack of the austerity of John the Baptist in what we know of St. Nicholas.
One of the stories about St. Nicholas involved an argument in which he was involved at the Council of Nicaea, a council which was very significant in determining the shape of Christian belief. Evidently, during the debates, he said something at which another member of the council took offense. The other member threw a punch at Nicholas, and reportedly broke his nose, causing an all-in brawl to take place. We don’t usually think of saints getting involved in dust-ups at church meetings, but it happened to Nicholas.
Of all the old legends about St. Nicholas, one which had a particular ring of truth about it involved a poor family with three daughters. The family could not afford dowries to enable the daughters to marry, so they contemplated selling the daughters into slavery.
According to the story, on three separate occasions, Nicholas threw a bag of gold coins into the house, secretly, anonymously, and at night; with each bag of coins enabling a dowry. (One version of the story had Nicholas using the chimney of the house as the point of entry for his bags of coins. This helped the development of the legends of St. Nicholas, particularly in the later cultural process by which the fourth century saint became the contemporary Santa Claus.)
In any event, I think it’s a beautiful thing that one of our culture’s greatest symbols of generosity, joy, and festivity had its origin in a Christian saint.
And we have these two contrasting images before us at this time of year:
- John with his funny clothing and long, bony figure pointing out at us, urging all people to repent of our sins.
- Nicholas, at least in his modern guise, calling out to all people, wishing “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night”.
- John the Baptist points us to the figure of the demanding Christ: Jesus who calls all people to drop everything and follow him; the Christ whom we particularly meet in the pages of John’s gospel.
- St. Nicholas points us to the figure of the inclusive Christ: Jesus who touched lepers, who ate and drank with sinners, and who befriended those whom society rejected: the Christ whom we see most clearly in the pages of Luke’s gospel.
Both the demanding Christ and the inclusive Christ are there in the New Testament. To have a balanced picture of Christ, both are necessary.
I believe most of us here (myself included) are far more “at home” with this more inclusive view of the Christ, the Christ of Luke’s gospel, the Christ to whom the joyful (and even jolly) Nicholas bore witness. Most of us here find the more demanding Christ, the Christ to which the austere John bore witness, to be more than a bit confronting.
But then there are other Christians who find themselves more at home with the demanding Christ, and with the austerities of John. Many Christians find the more inclusive, welcoming Christ that many of us have experienced to be as confronting as most of us find the more austere Christ of John.
Both the austerities of John the Baptist and the joyful, hospitable, inclusive generosity typified by St. Nicholas bear witness to the Christ. The sacrament which we will celebrate in a few minutes bears witness both to Christ’s inclusive welcome to us all and to Christ’s demanding call to us all.