Unexpected gifts: Saint Nicholas

A homily for Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland’s Evensong celebration of the Feast of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra

As a child, I heard the story of Jesus welcoming the children and he was the antidote to unfriendly adults, the ones who frowned on childish behaviour or my constant questions, the ones who told us to play quietly and stay out of the way. Jesus understood, we were given to understand from the story, what it was to be a child and to need that person who would stop whatever they were doing and pay attention to us, recognize our need for recognition, embrace and love us.

As a parent, I hear the story and I am so grateful to Jesus, not only for loving me as a child, but also for loving my children, for welcoming them, for embracing their littleness, their childish behaviour, their entirety. They’re older now, but still, I am grateful whenever anyone sees my child for the lovable and loving creature that he is, when they appreciate my child’s beauty and talent, when they welcome her with open hearts, open minds, open arms. It can be a cold, dark world out there, and no parent can offer quite enough warmth and light entirely to counter that. It takes others. It takes great love. It takes Jesus.

So when Jesus unexpectedly sorts out his disciples and takes them to task for trying to keep the children out of sight and out of mind – not so much seen but not heard as unseen and unheeded – his gift is not only to the children but to their parents and everyone who loves them. It is for those who enjoy the childish giggling and wriggling, and it is for those who need to learn how to love them. His disciples thought that they knew what Jesus needed and wanted from them in regard to the children, and they were wrong, but he put them right with his unexpected grace.

I am reminded, when I hear this story, of a December church service that I attended fifteen years ago – long ago and far away, as they say. I was, let’s say, as stately as a galleon in full sail, hugely pregnant with our youngest child. Our son, who was a lively and large twenty-one-month-old toddler, decided that hymn-singing time was a great opportunity to shed some excess energy by running circuits of the church, up the side aisle and down the centre, round and round he went. As long as the music lasted, only one or two people wrinkled their noses, and I let him be. But as the last notes died away, and the congregation shuffled expectantly, settling themselves for the Eucharistic prayer, I tried to intercept him and persuade him to cease and desist from his circuit training. He was not impressed by the request. The more I tried to catch him as he passed, the faster he ran and the louder he giggled. His unborn sister was something of a handicap to wrestling with the little darling, and I did not know quite what to do next.

The priest was by this time reaching the part of the prayer where everyone joins in the Sanctus, the Holy, Holy, Holy. Without missing a beat, without changing his tone, his timbre, his volume, his rhythm, he stepped out from behind the altar, came around and just as my son swooped by, scooped him up and sat him squarely on his hip. They returned to the altar together, and I watched my son watch my friend from close quarters, transfixed and firmly pinned to his side as they continued to celebrate the Eucharist together, the bread becoming body, the wine becoming blood, my astonished son becoming a part of the priest’s prayer.

The gifts of that December day were abundant. The Communion, offered as always as a sign and a means of God’s grace and glory given freely to us, God’s children. The respite and relief offered by a sympathetic friend to a pregnant mother. The image, one which never left me and which guided my vocational journey, of the possibility of celebrating Communion with a baby on one hip; I’m a little slow on the uptake sometimes, so by the time I was ordained, my son is rather more likely to carry me than I him, but still, it has always been important to me, to my call, to know that this thing happened and that God, I think, smiled on it.

And what gifts did my son receive that morning? What possibilities opened up for him in that moment of grace? What did it mean for this young child to be lifted up to the table and brought close to Christ rather than shut down, told off, sent away by Jesus’ disciple?

When we offer gifts, especially the unexpected, unrequited, even the unrecognized ones, we change more than we see, we give more than we give away.

Funnily enough, that church was named for Saint Nicolas. True story.

We don’t know a whole lot about Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, and the legends around his name might be true or they might be something else; but imagine for a moment that this one happened just as we were told: that three sisters, expecting nothing but an uncertain future, or worse, a future certain to bring them disgrace, dishonour and distress, found instead one morning a bag of gold sufficient for each one’s dowry, in their stockings or their shoes, seemingly fallen from the sky down their chimney. That gold did more than pay their way into society. It raised their imaginations out of the fireplace and up the chimney and into a world with a wide blue sky. It gave them the certainty that mystery is a way of life, that the world can be kind, that virtue is rewarded, that wonders never cease. Those gifts fell into their stockings like glitter or confetti to decorate the gold, and they probably lasted longer in their possession.

And what of their father? How did he feel to find that he was not alone in caring for his family, that he did not have to shoulder the burdens of his whole world, that there was lightness and a bright future beckoning after all? The Nicholas of legend gave that family far more than gold.

Other legends of Nicholas – the saving of sailors, the relief of famine – continue to tell the story that the world is fuller than our imaginations, that help is closer than we think, that wonders never cease. A description by Joe Wheeler says that, “When [Nicholas] taught the gospel, people said listening to him was like receiving precious gems.”[1] His unexpected gifts gave to his people more than he gave away.

Which makes me think that one might not need three bags of gold to follow in his footsteps, nor even a silver tongue; but with only a generous spirit and a heart to give, a little kindness, a little imagination, a little playfulness, the smallest gift – a smile, a word, an embrace – can become a sign of God’s unexpected grace.

Jesus’ unexpected embrace of the children was just one small sign of the unimaginable love which had broken into a cold and dark world. In the uncertain season of Advent, with its business and bustle, its preparations and parties, its wondering what will come next, God’s unexpected gift is just around the corner, never out of reach, already here, but still worth waiting for; that swaddled bundle of Christmas joy, the long-expected, but surprising and really quite unusually small and childlike Saviour of the world.

[1] Joe Wheeler, Saint Nicholas (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), p. 12 – via books.google.com

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing (Upper Room Books, 2020). She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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