December 6th is the feast day of Saint Nicholas. In Western Christendom it is celebrated on this day. In the east, on December 19th. And in the Netherlands, on the 5th. Well what is it about those Dutch?
Traditionally, this was a day that Saint Nicholas would bring little gifts to good boys and girls. Those who were not good got coal or ashes.
Many legends have grown up around the Saint’s life, including gift-giving, bringing murdered children and men back to life, the protection of a ship during a violent storm, and the giving of the Emperor’s wheat to the town of Myra and the miracle of its replenishment in the hold of the ship.
The idea of gift-giving is present throughout all these and other miracles.
We find the same idea throughout today’s Readings, don’t we? Rich food and choice wines given to the Lord’s people; repose, refreshment, a groaning table, and hundreds of loaves of bread and fish for everyone.
All are freely given, and gratefully taken.
But let me back up a little to Saint Nicholas. The precious little gifts given by the Saint and his helpers used to fit into a sabot, or wooden shoe, or into a stocking hung either in the chimney or on the mantel. They were reminders of the Saint, and lessons for the year: be good, or you won’t get them next year. Also, these gifts were given secretly to the children, who awoke to the presents.
A charming, traditional celebration of generosity and grace.
But then somehow, all this gift-giving got transferred to Christmas, even though the Three Wise Men came with their gifts on January 6th. And a wonderful tradition it is, this exchange of presents on Christmas morning among family members. I still remember the excitement of Christmas Eve when I was a child.
But as with many of our national and global celebrations, somehow it got out of hand. Now we get 4 or 5 catalogues a day in our mailboxes, we are bombarded on every radio and TV show with suggestions for gifts, almost every printed piece of paper stamps the holiday into our minds, people are fighting over how to greet others during the season, and whole industries rely on one day after Thanksgiving to salvage their businesses for the next year.
Now I don’t want to harangue you with all of this. I know it’s preaching to the choir. Let me just point out again the significance of the readings as they focus on gift-giving. In all these cases, God is giving his people something. They didn’t have to do anything, just be there. “He guides me in right paths for his name’s sake.” That’s it. Just be alive and God’s gifts are given to you.
And it’s not just gifts. Courage is given, tears are wiped away, peace and restful times, food and wine and oil, and for some of us, restoration of sight, limbs made whole, disease vanquished…all freely given. “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, for they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat.”
Wait, there’s something in what Jesus just said, “…for they have been with me…” It turns out they were not people along the way who were hungry, they were people who were following Jesus, listening to him, learning from him, believing him.
And there were a lot of them. Five thousand, in fact. They were following him. So it must have been a bit of work, moving that many people from town to town, village to village. And to be honest, it couldn’t have been exactly an easy trek. Just moving one carful of kids can be an ordeal, can’t it?
So here we see what today’s Alleluia is about. That little section of the Mass that often carries all the weight of the readings:
Behold, the Lord comes to save his people;
Blessed are those prepared to meet him.
“…prepared to meet him.”
Well. How is it that Saint Nicholas gives the children little presents? What’s the catch? They must be good throughout the year. And what is it that Jesus asks of us for his presents? We must be prepared to meet him.
So it’s not exactly the case that all we have to do is exist for God’s grace. There’s a little work involved…a little… “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” We must just be ready to meet the bridegroom. Watch and wait, and prepare your mind and spirit.
So no, we don’t have to move mountains, clean out the stables, scour the seabed. All we have to do is be prepared for his coming, like a thief in the night.
All these gifts will be given to us, if only we believe, and get ourselves ready, and wait patiently for the Lord.
So as we celebrate this Advent season, let us do a little preparation for the coming of Christ. Let us ready ourselves and be ready to welcome him.
Lord, help us this year to be prepared for your coming. Help us to put the old year behind, and look forward to the new one that you bring. Help us to get ready for your gifts.