Identity and essence of Saint Nicholas is true Christian love and Christian virtue of mercy, fortified and proven with sacrifices. Love and mercy-that is Saint Nicholas. Therefore, to talk about Saint Nicholas means to talk about Christian virtue of mercy.
I tell you, Saint Nicholas is, to our knowledge of him and to Christian church tradition, the epitome of love and mercy. Celebrating this great Saint, consequently, we too, should do the works of Christian mercy. However, by this tendency that has grown only to us, we break it down, simplify it, and dilute it. And on that night, instead of doing what St. Nicholas used to do, which is taking the secret paths to the houses of our brothers that are poor and that we all know very well, and making their lives easier with our real donations, we put trinkets in our children’s shoes and under their pillows while we are full and satisfied, and we think that is enough, that we are true and proven Christians. And we shall see that it is not enough.
I would like to tell you a short story from the life of St. Nicholas and that little detail sheds a different light on him. That is to say, at First Ecumenical Council, in the heat of the debate with the heretic Arius, St. Nicholas slapped him. True, this knowledge does not fit the image we have of St. Nicholas as kind-hearted elder with long beard, gentle gaze and generous hand. As we can see, he was sure to use his right hand otherwise. Knowing how weak our faith is, and how much heresy and how many heretics have multiplied nowadays, I can assure you that many of us, if met with St. Nicolas, would be of the same luck as heretic Arius. And I do not tell you this as an unusual story, but to make you think, when we get slapped to at least realize why that is.
We ought to see whether we deserve God’s mercy and St. Nicholas’s protection. If we, Serbs, of all saints, mostly celebrate St. Nicholas, and give ourselves, our families and our homes in His care, do we act as if we can hope for this Saint’s mercy? I am not entirely sure if we can give a positive answer to this question. If St. Nicholas is the epitome of mercy, we are mostly quite opposite from that. We, burdened with our material fortune and interest, have turned to ourselves. We became hard and inconsiderate. While we were poor we were inclined to each other, we could harrow with only one plow for us and for others, more than we can nowadays do with so many tractors. I remember the time when we used to pass on the only pair of opanci (Serbian peasant shoes) to each other and when we, all the children from my hamlet, could take communion each Sunday. In those lean years, less people were hungry. And we didn’t lack anything; we were happier and more satisfied. On spring mornings, I used to be awaken by the song of trenchers and harvesters, and through my childhood I was put to sleep night after night by these songs.
And now? You all know it. Instead of us singing, there are others singing tearfully to us; instead of us gathering and talking to each other, there are other faces that talk to us and look at us from these television boxes. Thus, we do not have time- because we do not want to- to get to know all the sorrows and hardship of our neighbours and relatives, their poverty and trouble. And we do not even care.
We are, as Christians, if we truly are that, called to be merciful and generous. We have to be merciful if we want to receive God’s mercy. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Mt. 5:7) According to Christian understanding of justice, Christ refers us to it; we are obliged to share what was given to us to have with the ones that do not have. Christ says: “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.” (Luke 3:11) When we do that, we should do it with joyful heart and good will. “Or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.” (Romans 12:8) “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7) St. Apostle Paul reminds us “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9) And when writing to Timothy he advises him to instruct the rich of the world to not be proud, “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.” (1 Timothy 6, 17-19)
We must not forget that what we have is not ours, but it belongs to God. As He gave that to us, so He can take it away, and He usually does, but to those that give more generously, God gives more abundantly in return. “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. The generous man will be prosperous, and he who waters will himself be watered.” (Proverbs 11:24-25)
He who gives to the poor, lends to the Lord, as the saying goes. In Christianity, faith and works are closely tied together. With our works we show and prove our faith. ”Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” (James 2:17) One cannot comfort himself that he believes in God if he does not have mercy for other people, his brothers, and God’s children. Christ says: ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Mt. 25:40) “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17)
There is a regulation in the Old Testament that the householder should not glean from his field, or beat the olives arduously, or collect from his vineyard, or even return to his filed for a forgotten sheaf of wheat. (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19-20) All that could be done by the poor, newcomers, orphans, or widows. If we, as Christians, have outgrown that way of doing mercy, then we should, knowing who the poor are in our town, put aside a dozen kilos of wheat for them, or to take a sheaf of wheat to them, or to give them a few kilos of flour. “You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him, because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.” (Deuteronomy 15:10)
All that should be done discreetly, the way our Lord Jesus Christ taught us, and the way St. Nicholas used to do. By doing so we will endear ourselves to our St. Nicholas and we can hope that he will stand for us before God on Judgment Day. Let us look around and find and take a closer look at those at whom we haven’t looked in a long time, and let us approach them the way St. Nicholas would approach them.