What Saint Nicholas Taught Me Today

(I posted most of this to Facebook today and realized it was really more of a blog post and, given the dirth of new music being posted [we are reprising the Dark? show at a local private school for a few months and the focus has been on events there] here, I might as well include it here as well since what little readership I have in both locations does not overlap much.)

Today, December 6 (on the Gregorian calendar), is the feast of Saint Nicholas the wonderworker, archbishop of Myra — aka Santa Claus. Yes, he is real. He lived in the Fourth Century in Asia Minor and was present at The First Council of Nicaea (aka The First Ecumenical Council) where, according to tradition, he became so frustrated by the heresy being spoken by Arius that he struck the man in the face, nearly getting himself deposed from his role as bishop in the process. This story has led to a popular image meme which often “goes viral” in Orthodox circles at Christmas time:

Jokes about “punching heretics” aside, I actually see a very apt warning for us in our Culture War culture (especially in light of the recent election). The lesson is this:

All too often “loving the sinner and hating the sin” looks _exactly the same_ as hating the sinner.

I openly confess I spend too much of my time trying to hate sin and not nearly enough of my time loving virtue. I obsess about the rules, the “do and don’t” of religion and all too often neglect the reality of the state of my soul before God is not measured by whether or not I tried to prevent the de-Christianization of my culture, it will not be measured in how eloquently I spoke out against hypocrisy, compartmentalized thinking or flawed rhetoric but rather will be measured in _how I treated those who break the rules_. Can I FORGIVE?

No one enters Hell because they sinned. We all sin. Hell is for the UNREPENTANT. What makes us unrepentant? Being unforgiving (Matthew 6 & 18, Mark 11 & Luke 11) and failing to defend with self-sacrificing love those who are in need (Matthew 25). “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love[ing forgiveness], I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13)

Am I the publican or the Pharisee? (Luke 18)
Am I the prodigal or the brother? (Luke 15)
Do I participate in The Eucharist as a true thanksgiving, a true _communion_ with my fellow believers all around me as we entreat God to transform us into the Body of Christ his Church? (John 6)

After all, the Lord’s Prayer is supposed to teach me I can only expect to be forgiven as I forgive. Jesus’ warning after the feeding of the multitude is “Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”. After all, Matthew 25 doesn’t tell me I will be judged by the ten commandments or the systematic doctrine of Saint Paul. It says I will be judged by whether I have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, or comforted the sick or imprisoned.

This bit really scares me, let me tell you. The more “charity” or “outreach” I get involved with in terms of these folks, the scarier it gets. When Jesus said “the poor will be with you always” there is a deep wisdom about just how bottomless the pit of Need really is. No matter how much you do, you aren’t “helping”. We can’t help. But we MUST TRY and we MUST love our neighbor.

The problem most of the time is I am too proud to admit I sin as much as the prodigal and the publican but where I differ from them is in my _lack of genuine repentant humility_ rather than in my superior virtue. The problem most of the time is my arrogance prevents me from embracing my fellow parishioners and believers to truly share one cup and be one body. The problem most of the time is I am very bad at keeping the rules and yet spend all my time trying to while getting very frustrated with all the people around me who fail to keep them — Just. Like. Me.

The purpose of my life is not to eventually successfully keep a prayer rule, or to ultimately conquer my raging righteous indignation, or to remain completely chaste… although I am in desperate need of all those things.

The purpose of my life is to grow in faith, in the realization I have no control over myself in my current state, I am in God’s hands, and the only peace, the only success, the only joy, the only love I can and will ever have will only come when I _STOP FIGHTING_ and rest in His arms, let his grace fill me and finally admit my own sins are more numerous than all those around me. At some point or another, probably many times, I have judged all of you. Forgive me.

Today I am trying to learn from Saint Nicholas NOT to let my passion for God’s Truth burn so hot I lash out to strike “sin” a blow. I am trying to learn wrestling to “be better” and “do good” and “keep the rules” is not a recipe for deification, but a recipe for despair.

Despair is the one thing it may be healthy to fear. Despair uses pride to destroy hope. My sins are so massive even God can’t really forgive me and transform my life, I might as well give up. Our arrogance is very adept at getting us into this place completely implicitly so despair sets in long before we even see the danger.

Pray for my priest. Every time I go to confession he has to listen to me go on and on about how I am “still” the same raging, impatient, arrogant, judgmental sloth I was the last time I came. He has to gently remind me, AGAIN, I am myself. It is quite likely these struggles, these sins, these passions, will be what I wrestle with the rest of my life (however long or short it may be).

We all too easily forget the par of the story about many saints which matters the most. Saint is born, saint grows up, saint’s life ends up in such a condition they seek a deliberate quest for communion with God, SAINT STRUGGLES IN PRAYER FOR SOME CRAZY NUMBER OF DECADES, saint becomes illumined by God’s grace, saint performs miracles or is happily martyred or whatever else.

We always miss that bit in the middle because it tends to be the shortest part of the reading. But this is the bit we are all living in MOST OF THE TIME.

Pray for my God son. He makes the mistake of coming to me for advice about not only life, but about faith. My answer to almost every question he asks is the same “I have no idea, I’m as lost as you are, the best I can say is ‘pray more’ and God willing you will find the truth. If you do, let me know.”

Pray more.

I need to stop worrying about what other people are doing.
I need to stop worrying about what I’m doing.
I need to take my own advice.