I spent part of yesterday afternoon decorating the St. Nicholas cookies for today’s feast with a pastry “gun.’  As I painstakingly drew the cross on his miter and outlined the curve of his crozier with frosting, I wondered why, exactly, his feast means so much to me when present-day images of bishops at best evoke ambivalence.  There’s something warm and gentle about St. Nicholas.  Rather than power or authority, his crozier connotes the loving care of a shepherd.  His feast feels like more than just a special family occasion.  When the kids are gone, will we still observe St. Nicholas Day?  I think so.

Rereading the familiar stories about Nicholas, who lived in the fourth century on the southern coast of what is now Turkey, I was struck anew by the tale of his generosity to a family with three daughters.  Their father had fallen on hard times and did not have the money to pay dowries for his daughters to marry.  Without marriage, their prospects were quite bleak, possibly being sold into slavery or forced into prostitution.  Hearing of their plight, Nicholas was moved to action.  During the night, he went to the family’s house and tossed a bag of gold – enough for one dowry – through the window.  Several nights later, another bag appeared, and then the third soon after that.  The family rejoiced, and giving in secret became integral to the spirit of St. Nicholas.  In this day and time, a bishop’s personal care and concern for the welfare of three young women provides a kind of affirmation that is too often lacking.  Today’s bishops should ponder the example of St. Nicholas.

Gertrud Mueller Nelson, who introduced me to St. Nicholas, articulates well how he enlightens our vision more deeply than Santa Claus can:  “He carries a father image that imbues all fatherhood, and leadership and authority everywhere, with dignity and a powerful creativity.  He is certainly that great Papa, a grandfather, who has given us so much and continues to nourish us out of his endless store of gifts that knows no end, who knows us so well, and who rescues us from our own inadequacies.  But he also lends us the courage to grow and change, and helps us to see the world as it really is and requires that we do our part.”  (To Dance with God, p. 81).

As I write this, I received word about a recent grad of Ursuline Academy who died from a brain aneurysm last night.  I know that St. Nicholas cares for this young woman, and her family too, at this terrible loss. Please comfort and strengthen her loved ones as they deal with unspeakable sorrow.  And St. Nicholas, patron of children, console the many teens and young adults who are touched by her passing.  Restore their hope; increase their faith.

Photo by Else10 via Flickr under Creative Commons license