And Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of His disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear Him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all the crowd sought to touch Him, for power came forth from Him and healed them all. And He lifted up his eyes on His disciples, and said: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. “Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh. “Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven.
Luke 6: 17-23 (Gospel of Feast of St. Nicholas)
There is not much of an historical record on the life of St. Nicholas. Much of it has come down through “legend.” It is known that St. Nicholas was born in the third century and died sometime in the mid-fourth century of natural causes. It is known that he was imprisoned during persecutions and later released by the Emperor Constantine after he made Christianity legal. It is believed that St. Nicholas participated in the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325. It is known that he was the bishop of Myra early in the fourth century. And it is known that his parents were both pious and well-to-do, and that after he inherited their vast estate, he was generous in giving gifts to those in need.
It wasn’t until St. Methodios, Patriarch of Constantinople, produced a work on the life of St. Nicholas during the ninth century that his fame and “legend” began to grow. The legend of Santa Claus has its origins in the life of St. Nicholas. While there is no man in the red suit who lives at the North Pole and flies a sleigh around the world giving gifts to children, there most certain was a man named St. Nicholas who gave gifts to all kinds of people, and not only on Christmas, but throughout the year.
The Gospel reading on the Feastday of St. Nicholas has been called by some, “The Sermon on the Plain.” It is similar in content to the “Sermon on the Mount” given in Matthew 5-7, except that in Matthew, we are told that the sermon was given on a mount and in Luke, Jesus offered His teachings “on a level place.” (Luke 6:17) In both cases, Jesus outlines virtues, which we call “Beatitudes.” Each begins with the word “Blessed,” that we are blessed when we thrive with God, forsaking the things that the world tells us that we need to thrive.
Jesus says “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20) This does not mean we must be destitute and homeless in order to go to heaven, or that all poor people are on the fast track to get there. He refers to “poor” in a spiritual sense, that blessed are those who feel poor in their spirits and who strive to repent of their sins and grow closer to God.
“Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied.” (6:21) This refers not to a hunger for food, but to a hunger for God. Blessed are the ones who hunger to know God, who devour God’s Word in Scripture reading, who dine at His table of the Eucharist, who desire to feed off of Him through prayer, and who hunger to do good works.
“Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.” (6:21) There are two meanings that can be extracted from this verse. First, blessed are those that are sorrowful for their sins. In repentance they will find joy. Secondly, blessed are those who survive the difficult moments of life, the things that bring sorrow and grief. Think about the great tragedies that happen to people—losing a child, losing a spouse or a parent at a young age. Think of the great challenges—loss of job, loss of home, loss of health, difficult children, a challenging marriage. Those who weep during tragedy and challenge, those who find a way to remain close to God even when life gets tough, they are promised that one day they will laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. (6:22-23) If we are sincere in our faith and consistently follow after Christ, we are destined to make some enemies. It is always sad when Christian love is met with hate, but this is the sad truth. Christ’s love was met hate that led to Him being crucified. Jesus doesn’t tell us necessarily that we will be crucified, but He does say that we may be excluded, reviled and cast out, and having our names accounted as evil on His account. He wants us to know that if we are rejected by everyone on account of Him, we need not worry about being rejected by God. In the day that we suffer on His account, our reward in heaven becomes even greater.
Ironically, we teach our children to believe in a legend that when you think about it is totally ridiculous. Believe in Santa, that which is a ridiculous concept, and get rewarded. This goes against the normal “reward” process in life which is work in order to get reward. In other words, our reward comes not from work but from irrational belief.
In the case of St. Nicholas, we are taught that belief in his legend of philanthropy and our imitation of it put us closer to salvation. The Gospel lesson tells us that suffering brings a reward. Repentance also brings reward. Every day, there is an opportunity to repent. Thankfully not every day requires us to suffer. But the other thing that we have every day is the opportunity to give gifts to others, the same way that St. Nicholas was giving gifts. These gifts might be material, like buying something for someone. But more often, they are not material—we have the opportunity every day to give gifts of empathy, compassion, friendship, prayer and many other intangible gifts that we can give others.
The world tells us that getting something is better than giving something away. In the same way the Beatitudes tell us that the blessed way is not the way the world things, we gain our eternal reward not through getting things but through giving them away. And while some of the things associated with St. Nicholas may be legendary, there is solid truth in the fact that he was faithful and philanthropic, two pillars that every life should be built on.
A rule of faith are you, and an icon of gentleness, and a teacher of self-control. And to your flock this was evident, by the truth of your life and deeds. You were humble and therefore you acquired exalted gifts, treasure in heaven for being poor. Father holy hierarch Nicholas, intercede with Christ our God, and entreat Him to save our souls. (Apolytkion of St. Nicholas, Trans. By Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Christmas shouldn’t be the only day we give gifts to others. Indeed every day is a day to give something to someone. Look for an opportunity to give something to someone today!