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A Higher Love
A Sermon on St. Nicholas the Wonderworker
In the modern world, we have all but forgotten the saints. Once upon a time, we used to name not only our children, but even our streets and our cities in honor of the saints of God, in order to seek their heavenly aid and intercession, and in order to continually bring these holy saints to our remembrance. On each day of the year, we kept the festival of not one saint only, but of many — sometimes even dozens on the same day.
But now, out of all the feasts of the innumerable multitudes of saints who have adorned Christ’s Church and the whole of creation since the beginning of the world, we as a society (for the most part) remember only four. And although this is already an unspeakable tragedy and an unbearable loss, what is yet worse is that we do not keep these four feast-days in order to honor the saints. No, we keep these feast-days in order to slander them. We keep four demonic festivals, drawing the children of God away from the Most High, and enslaving them to the miserable love of this dying life. My brothers and sisters, it is no coincidence that these four days have come to embody precisely the opposite of their original spirit — the spirit of the saint. The demons have quite intentionally arranged for this to happen, because they realize the great significance that these four feast-days hold for us. Therefore they are not content merely to entice us to forget these soul-saving commemorations; rather, they choose precisely these four days to loudly and publicly proclaim their own foul and hellish gospel.
On the feast day of St. Valentine — that holy martyr of Christ who renounced all worldly happiness in order to endure a violent death out of love for the Heavenly Bridegroom — we idolize and glamorize a carnal and sentimental worldly love, vainly imagining that such love will bring us to the heights of perpetual and irrevocable bliss. This myth of supreme romantic happiness is more powerful now than it has ever been before — despite the fact that it has never been more resoundingly refuted by reality than it is today, amidst our horrific landscape of shattered families, divorces, adulteries, abortions, abuses, all manner of degrading perversions, and the ubiquitous objectification of the act of physical love. No, my brothers and sisters, true and eternal happiness is not to be found in the arms of another human being, but only in the loving embrace of our Savior Jesus Christ. And though marriage is indeed holy, undefiled, and blessed by God, it is by no means an end in itself; rather — like all of the Holy Mysteries of the Church — it can only be properly understood as a means of union with Christ. And it is the supreme and incomparable worth of this divine union — this, and no other — to which St. Valentine bore his martyric witness. But we forget his legacy and we blaspheme his name, using it to instead celebrate a festival to the foul goddess Venus.
On the feast of St. Patrick — that great missionary bishop who brought Christianity to the pagan tribes of the West — we return again to the very drunken revelries and pagan debaucheries from which St. Patrick came to free us. He brought an end to the oppressive power of the demons in ancient Ireland, but today we keep his feast by celebrating and rejoicing in the oppressive power of the demon of addiction, which has wrought — and continues to wreak — such heartbreaking devastation everywhere around us. In our secular and hedonistic society, the abuse of alcohol and other chemical substances has become (along with sexual indulgence) the only remaining sacrament, participation in which we hope will bring us to a paradisiacal state of euphoric bliss, but which in reality brings us only to a living hell. St. Patrick came to give us a higher joy and a more profound peace than can ever be found in the soul-destroying rites of the demons. But we forget his legacy and we blaspheme his name, using it to instead celebrate a festival to the foul god Bacchus.
Next we come to the feast of All Saints, which (according to the Western calendar) has now become Halloween, a night on which even the most pure and innocent of our children are encouraged to costume themselves as witches, demons, and all manner of wicked and foul beings. We somehow view this as endearing and entertaining, rather than as horrific and frightening. And rather than aspiring to imitate the lives of the holy saints and God-pleasers who have shown forth from among us, we instead regale ourselves with stories and films of hellish terror, somehow finding pleasure and amusement in such nightmares. Rather than friends of heaven, on this day we willingly choose to become the friends of hell, blaspheming the names of all the saints, and keeping a festival to all the demons and pagan gods and goddesses at once.
And finally, we come to the saint we celebrate today: St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, “Santa Claus.” In popular culture, Santa Claus is nothing other than the patron saint of consumerism — and therefore we keep his feast through a long orgy of materialism. According to ancient lore, the mission of Santa Claus is to bestow virtuous children with virtue’s natural reward: more stuff. Although, it must be admitted that in recent years Santa has placed rather less emphasis on “making his list and checking it twice,” on finding out “if you’re naughty or nice.” Santa wouldn’t want to exclude anyone, or to hurt anyone’s feelings… and so, more or less everyone is now found deserving of getting more stuff.
In other words, we have come to view Santa Claus as we all too often view God: a benevolent (and mythical) character who asks nothing from us, and who exists only in order to give us exactly what we want. His one commandment: “Have it your way.” And we are only too happy to oblige.
Of course, the popular figure of Santa Claus has its basis in the life of the real St. Nicholas, who was known far and wide for his generosity and kindness. He did indeed once throw three bags of gold through the window of a certain house, in which there were three young women without dowries whom their impoverished father was therefore considering selling into slavery (or worse). But note the striking difference here: St. Nicholas gave these people alms not in order to reward their virtue, nor simply for the sake of giving them something nice, but rather precisely in order to save them from sin! St. Nicholas saw material wealth for exactly what it really is: neither more nor less than a means by which we are to strive for “the one thing needful.” The secular world seeks to use wealth in order to give people an earthly paradise; St. Nicholas teaches us to use wealth in order to bring people to the true and only paradise: the Kingdom of God.
And though he is famed for his gentleness, he is hardly what we would today call tolerant. He famously struck Arius a blow upon the face for his blasphemy during the First Ecumenical Council, and was vindicated for his zealous piety by the Most Holy Mother of God Herself. Moreover, he took far from a “live and let live” attitude towards those who held to differing religious beliefs: he would walk throughout his diocese, reducing to rubble the pagan idols and temples which he found there. Why do I relate these stories? Am I saying that we ourselves should start walking around striking blows to heretics and burning non-Orthodox houses of worship to the ground? Of course not: we ourselves possess neither the boldness nor the discernment of St. Nicholas, and if we were to imitate his outward behavior it would almost certainly proceed only from our own pride.
No, I relate these stories rather because St. Nicholas reveals to us a different kind of love than what passes for love today. He shows us a higher love, a heavenly love, a love concerned not with making others feel good, not with making them happy and comfortable, but rather with making them into gods. St. Nicholas loves all people so much that he does absolutely everything in his power to bring them to God — and that is exactly why he is known as the Wonderworker. And though our own deeds will no doubt be far more feeble, nevertheless we must strive to imitate this example of love as much as possible, and on no account to settle for a love which desires anything less, or other than, salvation for the beloved.
But how did St. Nicholas acquire such love? And how did he gain the power to work the miracles which he worked — and still works — in such incredible abundance? Why has he become one of the most famous and well-beloved saints of all time — so much so that neither the demons, nor the modern secular world which they have formed, can possibly forget him, but must instead mock him and defile his memory as much as possible? The answer is simple, and is clearly revealed in the troparion of this feast: “thou hast attained the heights through humility.”
Truly, it was the humility of St. Nicholas which gave birth to his great love. It was his humility which gave him the power to work so many miracles. It was his humility which allowed him to accomplish his great ascetic feats. It was his humility which enabled him to give away all he possessed to the poor and the needy. And it was his humility which even allowed him to strike Arius on the face and to topple the pagan idols, and to do so with absolutely nothing but love in his heart.
And how did he acquire such humility? The answer to this is also simple: through absolute obedience.
There is a story from early in his life, perhaps the most important story about him that there is to tell. After visiting the Holy Land, he was moved by a deep desire to go to the desert and to dedicate the rest of his life to prayer and repentance. Therefore upon returning to Lycia, he entered the monastery of Holy Sion which had been founded by his uncle. But the Lord said to him: “Nicholas, this is not the vineyard where you shall bear fruit for Me. Return to the world, and glorify My Name there.” And of course, St. Nicholas obeyed.
What a great lesson this is for us, the spoiled children of a world whose only command is: “Have it your way!” St. Nicholas was willing to renounce not only sin, but even the most holy desire of his own heart! How many of us are willing to follow such an example? How many of us are willing to set aside our own will completely, not only in what is sinful, but even in what we imagine to be well-pleasing to God? How many of us have truly cut off not only our own will, but also our own understanding?
Let me suggest a very simple criterion for answering each one of these questions: how many of us are saints? Because this is indeed the truth, the great truth revealed to us by the life of the Holy Wonderworker St. Nicholas: as soon as we completely and totally renounce our own will in all things, we will immediately become saints.
And that is worth far more than any number of stockings, stuffed with all the treasures of this world. It is the gift which St. Nicholas truly desires to give to each one of us on his feast day. Through his holy intercessions, may we at last become willing to receive it. Amen.