By Fr. Glenn Jones:
So we’re slipping into the cooler season of late autumn and, soon to be, winter, which actually doesn’t begin officially until just before Christmas with the winter solstice (December 21), of course. While cold weather is, well … cold, most people very much look forward to the holiday seasons and the anticipation of being with family and friends, wonderful dinners and gift-giving—a time to renew acquaintances and relationships.
Relatedly, it’s a perfect time to renew the virtue of charity that we may have let languish by simple neglect or forgetfulness over the past year. We get so busy with all the daily duties that we often omit doing that which is most fulfilling to our souls—kindness to others, especially the lonely and those in need, who are often also in abundance at this time of year. To paraphrase various saints: What we have in excess belongs to the needy, just as in scripture we read: “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (Proverbs 19:17).
Thinking about such things, we remember much beloved, good ol’ Saint Nick. Not the sleigh-driving North Pole Santa Claus, but the other St. Nick—St. Nicholas of the 300s whose memorial is celebrated every December 6th.
St. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). He was especially noted for his charity, an example of which was furtively dropping coins into shoes of poor children. For this exceptional spirit of charity, he is a saint with one of the most widespread devotions throughout the world—in Europe, Asia and in the Americas. He eventually became known as “Sinterklaas” in Dutch, eventually Anglicized to “Santa Claus” with red hat and clothes.
That charity is the virtue and ideal which has made Nicholas a beloved figure for over 1700 years, evident in the number of nations and groups who claim him as their patron saint: Russia, Greece, Sicily, Lorraine and Apulia in Italy, as well as patron saint of children, bankers, pawnbrokers, sailors, and many others. How appropriate, then, that his feast day falls near Christmas—at the incarnate birth of charity and love itself.
Charity. Kindness. Patience. Sometimes these seem lost virtues in our day with so many ready to condemn others for the least infraction or fault—real or imagined, or simply drummed up. Is this readiness to condemn for any imperfection not rooted in insecurity? It’s much like gossip and detraction—lowering others so that we ourselves feel elevated, or at least justified (“Did you hear about what he/she did?! At least I don’t do that!”)
When musing on kindness, I often recall the Gospel story of the Roman centurion and his concern for a critically-ill slave (Matthew 8). Even though the centurion would necessarily have been of hardened commander of battle veterans, he nonetheless had compassion for this slave—a person who would have been considered a mere possession. Thus, the centurion demonstrates a spiritual maturity far beyond the norm for his time and culture.
One would hope that in the 2000 years since our centurion, society would have advanced to the point that such empathy and concern that the centurion possessed would have become a common commonplace—almost a “given”. Alas, no … as we witness daily in the raucous and emotional commentaries so prevalent.
But should we not rather emulate the wisdom and empathy of the centurion, not seeking (or crafting, or imagining) reasons for division as so many do, but rather pursue unity in our common humanity? Are we to be stuck in a moral morass of bigotry or prejudice of our own making?
In one of the (first season?) original Star Trek episodes, the Enterprise was locked in a pursuing battle with the mysterious Romulans’ flagship. Captain Kirk and the Enterprise prevailed, of course, but in Kirk’s dialogue with the Romulan commander just before that commander activates his ship’s self-destruct, the commander laments: “In another time I might have called you friend.” Similarly in one of the interviews in the “Band of Brothers” series, a veteran musing about the tragic results of war and of one of the German soldiers that he had killed, reflects sadly: “[In other circumstances] we might have been good friends.”
That Star Trek line always struck me even in hearing it for the first time in childhood on the old black-and-white Motorola, and still I can’t help but wonder how many opportunities for friends, allies, confidants do we lose (have we lost … will we lose) because of prejudice or hatred or some other animosity—again, real or imagined, or simply drummed up? Or how many relationships do we destroy by being easily and ceaselessly “offended”, holding the venomous serpent of grudge tightly so it is ever injecting its poison. Thus, we are wise to consider: Am I so lacking in my own sense of self-worth that I have to magnify the faults of others? Can I now build bridges rather than destroy them? In such musing, we might remember Jesus again (and always): “…hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” (Luke 6:42)
Our centurion, St. Nick … Mother Teresa, Gandhi, MLK Jr … the Buddha, Confucius. Jesus. All of these are almost universally admired for their wisdom and virtue regardless of religion, so why do we not imitate them more meticulously and ardently? Why are we so hesitant to give of ourselves as they did? We yet remain far from Jesus’ ideal and teaching of “Love thy neighbor”, and certainly from “Love thine enemy”, regardless of the fact that we can reason that only in this way can peace finally come to realization.
So, in the season of giving, let us look again at all their examples, and realize that those virtues they illustrate are virtues to emulate in our own lives. What goes around comes around, they say, and Jesus affirms: “The measure you give is the measure you get, and still more will be given you.” (Mark 4:24). So … I guess it’s up to each of us to choose by our own actions what we will receive—in this life and the next.
He has shown you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?