Thursday, December 21, 2023

Saint Nicholas

When I started talking about how Santa doesn't belong in church, one friend reached out and suggested that maybe a good starting point, or at least an agreeable middle ground, might be to teach the origins of Santa Claus - the story of Saint Nick. 

Wouldn't that be a way to help bridge the gap between what the culture is doing for Christmas and what the church is doing? 

And that's...complicated.

So let's tread carefully. 

There has been a tradition in the church for a very long time about the saints - human beings who lived glorious lives and who are capable, reportedly, of the miraculous. Often, at least from what I understand from my exposure, being recognized as a saint means being credited with having successfully interceded in heaven on behalf of someone who prayed through you or whose prayer you picked up somehow and carried further into the glories where it could be heard. 

I am not Catholic. I have never been Catholic. I have been tremendously blessed by the Catholic ministries in which I have worked and the devout under whom I have learned. But I don't understand it all, and it doesn't all quite mesh with what I believe. But I do know that if we're talking Christian faith, saints are largely a Catholic concept. Catholic persons are far more invested in saints and sainthood than I might ever be. And they know the stories a lot better than I do. 

The Catholic faith has all kinds of avenues for intercession - for something between us and God. For a path that gets to heaven, but has to go through some extra steps. For praying to Mary and trusting that she has a listening ear with Jesus. That sort of thing. 

In that vein, then, I would say that in the Catholic church, maybe it's entirely appropriate to introduce Saint Nick in this season and use him as a bridge between the culture and the church.

But the overwhelming majority of protestant Christianity (non-Catholic Christianity) has little regard for the idea of saints. Most protestants might believe in the example of good, Godly, righteous human beings with incredible testimonies who lived lives worthy of looking up to...but they stop short of the miraculousness ascribed to the saints by the Catholics. A "saint" might be an extremely good person, but it's not an angel. Or a holy being. Or anything really particularly bigger than the rest of us. 

So to introduce someone like Saint Nick in the protestant church is really just to put someone else in the manger with Jesus. It's to take another human being and try to put him in the stable. It's to split the affections, divide the heart. It's to create a second narrative that is supposed to somehow sit alongside the story we have in the Gospels about what this season is all about. 

And that...isn't appropriate. That is fundamentally no different than including Santa Claus. 

Because for the protestant church, Saint Nick isn't a holy story; it's a human story. It's one of the stories that the world tells about Christmas that is still not the Christ story. It is, with no offense intended toward those in faiths with higher regard for the notion of saints, "decor." Just like Santa. 

So while it seems like a nice idea that maybe there's a way to bridge the Santa gap with Saint Nick, that's actually a very complicated proposition that depends not on the fundamental doctrine or nature of the Christian faith, but rather, on very specific doctrines that are not central to the Christian story. 

Which brings us back to where we started a few days ago where we have to ask...if we already have the Christmas story - the story of God taking on flesh, coming down as a man to live and walk among us, being born in a manger with the brightest star in the sky, bringing hope to a world that had been hanging on for hundreds, for thousands of years to His promises - why do we need to add anything else that is not central to that incredible, beautiful, wonderful story?  

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