By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
Before we commercialized and infantilized every aspect of our culture, we used to understand the power of symbols. Our government was regarded as a benevolent uncle named Sam bidding us to do our part. Our soaring strength and spirit of ever climbing higher was embodied in an eagle. A bell in Philadelphia announced to the world that while our society was far from perfect it remained free of the Old World’s pretenses and encumbrances. A statue in a harbor welcomed even the wretched to a land promising both opportunity and hard work. Symbols define our ideals about life, desires, and even ourselves.
And regardless of your religious affiliation or if you have none at all, the symbol of Christmas remains one of life’s enduring icons of what is best in all of us. The holiday is personified by a fourth century clergyman, Nicholas, bishop of Myra. Myra lay in the Roman province of Lycia in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Almost nothing is known about Nicholas except that he was born sometime around 260 CE and died after 333 CE. Most of his good works in Lycia are obscure and his piety is presumed but never verified. He stands as a part of history based on one story told and retold throughout the centuries.
In his capacity as bishop, Nicholas became aware of a man living in the City of Patara. Once a wealthy and influential member of the community, the man had fallen on hard times and could not provide even the basics of life. Blessed with three daughters, the man knew he would never be able to pay the dowries that would permit the young women to be properly married and assume their places in polite society. In that culture being unable to marry meant more than just a life of hard labor in the fields; it usually meant prostitution for young girls. Distraught the man turned every stone to improve his situation but all to no avail.
Hearing of the plight, Nicholas resolved to do something about it. Whether based on religious prescription or his own benevolent intuitions, the prelate decided to provide direct aid to the man by tossing a small bag of gold through his open window during the early hours of the morning and thus avoid further embarrassment for the man. Nicholas returned night after night to add to the man’s dowries but, finding the window inexplicably locked on the third night, dropped the gold down the chimney where it landed in a wet stocking that was drying by the dying embers.
There was good reason for the locked window after all as the occupant was waiting for the good bishop after he clamored down off the roof. Learning at last who his benefactor really was, the man promised to let everyone know about the kindness of the Christian bishop. Nicholas would have none of it and had the man promise never to tell anyone about what had happened. That promise was likely not fulfilled.
Saint Nicholas of the Roman Church has come to define all that we admire about charity — generosity of spirit, selflessness, and a genuine regard and understanding of the sometimes intolerable plight of our fellow man. It is true religion and that is what many of us will honor on Tuesday.
God Bless us — every one.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger