This is an adapted version of my Communion Meditation delivered on Sunday, December 6, 2015.
Happy St. Nicholas Day!
I don’t know if many folks knew that today was St. Nicholas Day. Technically, it is the Feast Day of St. Nicholas of Myra, the fourth century bishop who is remembered for a number of acts of service and generosity. One particular legend remembers the cleric helping out a poor farmer, who could not afford a dowry for his three daughters. The man’s poverty meant that the girls would have trouble attracting proper suitors, and in those days people suspected unmarried maidens past a certain age of being “disreputable.” So under the cover of darkness, St. Nick snuck up to the house and tossed three bags of gold into an open window, one for each daughter.
Nicholas is also remembered for his participation in the First Council of Nicaea, where he reported got so exasperated with Arius (who would be branded a heretic) that he smacked him across the face. So that’s St. Nicholas–leaving gifts for the poor and smacking heretics since 350. At least, according to Wikipedia.
In the west, St. Nicholas Day is December 6, and while we may not pay much attention to that in America, in Europe St. Nicholas Day is kind of a big deal. Whereas in America St. Nick and Santa Claus are often conflated into the same figure, Europeans differentiate St. Nicholas from Father Christmas or the weihnachtsmann (Christmas Dude in Germany). St. Nicholas comes on December 6, bringing small gifts and candy to well-behaved kids. And he probably won’t punch you, but just in case, don’t go around denying the full divinity of Jesus.
One of my favorite customs surrounding St. Nicholas Day is practiced in Germany. In Germany, everyone keeps their shoes near the front door; you don’t wear them around the house, so they’re all lined up. And early in the morning on St. Nicholas Day, the old saint will slip into the home through the front door, and he will fill the shoes with goodies, like chocolate and candy canes and small toys.
But, he will only fill your shoe IF your shoe is clean. If he comes in and your shoes are dirty, you get nothing! No gifts, no goodies, no nuthin’.
St. Nicholas may operate with that logic–if you’re shoes are dirty, you get nothing. Nada. Zip.
Here’s the thing: Jesus doesn’t.
In Matthew 8, Jesus is approached by a leper, a person who is unclean. And not just like gross or contagious. If a person had leprosy, they were cut off from society and especially barred from worshipping or being in the presence of God in the Temple area. They were unclean, and if they went into a holy space, they’d defile it. And if you wanted to be able to mingle with your friends, eat with your family, worship in the Temple, you had to keep yourself clean, including staying away from people who were unclean. The defilement is contagious.
And so here’s what you’d expect. This man who has leprosy asks Jesus to heal him, and Jesus agrees. And Jesus, standing at a safe distance, says “Be healed!” and the man is healed, and then he says, “Ok, show yourselves to the priest so that they can see that you’re healed and clean and rejoin society.” And maybe, here we’d see Jesus hugging the guy, who’s clean.
And we expect that to be the case because that’s how We often imagine it is with God. I’m dirty, I’m unclean. And so God doesn’t want anything to do with me, until I clean up my act. Some of us have gone weeks, months, maybe even years without praying because our shame tells us that we’re not good enough, that God isn’t interested in being our friend.
But that’s not the story,
“When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him, and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Jesus touched him. Jesus, in that moment, violates everything the people around him know about purity and goodness and holiness. Jesus touches him, and it’s in that touch that the man finds healing. That the man is clean.
That’s the thing about this table. That the same Jesus who created scandals by touching lepers and eating with sinners and being anointed by prostitutes invites you here. We all have some mud on our shoes, but Jesus says “Take and eat.”