Christmas tree gold baubles (recalling the three gold balls of a pawnbroker, based on the St Nicholas legends)

One of the textbooks I like to encourage students to refer to is the late Anthony Towey’s An Introduction to Christian Theology. (I should note, by way of disclaimer, that I don’t speak as a systematic theologian, so my recommendation may not carry much weight.) It is clearly organised, moving from scripture to early theological development to contemporary questions, which in my view is a great strength. But what makes it so good is the author’s ability to find unusual ways into the topic at hand, and a flair for striking as well as clear explanations.

Writing about the Council of Nicaea, he comments:

Even a script writer couldn’t have bettered the brilliant historical and theological irony, that this first worldwide gathering of a group who had suffered three centuries of persecution would witness Santa Claus beating someone up for not understanding the importance of Christmas.

p 209

More precisely, as he goes on on to explain, Nicholas of Myra, (according to some people’s version of the story) enraged by someone denying that Jesus was consubstantial with the Father, slapped them in the face.

St Nicholas’s – for it is he – main association with Christmas comes from the many stories of his legendary secret gift-giving, that eventually see the phonemes and legends (perhaps history) of St Nicholas morph into the phonemes and mythology of Santa Claus.

But for the historical Nicholas (in so far as we can access anyone behind the stories) his main connection with Christmas is an insistence that the incarnation of the Son truly bridges the gulf between the uncreated One and that which has been made. Christmas is only truly worth celebrating because God, in God’s very self, has opened the universe to new possibilities of being and meaning, by joining God’s immortal self to that which was otherwise incapable of participating in immortality.

There is more to the story than that, of course, but on St Nicholas’ day, only a small time before Christmas, let’s celebrate not only the gift-giver, but the one who robustly asserts the deeper meaning of the true gift of Christmas.

By Doug

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