December 6, 2016 Tuesday after the Second Sunday of Advent (Feast of St. Nicholas)
Isaiah 5.13–17, 24–25
1 Thessalonians 5.12–28
The text of the readings follows after the comments.
Today is the Feast of St. Nicholas, who was known in the Netherlands and colonial New Amsterdam as as Sinterklass and morphed into Santa Claus. An Episcopalian priset, the Reverend Professor Clement Clarke Moore , wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1823, and the cultural icon continued to grow in popularity. Despite his cultural significance, St. Nicholas is an optional observance, and while “For All the Saints” (a book covering all the commemorations in the calendar of the Anglican Church of Canada) provides special readings for the eucharist, St. Nick is not so important as to displace the lectio continuo of the daily offices. That said, I’ll take a break from commenting on the readings to think a bit about a recent event.
Social media went a bit nuts a few days ago when some racist bigots got upset that the mall of America in the Twin Cities of Minnesota hosted a Santa Claus of African-American ancestry. The idea that Santa Claus was anything but “white” really got their knickers in a knot. I am sure the kids lined up to talk to Santa did not care, but some adults seemed quite upset.
Of course, this just reminded me of an even earlier of another social media thing, the meme that I’ve reproduced above. Icons of St. Nicholas stereotypically have him with a furrowed brow and really don’t care much about Aryan sensitivities to skin tone, and so St. Nicholas can look a bit like the actor Michael Dorn in costume as Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation. You don’t think Santa Claus can be black? OK, maybe he’s really a Klingon.
To point out the obvious, we have no idea what St. Nicholas looked like, although it was probably something like what the people of south-western Turkey look like now – distinctly Mediterranean. We also have no idea what Jesus looked like. The earliest depictions from the 3rd century show him as a beardless young man – in other words, no different than the average male subject of Rome. Under the influence of depictions of Zeus and other male Greco-Roman gods Jesus began to be depicted with flowing long hair and a beard, because that’s what a god is supposed to look like. The simple outline of his appearance then developed into what we normally associate with him.
All we really know about his appearance is that he was indistinguishable from his disciples. When Judas Iscariot sought to betray him he had to indicate to the Roman soldiers who Jesus was by greeting him with a kiss. And so in all probability he looked like the inhabitants of Palestine since time immemorial – something like this:
If racists in the US melted down over a black Santa, this should make them apolplectic. Jesus as a swarthy first century Jew, looking like a modern refugee from Syria or Iraq, is a good image for what we might imagine Jesus was like, for “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25.40). Ultimately the face of Jesus is not to be found in art or forensic reconstruction but in the face of those who are suffering and oppressed. And the face of St. Nicholas is the face of any follower of Jesus who has a care for children.
Isaiah 5.13–17, 24–25
Therefore my people go into exile without knowledge;
their nobles are dying of hunger,
and their multitude is parched with thirst.
Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite
and opened its mouth beyond measure;
the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude go down,
her throng and all who exult in her.
People are bowed down, everyone is brought low,
and the eyes of the haughty are humbled.
But the Lord of hosts is exalted by justice,
and the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness.
Then the lambs shall graze as in their pasture,
fatlings and kids shall feed among the ruins.
Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble,
and as dry grass sinks down in the flame,
so their root will become rotten,
and their blossom go up like dust;
for they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts,
and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.
Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people,
and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them;
the mountains quaked,
and their corpses were like refuse
in the streets.
For all this his anger has not turned away,
and his hand is stretched out still.
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
Beloved, pray for us.
Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss. I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
Then he [Jesus] told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
Every day he was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple.