Monday, December 16, 2013

Saint Nicholas : The Real Santa Claus by Chris White

A 2008 Forensic Model From Skeletal Remains

On a beautiful late spring day in 1087 a ship sailed into the port town of Bari in the southern part of Italy with a very precious cargo.  Just weeks before the ship had been in the port of Myra (modern day Finike, Turkey) on a special mission: to bring the bones of St. Nicholas to the safety of Europe.  For centuries, Christians had traveled to his shrine in Turkey because a clear, sweet smelling liquid dripped from the tomb that seemed to have miraculous powers.  In fact, in the Greek world, St. Nicholas is known as Nicholas the wonder-worker.  The taking of this holy man’s bones was seen as a necessity for 16 years before the Muslim Turks had conquered much of Asia Minor and were making things more and more difficult for Christian pilgrims; so much so that 6 years later the Pope would be calling the men of Western Europe to arms in the First Crusade.  But for now, it was time celebrate.  A new shrine for St. Nicholas was constructed on Italian soil and soon his blessings would draw flocks of pilgrims from all over Europe during the Middle Ages even as his new tomb still seemed to produce the same miraculous perfume like water it did in Asia Minor.

While Santa Claus is the delight of children the world over during the Christmas holidays, the man behind the myth is just as delightful which is why in the Christian world, St. Nicholas of Myra is second only to the Virgin Mary as the most artistically depicted saint and a popular namesake for church buildings especially in Europe and Russia.

St Nicholas (270-343 AD) was born to devoutly Christian parents by the name of Epiphanius and Johanna in Asia Minor.  They both died in an epidemic when Nicholas was quite young and he was raised by his uncle (also named Nicholas) who was a clergyman.  Although Nicholas inherited his family wealth, he was raised to become a clergyman and even as a young man was known for his piety and generosity.

When the bishop of Myra died, Nicholas was elected to take his place by popular acclaim.  By tradition Nicholas would have been between 30 and 40 by this time, but it is quite possible that he was younger as his early adult years were lived during the Roman persecution of the Church and church leaders were regularly killed leaving churches often scrambling to find new leaders.  When St. Nicholas is depicted in art it is always as an elderly man with gray hair.  This was considered an outstanding feature in those days because unlike most of his contemporaries, Nicholas had the privilege of dying of old age rather than martyrdom.  As bishop, Nicholas didn’t live a trouble free life.  In fact, when Constantine the Great (the first Christian Roman Emperor) came to power, Nicholas was still in prison for his faith and was soon set free.

 One of the most famous stories of  St.Nicholas was his intervention to help a man in poverty who had three fully grown daughters.  Unable to raise a dowry so that they could be married, out of desperation he was thinking about turning them over to prostitution (a sad fate that still happens to poor women today).  When Nicholas heard of his straits he came by this man’s house at night and threw a bag of gold coins, enough for a dowry, through a window and left undetected.  Shortly afterward the oldest daughter was engaged and married.  Nicholas came and did this for the other daughters but with the last one the father discovered Nicholas was his benefactor and profusely thanked him and made the story known.  Often Nicholas is depicted with three bags, which are the bags for the gold coins.  Another symbol used in iconography is three gold balls which incidentally were adopted by pawnbrokers as their symbol.  It probably shouldn’t surprise that Nicholas is the patron saint of among other things pawn brokers, which to my thinking makes Christmas shopping at a pawn shop seem a bit more kosher for some reason.

It is said that Nicholas was an ardent protector of the church’s orthodoxy (which is the role of a bishop) and was at the famous Council of Nicea in 325 AD where the heresy of Arianism was being tried by the Church.  As the legend goes, in his zeal for the truth Nicholas punched Arius in the mouth when he began to defend his false doctrine that Jesus was not the eternal  Son of God (obviously proving that Nicholas must have had Southern Baptist leanings as those guys are famous for fisticuffs at board meetings!).  Such actions in front of the Emperor Constantine (who was present at the time) were against the law and Nicholas was put in jail for a few days to cool his temper at the behest of his fellow bishops who were outraged at his behavior.  But this is more in the realm of legend as it appears in no contemporary accounts of the council and there is little reason to belief Constantine’s bodyguards would have even tolerated such actions.  But it is fun to imagine our dear St. Nicholas punching the lights out of a heretic nonetheless.

Many other stories abound of miracles and good deeds done to children and the less fortunate that space will not permit, but do show why he is the ideal saint for Christmas and why he has been so popular in all the major branches of Christianity for so long.  Not much is said about his end but that he died in his church, which is the religious equivalent of “dying with your boots on”.

Protestants, who recognize very few saints, pretty much abandoned the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6th (which continues to be celebrated by Catholics and Orthodox) except for the Dutch who continued to recognize him with their unique pronunciation “Sinterclaas” which came to America as “Santa Claus”.  Martin Luther, translated the tradition of gift giving on St. Nicholas day to Christmas day saying that the baby Jesus gave gifts.  The German word for the Christ child “Christkindl” also became corrupted to Kriss Kringle which again became associated as another name for St. Nicholas.

Probably the least thought about but most important thing to remember about St. Nicholas was that his life was about leading and teaching people in word and deed to follow Jesus Christ to son of God.  The person whose birth in Bethlehem we celebrate every year at Christmas.  That is the central legacy of Saint Nicholas today.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Short and Tragic Life of Saint Barbara by Chris White

This Sunday, Christian worship will be held in several million churches around the world named after St. Barbara.  In addition to being one of the world's most well-known and well-loved saints, St. Barbara has the distinction of her own honorable order within the U.S. Marine Corps and is the patron saint of fireman, sailors in the navy, artilleryman in the Army and just about every group in the population that serves in harm's way and could die suddenly.  Despite her worldwide popularity, there's a little problem with St. Barbara: no one is certain she actually ever existed.  In fact the Roman Catholic church, an institution known for its certitude about most things, removed her feast day from their official calendar in 1969 due to concerns about whether she was a real person or merely a pious legend.

Fact or fiction, the essential story of Saint Barbara goes like this:  around 286 AD in the city of Nicomedia, Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) there lived a widower named Dioscorus who had a beautiful and intelligent daughter named Barbara.  It is believed that Barbara's mother may have been a Christian herself which was displeasing to her husband who was an ardent polytheist (pagan).  Whatever the reasons for Dioscorus' animus towards Christianity, as a single father left with an attractive daughter to raise, he was going to make sure Barbara was raised correctly and worshipped the gods of Rome.

Like most men of his day, Dioscorus controlled his daughter's every move and in a bit of over-control verging on paranoia, he decided the best way to make sure his daughter turned out right, was to completely isolate her from the public and act as the gatekeeper of who would ever get to see her.  Part of this plan entailed building a tower for her to live in which had a window, a bell, but no door to come in or out (it is believed the Brother's Grimm borrowed from this in constructing their fairly tale of Rapunzel).  Having her in such isolation virtually assured Dioscorus would be successful in keeping the influence of the Christians (by now a large and growing segment of the population in Asia Minor) at bay.

Dioscorus made sure that Barbara was taught by the best teachers of philosophy, poetry, and the arts.  Whenever Barbara wanted something new to read or study, she would ring the bell, and her father's servants would place new books for her to read in the basket she lowered from the window.  This plan backfired a bit though.  Being educated in philosophy, Barbara became a critical thinker and as she grew intellectually, the gods of paganism seemed more and more untenable to her.  On top of this apparently Dioscorus didn't screen all of his servants regarding their religious views because one of them slipped a book in the basket written by the famous Christian theologian and philosopher of Alexandria named Origen.

Barbara read these writings with great interest and wrote a letter to Origen asking him if he could teach her and baptize her via letter because of her living situation and the disposition of her father about Christians.  If by chance you're wondering how Barbara could mail a letter in that place or time bear in mind the phrase "Neither rain nor hail nor sleet nor snow nor heat of day nor dark of night shall keep this carrier from the swift completion of his appointed rounds" originates not with the U.S. Postal Service but with the ancient historian Herodotus who was describing the mail system that preexisted the Christian era in Asia Minor.  Put another way, there might not have been stamps and email, but the ancients had their own form of connectivity called letter writing.

Origen himself was too busy in Alexandria to leave but not too busy to hatch a plan on how to help Barbara become a Christian.  He wrote back to her and suggested on a certain day she ring the bell and tell her father she was very sick and needed a doctor.  He would send a friend who was a priest and since priests do heal souls, it wouldn't be a complete falsehood to say he was a doctor to her father.  Once he got inside the tower he would be able to further instruct her and baptize her.

The plan worked.  Barbara feigned sickness and coming up the road was the priest who heard the bell and asked Dioscorus if everything is okay.  Dioscorus asked the stranger if he could run and get a doctor, to which the priest replied that it must be a divine appointment because he just happened to be passing by and he was a doctor.  Worried sick about the health of Barbara, the father broke open the base of the tower to allow the 'doctor' in to help.  Not knowing what the sickness was, the doctor suggested Dioscorus refrain from coming into the tower for the next few days until she is treated and on the mend.  For the next week, the priest was able to instruct and baptize Barbara undetected by her father while she "recovered and convalesced."  Eventually Barbara's "doctor" had to leave but Dioscorus was quite affected by this event and wondered if part of his daughter's illness was related to living in forced seclusion.

Eventually Dioscorus let his daughter come out of the tower (apparently he didn't brick up the opening again) and find the company of friends of her choosing.  It wasn't long after this that Barbara met other Christians in Nicomedia and was greatly inspired by their holiness and way of life.  When her father tried to arrange a marriage for her with a young pagan man, she resisted this effort and made the decision that she would rather remain a virgin.  Barbara did this to remain devoted to God, but Dioscorus took this to mean she wanted to remain with him as his daughter which greatly pleased him.

In the course of time Dioscorus ordered a beautiful Roman bath be built for Barbara next to her tower that she bathe and relax in luxury.  Before he left on a long journey, he ordered the construction crew to build two skylights over the bath.  However, when he returned he found that Barbara had talked them into adding a third.  Puzzled by this he enquired further of Barbara and eventually she confessed that the three windows represented the Holy Trinity and that she had come to faith and Christ and was baptized a Christian.

Enraged, embarrassed for having been played a fool, and utterly disappointed in his daughter's foolish choices, Dioscorus brought Barbara before the local magistrate to be charged with the crime of being an atheist (what the Romans called Christians).  When she refused to recant her faith upon pain of death, she was sentenced to death.  Following the Roman tradition of  Pater Familias, the magistrate charged Dioscorus with the task of executing his own wayward daughter.  It is said he took her outside the city, beat her, and then took his sword and beheaded her.  He left her body where she died and began walking home when he was suddenly struck by lightening and died instantly.  Meanwhile a local Christian man named Valentinius ministered to the dead by giving Barbara a decent burial.  It was said not long after two pilgrims (likely en route to the Holy Land) visited the grave of Barbara and both were healed of their physical infirmities and this began the path where Barbara became Saint Barbara.

The particular virtue of Saint Barbara represents is choosing Christ despite the opposition of family, friends, and nation and valuing that choice even over your very life.  Unlike other martyrs, Barbara was given no time to consider whether she made the right choice or not.  She was swiftly charged and executed.  There is much about Barbara's situation that most people can relate to or admire which probably explains best her popularity.  Many Christians have found the greatest impediment to their discipleship is the disapproval of their closest relations and many more have lived under the malignant love of a heavy-handed father who is quick to embrace but even quicker at giving a beating.  And no doubt solace can be found in her life by those whose lives are on the line every day and may not have the luxury of Christian ministry at their death bed.

December 4th is the celebration of her martyrdom or what the early Christians called her true birthday because she awoke in Heaven.  Legend or no, surely Saint Barbara has enriched the faith of many if for no other reason than the virtues of fearless perseverance that she represents.  According to one Catholic news service, in 2013 an Italian film producer is making a theatrical movie based on the life of Saint Barbara.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Oswald Chambers (1874-1917) by Chris White

Oswald, Biddy, and baby Kathleen

It was a clear and bright day in November of 1917, far different from the cold and rainy weather of his homeland, that Oswald Chambers was laid to rest with full military honors in Cairo Egypt.  Two years prior Oswald felt compelled to suspend a very successful ministry in London and take a new assignment as a chaplain/missionary to Australian and New Zealander troops stationed in Egypt during World War I.  Chamber’s missionary sponsor was the YMCA of England.  Their idea of military ministry was to provide a fun and wholesome social center for the troops as a means of dissuading them from visiting brothels and drinking establishments during off hours.  While certainly an admirable goal, Oswald Chambers was not going to waste his time on social events while the men he was sent to serve were in harm’s way and could potentially die outside of the grace of God.  Although his superiors didn’t think it would gain much traction, Oswald began offering Bible classes and talks related to the gospel which were well received and attended.  Chambers was a man of great spiritual passion and was known to be a very compelling speaker, but most of all he was a willing vessel for the Spirit of the Lord who lived out the message he preached.
 As a young man, Oswald had married Gertrude Hobbs whom he lovingly called “Biddy”.  Three years later their only child Kathleen was born in 1913.  Biddy had a special talent that made her an ideal partner and complement to Oswald.  She was an excellent short-hand secretary who was able to record 250 words per minute which is faster than most people can ever speak.  She would take down in shorthand Oswald’s every sermon and then later transcribe them for future use.  Biddy and Kathleen followed Oswald to his assignment in Egypt and offered a touch of family to many whose service had separated them from their own.  Unfortunately, Oswald Chambers dedication to the troops, led to his early and untimely death.  When he came down with an attack of appendicitis, he refused to the hospital because the beds were needed for injured troops.  When he finally relented and received an emergency appendectomy, things had gone too far and he ended up dying of post-operative complications.
Although Biddy and Kathleen Chambers had lost a husband and father, they faithfully continued his ministry the remainder of their lives.  Shortly after his death, Biddy went through all the sermon notes she had transcribed  and from them developed several books which were published under his name.  The most popular of these is My Utmost for his Highest which has never been out of print and has been translated into 39 languages.  When Mrs. Chambers passed in the early 1970’s and Kathleen died in 1997, a trust was formed to continue the ministry well into the future.  As Utmost for His Highest approaches its 80th anniversary of being in print, its footprint has expanded in the digital world with a number of websites, twitter feeds, Facebook pages, even Youtube features all based on the teachings of this book.   Though he has been gone nearly 100 years, the ministry of this humble and passionate disciple of the Lord Jesus continues to bless the world and that is probably the greatest honor Oswald Chambers would have ever wanted.

Monday, October 28, 2013

St. Francis and the Backstory of the Christmas Nativity Scene by Chris White

Francesco of Assisi

In 1219 St. Francis of Assisi sailed on a boat towards Cairo to preach the Gospel to the Muslims.  He knew he was walking in to a war zone between Crusaders from Europe and Arabs defending land they had taken in conquest centuries before, but to him it didn’t matter.  He decided beforehand that if he was able preach or if he was made a martyr, the trip would be a great success.  When he arrived he found that both sides were at a stalemate and so exhausted that they had agreed to a one-month truce.  Taking advantage of this opportunity, Francis crossed battle lines into the camp of Sultan al-Kamil of Egypt and stayed several days trying to present the truth of Christ to all who would listen.  There is no record of the Sultan being converted, but he appreciated the genuine spiritual concern Francis had and the bravery he showed in coming and rather than make him a captive, he sent out of the war zone to the safety of the Holy Land.  Francis had always wanted to go there but his attempts had always been thwarted.  Now he was being escorted there by the Sultan’s guard.  Before Francis returned home he was able to visit the site of our Lord’s birth in Bethlehem and it made a deep impression on him.  The following year he was home in Italy and he decided to do something special for the Christmas Mass.  On the altar of the church he placed a manger filled with straw and brought in an ox and a donkey and other animals that the worshippers could see and sense first hand what it might have been like the night that Jesus was born.  This practice became popular throughout Europe in the ensuing years and soon every church began putting up nativity scenes which eventually were mass-produced in small scale for use in home celebrations of Christmas.  As you look at your nativity this Christmas, I hope you’ll remember that its inspiration was the result of an aspiration: to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation (Mk.16:15).”