Today being the Feast of St. Nicholas, I am going to take a pause from St. Ambrose to talk a little football. No, really. Stay with me for a few paragraphs, I’ll eventually get to Santa Claus, I promise.
When I was younger I was an avid, if not rabid, football fan. So you will excuse me if I still follow the sport even if I don’t actually watch that many games any more. One of the most fascinating stories of the year is Tim Tebow, quarterback for the Denver Broncos.
What makes this story interesting is not his role in transforming one of the worst teams in the NFL into division leaders or the fact that they have won five games in a row or that they have beaten each of their division rivals on the road or that they have come from behind to win several times and won in overtime twice. This is great stuff, but something that happens frequently, if not every year in the NFL.
What is interesting is how much the sporting world — especially sports journalists — want Tim Tebow to fail. At first, they attacked his throwing motion, saying that it was too awkward and slow to ever make it in the NFL. Then he became a starter. So they said he would never win. Then he started to lead his teams to dramatic 4th quarter wins. Then they said his style (the Florida option) wouldn’t work in the long run — he’d have to start throwing the ball successfully (which he couldn’t do). Then he started throwing the ball successfully. Then they said it was the defense that won all those games. Then a Tim Tebow-led offense had to score 30+ points to win a game. Now they are attacking him for his endzone celebration, called Tebowing — where he kneels down and prays to God.
Peel away all the other stuff — the throwing action, the starting position, the defense, etc. — and this is what all this vitriol boils down to: Tim Tebow is a devout Christian and isn’t afraid to show it. Here he is succeeding in a sport that is famous for its social misfits and criminality. And he is doing it while maintaining his faith and forcing the rest of us to look at the mess that is our own faith-life.
Tim Tebow challenges us — especially the sporting world — to take a good, long, hard look in the mirror and reevaluate what it means to be a successful human being.
St. Nicholas does the same thing. He is the Orthodox Church’s exemplar for what it means to be a bishop and a good Christian. The Apolytikion (a hymn written in honor of feast days) that honors hierarchs was originally written for St. Nicholas. Over the course of the week, the hymns of each day share a common theme — Sunday is the day of the Resurrection, for example. Thursdays are dedicated to the Apostles and St. Nicholas — because he embodies the successors of the Apostles and the defenders of the faith passed down to us from those same Apostles.
In other words, if we take his example seriously, it requires that we take a good, long, hard look in the mirror and reevaluate what it means to be a Christian. It should be no surprise, then, that St. Nicholas is now portrayed as Santa Claus — the jolly fat man in a red suit — rather than as a bishop who defended the faith against Arius:
Not that St. Nicholas isn’t properly associated with Christmas — take a look at the Theotokion which Orthodox Christians sing at the Vespers of his feast:
Make ready, O cave, for the Ewe-lamb comes bearing Christ in her womb. And you, O manger, receive Him that with a word has loosed us, the earthborn, from irrational deeds. You shepherds abiding in the field, be witnesses of the dread wonder. And Magi from Persia, offer gold and frankincense and myrrh to the King; for the Lord has appeared from a Virgin Mother. And bowing to Him like a handmaiden, His Mother worshipped Him, and addressed Him that was in her arms: How were You sown within me? And how have You grown within me, O my Redeemer and my God?
Rather, we have willingly transformed one of the most beloved and great Christian heroes of all time into what amounts to a cartoon fairy tale because the cartoon fairy tale doesn’t challenge us to become better human beings, let alone better Christians.
Therefore, I think it about time that Santa Claus needs a little Tebowing — that we boldly give St. Nicholas his due. It is about time that we challenge ourselves by seeing Santa Claus as one of the great bishops of the Church. It is about time that the world be confronted with the divine grace that now pours forth from that Wonderworker of Myra. Amen. Amen. Amen.