As we prepare for Christmas, Advent calls the community of faith together to renew the sense of wonder and awe that is the experience of Christ among us. In the secular world, Advent is largely a non-event. The world frantically prepares for its Christmas celebration—in the din of noise that has become the hallmark—during what is meant to be a season of introspection and reflection. There is a real sense of loss, yet, in the midst of our contemplation that is our Advent discipline, there are always reminders of the awe and wonder of this holy season.
I remember a snowy afternoon many years ago when my family and I were living in New Hampshire. It was one of those idyllic New England days when the snow was fresh, free of dirt and grime from snowplows and passing cars. The air was clean and clear, and the immediate world, just outside your door, was totally still, content just to be. I was sitting in my study correcting papers and thought I heard the sound of sleigh bells. I stopped for a moment to try to pick up the sound. Nothing. A few minutes later I heard them again, this time louder. Then nothing.
Some minutes later, I heard the bells again, this time louder, much closer and much more insistent. The sound seemed to be coming from just outside my front door. Curiosity got the better of me and I went to the front door. As I opened the door I was met by a rather large man with a scruffy beard. He was dressed in a black cassock and a long black cape. The hood was pulled over his head to ward off the afternoon chill. He carried a leather saddlebag and a wooden staff. He could see from the look on my face that I had been taken completely by surprise. But he really paid little attention to me.
He smiled and asked to see Matthew and Anika, my children. Then it hit me. This guy in the beard and hood pulled up to keep him warm, was our parish priest. It was December 6th, St. Nicholas day; and he, dressed as Nicholas, the 4th century bishop of Myra and patron saint of children, among others, was visiting all of the kids in his parish. Nika, then 7, and Matt about 2 years old appeared at the door, eyes wide with wonder, not quite sure what was going on. St. Nicholas reached into his saddlebag and took out two pieces of chocolate wrapped in gold foil to look like coins. He handed one to each child, smiled and was gone. A few minutes later I heard the sleigh bells once again. St. Nicholas had made another stop.
A sense of peace and rightness is often the last thing that floods over most of us in our mad rush toward Christmas. The seeming importance of our daily lives often get in the way of our spiritual preparations. Yet the focused simplicity of this Advent season is apparent whenever we stop long enough to appreciate the gifts of God that continually appear around us.
The remembrance of the visit of a man with a fake scruffy beard on a snowy afternoon many years ago brings the peace and the rightness of the season back into focus. St. Nicholas’ gift wasn’t flashy, and it was a bit corny, but it was also real and heartfelt. And a reminder of the sacrificial love made real in the life and ministry of our lord and savior Jesus Christ. In the end, that is all that really matters.
Living God, you called your people out of Egypt and gave them the covenant; prepare our hearts to hear your call, so that we may receive with joy the gospel of your son and be your faithful people, now and forever. Amen.
(New Zealand Prayer Book, Advent 2, page 552)