Editor’s note: The following is adapted from a sermon on the feast of St. Nicholas this last Sunday by Fr. Russell, an Eastern-Rite priest for the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Eparchy of Parma.
What matters most is the condition of our hearts. We understand this, as Christians. Perhaps it is for this reason that we tend to prefer the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew over the Sermon on the Plain, which we hear today from Luke.
These two sermons have so many similarities that some scholars have claimed it is likely one sermon – remembered differently. Be that as it may, there are important differences. Here are two:
In Luke, we hear that the poor are blessed. In Matthew, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”.
On the plain, Jesus says, “Blessed are you that hunger.” On the mount, he says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
In each of these beatitudes, that which is blessed is spiritualized, internalized, and possibly even abstracted in Matthew, while it remains stark, external, and physical in Luke.
We read this Sermon on the Plain for St. Nicholas, whom we celebrate today.
St. Nicholas was not born into poverty in any material sense. On the contrary, he was born into wealth. Such that, when his parents died, he inherited a considerable sum of money.
So why do we proclaim these particular words of Jesus – “blessed are you poor” – on this feast of St. Nicholas? Because Nicholas heard those words of Christ and so gave up all attachment to his wealth. He made it his business from the time of his inheritance, to give away all his parent’s wealth to the needy.
There are many stories told of his almsgiving and the excellence of his generosity. For example, we hear that on three occasions, a desperately poor father resolved to sell his three daughters, one by one, into prostitution.
What a horrible thing. When we hear of such horrible things going on the world (as they do, of course, now as much as then and here as much as there) we are perhaps repulsed. But do we forget the desperation that poverty creates? Do we judge the sins of our neighbors without understanding or compassion?
St. Nicholas learned of this man’s impoverished condition and his wicked plan and responded to it by giving the man money – secretly and anonymously. He snuck out in the middle of the night, some say, and dropped off bags of gold in the man’s house. Maybe he dropped them down the chimney. This is the beginning of St. Nick’s gift-giving in the middle of the night.
Some of us might think that the best thing to do in that situation would have been to punish the man for his evil intention, but Nicholas gives him the money. Nicholas saves him from the need that tempts him. Such merciful generosity, in fact, will often do more to bring us to repentance than any punishment would. And indeed, the man did repent and did not carry out his plan.
Of the three ascetic practices, which we focus on during each of the fasts, St. Nicholas is best known for giving alms. Some say that his motto as a bishop was the words of the Lord Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). These are good words indeed for us to hear during this Philip’s Fast as we prepare for Christmas.
But his ability to do this comes from his detachment to earthly things. He understands himself, it says in the Synaxarion, not as a propertied man but as a “steward of goods that belong to the poor.” These things we seem to have aren’t ours really, but God’s, and he wants us to freely distribute his things to those who have need of them. So let’s learn from Nicholas to let go of what we’re holding on to.
How can we learn this? The same way as Nicholas did – by prayer and fasting. These other two pillars of askesis are inseparable from almsgiving. They both enable and inspire the giving that we’re called to.
Nicholas did not begin with almsgiving. He began with fasting. Such was his piety and love of fasting that there is a legend that, as a baby, he fasted from his mother’s breast every Wednesday and Friday. Three weeks in, I can tell you that my newborn is not so far observing the same discipline. Nonetheless, I hope to teach her, and all my children, and all of you, and maybe even myself, a love of fasting. One reason is that prayerful fasting can help diminish our attachment to the things of this world and increase our attachment to the things of God.
Watch out! We who are rich and overfed – we who are all-too comfortable – may not fit through the narrow gate into heaven. Only when we let go of our possessions and satiety might we squeeze in. If we try to carry all that in, we’ll find it blocks our way.
On the plain, Jesus lists not only the Beatitudes, but also goes on to list the Woes. He says, “Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger.” We do not like to hear this. We want to hear the Beatitudes in Matthew instead, so we can comfort ourselves that we don’t need to let go of things in the really real physical world, only in the spiritual.
But that’s completely backwards! We’ve got it all wrong. We live in two worlds at the same time. I am not only a spirit nor am I only a body. I am enfleshed spirit and inspired flesh. Both at the same time.
If we are not yet indifferent to our possessions in the physical world, how can we be poor in spirit?
It’s the condition of our heart that matters. But as humans with a composite nature, we often need to change the outside first, so that our hearts can change, too.
Fast until you are a bit uncomfortable once in a while
Give until it hurts just a little a bit.
Never resist the temptation to give.