Thought for the day


A part from celebrating Advent 2, which takes precedent, today is the feast day of someone who is, amongst other things, the patron saint of pawnbrokers.

Now this man was a bishop at a town called Myra which is in modern Turkey round about seventeen hundred years ago, which makes him fairly remote from us geographically, culturally and of course in time. We don’t in fact really know much about him. But there is one story which is told of him, which might show something of why we should think of him at all at this time.

It is said that there were three young girls living in his town who were very poor. So poor in fact that no-one would marry them because their parents could not afford the dowries which were expected to be paid to husbands in those days. Because they had become a liability to their families, their parents had decided that they had to go, and in those days there was really only one trade that a single girl on her own could ply.

Now the bishop was very moved by their plight and resolved to do something about it, so he gathered together all the money he could find, and he was certainly very unlikely to have been rich, and he eventually scraped up enough to provide the necessary dowries, which he then put in bags, and, not wishing to draw attention to himself, threw them in through the girls’ windows at night. If I tell you that the story has since been embellished by adding the fact that the bags of gold fell into their stockings as they dried before the fire, the identity of the Saint may be even more obvious. For it was of course St Nicholas – the original for Santa Claus – Father Christmas.

But it isn’t primarily as patron saint of children, which Nicholas also is, and his compassion for these girls and many other children, which is why he became associated with Christmas and the giving of gifts to children, that I want to address myself, but it is his, at first sight, odd connexion with pawnbrokers.

It isn’t as common to see pawnbroker’s shops in the UK as it perhaps was (perhaps ‘pay-day lenders’ are now more in vogue). But many a high street once had their trade mark sign hanging in it – three golden balls. And there we have the connexion – they represent St Nicholas’ three purses tossed into the girls’ bedroom. Pawnbrokers were often known as ‘uncles.’ As a boy, I often wondered why my mother said on occasion that my clothes were “screwed up like uncle’s”. It was said that in the days of the local pawnbroker – the word ‘redemption’ was much better understood than today. When St Nicholas intervened to save these girls’ virtue, he redeemed them – he bought them back from a life of exploitation and sin.

The nihilist philosopher Nietzsche, whose theories of the “will to power” and the “ubermench” was so beloved of Adolf Hitler, in his formative years, spent some time in a monastery testing his faith. Eventually he left in disgust declaring: “First show me you are redeemed, and I will believe in your Redeemer.”

I have often wondered whether that is our problem (and I include myself in this): that our proclamation of the Redeemer, Our Lord Jesus Christ, is not seen by others to bear fruit in us as “the redeemed”. It’s a thought, that’s all. 

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