On Monday, December 6, many Christians around the world celebrated the Feast of St. Nicholas. Perhaps you are familiar with some of the traditions: children place their shoes outside the door at night and wake to find them filled with chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil or small oranges. He may be more familiar to those of us in the Western Church in the amalgamation he became when mixed up with Scandinavian myth and Dutch Protestants: Santa Claus.

For all that he is beloved around the world, very little is known about St. Nicholas’s life. He lived during the fourth century and was the bishop of Myra, a provincial capital in Asia Minor, on the southern coast of modern day Turkey. Beyond that, most of what we know about St. Nicholas is based in legend.

One of the most familiar legends goes like this: One evening, Nicholas was out for a walk. Though he was still a young man and not yet a Bishop, he had committed himself to helping the poor by giving away his money in secret. On his walk he overheard a father preparing to sell his three daughters into prostitution because he had no money for their doweries, and no way left to care for the family. Nicholas snuck back by the house later in the evening and threw three bags of gold through the window, ensuring that the girls had enough to marry.

I’ve been thinking about St. Nicholas this week in the context of Judgement. Today, the four Sundays of Advent are sometimes given a virtue or theme: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. But, as lay theologian Hannah Bowman writes, “The traditional topics for preaching on the four Sundays in Advent are the ‘four last things’ of death, judgment, heaven, and hell.” Slightly less cozy.

I have been chewing on the idea of God’s judgement, and the ways that while we often reckon judgement to be negative, it doesn’t have to be. I often conflate judgement with punishment – but they are two different things. God’s judgement is not retributive but restorative. It doesn’t punish us, but instead restores to wholeness and fullness what is imbalanced or off-kilter in our world. This includes filling the valleys and making every mountain and hill low, as John the Baptist quoted Isaiah in our gospel from Advent II. This is the story of the Magnificat, the casting down of the mighty and lifting-up of the lowly. Bowman writes, “This is not suffering inflicted by God for the sake of retribution. It is instead a radical overturning of the power relations that allow injustice to flourish.” God does not desire the suffering of any – God desires the flourishing of all. God’s judgement is something we can long for and desire because it will set the world right. God’s judgement is equally bound to God’s mercy.

We have met the face of God’s mercy: Jesus Christ. When Christ comes again we will encounter both judgement and mercy and “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:4-6; Isaiah 40:3-5). But there is no reason for us to wait. David+ preached it this Sunday: we can live as if the Messiah is already among us, because Christ lives within us. Freda Marie+ preached it two weeks ago: we must live this way, because the flourishing and life of all of us is dependent on it. We all need the salvation of God.

How might we live in light of the merciful, truthful judgement of God? Judgement that loves us and calls us to live in such a way that fills the valleys and lays the mountains low, even – and especially – when those mountains and valleys are our own? Would you be like St. Nicholas, throwing money through windows in secret, searching for ways to give away some of your own might to those who could desperately use some? Or, like the daughters, would you allow yourself to be lifted up by the kindness of a stranger?  This Advent, and all year long, how can we bring about the world “of care and mercy for one another” as God dreams it to be?


P.S. You can read Hannah Bowman’s full essay on Judgement, from which these quotes were taken, here.