ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
Part 2 of 7
by Eric & Lana Elder
Today I’m posting Part 2 of 7 of my book, St. Nicholas: The Believer. (If you missed Part 1 from last week, you can still catch up at this link.) I’m posting this series as a way to help you keep Christ in Christmas.
I’m also including a video at the end of today’s post to give you a glimpse inside the real Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This is the same spot which has been visited by countless people for nearly 2 millennia as the birthplace of the most significant figure in human history: Jesus Christ. Enjoy!
ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas
by Eric & Lana Elder
Nicholas stood alone. He was on the same stretch of beach where his father had stood just ten years earlier, looking out at the sunrise and the waves on the seashore.
Nicholas’ father never made it out to look at the Great Sea again, having finally succumbed to the sickness himself. Nicholas’ mother passed away first, within two weeks of the first signs of illness. His father lasted another three days after that, as if holding on as long as he could to make sure his wife passed as peacefully as possible from this life to the next, and making sure Nicholas was as ready as possible to take the next steps in his own life.
Nicholas’ father didn’t shy away from tears, but he didn’t want them wasted on wrongful emotions either. “Don’t cry because it’s over,” his father had said to both his wife and his son. “Smile because it was beautiful.”
There was a time and place for anger and disappointment, but this wasn’t the time for either. If given the chance to do it all over again, his parents would have chosen to do exactly what they did. It was not foolishness, they said, to be willing to risk their lives for the sake of others, especially when there were no guarantees that they would have survived anyway.
As it turned out, the plague ended up taking the lives of almost a third of the people in Patara before it finally ran its course. The sickness seemed to have a mind of its own, affecting those who tried to shield themselves from it as well as those who, like his parents, had ventured out into the midst of it.
After the death of his parents, Nicholas felt a renewed sense of urgency to pick up where they had left off, visiting those who were sick and comforting the families of those who had died.
Then, almost as suddenly as it came to their city, the plague left. Nicholas had spent most of the next few weeks sleeping, trying to recover from the long days—and even longer nights—of ministering to those who were affected. When he was awake, he spent his time trying to process his own feelings and emotions in light of the loss of the family he loved. In so many ways, his parents were his life. His life was so intertwined with theirs, and having them taken so suddenly from him, he hardly knew what to do without them. He went to live with his uncle, a priest who lived in the monastery in Patara, until he was ready to venture out further into the world on his own. Now that time had come, and it was time for Nicholas to make his decision.
Unlike many others who had been orphaned by the plague, Nicholas had been left with a sizable inheritance. The question on his heart wasn’t what he would do to make a living, but what he would do to make a life. Through all that he had experienced, and now recognizing the brevity of life for himself, Nicholas now knew why his father had come so often to this shore to pray. Now it was Nicholas’ turn to consider his own future in light of eternity.
What should I do? Where should I go? How should I spend the rest of my days? The questions could have overwhelmed him, except that his father had prepared him well for moments like these, too.
His father, always a student of the writings of Scripture and of the life of Christ, had told him that Jesus taught that we needn’t worry so much about the trouble down the road as just the trouble for that day. Each day has enough trouble of its own, Jesus said.
As Nicholas thought about this, his burden lifted. He didn’t have to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life just yet. He only had to decide on his next step.
He had enough money to travel the length of the entire world back and forth three times and still have enough to live on for years to come. But that wasn’t really what he wanted to do. He had never had a desire to live wildly or lavishly, for the life he knew up to this point already gave him tremendous satisfaction. But there was one place he had always wanted to see with his own eyes.
As he looked out across the sea, to the south and to the west, he knew that somewhere in between lay the place he most wanted to visit—a land that seemed more precious in his mind than any other. It was the land where Jesus had lived, the land where He had walked and taught, the land where He was born and died, and the land where so many of the stories of His life—and almost the entirety of Scripture itself—had taken place.
Nicholas knew that some decisions in life were made only through the sweat and agony of prayer, trying desperately to decide between two seemingly good, but mutually exclusive paths. But this decision was not one of them. This was one of those decisions that, by the nature of the circumstances, was utterly simple to make. Apart from his uncle, there was little more to keep him in Patara, and nothing to stop him from following the desire that had been on his heart for so long.
He was glad his father had shown him this spot, and he was glad that he had come to it again today. He knew exactly what he was going to do next. His decision was as clear as the water in front of him.
Nicholas’ arrival on the far shores of the Great Sea came sooner than he could have imagined. For so long he had wondered what it would be like to walk where Jesus walked, and now, at age 19, he was finally there.
Finding a boat to get there had been no problem, for his hometown of Patara was one of the main stopovers for ships traveling from Egypt to Rome, carrying people and cargo alike. Booking passage was as simple as showing that you had the money to pay, which Nicholas did.
But now that he had arrived, where would he go first? He wanted to see everything at once, but that was impossible. A tug at his sleeve provided the answer.
“You a Christian?” the small voice asked.
Nicholas looked down to see a boy not more than ten looking up at him. Two other children giggled nearby. To ask this question so directly, when it was dangerous in general to do so, showed that the boy was either a sincere follower of Christ looking for a fellow believer, or it showed that he had ulterior motives in mind. From the giggles of his little friends nearby, a boy and a girl just a bit younger than the one who had spoken, Nicholas knew it was probably the latter.
“You a Christian?” the boy asked again. “I show you holy places?”
Ah, that’s it, thought Nicholas. Enough pilgrims had obviously come here over the years that even the youngest inhabitants knew that pilgrims would need a guide once they arrived. Looking over the three children again, Nicholas felt they would suit him just fine. Nicholas had a trusting heart, and while he wasn’t naive enough to think that trouble wouldn’t find him here, he also trusted that the same God who had led him here would also provide the help he needed once he arrived. Even if these children were doing it just for the money, that was all right with Nicholas. Money he had. A map he didn’t. He would gladly hire them to be his living maps to the holy places.
“Yes, and yes,” Nicholas answered. “Yes, I am indeed a Christian. And if you would like to take me, then yes, I would be very interested to see the holy places. I would love for your friends to come along with us, too. That way, if we meet any trouble, they can defend us all!”
The boy’s mouth dropped open and his friends giggled again. It wasn’t the answer the boy had expected at all, at least not so fast and not without a great deal of pestering on his part. Pilgrims who arrived were usually much more skeptical when they stepped off their boats, shooing away anyone who approached them—at least until they got their land legs back and their bearings straight. But the boy quickly recovered from his shock and immediately extended his right hand in front of him, palm upraised, with a slight bow of his head. It gave Nicholas the subtle impression as if to say that the boy was at Nicholas’ service—and the not-so-subtle impression that the boy was ready for something to be deposited in his open hand. Nicholas, seeing another opportunity to throw the boy off guard, happily obliged.
He gently placed three of his smallest, but shiniest coins into the boy’s upraised palm and said, “My name is Nicholas. And I can see you’re a wise man. Now, if you’re able to keep your hand open even after I’ve set these coins in it, you’ll be even wiser still. For he who clenches his fist tightly around what he has received will find it hard to receive more. But he who opens his hand freely to heaven—freely giving in the same way that he has freely received—will find that his Father in heaven will usually not hold back in giving him more.”
Nicholas motioned with his hand that he intended for the boy to share what he had received with his friends, who had come closer at the appearance of the coins. The boy obviously was the spokesman for all three, but still he faltered for a moment as to what to do. This man was so different from anyone else the boy had ever approached. With others, the boy was always trying, usually without success, to coax even one such coin from their pockets, but here he had been given three in his very first attempt! The fact that the coins weren’t given grudgingly, but happily, did indeed throw him off balance. He had never heard such a thought like that of keeping his hands open to give and receive. His instinct would have been to instantly clench his fist tightly around the coins, not letting go until he got to the safest place he could find, and only then could he carefully inspect them and let their glimmers shine in his eyes. Yet he stood stock still, with his hand still outstretched and his palm facing upward. Almost against his own self-will, he found himself turning slightly and extending his hand to his friends.
Seizing the moment, the two others each quickly plucked a coin from his hand. Within an instant of realizing that they, too, were about to clench their fists around their newly acquired treasure, they slowly opened their fingers as well, looking up at the newly arrived pilgrim with a sense of bewilderment. They were bewildered not just that he had given them the coins, but that they were still standing there with their palms open, surprising even themselves that they were willing to follow this man’s peculiar advice.
The sight of it all made Nicholas burst out in a gracious laugh. He was delighted by their response and he quickly deposited two more of his smallest coins into each of their hands, now tripling their astonishment. It wasn’t the amount of the gifts that had astonished them, for they had seen bigger tips from wealthier pilgrims, but it was the generous and cheerful spirit that accompanied the gifts that gave them such a surprise.
The whole incident took place in less than a minute, but it set Nicholas and his new friends into such a state that each of them looked forward to the journey ahead.
“Now, you’d better close your hands again, because a wise man—or woman–“ he nodded to the little girl, “also takes care of that which they have been given so that it doesn’t get lost or stolen.”
Then, turning to walk toward the city, Nicholas said, “How about you let me get some rest tonight, and then, first thing in the morning, you can start showing me those holy places?”
While holy places abounded in this holy land, in the magical moments that had just transpired, it seemed to the three children—and even to Nicholas himself–that they had just stepped foot on their first.
Nicholas woke with the sun the next morning. He had asked the children to meet him at the inn shortly after sunrise. His heart skipped a beat with excitement about the day ahead. Within a few minutes, he heard their knock–and their unmistakable giggles–at the door.
He found out that their names were Dimitri, Samuel and Ruthie. They were, to use the common term, “alumni,” children whose parents had left them at birth to fend for themselves. Orphans like these dotted the streets throughout the Roman Empire, byproducts of people who indulged their passions wherever and with whomever they wanted, with little thought for the outcome of their actions.
While Dimitri could have wallowed in self-pity for his situation, he didn’t. He realized early on that it didn’t help to get frustrated and angry about his circumstances. So he became an entrepreneur.
He began looking for ways he could help people do whatever they needed, especially those things which others couldn’t do, or wouldn’t do, for themselves. He wasn’t often rewarded for his efforts, but when he was, it was all worth it.
He wasn’t motivated by religion, for he wasn’t religious himself, and he wasn’t motivated by greed, for he never did anything that didn’t seem right if it were just for the money, as greedy people who only care about money often do. He simply believed that if he did something that other people valued, and if he did it good enough and long enough, then somehow he would make it in life. Some people, like Dimitri, stumble onto godly wisdom without even realizing it.
Samuel and Ruthie, on the other hand, were just along for the ride. Like bees drawn to honey, Samuel and Ruthie were drawn to Dimitri, as often happens when people find someone who is trying to do what’s right. Samuel was eight, and like Dimitri, wasn’t religious himself, but had chosen his own name when he heard someone tell the story of another little boy named Samuel who, when very young, had been given away by his parents to be raised by a priest. Samuel, the present-day one, loved to hear about all that the long-ago Samuel had done, even though the other one had lived over 1,000 years before. This new Samuel didn’t know if the stories about the old Samuel were true, but at the time he chose his name, he didn’t particularly care. It was only in the past few months, as he had been traveling to the holy sites with Dimitri, that he had begun to wonder if perhaps the stories really were true.
Now Ruthie, even though she was only seven, was as sharp as a tack. She always remembered people’s names and dates, what happened when and who did what to whom. Giggling was her trademark, but little though she was, her mind was eager to learn and she remembered everything she saw and everything she was taught. Questions filled her mind, and naturally spilled right out of her mouth.
Dimitri didn’t mind these little tag-alongs, for although it might have been easier for him to do what he did by himself, he also knew of the dangers of the streets and felt compelled to help these two like an older brother might help his younger siblings. And to be completely honest, he didn’t have anyone else to call family, so finding these two a few years earlier had filled a part of his heart in a way that he couldn’t describe, but somehow made him feel better.
Nicholas took in the sight of all three beaming faces at his door. “Where to first?” asked Dimitri.
“Let’s start at the beginning,” said Nicholas, “the place where Jesus was born.” And with that they began the three-day walk from the coast of Joppa to the hills of Bethlehem.
After two days of walking and sleeping on hillsides, Nicholas and his new friends had just a half day left before they reached Bethlehem. For Nicholas, his excitement was building with every hill they passed, as he was getting closer and closer to the holy place he most wanted to see, the birthplace of Jesus.
“Why do you think He did it?” asked Dimitri. “I mean, why would Jesus want to come here—to earth? If I were already in heaven, I think I’d want to stay there.”
Even though Dimitri was supposed to be the guide, he didn’t mind asking as many questions as he could, especially when he was guiding someone like Nicholas, which didn’t happen very often.
Nicholas didn’t mind his asking, either, as Nicholas had done the same thing back home. His parents belonged to a community of believers that had been started about 250 years earlier by the Apostle Paul himself when Paul had visited their neighboring city of Myra on one of his missionary journeys, telling everyone who would listen about Jesus. Paul had lived at the same time as Jesus, although Paul didn’t become a believer himself until after Jesus died and rose again from the dead. Paul’s stories were always remarkable.
Nicholas got to hear all of the stories that Paul had told while he was in Myra, as they were written down and repeated by so many others over the years.
As a child, Nicholas thought that anything that happened 250 years ago sounded like ancient history. But as he started to get a little older, and now that his parents had passed away, too, it didn’t seem that long ago at all. The stories that Nicholas heard were the same stories his father and his grandfather and his great grandfather, back to six or seven generations, had heard, some for the very first time from the Apostle Paul in person. Nicholas loved to hear them over and over, and he asked many of the same questions that Dimitri was now asking him—like why would Jesus leave heaven to come down to earth in person.
“The simple answer is because He loved us,” said Nicholas. “But that alone probably doesn’t answer the question you’re really asking, because God has always loved us. The reason Jesus came to earth was, well, because there are some things that need to be done in person.”
Nicholas went on to explain the gospel–the good news–to the children of how Jesus came to pay the ultimate price with His life for anything we had ever done wrong, making a way for us to come back to God with a clean heart, plus live with Him in heaven forever.
Throughout the story, the children stared at Nicholas with rapt attention. Although they had been to Bethlehem many times before and had often taken people to the cave that was carved into the hillside where it was said that Jesus was born, they had never pictured it in their minds quite like this before. They had never understood the motivations behind why God did what He did. And they had never really considered that the stories they heard about Jesus being God in the flesh were true. How could He be?
Yet hearing Nicholas’ explanation made so much sense to them, that they wondered why they had never considered it as true before. In those moments, their hearts and minds were finally opened to at least the possibility that it was true. And that open door turned out to be the turning point for each of them in their lives, just as it had been for Nicholas when he first heard the Truth. God really did love them, and God had demonstrated that love for them by coming to the earth to save them from their certain self-destruction.
For Nicholas, when he first heard about the love of the Father for him, the idea was fairly familiar to him because he had already had a good glimpse of what the love of a father looked like from the love of his own father. But to Dimitri, Samuel and Ruthie, who had never had a father, much less one like Nicholas had just described, it was simultaneously one of the most distantly incomprehensible, yet wonderfully alluring descriptions of love they had ever heard.
As they made their way through the hills toward Bethlehem, they began to skip ahead as fast as their hearts were already skipping, knowing that they would soon see again the place where God had, as a Man, first touched earth less than 300 years earlier. They would soon be stepping onto ground that was indeed holy.
It was evening when they finally arrived at their destination. Dimitri led them through the city of Bethlehem to the spot where generations of pilgrims had already come to see the place where Jesus was born: a small cave cut into the hillside where animals could easily have been corralled so they wouldn’t wander off.
There were no signs to mark the spot, no monuments or buildings to indicate that you were now standing on the very spot where the God of the universe had arrived as a child. It was still dangerous anywhere in the Roman Empire to tell others you were a Christian, even though the laws against it were only sporadically enforced.
But that didn’t stop those who truly followed Christ from continuing to honor the One whom they served as their King. Although Jesus taught that His followers were to still respect their earthly rulers, if forced to choose between worshipping Christ or worshipping Caesar, both the Christians and Caesar knew who the Christians would worship. So the standoff continued.
The only indication that this was indeed a holy site was the well-worn path up the hill that made its way into and out of the cave. Tens of thousands of pilgrims had already made their way to this spot during the past 250 years. It was well known to those who lived in Bethlehem, for it was the same spot that had been shown to pilgrims from one generation to the next, going back to the days of Christ.
As Dimitri led the three others along the path to the cave, Nicholas laughed, a bit to himself, and a bit out loud. The others turned to see what had made him burst out so suddenly. He had even surprised himself! Here he was at the one holy site he most wanted to see, and he was laughing.
Nicholas said, “I was just thinking of the wise men who came to Bethlehem to see Jesus. They probably came up this very hill. How regal they must have looked, riding on their camels and bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. For a moment I pictured myself as one of those kings, riding on a camel myself. Then I stepped in some sheep dung by the side of the road. The smell brought me back in an instant to the reality that I’m hardly royalty at all!”
“Yes,” said Ruthie, “but didn’t you tell us that the angels spoke to the shepherds first, and that they were the first ones to go and see the baby? So smelling a little like sheep dung may not make you like the kings, but it does make you like those who God brought to the manger first!”
“Well said, Ruthie,” said Nicholas. “You’re absolutely right.”
Ruthie smiled at her insight, and then her face produced another thoughtful look. “But maybe we should still bring a gift with us, like the wise men did?” The thought seemed to overtake her, as if she was truly concerned that they had nothing to give to the King. He wasn’t there anymore to receive their gifts, of course, but still she had been captivated by the stories about Jesus that Nicholas had been telling them along the road. She thought that she should at least bring Him some kind of gift.
“Look!” she said, pointing to a spot on the hill a short distance away. She left the path and within a few minutes had returned with four small, delicate golden flowers, one for each of them. “They look just like gold to me!”
She smiled from ear to ear now, giving each one of them a gift to bring to Jesus. Nicholas smiled as well. There’s always something you can give, he thought to himself. Whether it’s gold from a mine or gold from a flower, we only bring to God that which is already His anyway, don’t we?
So with their gifts in hand, they reached the entrance to the cave—and stepped inside.
Nothing could have prepared Nicholas for the strong emotion that overtook him as he entered the cave.
On the ground in front of him was a makeshift wooden manger, a feeding trough for animals probably very similar to the one in which Jesus had been laid the night of His birth. It had apparently been placed in the cave as a simple reminder of what had taken place there. But the effect on Nicholas was profound.
One moment he had been laughing at himself and watching Ruthie pick flowers on the hillside and the next moment, upon seeing the manger, he found himself on his knees, weeping uncontrollably at the thought of what had taken place on this very spot.
He thought about everything he had ever heard about Jesus—about how He had healed the sick, walked on water and raised the dead. He thought about the words Jesus had spoken—words that echoed with the weight of authority as He was the Author of life itself. He thought about his own parents who had put their lives on the line to serve this Man called Jesus, who had died for him just as He had died for them, giving up their very lives for those they loved.
The thoughts flooded his mind so fully that Nicholas couldn’t help sobbing with deep, heartfelt tears. They came from within his very soul. Somewhere else deep inside him, Nicholas felt stirred like he had never felt in his life. It was a sensation that called for some kind of response, some kind of action. It was a feeling so different from anything else he had ever experienced, yet it was unmistakably clear that there was a step he was now supposed to take, as if a door were opening before him and he knew he was supposed to walk through it. But how?
As if in answer to his question, Nicholas remembered the golden flower in his hand. He knew exactly what he was supposed to do, and he wanted more than anything to do it.
He took the flower and laid it gently on the ground in front of the wooden manger. The golden flower wasn’t just a flower anymore. It was a symbol of his very life, offered up now in service to his King.
Nicholas knelt there for several minutes, engulfed in this experience that he knew, even in the midst of it, would affect him for the rest of his life. He was oblivious to anything else that was going on around him. All he knew was that he wanted to serve this King, this Man who was clearly a man in every sense of the word, yet was clearly one and the same with God as well, the very essence of God Himself.
As if slowly waking from a dream, Nicholas began to become aware of his surroundings again. He noticed Dimitri and Samuel on his left and Ruthie on his right, also on their knees. Having watched Nicholas slip down to his knees, they had followed suit. Now they looked alternately, back and forth between him and the manger in front of him.
The waves of emotion that had washed over Nicholas were now washing over them as well. They couldn’t help but imagine what he was experiencing, knowing how devoted he was to Jesus and what it had willingly cost Nicholas’ parents to follow Him. Each of them, in their own way, began to experience for themselves what such love and devotion must feel like.
Having watched Nicholas place his flower in front of the manger, they found themselves wanting to do the same. If Jesus meant so much to Nicholas, then certainly they wanted to follow Jesus as well. They had never in their entire lives experienced the kind of love that Nicholas had shown them in the past three days. Yet somehow they knew that the love that Nicholas had for them didn’t originate with Nicholas alone, but from the God whom Nicholas served. If this was the kind of effect that Jesus had on His followers, then they wanted to follow Jesus, too.
Any doubts that Nicholas had had about his faith prior to that day were all washed away in those timeless moments. Nicholas had become, in the truest sense of the word, a Believer.
And from those very first moments of putting his faith and trust fully in Jesus, he was already inspiring others to do the same.
To be continued…next week!
(Or if you can’t wait, here’s a link to keep reading the rest of the story online OR you can get the paperback or eBook as a gift for yourself or others in our online bookstore.)
Here are a few pictures of the Holy Land (taken by my daughter, Makari on a trip we took there a few years ago): a waterfall in the mountains of En Gedi where David fled from King Saul, an unmarked tomb by the side of a road, and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where Jesus once walked, taught, and touched people’s lives 2,000 years ago.
And here’s a short video clip I took while visiting Bethlehem, showing the star on the ground which has been shown to believers since the days of St. Nicholas as the location of the stable where Jesus was born. A church was first built over this spot just a few dozen years after the real St. Nicholas visited there.