Sunday, December 10, 2017

Fr Touma (Bitar) on Saint Nicholas

Arabic original here.

From the Manger to Holiness

Brothers, who is a poor person? A poor person, for us, is someone who hardly possesses anything. And who is a rich person? He is the one who possesses much. This is according to people, but according to God, poverty and wealth have a different meaning. According to the Lord God, the rich person is someone who only loves himself and the poor person is prepared to give everything he has, whether he possesses a little or a lot. The rich person is someone who loves himself and so whether he possesses a little or a lot, he is rich in what he possesses. But the poor person, who is prepared to give everything, is the one to whom the Lord God gives the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, in the Gospel of Matthew, for example, it says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The poor in spirit are like the widow whom the Lord saw giving everything she had into the offering box in the temple. There were many people putting different amounts of money in it. The Lord God doesn't look at the amount that we place in the offering box. It is certain that many people put more than this widow that the Lord Jesus pointed out. The Lord Jesus noticed. Suddenly, He looked to His disciples and said, "Truly I say to you, this widow put more than everyone in the box." Why? Did she have a great amount of money? No, never! She was a poor woman. But she put everything she had with her in the box: two small coins! Then the Lord Jesus added, "These have all contributed from their surplus, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her livelihood." These two mites, for her, were the price of a loaf of bread that she needed in order to eat. Despite this, she offered to the donation box in the temple of her own accord. And so, in the eyes of the Lord God, she contributed more than everyone. Therefore, the result is that she received the kingdom, because He said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." At that moment, the Lord Jesus gave her the kingdom. And so, brothers, for the Lord, the poor person is the one who is prepared to give everything. He is the one who is generous in giving. According to the Psalms, "he scattered"-- not spent. That is, he gave without reckoning: "He scattered and gave to the poor, for His righteousness endures forever." This is the person who is poor in the Spirit. Perhaps the person who is poor in the Spirit may possess much and he may possess little. Usually, he possesses little because if he possesses much, then he is subject to the temptation to keep the greater part of what he has for himself. Then, he gives to the poor-- if he gives-- from his surplus. And this is a temptation!

Of course, there are poor people who give everything and there are also wealthy people who give everything. But the latter are extremely few. This is something that is only possible for God. So if we want to know if a person is poor before God, then his poverty is truly evident in his unlimited giving. The one who gives without reckoning, without limit, is the one who is poor before God and so is the one to whom God gives everything. He does not only give him the kingdom, but also everything he needs on earth. For this reason, there is no greater virtue than poverty in the Spirit. This is the greatest virtue. In truth, all virtues come from poverty in spirit. If the Bible said, "The love of money is the root of all evils," then it is possible for one to say in good conscience, "The love of poverty in spirit is the root of all good things and blessings." God came to us as a poor person and not as a rich person. God became incarnate and dwelt in this world as a poor person because He is rich. For this reason, He was born in a cave; He was born in a manger for livestock. He had no place among the wealthy people of this world. When one of them said to Him, "Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go," the Lord Jesus said to him clearly, "The Son of Man has no place to lay His head." Of course, at the beginning He lived in Nazareth and then moved to Capernaum. And of course He had a place to spend the night. But this was like nothing for Him: "The Son of Man has no place to lay His head." This means in practice that He is completely poor. He only finds rest for Himself in completing the work of the Heavenly Father, on account of which the Father sent Him. Therefore the Lord Jesus said to His disciples, "My food is to do the will of the Father who sent Me." This is My food and this is My work and this is My rest. The Lord Jesus has no food, no drink in this world to fill His existential void. Of course He ate and drank because He was human. Of course He slept. When He was in the boat, He was sleeping. When the storm raged, He was sleeping. But the storm did not affect Him because He abided in the bosom of the Heavenly Father and so was at perfect rest. It was not only that the storm in this world that did not affect Him, but also that He had authority over everything in this world that could be called a "storm". When they told the Lord Jesus that they were at the point of perishing, He got up and rebuked them for their lack of faith and said to the wind, "Be quiet." And there was great calm. The Lord gives such authority to all those who are willingly poor in the Spirit, those who learn day by day to not seek anything apart from the face of God.

Saint Nicholas, whom we celebrate today, was an image of the poor in the Spirit before the Heavenly Father. For this reason, his gifts were without limit and were not only gifts of money. He gave without reckoning. That is, he took care of people without limit. He loved people, kept up with people, and had concern for people. For him, this was his food, his drink, and his rest. Did Saint Nicholas not eat, drink and sleep? Of course. But his true rest was in giving rest to weary people. His true food was in feeding the hungry in this world. His true drink was in giving drink to the thirsty in this world. Above all else, his joy was in bringing the flock of Christ to the true, divine pasture, to the pasture of the Gospel, to the true pasture of the Gospel.

A person's life is for the sake of becoming God's man, someone who is poor before Him. His every concern is to be enriched by the word of God, to be enriched by God's Spirit, by God's light, by God's love. Therefore, love for him is food. It is medicine. It is joy. It is the kingdom. He who does not strive to console the sorrowing, cannot taste the kingdom from this moment. He who does not feed the hungry in this world cannot be filled with the heavenly manna that the Lord Jesus has given to this world and the next.

After the Mother of God, Saint Nicholas is the most prominent saint in history. Despite all that, we only know very little about him. Information about him, if we want to sift it by the standards of historical inquiry today, is of no value. Despite that, this saint has been alive in people's souls for seventeen centuries because he has taken care of them; he had concern for them. In his life, he was bishop of Myra in Lycia and he became, with his repose, a bishop for the entire Church, throughout the world! Every May in Russia, some tens of thousands of believers hold a procession for 170km, carrying an icon of Saint Nicholas, back and forth on foot! Children, the elderly and even the handicapped in carts, walk behind the icon. Are they crazy?! Saint Nicholas is alive in the souls of these people. Why? Because love, God's love, does not die. A person may search in his life for a person who is the model of one who loves: "Teach me to do what pleases You because You are my God." What is the person searching for? Who is the person? What does the person realize? Love, only love! The person is realized through love, through giving, through sacrifice, through poverty for the sake of God. He gives everything without exception. It is certain that Saint Nicholas prayed, but he prayed for the sake of others, for the sake of people. As for himself, he asked for the mercy of his Lord. He sought nothing for himself. The poor person seeks absolutely nothing for himself. He gives everything he has. He learns. Just as someone trains to cross the English Channel, he also trains to cross the sea of poverty. The spiritual life needs boldness and violence with the soul. There is something very important that one must learn before departing this world: poverty for the sake of Christ! When one is pleased to be completely uncovered, with nothing of himself to rely on and nothing but the Lord God to rely on, he has then realized his humanity; he has become a new, complete person in every sense of the word. Then he cries out like the Lord Jesus cried out on the cross, "Into Your hands I commend my spirit!" Saint Nicholas was the model of the new person in the image of his teacher, the Lord Jesus Christ. Does anyone come across a memory of what Saint Nicholas ate or drank, where he slept, what sort of palace he had, what kind of vehicle he traveled in, what enjoyment he had in his bishop's palace? No one remembers absolutely anything of this sort because it is completely without value. Today, in the simple stories that are told about him and in the great presence he has throughout the world, the world's basic interest in Saint Nicholas is his great love for people!

For this reason, the Lord God gave him-- and gave us-- a very important sign. For more than 1600 years, the bones of Saint Nicholas have streamed what is called "myrrh". His bones have not ceased to stream it until today. And so every year on May 9, in the city of Bari where his bones are located, they take some of this stream that has come from his bones during the previous year and distribute it to the faithful and many healings and blessings occur. This is a sign that he is alive and that life abides in his bones. His is alive because the Spirit of the Lord dwells in these bones. The Spirit of the Lord who is in him and whose presence remains in his bones gives this. Do the bones give forth liquid on their own? Of course not! Rather, the Spirit of the Lord, who abides in the man's bones, grants, through this man, for his belly to stream "rivers of living water", rivers of blessing, in the words of the Lord Jesus Christ. Saint Nicholas was, still is, and shall remain until the end an image of his Teacher who is poor before the Heavenly Father and also an image of the widow who, with two mites, purchased the kingdom. Saint Nicholas bought the kingdom and he has distributed it over the course of history to all those who seek it and he increases grace upon grace. For this reason, you and others come on the Feast of Saint Nicholas to share in the divine service and to lift up prayers and praises so that the Lord God may give you a blessing through Saint Nicholas. May the Lord God give you and us the grace of His presence through this great saint. Many years. Amen.

This sermon was given on the Feast of Saint Nicholas, December 6, 2017.

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan-- Douma, Lebanon
December 10, 2017

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