In the Gospel reading at Matins for the celebration of St. Nicholas of Myra, our Lord speaks of Himself as the “good shepherd.” A shepherd, of course, leads his flock from pasture to pasture, and defends the flock against enemies. Our bishops, of course, are in our midst as reminders of the reality that Christ is in our midst; the fathers tell us that the Church can be found where the clergy and people have gathered with the bishop in their midst. The zhezl, the bishop’s staff or crozier, derives from the staff used by shepherds; and is symbolic of this ministry.
As the Good Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ seeks to bring all people into His flock; and to lead us to the kingdom of heaven. It’s not a journey by an immediately obvious route, because, as He has told us, the kingdom of heaven is within us. Thus, we must go within ourselves to find the way, and this route can be a dangerous one if we lose contact with the shepherd who leads us. As such, He teaches us, in today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Luke, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” How do we enter into blessedness?
Most of us, when we hear about those who are poor, understand this to mean that they have very little money, no real material possessions. In a way, this is easy to understand; they have little that ties them to this world, and so it is, it would seem, easier to look instead to the kingdom of heaven. But if this translates itself into being hungry in the body, it is a rare gift then to be able to lift one’s spiritual eyes to seek the way to heaven. We could, of course, give away all that we have, and become poor in the world’s sense; after all, this is what one does upon becoming a monastic – but the concept is not limited to being materially poor, as the word is often understood.
The fathers tell us that when we live without greed, we are among the poor; and when we live humbly, we are among the blessed poor. As such, these are qualities we do well to develop in ourselves: to not be moved by the desire for material possessions, and not to give time and energy to thoughts about what to eat, or drink, or wear, o how we shall use leisure time for our entertainment; and to consider everyone else as better, and more worthy, than we are ourselves. To live humbly, outwardly due to poverty, and inwardly by self-effacement and self-reproach, is to travel the way to the kingdom of heaven.
Our holy father Nicholas shows us a way to understand this manner of living. He desired to live as a hermit, but was told by God that his God-appointed labors were to take place in the midst of the people. He was noted for his many acts of charity – which, among other things, made him the prototype for “Santa Claus” – and this is significant for us, because it goes back to the point of being so poor that one cannot think of heaven because of being hungry in the body. This way remains for us today: to practice generosity in giving for the needs of the Church, and for the needs of those who are in need. Of course, when we take time and money and resources and use them for the Church, or to feed the hungry, care for the needy, visit the sick and those in prison, and so on, that is time or money we cannot devote to our own desires or pleasures. This is to say, when we give alms and offerings, we make ourselves a bit poorer – but now we’ve seen that this is a good thing, for it leads us closer to the kingdom of heaven.
Brothers and sisters, let us follow the example of our holy hierarch father Nicholas, and use the material blessings God has entrusted to us for the work and the Church and the needs of others; that they may find the grace and mercy of God by these gifts freely given; and that we may find our way along the path to the kingdom of heaven.
Holy hierarch father Nicholas, pray to God for us!