A Letter Sermon
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
December 13, 2015
FIRST READING: On Arius of Alexandria
Compiled by Kent Saleska from writings by Gail Forsyth-Vail, Wikipedia, and other relevant websites
In the early 4th Century, the Roman Empire was in crisis, pressured by enemies on the outside and Christians on the inside who argued over the nature of humanity and the nature of Jesus. Emperor Constantine felt that uniting the Christian Church would strengthen and unify the Empire and bring order to outlying areas. The endless religious debates, often leading to violence and riots, were a source of significant annoyance to Constantine. He finally had it with the violence, so in 325 he convened a council at his summer residence at Nicaea, in what is now Turkey, insisting that the bishops agree on a creed that would bring unity to the church.
Arius of Alexanderia, a Libyan priest, was tremendously popular partly because he was a poet and a singer. He believed Jesus was divine but less so than God. He believed Jesus’ wisdom and teachings were more important than his death and resurrection. Alexander, the main bishop of the city, was Arius’s superior. He believed Jesus had been one with God since the very beginning, and that when Jesus was on earth, he was God living as a human being. In essence, Alexander believed a Trinitarian doctrine and Arius believed a Unitarian doctrine.
The emperor told the bishops to make up their minds about this question of Jesus. After this council, he wanted a strong Empire with one religion and no more arguing! Constantine meant to enforce the decision with the power of this empire.
Alexander and his supporters presented the writings of Arius to prove he was a dangerous heretic, maybe even an agent of the devil. By the time they had finished, all but two of the hundred bishops were on Alexander’s side.
Reports are mixed as to whether Arius actually spoke or not, since he was merely a priest and not a bishop. According to Christian legend though (likely evolving hundreds of years later), at one point while Arius was arguing his case, Nicholas of Myra, the bishop who would later become St. Nicholas, became so agitated and outraged at hearing what he believed was heresy that he got up, walked across the room, and punched Arius in the face! As the story goes, Nicholas was stripped of his bible, bishop’s mitre and robes and quickly put in prison. But that night Jesus and Mother Mary appeared to Nicholas and asked “Why are you in jail?” to which Nicholas responded, “Because of my love for you.” The next morning when Constantine and the bishops heard the story and saw him sitting in jail dressed in his bishop’s robes and reading the bible, they released Nicholas, asked for his forgiveness, and reinstated him as a bishop.
The bishops spent the next few weeks writing a Creed for the Christian Church, a set of beliefs everyone needed to agree to in order to belong. Arius and his two supporters refused to sign it, and were declared heretics and sent into exile. Ever since that time, Arianism – that is, Unitarianism – became the archetypal heresy for Christian orthodoxy.
SECOND READING: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”
In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York’s Sun, and the quick response was printed as an unsigned editorial Sept. 21, 1897, by the veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church. Here is that letter.
DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, ‘If you see it in THE SUN it’s so.’ Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
115 WEST NINETY-FIFTH STREET.
VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see…
Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
Yes, St. Nicholas, there are Unitarians
A Letter Sermon
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
Dear St. Nicholas,
This letter is likely to be a little different from most of the other letters you receive each year. I am not writing to ask for presents, or special favors, or to make excuses for my behavior. I’m not even writing on behalf of someone else. If you are able to pause for a few moments in your busy work and are able to open your heart, I would love a few moments of your time and attention.
I am writing to you now as part of a practice I engage every year at this time. Each December I write a letter to a Christmas character and share it with my people. In previous years I’ve written to other luminaries such as Jacob Marley from “A Christmas Carol,” George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and Doris Walker from “Miracle on 34th Street.” To date though, St. Nicholas, you are probably the most illustrious personage to whom I have written.
St. Nicholas, I know you are known by many names and represented in many different ways throughout the world. You are the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers and students. And you are known by many names around the world: Saint Nicholas, Kris Kringle, Sinterklaas, Pelznickel, Pere Noel, Babbo Natale, and Kanakaloka.
Today we also know you through the lens of both history and our annual experience of your story. Today we know you as a large and jolly old man wearing a red suit with white fur trim, who is known especially to children for bringing joy with gifts of generosity. It’s an image that comes to us from the artist Thomas Nast, who first drew you this way in 1862 for the cover of Harper’s Weekly in the middle of the Civil War, with a drawing of you bringing gifts to the Union soldiers while seated on a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
It was only 35 years later that a little girl by the name of Virginia wrote to a newspaper editor asking if you were real. In response, that newspaper editor said, “Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.” That newspaper editor’s kind response rings through the years even to this day and tends to fill us with love and grace.
But there are other images of you that date back even further, centuries earlier, that perhaps more closely depict your origins in Myra, in a country that was Greek in its heritage at the time, but is now in a country we call Turkey. These images show you in your ecclesiastical robes as the Christian bishop of Myra, where you were consecrated as bishop in the year 317 of the common era. And it is about this time of your life that I write to you now.
You see, I am a Unitarian Universalist, a denomination created after two separate denominations, the Unitarians and the Universalists, merged in 1961. Unitarian theology, like Trinitarian theology, draws directly from Christian scriptures, but with a different interpretation. Some people find this different interpretation to be reasonable and full of religious wisdom, tradition and history. Others, including you, called this difference “heresy.” You see, my Unitarian Universalist faith descends from the Unitarian faith, which in turn descends from the theology of Arianism, a theology named after your primary opponent at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 of the common era.
Though this story may never have actually happened, since it doesn’t appear in any Christian writings until about the 10th Century, the story that comes to us is that Arius, a learned man who was a poet and a musician as well as a Catholic priest in the city of Alexandria, Egypt, believed strongly that there was only one God, not a three-personed God. His argument was based not only on Christian Scriptures, but on passages that were said to be quotes from Jesus himself (like John 20:21) when he said, “As the Father sent me, so I will send you.” As great as Jesus was, since there is only one God in historic Unitarian theology, this means that Jesus was NOT divine. Or, as I like to rephrase it, that he was no more divine than the rest of us. In fact, that’s what I believe the Jesus story was trying to teach: that each of us has the same capacity for love and grace and compassion as he did.
The story that comes to us from the Council of Nicaea is that you, as a Christian bishop who believed in the Trinitarian Christian theology, became so agitated and outraged at hearing Arius speak that you just couldn’t control yourself any longer and got up, walked across the room, and punched Arius in the face.
Fresco from the Soumela Monastery (Turkey)
In my book, Constantine and the bishops rightfully stripped you of your robe, mitre and bible, and put you in jail as a result of your violence. But as the story continues, Mother Mary and Jesus appeared to you while you were in prison, giving you back your robe, mitre and bible, so that in the morning all the bishops, and even Emperor Constantine, asked for forgiveness from you, and then defrocked Arius and banished him from Christendom.
I hope it is not true, but even if it is not, this story is troubling to me on so many levels. First, of course, is that this tale of your aggression is at great odds with the jolly, delightful and compassionate man of the Christmas season now. Unfortunately, that is nothing new. Many people throughout time present a very different social face than how they behave behind the scenes.
What troubles me about this story more deeply is the narrative that not only allows your violence to occur, but even glorifies and celebrates it. It’s a narrative that says violence is OK – and not just because the bishops released you, and not just because the bishops and Emperor Constantine asked YOU for forgiveness, and not just because they reinstated you to your position, but because in this story Jesus himself blesses you and your violence. To me, that is one of the most horrific, reprehensible, and unfaithful interpretations of Christian Scripture I’ve ever heard.
That interpretation is also dangerous because of the behavior it spawns. If it is OK for a Christian Bishop to punch a heretic, then it’s going to be OK to do a lot more damage to anyone who thinks differently or looks differently or believes differently than the majority. In your day it would still be another 200 years before a newly inspired religion called Islam would become prominent, but you did live among the Turks and you did know Jews. If you felt such anger toward a priest in your own faith, I can’t imagine what you must have felt for those in other faiths.
In our time, in our country this year, we have a politician who is running for the highest office of our land – a position similar to the one held by your Emperor Constantine – and this politician spews the most bigoted and hate-filled vitriol I have ever heard a candidate speak in my lifetime. We had similar talk some 80 years ago before I was born, in our country and in other countries, where people were imprisoned or murdered for looking differently, behaving differently or believing differently from the majority. And now this politician is calling for the same thing again in our day. This fear-mongering by him and other politicians and religious leaders has caused an atmosphere of increasing violence – in words, physically in person, and against houses of worship – against Muslims, and all people of color in our country, including people who look Middle Eastern like you.
In response to your story, St. Nicholas, and in this atmosphere of increasing violence, a man called “Marc” who writes a Catholic blog called “Bad Catholic” wrote this: “Jolly Old St. Nicholas…tried to listen patiently, he really did, but Arius’ speech was just so wrong, that he was compelled to get up in the midst of it and, yep, punch him in the face. I hold that this is the image of Santa Claus we need to reclaim. Because when you think about it, this was the original campaign to Put the Christ Back in Christmas. Arius would have made the nativity a non-event…He, majestically prefiguring the various sects of Happy-Holiday-ers, Winter Solstice-ers, and it’s-actually-a-pagan-holiday-ers…denied that Christmas need be a celebration of substance at all. So when the modern world promotes the consumerist image of Santa Claus over the image of Christ, it is not so much the wrath of Christ they should fear as it is the wrath of Santa Claus.”
It needs to be said that believing Jesus was not divine does not mean Arius or anyone wanted to make the nativity a “non-event.” After all, St. Nicholas, we venerate people like you even though you were not born with a virgin birth! But another person who responded to this blog post said, “Maybe the next time some alleged preacher tells a heresy, say “Gay marriage is OK,” or…“Evolution is in the Bible” maybe some believer who has just had enough can introduce that heretic to the Spirit of St. Nick.”
In this spirit, anger begets anger, and might makes right. If you are rich and in the majority, and if you look like and believe like the majority, then being violent and promoting violence is not just OK, it is sanctioned and blessed: anger is righteous, and self-righteousness is righteous, and inspiring others to violence is righteous. But I’m wondering, St. Nick, is that really the spirit and the legacy you want to spread through the world?
You see, I have an interest in this issue. This isn’t just a theological exercise or an abstract debate for me. I am a Unitarian, and after punching a Unitarian, you were exalted and honored. You have been celebrated throughout time for holding fast to your beliefs even when you were imprisoned and beaten prior to the era of Constantine. And yet Arius held fast to his beliefs too, even in banishment, and even on his deathbed. You were ruled “right” by an unfaithful majority that used violence and fear rather than reason and compassion to promote your agenda. The same thing is still happening today. Yet perhaps what you don’t fully realize is that after 2,000 years, there are still Unitarians who walk this earth, fully cognizant of the teachings of scripture, and who still believe as Arius did, even on his deathbed, that there is only one unifying force that connects all people and all the universe. So yes, St. Nicholas, there are Unitarians. And in my estimation, these Unitarians behave in ways that are more Christian than you or your cohorts did in the stories that come down to us.
Our theme this month is on “humility,” and while I know it is always easier to tell someone else to be humble rather than look at ourselves, I feel somewhat qualified in this case with a fellow clergy whose actions I feel were out of line with their religious teachings and beliefs. And while I know I have plenty of my own faults and times of arrogance, I also know it is religious teachings and practice of humility that help us address our human tendency toward arrogance and hubris.
What comes to my mind too are some teachings from another great religious teacher, Mahatma Gandhi, who said two things that are especially relevant to you, St. Nicholas. The first is that “The pursuit of truth does not permit violence to one’s opponent.” And second, “Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.”
As a bishop, perhaps you remember some of these teachings from the Jesus you say you believe in, who said, “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” and “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” The peacemakers, for goodness sake, St. Nicholas! Then St. Paul, a colleague of yours from just a short time earlier wrote (Phil 2:1-4): “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ…if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then…do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but to the interests of the others.” Remember too, that service is always an opportunity to cultivate humility. Jesus demonstrated this when he knelt and washed the feet of the Apostles.
What I want to do is to call you, St. Nicholas, and myself, and anyone who will listen, to heed these teachings of humility and compassion. When I look at the difference between your behavior in 325 and then in 1895 and then 2015, it seems as though the intervening 1700 years have mellowed you out a bit. Perhaps, as is often the case with us in the evolution of human maturity, you have learned and grown from earlier transgressions. Judging by your actions in the past 150 years, it may be that you’ve already learned that a lifetime devoted to the practice of kindness and generosity go a lot further than an inability to keep your temper.
120 years ago a little girl wrote to a newspaper editor with the sincere hope of getting an answer that would not destroy or belittle her faith, but would confirm and expand it. It would seem that I am writing to you now with a similar intention. I am writing too because I want to believe not only in a Santa Claus, but in strong, compassionate, devoted people of faith who have not been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age, who exist as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist.
If your transformation in the past 150 years is any clue, then we have a lot for which to be optimistic about the rest of humanity as well. May we then be able to say, like that famous newspaper editor said, Thank God Santa Claus lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now…nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, may he continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
Kent Hemmen Saleska
 Found at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/badcatholic/2011/12/on-the-st-nick-punch.html#disqus_thread