Christmas, more than any time of the year, is a time of giving. Generosity is shared in many ways, especially to those most in need. This tradition of generosity goes back at least to the days of St. Nicholas, who was born in Asia Minor in A.D. 260 and later became bishop of Myra (modern-day Turkey). His feast day is Dec. 6 — right at the beginning of Advent.
Today, Christians imitate the spirit of St. Nicholas (we call it sharing the Christmas spirit) by performing generous deeds. We see this generosity in our own communities, whether it is dropping coins in a Salvation Army kettle, collecting coats, mittens and scarves for homeless shelters or preparing meals for elderly neighbors.
In this age of social media, many acts of service and selflessness make their way to videos posted online at websites such as Facebook and YouTube. These moments of grace in action bring smiles to our faces — and sometimes a few tears.
Just this week, two videos were shared on my Facebook newsfeed. One showed former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow at Walmart bringing Christmas cheer to shoppers by paying for their layaway merchandise. Another video from Phoenix shows members of a youth group, dressed in black T-shirts with neon letters “PK,” at a department store. They announce to selected shoppers that they are practicing random acts of kindness and want to purchase their groceries.
It’s the kind of video content that people like to share with friends. And why not? There are so many depressing reports that fill social media and television news.
However, there is something to consider. Let’s go back to the saint whose Dutch name “Sinterklaas” means Santa Claus.
Legend has it that St. Nicholas secretly dropped three bags of gold coins into the house of a father who could not afford the dowries of his three daughters and was considering selling them into prostitution.
In “The Golden Legend,” a collection of the lives of saints written by Archbishop Jacopo de Voragine of Genoa, St. Nicholas is described delivering the bags of gold coins on separate occasions. On the last visit, Archbishop Voragine writes, “(the father) awoke to the sound of the gold and followed Nicholas. … He said to him: Sir, flee not away so but that I may see and know thee.” He finally caught up to St. Nicholas but was told not to tell anyone the secret as long as he lived.
In the Christian tradition, acts of charity are commonly practiced in private and not captured digitally for the world to see on Facebook.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus offers a lesson on almsgiving.
“When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others,” said Jesus. “Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”
There is nothing wrong with people sharing videos that show charity in action. It can even lead to others doing the same. But let’s remember Jesus’ words about almsgiving. When we give to others (whether at Christmas or during Lent), we do it to please God, not the social media world.