December 6, the Feast of Saint Nicholas.
Fear not, I won't rehearse details you'd find in a book of Saint's lives; rather I'll relate a legend well known in Russia: The Tale of St Nicholas and St John Cassian.
Once upon a time....
Our holy Father Nicholas and the saintly Elder, John Cassian were sent from heaven to visit the earth. As they journeyed they came upon a peasant with a wagon load of hay, its wheels stuck hopelessly in the mud. The poor man goaded the horses in vain; he was going nowhere.
"Let's go and give the good fellow a hand" said Saint Nicholas.
"Not I; I'm keeping out of it" replied Cassian. "I don't want to get my coat dirty."
"Well, wait for me," said Nicholas, "or go on without me if you like." And plunging without hesitation into the mud he vigorously assisted the peasant in dragging his wagon out of the rut.
When he had finished the job and caught up with his companion he was all covered with filth. His coat was torn and soiled and looked like a beggars rags. Saint Peter was amazed to see him arrive at the gate of heaven in this condition.
"I say! Whatever got you into that state?" he asked. Nicholas told his story.
"And what about you?" asked Peter, turning to Cassian. "Weren't you with him in this encounter?"
"Yes, but I don't meddle in things that are no concern of mine, and I was especially anxious not to get my beautiful clean coat dirty."
"Very well" said Peter, "you Nicholas, because you were not afraid of getting dirty in helping your neighbor out of a difficulty, shall for the future have two feasts a year, and you shall be reckoned the greatest of saints after me by all the peasants of holy Russia. And you, Cassian, must be content with having a nice, clean coat; you shall have your feast in leap year only, once every four years."
It seems to me that this tale teaches us a beautiful lesson about the completeness and perfection of the Christian life. We are obviously not dealing with the historical personages here; Nicholas and Cassian are symbols of two concepts of the life in Christ. Cassian is a man of great prayer and contemplation. He engages in ascetical exploits to keep his soul unstained by the world. But that is as far as he goes. Nicholas is also a man of great prayer and holiness, but he is renowned mainly for his great works of charity toward the poor and suffering people in the world. Neither is wrong; both are saintly men honored in heaven. But one is better; one more completely reflects Christ and is the most beloved Saint in all nations. And since we ourselves are poor folk with our wagon so often stck in a muddy rut, which sort of saint do we need the most? Which sort should we most aspire to become?