Posted by: Fr Chris | December 6, 2010

Feast of Saint Nicholas

Today is St Nicholas of Myra, 6 December, on the New Calendar. Our holy father Nicholas ranks as one of the leading saints in the Eastern Churches, both Greek Catholic and Orthodox, and in Roman Catholicism as well.  Here are some thoughts from my sermon:

When my mother came into the Byzantine Catholic church in Olean, NY, with me. It was her first time in any Eastern church. She stopped when she saw the big icon of St Nicholas on the iconostas. It was a painting on canvas, from about 1900. She asked me if he was an important saint in the Byzantine Church, given the prominence of that icon, and when she heard that his day is a holy day, she said: Well that fulfills that nun’s prediction.

There’s the kind of sentence that will make you stand up and take notice! What prediction? What nun? She told me that when I was an infant I had to have medical treatment at Saint Francis Hospital, on Main Street in Buffalo. It was staffed by German Sisters, and this nun stopped my mother on the way out one day, put her hand on my head, and said, “St Nicholas will be important in his life.”  Well, Mom figured it was because of my father being German and St Nicholas being a big day among German Catholics. But when she saw the icon, she said No, it meant that I was destined to go into the Byzantine Catholic Chruch, where Nicholas is so revered.  As it turns out, the patron saint of the Byzantine-Ruthenian Catholic Church is —- Saint Nicholas. His monastery in Mukachevo was the center of Ruthenian Church life until the expulsion of the monks at the hands of the Soviets during Lent in 1947.

The very first old icon I ever bought was in lower Manhattan, at a small  Russian store, where I purchased a hand-painted St Nicholas, in its original wooden box. It was right in the window, for $300, a lot of money for me in 1992, but I knew he was destined for me.

The oldest icon in our parish church is the one of Nicholas. It is at least 350 years old, and it is the only one from the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe where our church has its origins. It is large, painted with a minimal amount of gold as gold was just so rare in Carpatho-Rus’, and from one of the monasteries: probably St Nicholas in Mukachevo, but I am not sure.  Anyway, on to our saint!

The traditional story of Nicholas is this: he was born to wealth in the latter part of the 200s, a wealth which he gave away; he was elected bishop against his will, though he was not a deacon or priest; he was imprisoned under Diocletian and tortured; restored to Myra after that persecution; attended the  First Ecumenical Council in 325; he was rumored to be able to bi-locate and appear to sailors in distress; rescued three daughters from being sold into prostitution by their father by giving them dowries for marriage;  intervening for three prisoners who were innocent; buried at Myra, but outside the city walls,  and his bones gave off clear myrrh, called manna in his new tomb in Italy.

We now know through research into Christian Antiquity and Late Roman Antiquity that much of the traditional story is true. The classic story is filled with characteristics that prove its authenticity:

Rescue of the three daughters: Nicholas secretly provides a dowry for each daughter, so that they can be married – their father intended to put them into prostitution in order to raise money for the family. This story, distinct to Nicholas, can be regarded as historical in its essence.  Why? There are three very ancient accounts which only differ in regard to the number of maidens and other detail. More so: This is unique in ancient literature. Care for women was not a top priority in the Roman empire, and the anecdote, in this form, can not have its roots in a pagan environment, and so is not borrowed from some pagan writer. In ancient Christianity, women played an important role in the Church, and were respected: look at Mary Magdalene, the first witness of the Risen Christ,  deaconesses, and the co-workers of Paul.  The little touch of the stockings by the fire rings true also: Myra was a busy ocean port, and woolen socks would have been hung to try after a day of exposure to dampness.

It is also unique to Nicholas – no other saint is reported to have done this.

Imprisonment – the bones in the tomb of St Nicholas in Italy were examined in the 1950s. They show a badly broken nose, common to brutal treatment of Roman days, and an elderly man who was riddled with arthritis and a thickening of the skull which must have caused terrible headaches. All the remains were commensurate with those of people who contracted serious bone illnesses in the damp prisons of the Roman Empire. And the broken nose? Very common: the bishops who came to the First Ecumenical Council in 325 were all survivors of persecution: witnesses describe this assembly of mutilated men, who had lost arms, legs, eyes, to the Roman torturers. Our saint did not have an easy time of it.

Another record from the bones: it can be seen by the teeth that the man was a vegetarian. And in fact, a monk and bishop is very likely to have followed a meat-free diet. One never reads of those men eating flesh-meat of any kind.

Election as Bishop, though not a priest
Unusual though it was for a non-ordained person to be nominated to the position of bishop, we know of other instances of this in Christian Antiquity. Severus of Antioch and Ambrose of Milan were both chosen against their will. The people recognized their holiness and so their desires overcame the humility of these saints.

Saving three condemned innocents
This story of intervening with the imperial court is the oldest and most genuine recorded episode from the life of St. Nicholas. Historical documentation confirms the many references to place names and people. Our saint’s reputation as an intercessor is founded in fact.

Participation in the Council of Nicaea, 325.
Although Bishop Nicholas does not appear on all lists of attenders, his name appears on the oldest Greek list and on five other lists. Why not on all? This means that at a comparatively early stage, the name of Nicholas was either added to or left out from the list.

In the first scenario, someone thought that it was better to forget that Nicholas had been among the bishops. On the other hand, someone thought that the popular and famous bishop of Myra was not mentioned in the list, and corrected what he believed to be an error.

In the legend, Nicholas was so angry at Arius, who promoted a teaching denying Jesus’ full divinity and humanity, that, overcome by apostolic zeal, he struck his opponent. Not everyone appreciated this blow and the presidency of the Council decided that Nicholas was no longer allowed to wear the ornaments of a bishop.

In fact, this anecdote is embarrassing, and this is a reason why it is unlikely to have been invented. In the gospels, we see Peter denying Jesus vehemently, and the apostles refusing to believe the women who saw the angel at the tomb.  Christianity has a long of record of remembering embarrassing moments and using them as a teaching lesson.

This story is the basis for the oldest icons of Nicholas, which follow a pattern of  Jesus and Mary appearing to Nicholas in his cell where they restore the gospel book and white pallium to him. In the icon, he never is wearing a crown/ mitre: it was taken away from him. In the story,  all the bishops at the council are said to have had the exact same dream, and so they restored him to the council. That kind of dream is echoed in Ruthenian Church history, in my book Finding a Hidden Church. The Martyr- Bishop Theodore Romzha appears in the dreams of four priests in one night in 1949, instructing them to go forth and undertake underground missionary work.

For me, the most important things are these: here is a man who suffered much in his body, who served as a bishop of a big and very busy port, serving from the time of pagan persecution to the time of Christianity finally being legalized. He had a lot of pain, and a lot of work to do, but he is universally remembered as a helper, a devout believer in Jesus Christ, an intercessor, and a source of Christian joy. If the same could be said of any of us at death, we will have served God well.









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