Posted by: Fr Chris | December 6, 2011

Feast of Saint Nicholas

Today is one of the most popular saints on the Christian calendar: Nicholas of Myra. His icon is the northernmost one on the main row of every icon screen in the world, Catholic or Orthodox. He is the saint of charity, children, the poor, orphans,  sailors, travelers, and a hundred other professions or stations in life. Enjoy some thoughts from sources I have collected over the years, and some icons:

 Saint Nicholas is one of the most popular of all Saints in the East, and there are countless stories that tell of his generosity and intercession for children, especially children who are poor, orphaned, subject to abuse or kidnapped; all of the poor; sailors and those at sea; those who have been falsely accused or imprisoned; lawyers; pharmacists; shoemakers; merchants; woodcarvers – and thieves! His relics repose in the Italian port city ofBari, at the opposite end of theMediterranean Seafrom his old eparchy,Myra, inTurkey. His bones still give off myrrh, a crystalline substance that pours out and is collected in small bottles.

Such is his fame and importance that every iconostas in every church that uses the Byzantine rite, Catholic or Orthodox, must have his icon at the north end of the screen. Of course, we know that the ubiquitous symbol of American Christmas celebration, Santa Claus, is a corruption of the original devotion of the Dutch founders of New York City (which they called New Amsterdam) to their dear Sankt Niklaus who came bearing gifts for children in the Name of the Christ Child on December 6. This is his feast day, and it is the anniversary of his death and entry into eternal life.

 

THE MAN

We know that Nicholas was born in a Christian family around the year 280 in theprovinceofLyciain what is now southwesternTurkey. He became the bishop of the busy port city ofMyra, now called Demre. He lived through the last persecution of Christians in theRoman Empire, that of Diocletian, one which was especially violent and bloody. We know thatLyciawas one of those territories where all bishops and priests were imprisoned, and many atrocities were carried out from 303-311. This was so bad that, when the first ecumenical council was convened in 325, witnesses described the assembled bishops as men who all showed signs of brutal torture: amputated legs or arms or hands, eyes gouged out, terrible scars from whips. We do not know what injuries Nicholas might have borne, but we do know from the volume of testimony about him that he deeply loved our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

Constantine the Great legalized Christianity in 313, and the Church began to reorganize itself. However, orthodox Christianity was severely threatened by a new enemy: a heresy called Arianism, which taught that there was a time when Jesus did not exist, that He was not coeternal with the Father and did not share the same substance as God the Father. If the Son is not of the same essence as the Father and is a created being, then we are not fully redeemed. Arianism became very popular, and was supported by two emperors, many bishops, and the Goth, Vandal, andLombardkings. To combat this, Emperor Constantine the Great summoned the First Ecumenical Council in 325, in the town ofNicaea. This Council codified the Creed which we use today at Divine Liturgy, and upheld the orthodox position that the Word is coeternal with the Father. According to legend, St Nicholas was at this council, and was so angered by Arius’ teachings that he slapped Arius in the face. At this, Nicholas was removed not just from the Council and put into prison, but also from his role as bishop! However, Jesus and Mary came to Nicholas in his cell, and asked him why he was in prison again. He replied, “Out of love for you”, and Jesus gave back the Gospel book to Nicholas, and Mary gave him the white pallium to put back around his neck as bishop.

Jesus and Our Lady restore the emblems of office to Saint Nicholas

This miracle is shown in most icons of the saint. In another version, all of the bishops see this happen in their dreams on the same night. When the bishops and Constantine heard of this, Nicholas was restored as bishop ofMyra, where he died in 343. Churches dedicated to Nicholas were built within sixty years of his death, showing the rapid spread of devotion to him as a saint in theRoman Empireand beyond.

In the end, we do not have much actual history of Nicholas. What we do have, though, in the hundreds of stories that had accumulated by the year 500, is an engaging portrait of a bishop who was devoted to teaching the true faith; who gave of his own personal fortune to help anyone who was in need; who blessed sailors of the busy port of Myra, and to whom those same sailors prayed for help when they were in danger; who defended the innocent even when they faced the imperial death penalty; and who was revered as a wonder-working saint within a few years after his death. Icons of St Nicholas have been known to exude a myrrh similar to that of his relics inBari.

The monastery and shrine of Saint Nicholas, Mukachevo, on the “Mountainof Monks”, founded before the year 1100.  This is the where our Byzantine-Ruthenian Catholic Church had its headquarters, from the 10th century until the Soviets drove out our monks and gave it to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1948.


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