Posted by: Fr Chris | December 5, 2014

Saint Nicholas Day!

Saint Nicholas, the wonderworker and bishop

St. Nicholas with symbols of office of bishop being restored to him by Christ and the Mother of God

From St. Nicholas Byzantine Catholic Church, Munster, Indiana.

The first time that my mother came into a Byzantine Catholic church was at the little Saint Mary’s in Olean, New York. I attended this church for two years of college when I went to St. Bonaventure University.

She saw the icon screen and asked who this was at the north end. I told her Saint Nicholas. Then she asked about his importance in the Byzantine Church. I told her that he is very important, 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, and his feast on December 6 is a holy day.

“Well” she said, “that explains that prediction that was made about you when you were little.”

“What are you talking about?” She went on to tell me that when she was leaving St. Francis hospital with me after I had had a medical procedure done there as a little boy, an old German nun came to her, put her hand on my head, and said “Saint Nicholas will be very important in this child’s life.”

“So,” she continued, “you were meant to be Byzantine.”

What a surprise that was! And indeed, he has been an important spiritual figure in my life. The very first old Russian icon that I bought was of Saint Nicholas, under a brass cover and set into a wooden box with a glass cover, or a kiot. He is in my office, right above me as I work.

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- in his real life, he set up hospitals, orphanages, and old age homes. He was also a valiant defender of Jesus’ humanity and divinity: a famous story says that at the Council of Nicaea he was so enraged by the heretic Arius that he got up and slapped him. For this act, he was deposed as a bishop. But that night, all the bishops at the Council dreamed that Jesus and Mary restored him, with Jesus returning the Gospel book to him and Mary the white pallium. When they all discovered this dream, he was promptly restored to his position.  This is shown in many icons of him.

In legend, he threw gifts in through windows of houses in the city of Myra; and put gold into stockings hung up to dry over the fireplace and saved young women who were to be sold as prostitutes to atone for their father’s financial debts; rescued children from those who would exploit or even kill them; appeared in dreams to save the lives of innocent men condemned to death;  multiple times rescued those at sea by calming storms and retrieving those who fell overboard.

in an era of so many Christians being kidnapped by Muslim terrorists, may Saint Nicholas intercede for them!  This story that resonates today is of a boy kidnapped and taken away to be sold into slavery. His mother beseeched the saint’s intercession, as did the boy himself. On December 6, Nicholas intervened. He rescued the boy, who had just been telling the Muslim emir who kidnapped him that he was sad because of the feast day and not being near a church or his family. While he was pouring wine into his master’s cup, the emir said, “You will never see them again!”and the boy disappeared, only to appear on his mother’s doorstep, still holding the pitcher. He is thus the saint for

-children both in his lifetime and after his death, especially children who are poor, orphaned, subject to abuse or kidnapped;

-all of the poor who Pope Francis reminds us of so strongly;

-sailors and those at sea (Myra was a very busy port and after his death sailors successfully prayed to him in times of danger);

-those who have been falsely accused or imprisoned;

-lawyers; pharmacists; shoemakers; merchants; woodcarvers – and thieves!

His relics repose in the Italian port city of Bari, at the opposite end of the Mediterranean Sea from his old eparchy, Myra, in Turkey. After Myra fell to the Muslim Turks, the Italians who traded with Myra feared for his relics. The Muslim practice is to take over important churches and shrines and make them into mosques, as was done with Hagia Sophia in modern Istanbul in 1453. So a group of merchants stole his body and carried it to safety in Bari, in a shrine church built for this purpose.  commemorated on May 9 as “the Translation of the Relics of St. Nicholas” AND it is the feast of Saint Christopher! So, my mother was right – I really was meant to be Byzantine. In fact, icons of Nicholas without a crown are called “Nicholas in the spring” for May 9, and those with a crown are used on December 6.

His bones give off myrrh, a crystalline substance that pours out and is collected in small bottles. Many healing miracles are reported after people are anointed with this myrrh.

Why is Saint Nicholas called “patron of our Byzantine Catholic Church”?

The center of our Church in Central Europe was the ancient monastery of Saint Nicholas, on Chernecha Hora, or the Black Mountain, which referred to the color of the habits worn by the monks. In English it is often called the Mountain of Monks, outside of the town of Mukachevo.  There have been monks there since at least the 11th century. The first ones dug out caves into the hillside above the river, and then gradually built a monastery.  The current stone buildings date from the 16th-18th centuries. This monastery was the center of prayer and church administration. The priests of the eparchy elected the bishop there, usually one of the older and respected monks, and the bishop lived there.  The monastery was the principal center for pilgrimage, especially on the feast of the Dormition of our Lady; publication of books for worship, spirituality, theology, and church history; icon workshop; and the theological seminary.  It was also the headquarters for the Province of Saint Nicholas of the Order of St. Basil the Great, which united all of the men’s Basilian monasteries of our Church.

In 1949 the Soviet authorities “invited” the monks to convert to Russian Orthodoxy, which they all refused to do, and they were deported to Siberia. Since then, the Russian Orthodox Church has refused to return it to our use, and it is now a convent for Orthodox nuns to this very day.

The former Greek Catholic Monastery of Saint Nicholas, now an Orthodox convent

New Greek Catholic St. Nicholas church and shrine chapel at the new monastery in Mukachevo

On the feast of Nicholas, the Christmas Canon is sung – because he is the only saint called God-like — since he acquired the Holy Spirit so well that he was transformed! In other words, he experienced complete theosis. May the same happen to us, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church writes in No. 460:

The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4): For this is why the Son of God became e man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God (St Irenaeus, Adv. haeres. 3, 19).”  St. Nicholas is the ultimate guide for bishops in terms of showing how a bishop should live, and for any Christian who wishes to follow Christ’s footsteps. Nicholas shows us the way to : penance, charity, prayer, self-giving in imitation of Christ’s self-emptying kenosis, and seeking justice for those who have been wronged, in the spirit of Christ and God the Father.

 Icon of St. Nicholas for December 6, St Nicholas Crowned in Winter

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