Icon for Dec. 6, showing Jesus and Mary restoring Nicholas’ symbols of office to him
Today is the feast of our holy father Nicholas, who is given these titles in Christian writings: archbishop of Myra, wonderworker, Christ-like. He died in 341 AD after serving the Church of Myra in its transition from an underground faith to a legalized Church after 313. Nicholas was elected bishop and suffered in prison for his faith. After the legalization of the Church in 313 he served the eparchy of Myra, then a major port city. Sailors asked his blessing, and after his death prayed to him for rescue in storms; he gave his own money away to the poor and founded a hospital, home for the aged, and orphanage for children; he preached the true faith as we say in Liturgy, at a time when heretics flourished even among the bishops and government leaders, because of his great love for Christ. A famous legend says that when the heretic Arius gave his false teaching about Jesus at the First Ecumenical Council in 325 AD, Nicholas was so angry at the insults to Jesus being fully divine and fully human out of love for us, that he slapped Arius right in the face. The bishops deprived Nicholas of his rank as bishop and put him in jail. But that night, all of them had the same dream of Jesus and Mary giving Nicholas his Gospel Book and pallium (cloth around the shoulders) back, because of his great love for Christ. As a result, the assembly asked Nicholas’ forgiveness and restored him as bishop and a Father of the council.
Nicholas established charitable institutions for the sick, poor, orphans, and elderly; intervened for those falsely accused; blessed sailors and ships which then had safe journeys; and performed many kind and generous deeds in secret, expecting nothing in return. Within a century of his death he was celebrated as a saint. Today he is still venerated as a wonder, or miracle, worker and as patron of over one hundred categories of persons-children, mariners, bankers, pawn-brokers, scholars, orphans, laborers, travelers, merchants, judges, poor, marriageable maidens, students, children, sailors, victims of judicial mistakes; prisoners, especially those suffering for the faith or kidnapped by enemies of the faith; unmarried people, even thieves and murderers! He is known as the friend and protector of all in trouble or need; of Russia, Ukraine, the Lemko people, Greece, New York City, Amsterdam, and more.
As most people know, the American image of Santa Claus was corrupted – both in pronunciation and purpose – in old New York from the Dutch colonists’ beloved Sinkt Niklaas. Saint Nicholas did bring gifts to children – but he also punished those who were badly behaved. The practice of “hanging stockings with care in hopes that St. Nick soon would be there” comes from the legend of the saint throwing in bags of gold through a window to save three girls from being sold into slavery. The little bags landed on the shoes or stockings laid out in front of the fireplace. Thus, Dutch and German children put their shoes out in hopes of finding candy or treats like oranges and nuts on the morning of December 6th. My mother kept that custom for us, at a time when getting a tangerine in December and candy during the Advent season was a real treat. But I only found out why when I was in college.
While at St. Bonaventure University, I started attending an old Byzantine Catholic church on an outcropping of Homer Hill nicknamed Russian Hill, on Fountain Street. Built in 1915 by Ukrainian and Rusyn immigrants from Austria-Hungary, this little three-domed church with a plain but beautiful interior was originally served by the priest from St. Michael’s in Sheffield, Pennsylvania, and was dedicated to that saint. But the large icon of the Dormition/ Assumption of Our Lady behind the altar resulted in people calling the chapel St. Mary’s. Anyway, in the 1970s Father Sergius Bachkowsky, OSB, came down from the now-closed St. Stephen’s church in Amherst on Saturdays to serve the Divine Liturgy for the faithful remnant of Byzantine Catholics and some Roman Catholics like me who loved the services.
In the prayer books used by my particular Byzantine Catholic Church, called “Ruthenian”, Nicholas is always called “patron of the Byzantine Catholic Church.”Now this is why: Our Church’s headquarters, from the middle ages until 1780, was at the monastery of St. Nicholas, on a hill called the Mountain of Monks, outside of the town of Mukachevo. The bishop lived there among the monks, leading a life both of constant prayer and of service to the larger Church. Although Empress Maria Theresa moved the seat of the bishop to the town of Uzhhorod as a better location to serve the enormous territory of the diocese (which then stretched from Slovakia to Romania and south into Hungary), the monastery remained the spiritual heart of the eparchy and the site of many pilgrimages until 1947. in that year the Soviet Union’s authorities arrested all of the monks and gave the monastery over to the use of the Russian Orthodox Church. That’s how he became, as the prayer says, the special patron of our Byzantine Catholic Church, and remains so to this day. [but see below*]
St Nicholas Monastery today outside Mukachevo, Transcarpathia Oblast, Ukraine
When my mother came to the parish for the 1st time in 1975, I explained the layout of the four icons on the first row of the icon-screen: Saint Nicholas, Mary, Jesus, and Saint Michael. Then she asked me why was Nicholas there. When I told her that he’s always on every icon screen, Catholic or Orthodox, because of his charity and Christ-like qualities, and that his feast is kept as a big holy day with celebrations, she murmured, “So that’s what that nun meant.“
Now it was my turn to question: what nun? She told me that when she was bringing me home from the old St. Francis Hospital as a baby after a tonsillectomy operation, an old German Franciscan Sister nun came to her and blessed me and said, “St Nicholas will be important in the life of this child.”
Because of that, she kept up customs about Saint Nicholas when I was growing up with my sisters: shoe outside the bedroom door, oranges and a little candy, on December 6th. But at that moment she realized that God must have intended from a long time ago that I should be a Byzantine Catholic, in the Church that emphasizes Nicholas so much. Then came my ordination, on May 10th. Bishop Dudick chose that day because it is Mother’s Day, and he only ordained priests on that holiday. However, it turns out to also be the second feast of St. Nicholas, called “Nicholas in Spring.” That’s the day when his relics arrived at the Italian port of Bari in 1087. So our saint showed up in my life in a double dose.
I have to say, God certainly gave me a great helper when he picked Nicholas as my Byzantine patron!
Icon for May 10, The Translation of the Relics of St. Nicholas to Bari. Nicholas is shown without his crown on this day, as the weather is warm.
*Some of those monks survived Siberian exile and prison, and returned to their homeland to continue serving the Church in the underground. Now they are building a new monastery, as the Orthodox refuse to return it to our use. Here is the church and pilgrimage chapels: