Posted by: Fr Chris | December 6, 2021

Saint Nicholas Day

St. Nicholas, Two Icons

The oldest icon in our parish church is the one of Saint Nicholas – it dates back to the early 1700s, about 300 years old. For centuries people have prayed to Saint Nicholas for his intercession in front of that icon.

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Nicholas is so important that his icon must  be at the north end of every icon screen in every church that uses the Byzantine rite, Catholic or Orthodox. He the saint of charity and justice, a model for bishops, and is one of the only saints other than Saint John the Baptist with two feast days, the other being May 9, the commemoration of the arrival of his relics in Bari, Italy, where they rest in a huge shrine.

Even during his life, he was credited with being a powerful intercessor with God, with many miracles attributed to him of the unjustly condemned being saved from execution, children rescued from kidnappers, sailors saved at sea. He is the patron saint of multiple occupations – sailors, children, singers, clergy, merchants and the poor, orphans, innocent prisoners, women seeking a husband and men seeking a wife, pharmacists,  teachers and students, babies, judges, preachers, pilgrims, notaries, and along with St Christopher he is the patron of travelers. For our Byzantine Catholic Church, he is the patron saint of the monastery where the bishops used to live above the town of Mukachevo, and it was the site of annual pilgrimages for over 1,000 years until it was taken over by the communists and the Russian Orthodox patriarchate in 1949. Every European country has churches dedicated to him, and he is the patron saint of several nations as well as our own Metropolitan Province in America.

So, what’s his real history? We know for sure that he was born around 280, and as the bishop of Myra was arrested during the last big persecution of the Roman Empire under Diocletian; all of those bishops in prison were tortured, sometimes quite horribly. In 325 he was able to go to the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, which rejected the Arian heresy that Christ was a created being. An old legend claims that he punched the heretic Arius during a debate at the council, and for this was deprived of his role as a bishop. But that night all of the other bishops had a dream in which Jesus and the Virgin Mary restored the Gospel Book and his white omophorion to him, and that is usually shown in his icons. Oddly enough, a reconstruction of his face based on his skull shows that he had a broken nose, so maybe Arius punched him back.  The story’s point is that Nicholas was passionate about defending Jesus as the co-eternal word son of God before becoming the son of Mary. Jesus Christ must have a fully divine nature in order to save us and reopen paradise to the human race. Almost every bishop at the council had spent time in prison for defending the faith, and that meant terrible torture for many. Nicholas was not about to let a heresy about Jesus wreck the Church and authentic faith that he had fought to defend.

We know that in Myra he founded charitable institutions like an orphanage, old age home, and hospital, since the Christian Church did that everywhere then. Based on all the stories, he obviously interceded for children, the poor and the sailors at sea. His charity, his orthodox faith, his determination for justice, all contributed to incredible devotion to him after his death in 343. For the last few centuries, the Catholic Church requires two or three miracles to be proven by a person’s heavenly intercession before they can be declared to be a saint. With Nicholas the abundance of miracles is such that the Roman authorities would have had a hard time deciding which ones to use.

So, what does this mean today? For Byzantine Catholics, in particular Nicholas is someone to imitate, to ask him to intercede with God that our Church, our parish, should be strong, alive, flourishing, and healthy. For all Catholics, he should be a model for justice, for charity, and for a strong faith in God and His Church, no matter what. Am I a good Catholic in my actions, my words, my personal faith, my example to others? Do I encourage others to come to our church? Do I serve the poor, at least by giving to charities that do so? Do I pray for innocent prisoners, relief of those persecuted for their faith in Christ? Do I trust in God’s love and great mercy?

It is easy to say, oh he was so holy, I wish I could be like him. No, I am supposed to be like him. A person who is a model of faith and life in Jesus Christ is a model for a reason. My parents gave me a great devotion to Nicholas. When I was leaving a hospital after a medical procedure as a little boy, an old German Franciscan nun stopped my mother in her wheelchair, and told her that Saint Nicholas would be very important in my life. When they saw the big icon of him in the little Byzantine Catholic church I was going to, my mother said that this is where I belonged. He has helped me for over 60 years, and that’s why I gave out holy cards of him at my 40th anniversary. He is a great patron saint to turn to, a wonderful bishop to look to, an example to hold onto. He points the way to the Infant Jesus, savior of the world, and shows us the path we need to walk on.

May he be our intercessor, may he pray for our Byzantine Catholic Church in both Europe and America, and may we follow his example as much as possible so as to grow in faith as Catholics and brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ. Christ is among us.

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