Meditation: St Nicholas of Myra
The feast day of St. Nicholas in both East and West is celebrated on 6th December. Traditionally it is called “winter Nicholas” because the Orthodox Church also commemorates him on 9th May and this day is called “summer Nicholas.”
The story of St. Nicolas
St. Nicholas was born into a wealthy family in Patera, Lycia, in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) sometime between 240-280AD. He died about 326 or 342AD. Since childhood he is said to have fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays as he refused to suck his mother’s milk on those days. Butler’s “Lives of the Saints” quotes that Nicholas “was exceedingly well brought up by his parents and trod piously in their footsteps” and “he kept untarnished the innocence of his heart”. When he was five years old he began to study the “sacred sciences” and “day by day the teaching of the church enlightened his mind and encouraged his thirst for sincere and true religion”. Later in life he entered the monastery of Holy Sion, near Myra and was later made abbot by the archbishop who founded this monastery. Myra was the capital of Lycia in Asia Minor. It was an archiepiscopal See, having been founded by St. Nicanor. In later ages thirty-six suffragan bishops were subject to this See of great dignity. The metropolitan church became vacant during Nicholas’ lifetime and he was chosen to be archbishop. In that exalted See he became known for extraordinary “piety and zeal”, and numerous miracles. Hence he came to be called “the wonder-worker”.
He was put into chains and exiled in the sixth century during the persecution of Diocletian. St. Nicholas was also among the three hundred bishops who took part in the Council of Nicea in 325AD. This council condemned Arianism and promulgated the Nicean Creed that stated Christ is consubstantial with the Father, i.e. one being or of one substance. Nicholas was imprisoned at this council for having slapped Arius in the face in accusation of his heresy. During his imprisonment St. Nicholas had a vision in which he saw the Mother of God and Christ who gave back to him his gospel book and amaphorion, a symbol of his episcopal dignity. His bishopric was duly restored.
The Translations of the Relics of St. Nicholas
St. Nicholas’ relics were kept in Myra with great honour. But in 1087AD they were taken to Bari, a seaport in Naples, Italy, where the relics are still kept today. The commemoration of his relics is kept in the Russian Orthodox Church on 9th May, the day when his relics safely landed at Bari in 1087. According to an account supposed to have been written by a certain Archdeacon John at the order of his archbishop, it happened that certain merchants from Bari sailed in three ships to the coast of Lycia. They kept watch that no Mohammedans were near and went to the church where St. Nicholas’ relics were kept. The church stood in a desert place three miles from the sea and was guarded by a small community of monks. The merchants broke open the marble coffin in which the sacred bones lay and carried them off to their ships. The inhabitants, upon the alarm given, pursued the robbers to the shore. But the Europeans were safe on board. They landed at Bari on 9th May in 1087 and the relics were deposited by the archbishop in the church of St. Stephen. On the first day after the relics were placed in the church, thirty people were cured of ailments through imploring the intercession of the saint. From that time to this present day Bari has been a famous destination for pilgrimages.
What We See in the Icons of St. Nicholas
The general features of St. Nicholas portray him with an oval head, well groomed beard, and his hair falling neatly in rhythmical waves. His face displays courage and firmness. When he is depicted if as a bust, his right hand is often blessing and he holds a closed Gospel book in his left hand. He wears an amaphorian and a phelonian with a pattern of crosses on it. Whether depicted in a bust form or standing, he is shown to have a sturdy build. Sometimes icons of St. Nicholas depict stories of his life, starting with his birth and a variety of miracles and acts of mercy ending with his death.
A selection of his miracles and acts of mercy include:
St. Nicholas saving three girls from prostitution by throwing three bags of gold for their dowries into their bedroom window at night.
St. Nicholas saving three men unjustly condemned to death by his coming to the place of execution and releasing the prisoners. He reproached Euthsathius the governor for accepting a bribe to have these men put to death.
St. Nicholas saving sailors in distress off the Lycian coast when they invoked his aid and so were brought safely to port.
St. Nicholas appearing in a dream to the Emperor Constantine who had imprisoned three innocent men after Albavius a prefect had procured their imprisonment from the Emperor. Albavius also experienced a similar dream. After he and Constantine compared their notes regarding their dreams, the three men were sent for questioning. The prisoners told them they had called on the name of Nicholas of Myra when praying to God. On hearing this, Constantine set them free.
Among temples St. Nicholas destroyed was that of Artemis, the principal one in the district, and evil spirits fled, howling before him.
Patronages attributed to Saint Nicholas
Because of his saving acts and childhood innocence, St. Nicholas is patron saint of children, sailors, pawnbrokers and merchants. He is patron saint of Russia, Greece, Apula, Sicily and Lorraine. It is interesting to note that in England, during the later middle ages, four hundred churches were known to be dedicated to St. Nicholas.
Although there is dispute as to whether all the biographic accounts and legends surrounding him are true, they nevertheless tell of St. Nicholas’ popularity.
The Orthodox hymns from Vespers and Matins recall his miraculous wonders and invoke him as intercessor in a variety of ways.
Extolling the praises of St. Nicholas and evoking his aid
O chief prelate of Christ, Saint Nicholas, you anoint the faces of those who ever keep your honoured memory with faith and love. Father, by your fervent entreaties to the Lord, from all tribulations, dangers and calamities you rescue them.
What crowns are there of praise wherewith we might crown worthily the holy Hierarch? While in Myra located physically, in advance he spiritually reaches all those who long to be sincerely with him. For those who are afflicted he is consolation; to those in danger he provides refuge. He is a tower of piety; the believers’ champion. Through St. Nicholas the pride of foes was cast down by Christ himself, the Lord who possesses great mercy.
You are a great and ardent guardian to those surrounded by danger, O great and glorious father Nicholas, the sacred preacher of Christ, to those who are travelling by land or are sailing far and near, O intercessor sympathetic and strong. Therefore we assemble and cry out “Intercede with God to redeem us from every adversity besetting us”.
Truly in accordance with your name, for the faithful people you shone as their mighty victory in trials, O Saint Nicholas, truly a servant of Christ. For whenever you are invoked, you reach them beforehand, who take refuge under your protection longingly. For at night and even daytime you are seen by faith and you save them from besetting trials and adversities.
Rejoice O sacred head of the Church, the pure abode of every virtue, O Nicholas, divine standard of the most divine holy priesthood and great Shepherd of the people, and the beaconlight that shines very brightly. You are the namesake of victory. And on the needy you take pity with sympathy. And to the prayers of the sick you incline an ear. Ready deliverer of all and guardian saving them who now religiously honour your ever venerable memory. Pray intently to Christ, O blessed one, to send down great mercy to our souls.
Rejoice pure habitation wherein the Holy Trinity made its dwelling, most sacred mind, the Church’s unshaken pillar and the believers’ support, for you are the help of all who are oppressed. O star that at all times dispels the gloom of adversities and of temptations by the radiance of your prayers that are well received, holy Hierarch Nicholas, calm haven wherein those who meet the turbulent storms of life and are surrounded by tempests escape for refuge and hence are saved. Pray to Christ with fervour, holy father Nicholas, that great mercy be given to our souls.
Man of God and loyal servant and minister of the Lord, man of holy desires, chosen vessel, pillar and foundation of the Church, heir to the Kingdom, be not silent in calling out to the Lord on our behalf.
O Nicholas the Hierarch, in your life and after death, the Lord greatly glorified you with miracles, holy father. For whoever simply prayed, invoking your all-holy name with all his faith and not been heard immediately or found you to be his ardent protector?
You brightly shine on earth with rays of wonders, inciting every tongue to sing praises and glory of God whoever has glorified you on earth, O wise Nicholas. Pray Him earnestly as one select of the fathers, that we who keep your feast with faith and love be delivered from all needs.
As you are hovering over the towers of the Church being yourself a fledgling of the nest of angels, O Nicholas thrice blessed, you ever cry unto God on behalf of all who in temptations and perils invoke your aid; and you rescue them by fervent prayers.
By means of practical virtue you made the elegance of sacerdotal virtue shine with greater resplendence, O God-bearing Father. Hence as priest you accomplish terrific deeds and from lamentable woes you deliver us, as you work your famous miracles.
Miracles and Saving Acts
You appeared to Constantine the king in a dream, and also to Albavius. You frightened them. Speaking sternly, you commanded them: “With haste release from the dungeon the prisoners whom you hold unjustly; for the unlawful slaughter they are innocent. If you refuse to obey me, I will make petition against you when I pray to the Lord, O Emperor”.
Come all believers, let us praise the great arch pastor, hierarch and prelate of those in Myra, Saint Nicholas, and extol him; for he delivered many people from wrongful death, appearing in a dream to the Emperor and to Albavius, thereby rescinding the unjust sentence.
Rejoice. With divine zeal filling you, you extricated from abduction by treachery, through your awesome intervention and your appearing in dreams, those who had unjustly been condemned to die.
As you appeared in a dream to the pious emperor and thus from death rescued those unjustly imprisoned, intercede unceasingly so that now we who worthily sing your praise be likewise rescued from temptations, perils and every pain, O Father Nicholas.
What songs are there extolling prophesy wherewith we might praise the holy Hierarch? For he could foresee what lay far ahead and would speak beforehand, announcing it clearly as if it were present. Moreover he continually circulates the world, rescuing everyone suffering injustices. Once from unjust execution he delivered prisoners by appearing in a dream to the godly-minded king. He has richly deserved great mercy.
Defender and Upholder of the Faith
Blessed father Nicholas, you are a foremost defender of the faithful, guard and shield, venerable saint. It is clear that you redeem every one, O finest honour and glory of hierarchs.
St. Nicholas is remembered in the service of Matins and Vespers for his defences against Arianism, but there is no tactful approach: Nicholas you are a well that gushes forth myrrh oils in Myra, that thoroughly waters souls and drives away and eradicates tares of errors and heresy. Winnowing shovel that threshes the chaffy doctrines of Arius. Pray to Christ intently, holy Father, that He send down great mercy to our souls.
What songs are there wherewith we might melodiously sing praises of the Hierarch? Champion is he of correct belief and adversary of impiety; one of the Church’s chief leaders; the mighty great defender and expositor; the teacher who disconcerted all the heretics; the destroyer of the ardent strong Arius. For through him did Christ our God demolish the arrogance of Arius, since He is the One of great mercy.
O Nicholas, manifestly you protected the Church of Christ with the utmost zeal, refuting godless beliefs and doctrines of heresies, censuring them with candour. And you were clearly Orthodoxy’s rule of faith and great intercessor for all who follow your divine teachings and conferences.
An Invitation for All to Rejoice on this Feast
Let us sound the trumpet with clarion of song, and festively let us leap for joy, and exultantly let us join chorus for the annual celebration of the God-bearing Father. Let the kings and princes run together and with hymns extol him who by his fearsome appearance in a dream convinced the Emperor to release the three imprisoned officers, for they were innocent.
Shepherds and Teachers, let us come together and praise the Shepherd and zealous imitator of the Good Shepherd.
Those of us who are sick let us praise the physician.
For he is our rescuer, in perils.
For sinners, our defender.
Those who are poor he makes rich.
You in tribulation, your consolation.
You who travel, a fellow traveller.
You who pilot and sail the seas, a protector.
And everyone extol him who anticipates everywhere, quickly come and deliver us from present needs, and save your flock by your supplications.
This gives prayerful insight to St. Nicholas as a great saint revered and invoked in time of need in the early church. It is no wonder that his popularity both in the religious and secular sphere led to him being known as Santa Claus. The name “Santa Claus” comes from the Dutch “Sinterklaus”, itself a version of “Saint Nicholas”. It appears to have evolved among Dutch settlers in America, where the name and modern concept of Santa Claus first became popular. Probably our own custom of giving presents at Christmas time derives from the Dutch, German and Swiss custom of doing this on the 6th December, the saint’s feast day. Such customs have mingled the religious and secular observances with boy bishops for children.
As we rejoice in the true popularity of St. Nicholas before and during the Christmas season, we can be invited to pray one more of the hymns:
Nicholas, the refinement of hierarchs and the glory of the Father, fountainhead of miracles and the greater helper of the faithful, let us feast lovers come together and extol him with songs of praise and say to him:
Rejoice guard and divine bishop, immutable pillar of the peoples of Myra.
Rejoice all resplendent luminary, that lights up the end of the world with miracles. Rejoice divine joy of the troubled and most fervent protector of the injured.
And now, O blessed Nicholas, cease not interceding with Christ God on behalf of those who with faith and longing ever honour your joyous and festive memory.