06 December 2015

Remembering Archbishop Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker

Our father among the saints, Nicholas the Wonderworker of Myra, is commemorated today on the Gregorian calendar. A Greek who lived the Asian city of Myra, Holy Nicholas was born to wealthy but devout parents, who received him as a gift from God on account of his mother’s prior infertility. By all accounts, they loved him dearly and raised him to be pious in all things, as from a very young age he began observing the fasting rules. They died, however, in an epidemic, leaving their great fortune to young Nicholas and entrusting him to the care of his uncle, Bishop Nicholas of Patara. Bishop Nicholas, beholding the deep piety and giving spirit of his young nephew and namesake, had him ordained as a reader in the Church, and then as a priest. In his pastoral office, Nicholas made generous charitable use of his inherited fortune, donating all of it to those who came to him in need, to the poor, the sick and the suffering.

Indeed: of the poor, of captives, and of those who travelled by sea, Saint Nicholas was a particularly avid champion. When he was still young, with his uncle’s blessing, he undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and visited all of the places where Our Lord had performed miracles, and where he had walked on the sea, and he was deeply moved by what he had seen. On the return voyage, a great storm blew up that threatened the ship on which he was sailing. One of the sailors fell from the mast and suffered a fatal blow. But in the midst of the storm Nicholas knelt down on the deck and began to pray; after this, the sea became calm. In doing so, he saved the lives of all the sailors on that ship with him, and even the one who had fallen from the mast was restored to health by Saint Nicholas’s prayers. Many other nautical miracles have been worked by Saint Nicholas, whose prayers were of effect particularly to those in danger of drowning at sea. At one time, after he had become Archbishop, his home city of Myra and the surrounding countryside of Lycia suffered a great famine. An Italian merchant, planning to sell his grain in Egypt, saw Saint Nicholas appear to him in a dream, telling him to divert his ship and bring the grain instead to starving Myra. When the merchant awoke, he found three gold coins in his hand as the sainted Bishop’s pledge; and he diverted his ship as he had been bidden. Once he got to Myra, he sold all of the grain, and the city and country were saved from starvation; however, he told of how the Bishop had visited him in a dream and given him the gold as his pledge. On account of these nautical miracles, Saint Nicholas is particularly revered amongst sailors; to this day, in the Russian navy and merchant fleet, sailors will wear small icons of Saint Nicholas for protection.

Saint Nicholas was also an advocate of those who had been held captive wrongly, and this also for good reason. Diocletian was Emperor when Nicholas acceded to the Archbishopric of Lycia, and when he refused at the bidding of the Roman government to worship the Emperor and his pagan idols, he was thrown in prison and subjected to severe tortures for several years. These he endured patiently, however, and the Lord led him out of the dungeon and back to his flock in Lycia unharmed, once Emperor Saint Constantine came to the throne. On account of this, he had a particular care for those in prison and those who had fallen afoul of the law. A wicked governor in the Empire sentenced three men wrongfully to death, having been bribed to do so; when Saint Nicholas came to know of this, he himself went to the execution ground and grabbed the executioner’s sword in his hands before it could fall, loudly denouncing the governor before the crowds. The governor at once repented upon seeing the holy man’s intercession on behalf of the prisoners, and let them go free. At still another time, he appeared to Emperor Saint Constantine in a dream and ordered him to release three generals, Nepotianos, Ursos, and Eupoleonis, from prison, who had been unjustly accused of treason.

For poor children and wayfarers also, Saint Nicholas had a particular fondness. A famous story tells of a poor father in Patara with three daughters and no money to afford dowries to marry them, but who was too proud to accept any kind of charity from others. To keep from starving, the three daughters would have had, upon reaching adulthood, to sell their bodies. Saint Nicholas heard of this, and secretly stole out during the night before his eldest daughter reached adulthood, throwing a bag of gold through the poor man’s window. Because the poor father did not know from whence it came, he would not be able to return it; giving thanks to God, the father gave the money to his eldest daughter as a dowry. Saint Nicholas did the same thing, throwing a bag of money through the window, before the second daughter reached adulthood. The father, now getting suspicious, sat outside his house on the night before his third daughter was to reach adulthood, so that he could find out who had been secretly giving him money. The father saw Saint Nicholas as he threw the money through the window the third time, and went to confront him the following day. Nicholas, being a modest man himself, replied that the man ought to give thanks not to him, but to God alone. Thus he saved the poor family from destitution and ruin, having arranged for the poor man’s three daughters to marry well.

On another event, possibly during the same famine that had struck Myra and Lycia, some children from poor families had gone out to glean whatever remnants of the failing crops had been left in the fields; they were at it so long that they forgot the time. On returning to the town they lost their way, and they passed a butcher’s shop and begged him for a place to stay and something to eat, because they were hungry and tired and lost. The butcher let them in, and he and his wife murdered them with knives, cut up their bodies, and placed them in a large salting tub. After seven years went by, Saint Nicholas happened to go by the butcher’s shop, and ordered him to open up the salting tub. Placing his hand on it, Saint Nicholas spoke: ‘Rise up, children.’ The three children at once rose up, alive and whole, from the tub, and were restored to their grateful families.

No account of Saint Nicholas would be complete, though, without telling of his conduct and his zeal for the Lord at the Council of Nicaea, which had been called by Emperor Saint Constantine in the year 325. At that time, the doctrines of Bishop Arius were spreading throughout Roman society, particularly among the upper middle classes who were sceptical of the government and of the perceived mysticism of orthodox teaching. At the Council, Arius himself stood up and began to proclaim his doctrine that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, could not be equal to God the Father, but was instead a lesser, created being. Nicholas, moved to righteous fury at these pronouncements, stood up and crossed the room to Arius, and struck him heavily in the face. The whole Council was shocked at his behaviour, and at once stripped him of his omophor and had him placed under guard. However, some of the other Holy Fathers at the Council were given a vision of the Lord and the Most Holy Theotokos visiting Nicholas and restoring his omophor to him; they concluded that his boldness had been rightly aimed, and restored his freedom and symbols of office. The Council of Nicaea confirmed Saint Nicholas’s conviction, which he shared with the other Holy Fathers led by Saint Athanasius, and from this Council we have been handed down the Nicene Creed.

Nicholas was a great and worthy Hierarch of the Church, incredibly generous and kind, particularly to those whose lives and livelihoods were hard and thankless. He is remembered gratefully by all of the Christian churches, and is given particular reverence by the Russian people. The first Russian nobleman to accept baptism, Askold, took Nicholas as his patron; and Holy and Right-Believing Empress Olga, grandmother of Holy Prince Vladimir, Baptiser of the Rus’, had a temple dedicated in Holy Father Nicholas’s name over Askold’s grave. Holy Nicholas, worker of wonders, intercede with Our Lord Christ on this day of your remembrance.

You revealed yourself, O saint, in Myra as a priest,
For you fulfilled the Gospel of Christ
By giving up your soul for your people,
And saving the innocent from death.
Therefore you are blessed as one become wise in the grace of God.

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