The Winter Pascha, Chapter 8: St. Nicholas
The following is an excerpt from The Winter Pascha, by Fr. Thomas Hopko
The Feast of St. Nicholas
Following the feast of St. Andrew, prefeast hymns of the Nativity are heard once again on the feast of St. Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop of Myra in Lycia who through the ages had come to be especially connected with the festival of Christ's birth.
O you who love the festivals,
Come gather and sing the praises of the fair beauty of bishops,
The glory of the fathers,
The fountain of wonders and great protector of the faithful.
Let us all say: Rejoice, O guardian of the people of Myra,
Their head and honored counselor,
The pillar of the Church which cannot be shaken.
Rejoice, O light full of brightness,
That makes the ends of the world shine with wonders.
Rejoice, O divine delight of the afflicted,
The fervent advocate of those who suffer from injustice.
And now, O all-blessed Nicholas,
Never cease praying to Christ our God
For those who honor the festival of your memory
With faith and love.
Sad as it is to see St. Nicholas transformed into the red-suited Santa Claus of the secular winter "holidays," it is easy to understand why the holy bishop has become so closely connected with the festival of Christ's birth. The stories about the saint, fabricated and embroidered in Christian imagination over the ages, in various times and places, all tell of the simple faith and love of the man known only for his goodness and love.
The extraordinary thing about the image of St. Nicholas in the Church is that he is not known for anything extraordinary. He was not a theologian and never wrote a word, yet he is famous in the memory of believers as a zealot for Orthodoxy, allegedly accosting the heretic Arius at the first ecumenical council in Nicaea for denying the divinity of God's Son. He was not an ascetic and did no outstanding feats of fasting and vigils, yet he is praised for his possession of the "fruit of the Holy Spirit... love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal 5:22-23). He was not a mystic in our present meaning of the term but he lived daily with the Lord and was godly in all his words and deeds. He was not a prophet in the technical sense, yet he proclaimed the Word of God, exposed the sins of the wicked, defended the rights of the oppressed and afflicted, and battled against every form of injustice with supernatural compassion and mercy. In a word, he was a good pastor, father, and bishop to his flock, known especially for his love and care for the poor. Most simply put, he was a divinely good person.
Like God and like Jesus, St. Nicholas was genuinely good. Real goodness is possible. For, to quote the Lord again, "with men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Mt 19:26). A human being, even a rich human being who believes in God, can be genuinely good with God's own goodness. "For truly I say to you, says the Lord, "if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed... nothing will be impossible to you" (Mt 17:20-21).
The Messiah has come so that human beings can live lives which are, strictly speaking, humanly impossible. He has come so that people can really be good. One of the greatest and most beloved examples among believers that this is true is the holy bishop of Myra about whom almost nothing else is known, or needs to be known, except that he was good. For this reason alone he remains, even in his secularized form, the very spirit of Christmas.