by Ginny Nieuwsma , Antiochian.org staff member
“All who love Nicholas the holy,
All who serve Nicholas the holy,
They will Nicholas receive and give help in time of need,
Holy Father Nicholas!”
--Orthodox children’s song
St. Nicholas of Myra, along with St. Patrick of Ireland, has the rare distinction of being one of the only saints in our Orthodox Church to be recognized and honored in the West. Although he was once portrayed in popular culture as the venerable staff bearing Father Christmas, whose kindly visage bore a resemblance to the bishop of old, today his true image has all but been obliterated, thanks to Madison Avenue. Courtesy of the marketing folks at Coke who first dreamed up the current version, he is a vacuous, cherry-cheeked flying Santa who can be all over the world at once on Christmas Eve and whose sole purpose in life is to satisfy children’s materialistic cravings.
But to refresh our memories, who was the real St. Nicholas, and why has his story and life held such staying power? Nicholas of Myra was born at the end of the third century in Patara, on the south coast of Asia Minor, to godly parents who dedicated him to Christ from birth. From childhood, he evidenced a deep love for the Church and learning the services, daily reading the Holy Scriptures and praying. His uncle, the Bishop of Patara, recognized an unusual quality in his life and while he was still quite young, ordained him first as a reader, and then, a priest.
From the outset of his priesthood, he became known as a model of sacrificial giving and love. His parents were wealthy and when they had both reposed, he gave his inheritance money away one coin at a time, when there was need. While he was well known for his kindness and devotion to the liturgical life of the Church, his monetary gifts were given secretively and people didn’t know until later just how generous he truly was. In the famous example that birthed the delightful tradition of Orthodox children setting out their shoes to be filled with treats on the eve of his feast day, Father Nicholas heard of a family in great distress. A formerly wealthy businessman of Patara had fallen on hard times, and was planning on selling his three daughters into prostitution. In the dark of night, the concerned priest tossed a bag of gold into the window of the man’s home; subsequently, he gave him yet more coins, enough that the man could arrange honorable marriages and professions for his family.
Father Nicholas decided after several years in the priesthood to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a trip that in those days required great effort and the willingness to be in dangerous situations. Along the way, he predicted a storm would assail his ship; this came to pass, and through his holy prayers, disaster was averted, the ship was saved, and a man’s life spared after he had fallen overboard. Once he arrived in Jerusalem and the surrounding vicinity, as he was venerating Golgotha and other holy places his heart yearned for the solitary life of prayer and monasticism. With this intention he returned home; but God had other plans for him, and called him out, saying, "Nicholas, this is not the vineyard where you shall bear fruit for Me. Return to the world, and glorify My Name there.”
The fruit-bearing which the Lord spoke of came to pass with his election as the Bishop of Myra, which in turn happened through another unusual set of circumstances. Father Nicholas’ Archbishop, John, had died, and one of the bishops of the Council said that the new archbishop would be revealed to them by God rather than be chosen from among them by men. One of the elder bishops had a vision, wherein he was told that the new hierarch would be the one whom he would meet when he went to the church at night. Upon arriving there, the elderly bishop discovered Nicholas, who was always the first to be at church.
"What is your name, child?" he asked Nicholas..
"My name is Nicholas, Master, and I am your servant."
After his elevation to the bishopric, St. Nicholas increased in piety and service to his flock. Not only did he continue to be known for his simplicity and almsgiving, he also gained a reputation as a defender for the faith. One story tells of his slapping Arius himself at the First Ecumenical Council. He also destroyed temples and assailed heresies and paganism. During a time of great persecution under Diocletian and Maximian, he was arrested and tortured before being miraculously released.
Even while still alive, miracles followed in St. Nicholas’ wake. His prayers once saved Myra from a devastating famine. He also became known for helping sailors in distress, as in the one instance where he appeared at the helm of a ship during a deadly storm and brought it safely to port. Another time, a passenger fell overboard, cried, “Saint Nicholas, help me!” and at once found himself at home surrounded by his amazed family. People under his care knew that where he was, peace and faith followed, as it was said that his very countenance radiated the love and presence of God.
Why has St. Nicholas continued to be so loved and venerated?
*He’s a shared saint.
From the eastern end of Russia to the western shores of Ireland, Catholic and Orthodox Christians alike share a love and devotion to his memory. When Myra fell to the Saracens, his relics were moved to the south of Italy in Bari, where they continue to work miracles today. In some countries he is the patron saint for crop growers, in other places he’s special to sailors; in yet others, he is the advocate of children.
*He modeled servant leadership and resisted the temptations of wealth and power.
St. Nicholas considered neither his parents’ inheritance money, nor the positions granted him within the Church, reason to lord anything over anyone, but rather always chose the path of selfless service. In this, he worthily resembled Christ, who, while being God, “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2: 7, 8) This kind of leadership, of “accountability, rather than authority” in the words of Metropolitan Jonah of the OCA, draws people in and invites obedience through love, rather than by issuing edicts and demands.
*He was tender but he knew how to be tough when needed.
The same saint who couldn’t bear to see three daughters sold into shame, stormed pagan houses of worship and fearlessly stood up to the popular heretic, Arius. That model of fierce defense coupled with kindness, is always desperately needed in the Church, no more so than today.
Troparion - Tone 4
In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith,
an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence;
your humility exalted you;
your poverty enriched you.
Hierarch Father Nicholas,
entreat Christ our God
that our souls may be saved.
Kontakion - Tone 3
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.