Tuesday, December 6, 2011

St. Nicholas of Myra, Pastor

Commemoration of Nicholas of Myra, Pastor
Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Lord be with you

Today is the commemoration of Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra. Yes, Virginia, there really was a St. Nicholas and he lived in the mid 300’s. However the only rock solid, indisputable fact we know about him is that he was bishop of Myra in the mid fourth century. However we can deduce from his extreme popularity that there must be some fact behind all the stories and legends. How popular is Nicholas? Well, around the world, there are more churches dedicated in his honor than any other saint. What follows is either what I consider the most likely to be factual elements of his legend, or portions of that legend that have given rise to traditions that continue to influence to this day.

It is said that Nicholas was born in the village of Patara in what is now modern Turkey. At that time the area was thoroughly Greek in its culture and language. His parents were wealthy and raised Nicholas in the Christian Faith. However Nicholas’ parents died in an epidemic when he was still young. This left Nicholas with a large estate, which he decided to use to help those who were poor, sick and suffering. His uncle, also named Nicholas and the bishop of Patara, took the boy in, furthering his education and advancement in the Christian Faith. As a young man he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands and spent some time in a monastery named Holy Sion.

The opportunity soon came for the young Nicholas to put his fortune to charitable use. According to legend, a citizen of Patara had lost all his money and his three daughters could not find husbands because of their poverty. In despair their wretched father was about to sell them into a life of shame (slave prostitutes). When Nicholas heard of this, he took a bag of gold and at night tossed it through an open window of the man's house. Here was a dowry for the eldest girl, and she was quickly married. Nicholas did the same for the second and then for the third daughter. On the last occasion the father was watching by the window, and overwhelmed his young benefactor with gratitude. According to some versions of the story the gold landed in either stockings or shoes left by the fire place to dry. Hence arose our tradition of “hanging stockings by the chimney with care.” Such stories of Nicholas’ charitable acts abound.

It happened that Nicholas was in the city of Myra when the clergy and people were meeting together to elect a new bishop, and God directed them to choose him even though he was still just a young man. This was at the time of Diocletian's persecutions at the beginning of the fourth century. All accounts agree that Nicholas was almost immediately arrested and imprisoned. It is said that the jails were so full of Christians that there was no room for the thieves and murders. At this time Nicholas was tortured, like so many believers. When Constantine became Emperor, the Christians were released.

Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

During this century the Arian heresy was spreading throughout the Eastern Roman Empire, however Nicholas was a staunch defender of Orthodoxy and managed to keep the false teaching outside of his territory. He was present at the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) which examined Arius and his teachings and found them to be contrary to the truth of God’s Word. The Arian heresy spread, in part, through popular songs that Arius wrote. Catchy, singable ditties, that denied the eternal divinity of Jesus, making him just a very good follower of God. It is said that Arius sang one of these “pop” songs while testifying at the Council of Nicaea. Nicholas, so outraged by the blasphemous lyrics, got up and struck Arius in the face. At this, they say, he was deprived of his Episcopal insignia and imprisoned, but Our Lord and His Mother appeared and restored to him both his liberty and his office.

Nicholas also took strong measures against paganism in his district. He had torn down many pagan temples, among them one to the Greek goddess Artemis, which was the chief pagan shrine of the district.

He died December 6, 343 AD in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church, where it is said a unique relic, called manna, formed in his grave. This liquid substance, said to have healing powers, fostered the growth of devotion to Nicholas. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, St. Nicholas Day, December 6th

Over the centuries many more stories developed concerning Nicholas where he rescued sailors, children, stopped famines, and even managed to raise the dead. The church where he was buried became a major pilgrimage site. In 1034 Myra was taken by the Saracens (Moslems) in battle. Fearing that access to the site would become restricted, and desiring the economic advantage that comes to a major pilgrimage site, the Italian cities of Venice and Bari vied to get the Nicholas relics. In the spring of 1087, sailors from Bari succeeded in spiriting away the bones, bringing them to Bari, a seaport on the southeast coast of Italy. An impressive church was built over St. Nicholas' crypt. It is this story that gave birth to the Christmas song, “I Saw Three Ships A Sailing.”

In a major renovation of the church where Nicholas’ remains lay in the 1950’s, scientist were allowed to examine Nicholas’ remains. They discovered he was only about five feet tall. This was a rare opportunity. In the Middle Ages the veneration of relics was a major enterprise. Most remains of the saints were disbursed over large areas. Nicholas is one of the very few whose remains remained in tack and in one place.

The stories of Nicholas continued to expand during the Middle Ages. One of the oldest stories showing St. Nicholas as a protector of children takes place long after his death. The townspeople of Myra were celebrating the good saint on the eve of his feast day when a band of Arab pirates from Crete came into the district. They stole treasures from the Church of Saint Nicholas to take away as booty. As they were leaving town, they snatched a young boy, Basilios, to make into a slave. The emir, or ruler, selected Basilios to be his personal cupbearer. Because Basilios did not know the language, he would not understand what the king said to those around him. So, for the next year Basilios waited on the king, bringing his wine in a beautiful golden cup. For Basilios' parents, devastated at the loss of their only child, the year passed slowly, filled with grief. As the next St. Nicholas' feast day approached, Basilios' mother would not join in the festivity, as it was now a day of tragedy. However, she was persuaded to have a simple observance at home—with quiet prayers for Basilios' safekeeping. Meanwhile, as Basilios was fulfilling his tasks serving the emir, he was suddenly whisked up and away. St. Nicholas appeared to the terrified boy, blessed him, and set him down at his home back in Myra. Imagine the joy and wonderment when Basilios amazingly appeared before his parents, still holding the king's golden cup. This is the first story told of St. Nicholas protecting children—which became his primary role in the West.

Another story tells of three theological students, traveling on their way to study in Athens. A wicked innkeeper robbed and murdered them, hiding their remains in a large pickling tub. It so happened that Bishop Nicholas, traveling along the same route, stopped at this very inn. In the night he dreamed of the crime, got up, and summoned the innkeeper. As Nicholas prayed earnestly to God the three boys were restored to life and wholeness. In France this story is told but features three small children. While playing they wandered off and became lost. They were lured and captured by an evil butcher. St. Nicholas appears and appeals to God to return them to life and to their families. Again we see St. Nicholas as the patron and protector of children. These stories seem to have started from an incident where a local governor had been bribed to condemn three innocent men to death. On the day fixed for their execution Nicholas stayed the hand of the executioner and released them. Then he turned to the governor and reproved him so sternly that he repented.

Another story relates to his pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. As he was returning by sea, a mighty storm threatened to wreck the ship. Nicholas calmly prayed. The terrified sailors were amazed when the wind and waves suddenly calmed, sparing them all. And so St. Nicholas is the patron of sailors and voyagers. It was as the patron saint of sailors and voyagers that the stories of Nicholas spread far and wide.

St. Nicholas chapels were built in many seaports. As his popularity spread during the Middle Ages, he became the patron saint of Apulia (Italy), Sicily, Greece, and Lorraine (France), and many cities in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Russia, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Following his baptism in Constantinople, Vladimir I of Russia brought St. Nicholas' stories and devotion to St. Nicholas to his homeland where Nicholas became the most beloved saint. Nicholas was so widely revered that more than 2,000 churches were named for him, including three hundred in Belgium, thirty-four in Rome, twenty-three in the Netherlands and more than four hundred in England.

Widely celebrated in Europe, St. Nicholas' feast day, December 6th, kept alive the stories of his goodness and generosity. In Germany and Poland, boys dressed as bishops begged alms for the poor—and sometimes for themselves! In the Netherlands and Belgium, St. Nicholas arrived on a steamship from Spain to ride a white horse on his gift-giving rounds. December 6th is still the main day for gift giving and merrymaking in much of Europe. For example, in the Netherlands St. Nicholas is celebrated on the 5th, the eve of the day, by sharing candies (thrown in the door), chocolate initial letters, small gifts, and riddles. Dutch children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for the saint's horse, hoping St. Nicholas will exchange them for small gifts.

As we can see, through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas' life and deeds. These accounts help us understand his extraordinary character and why he is so beloved and revered as a protector and helper of those in need.

The legend of Santa Claus is really an amalgamation of three stories. One is of a Nordic magician, who visited during winter bringing gifts for good little boys and girls but coal for those who didn’t measure up. This is also where we get the North Pole address and sleigh as a means of transportation for Santa. The second tradition is the English Father Christmas. This is where we get Santa’s distinctive outfit, but not its color. Red comes from St. Nicholas, because red became the distinctive color of bishops. The name Santa Claus comes from a distortion of the Dutch Sinterklaas, itself a distortion from earlier versions of the story.

Santa Claus is a very popular part of the American culture and children wait for Christmas morning with eager anticipation to see what Santa has brought them. However the time comes when every child either realizes that Santa is “only” a story, or they are told by someone. Personally, I think this is more traumatic for the parents than the child, as the parents are coming to grips with their children growing up. Still, the question of how to break the news to a child who is wondering “if Santa is real” is an issue many parents face. In these trying economic times, parents might be facing this discussion at an earlier age than a decade ago. I have found the following approach helpful. First, take the child out to lunch. This places the discussion in a special time between adult and child, a rite of passage so to speak. Second, tell them about St. Nicholas, the “first Santa Claus and a hero of the Christian Faith” Third tell them how people kept his generous and loving spirit alive by annually doing acts of charity and giving gifts, especially to children. Fourth, explain how the story of St. Nicholas changed over time as it moved from culture to culture. Fifth, the presents the child has received in the past from “Santa” have really come from people who love them, but do not want to take credit for the gift (just like the original Nicholas didn’t seek credit for the gold he tossed through the window for the dowry of the girls). Finally, tell your child to not destroy the story for others who have not yet learned the truth behind the legend. Their time will come. However they can thank God for such a wonderful man who inspired such a wonderful tradition that values children and generosity. They can keep the spirit of Nicholas and Christmas alive by keeping Christ central in their lives and fostering a spirit of generosity (just like Nicholas did).

Appropriate prayers for the Commemoration of St. Nicholas, pastor, include prayers for a spirit of generosity, for children – especially those who have no one to care for them, for those who suffer persecution for the sake of the Gospel, for mariners and travelers, and Christians in Turkey, Greece, Russia, and other locals that consider Nicholas their patron saint.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert.

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