St. Nicholas of Myra

Feast Day: December 6

St. Nicholas of MyraThough he is one of the most popular and honored saints in the East and west Churches, there is scarcely anything historically certain about him but in Syriac history we find full story of him. The great veneration with which this saint has been honored for many ages and the number of altars and churches which have been everywhere dedicated in his memory are testimonials to his holiness and of the glory which he enjoys with God. He is said to have been born at Patara in Lycia (in Turkey), a province of Asia Minor. Myra, the capital, not far from the sea, was an Episcopal See under the jurisdiction of Holy See of Antioch.

He was born in the city of Patara in the Lycian region (on the south coast of the Asia Minor peninsula), and was the only son of pious parents Theophanes and Tonna (Nonna?), who had given a vow to dedicate him to God. As the fruition of longtime prayer of his childless parents, the infant Nicholas from the very day of his birth revealed to people the light of his future glory as a wonderworker. His mother, Tonna, after giving birth was immediately healed from her illness.

From the time of his childhood Nicholas thrived on the study of Divine Scripture; by day he would not leave church, and by night he prayed and read books, fashioning in himself a worthy dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit. His uncle, Bishop Nicholas of Patara, rejoiced at the spiritual success and deep piety of his kinsman. He ordained him a reader, and then elevated Nicholas to the dignity of presbyter (priest), making him his assistant and entrusting him to speak instructing the flock. In serving the Lord the youth was fervent of spirit, and in his proficiency with questions of faith he was like an elder, which aroused the wonder and deep respect of believers. Constantly at work and vivacious, being in unceasing prayer, presbyter Nicholas displayed great kind-heartedness towards the flock, and towards those afflicted coming to him for help, and he distributed all his inheritance to the poor.

In setting off on pilgrimage to the holy places at Jerusalem, the bishop of Patara entrusted the guidance of the flock to Saint Nicholas, who fulfilled this obedience carefully and with love. When the bishop returned, he in turn asked blessing for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Along the way the saint predicted the onset of a storm threatening the ship with inundation, since he saw the devil itself having got on ship. At the entreaty of the despairing pilgrims, he calmed by his prayers the waves of the sea. Through his prayer also was restored to health a certain sailor of the ship, who had fallen from the mast and was mortally injured.

Having reached the ancient city of Jerusalem and having come to Golgotha, Saint Nicholas offered up thanksgiving to the Saviour of the race of mankind and he made the rounds of all the holy places, worshiping God and making prayers. Going round the holy places connected with the earthly service of the Son of God, Saint Nicholas decided to withdraw into the wilderness, but he was stopped by a Divine voice, urging him to return to his native country. Having returned to Lycia and yearning for a life of quietude, the saint entered into the brotherhood of a monastery, named Holy Sion. But the Lord again announced another pathway, awaiting him: "Nicholas, this is not the field, on which thou ought to await Mine harvest, but rather turn round and go into the world, and there My Name shall be glorified in you."

Before being selected bishop, he saw in a vision, a great throne and magnificent vestments placed on it and a man said to him, "Put on these vestments and sit on this throne." Another night he saw our Lady, St. Mary, giving him the vestments of the priesthood and our Lord Jesus Christ gave him the Gospel.

When the Bishop of Mora departed, the Angel of the Lord appeared to the Archbishop and told him the one who was chosen for this rank was Nicholas and described his virtues to him. When he woke up he told the bishops what he had seen, and they all believed that vision. They knew that it was from the Lord Jesus Christ. They took St. Nicholas and made him Bishop over the city of Myra. Summoned to the flock of the Church in the dignity of archbishop, Sainted Nicholas remained a great ascetic, appearing to his flock as an image of gentleness, kindness and love towards people. This was particularly precious for the Lycian Church during the time of persecution of Christians under the emperor Diocletian (284-305). Bishop Nicholas, locked up in prison together with other Christians, sustained them and exhorted them to bravely endure the fetters, punishment and torture. He himself the lord preserved unharmed. Upon the accession to rule of the emperor Constantine, Saint Nicholas was restored to his flock, which joyfully received back their guide and intercessor.

Having returned to his own diocese, the saint brought it peace and blessings, sowing the word of Truth, nipping in the bud defective and spurious claims of wisdom, uprooting heresy and healing the fallen and those led astray through ignorance. He was indeed was a light in his diocese and the salt of the earth, wherein his life did shine and his word was mixed with the salt of wisdom.

Despite his great gentleness of spirit and purity of heart, Saint Nicholas was a zealous and ardent warrior of the Church of Christ. Fighting evil spirits, the saint made the rounds of the pagan temples and shrines in the city of Myra and its surroundings, shattering the idols and turning the temples to dust.

In the year 325 Saint Nicholas was a participant in the 1st Ecumenical Council. This Council proclaimed the Nicean Symbol of faith, and he stood up with others of the 318 fathers of the Council against the heretic Arius.

Even during his life the saint worked many miracles. Of them the one accorded the greatest fame was the deliverance from death by the saint of three men, unjustly condemned by a greedy city-commander. The saint boldly went up to the executioner and took hold of his sword, already suspended over the heads of the condemned. The city-commander, denounced by Saint Nicholas in wrong-doing, repented himself and begged for forgiveness. During this time there were present three military officers, dispatched by the emperor Constantine to Phrygia. They did not suspect that they soon likewise would be compelled to seek the intercession of Saint Nicholas: it so happened that they had been vilely slandered before the emperor and were come under a sentence of death. Appearing in sleep to the emperor Constantine, Saint Nicholas called on him to dismiss the wrongful death-sentence of the military officers who, now in prison, prayerfully called out for help to the saint. He worked many other miracles, and asceticised many long years at his labor. Through the prayers of the saint, the city of Myra was rescued from a terrible famine. Having appeared in sleep to a certain Italian merchant and having left him as a pledge of payment three gold money-pieces, which the merchant found in his hand upon wakening in the morning, he requested him to sail to Myra and furnish grain there. More than once did the saint save those drowning in the sea, and provide release from captivity and imprisonment.

Perhaps the best-known story about Nicholas concerns his charity toward a poor man who was unable to provide dowries for his three daughters of marriageable age. The despairing father considered to give them over to profligacy so as to save them from hunger. The saint, grieving lest the man perish a sinner, Nicholas secretly tossed a bag of gold through the poor man’s window on three separate occasions. The third time when the saint threw the gold into the house, the man was watching and immediately when he felt the drop of the sack, he ran out of his house to see who was throwing the gold to him. He found the kind bishop St. Nicholas and the man bowed down at his feet and paid him great homage and thanked him because he saved his daughters from poverty and from a life of sin. The saint refused to accept any thanks and asked them to thank the Lord Who put this thought in his heart. thus enabling the daughters to be married. by this saved the family from falling into spiritual destruction. In bestowing charity, Saint Nicholas always strove to do this secretly and conceal his good deeds. Over the centuries, this particular legend evolved into the custom of gift-giving on the saint’s feast. In the English-speaking countries, St. Nicholas became, by a twist of the tongue, Santa Claus—further expanding the example of generosity portrayed by this holy man.

Having reached old age, and finished his course and guarded his flock, Saint Nicholas departed to be with the Lord on December 341/5. He sat on the Episcopal throne for more than 40 years, and all the days of his life were about 80 years.

St. Nicholas is the true personality behind the story of Santa Claus or Papa Noel, who leaves presents for children on Christmas Eve.

The name of the great saint of God, the hierarch and wonderworker Nicholas, a speedy helper and suppliant for all hastening to him, is famed in all the ends of the earth, in many lands and among many peoples. Our Syriac Orthodox Church as well as in the world there are a multitude of cathedrals, monasteries and churches consecrated in his name. There is not, probably, a single city in Russia without a Nikol'sk temple. We read in the Coptic Synaxarium that: "On this day (April 23rd), the church commemorates the consecration of the first altar that was built by the Jacobite Christians (Syrian Orthodox), who were residing in the land of Egypt for St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra. St. Nicholas was one of the fathers of the council of Nicea, the Three Hundred and Eighteen..."

Transfer of the Relics from Lycian Myra to Bari in Italy

In the XI Century the Byzantine Empire was living through some terrible times. The Turks put an end to its influence in Asia Minor, they destroyed cities and villages, the murdered the inhabitants, and they accompanied their cruel outrage with the desecration of churches, holy relics, icons and books. They attempted also to destroy the relics of Saint Nicholas, deeply venerated by all the Christian world.

In the year 792 the caliph Aaron Al'-Rashid sent humeid at the head of a fleet to pillage the island of Rhodes. Having lain waste this island, humeid set off to Lycian Myra with the intent to rob from the tomb of Saint Nicholas. But instead of it he robbed another, standing alongside the crypt of the saint. Just as they succeeded in committing this sacrilege, a terrible storm lifted upon the sea and almost all the ships were shattered into pieces.

The desecration of holy things shocked not only Eastern, but also Western Christians. Christians in Italy were particularly apprehensive for the relics of Saint Nicholas. The inhabitants of the city of Bari, located on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, decided to save the relics of Saint Nicholas.

In the year 1087 merchants from Bari and Venice set out to Antioch for trade. Both these and others also had proposed on the return trip to take up the relics of Saint Nicholas and transport them to Italy. In this plan the men of Bari commissioned the Venetians to land them at Myra. At first two men were sent in, who in returning reported that in the city all was quiet, and in the church where rested the glorified relics, they encountered only four monks. Immediately 47 men, having armed themselves, set out for the church of Saint Nicholas. The monk-guards, suspecting nothing, showed them the raised platform, beneath which was concealed the tomb of the saint, where by custom, they anointed foreigners with myrrh from the relics of the saint. The monks told them during this about an appearance of Saint Nicholas that evening to a certain elder. In this vision Saint Nicholas ordered the cautious preserving of his relics. This account encouraged the barons -- they saw an avowal for them in this vision and as it were a decree from the saint. In order to facilitate their activity, they revealed their intent to the monks and offered them money -- 300 gold coins. The monk-guards refused the money and wanted to warn the inhabitants about the misfortune threatening them. But the newcomers bound them and put their own guards at the doorway. They took apart the church platform beneath which stood the tomb with the relics. In this effort the youth Matthew was excessive in his especial zeal, wanting to as quickly as possible to find the relics of Saint Nicholas. In his impatience he broke the cover and the barons saw, that the sarcophagus was filled with fragrant holy myrrh. The compatriots of the barons, the priests Luppus and Drogus, made a litany, after which the break of Matthew began to flow with myrrh from the overflowing sarcophagus of the relics of the saint. This occurred on 20 April 1087.

Seeing the absence of a container chest, priest Drogus wrapped the relics in the cover cloth, and in the company of the barons he carried them to the ship. The monks -- having been set free, alerted the city with the sad news about the abduction of the relics of the Wonderworker Nicholas by foreigners. A crowd of people gathered at the shore, but it was too late. ...

On 8 May the ships arrived in Bari, and soon the joyous news made the rounds of all the city. On the following day, 9 May 1087, they solemnly transported the relics of Saint Nicholas into the church of Saint Stephen, situated not far from the sea. The solemn bearing of the relics was accompanied by numerous healings of the sick, which inspired still greater reverence for the Saint of God. A year afterwards a church was built in the name of Saint Nicholas and consecrated by Pope Urban II.

This event, connected with the transfer of the relics of Saint Nicholas, evoked a particular veneration for the Wonderworker Nicholas and was marked by the establishing of a special feast day on 9 May. At first the Feast day of the Transfer of the Relics of Saint Nicholas was observed only by the people of the city of Bari. In the other lands of the Christian East and West it was not adopted, despite the fact that the transfer of the relics was widely known about. This circumstance is to be explained by the custom in the Middle Ages of venerating primarily the relics of local saints. Moreover, the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch did not establish the celebration of this remembrance, since for it the loss of the relics of Saint Nicholas was a sad event.

The Russian Orthodox Church celebration of the memory of the Transfer of the Relics of Saint Nicholas from Lycian Myra to Bari in Italy on 9 May was established soon after the year 1087, on the basis of an already established veneration by the Russian people of the great Saint of God, brought over from Greece simultaneously with the acceptance of Christianity. The glorious accounts about the miracle-workings, done by the saint on both land and sea, were widely known to the Russian people. Their inexhaustible strength and abundance testify to the especially graced help of the great Saint of God for suffering mankind. The image of Saint Nicholas, a mighty Wonderworker and Benefactor, became especially dear to the heart of the people, since it inspired deep faith and hope for his intercession.

His prayers be with us and Glory be to our God forever. Amen.