St. Nicholas (December 6)

A WORLD-WIDE SYMBOL OF GIFT-GIVING and love, St. Nicholas (270-343) is more revered by the Church as a Wonderworker, both in life and in death. The earliest written source on the life of St. Nicholas we have comes from the early to mid-ninth century, almost 500 years after his death.

There was at least one earlier source which no longer exists. An otherwise unknown author, Archimandrite Michael, writing to someone named Leo, mentions an earlier work that has not come down to us, “Until now the spiritual program of this illustrious pastor was unknown to many people, as you yourself suppose, although some had knowledge of his grace from the lone Acts dedicated to him.”

The absence of earlier sources should not surprise us. Detailed biographies were not common in Asia Minor before the ninth century. We do find St. Nicholas mentioned in earlier writings as well as in prayers and iconography. Churches were dedicated to him, even in Constantinople, so we know that he was widely known and revered in the Greek Church. One telling point is that, while the name Nicholas was not common in the area before the fourth century, its use spread quickly after St. Nicholas’ lifetime.

Towards the middle of the ninth century, St. Methodios, Patriarch of Constantinople, wrote a Life of the saint, perhaps drawing on older sources. Then we have the early tenth-century Greek text of St. Symeon the Translator, who used all the available sources known to him to compile his Life. Finally we have the first Latin Life of St. Nicholas by John the Deacon, adapted from the text of St. Methodios.

The Life of St Nicholas

Nicholas was born to wealthy Christian parents in Patara, on the southwest coast of the Roman province of Lycia in Asia Minor. He was orphaned in an epidemic while he was still young and raised by his uncle, another Nicholas, the bishop of Patara. Of a religious disposition, Nicholas was tonsured as a reader by his uncle while quite young and eventually was ordained a priest. Obeying Christ’s words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his own inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering.

As a prominent Christian, Nicholas was imprisoned during the persecutions of Diocletian and Galerius, which ended in 311. In response to his deliverance, Nicholas traveled to the Holy Land on pilgrimage. While there he reportedly lived with a group of monks in what is today Beit Jala. However Nicholas was not called to the monastic life and returned to Patara. On the return voyage the ship was threatened by a powerful storm. The terrified sailors were amazed to see the storm suddenly subside at Nicholas’ prayers. This gave rise to the custom of praying to St Nicholas as protector of seamen.

In 317 Nicholas was chosen as archbishop of Myra, the provincial capital of Lycia. He was neither a great ascetic nor a martyr. His reputation rests on his pastoral concern for the people under his care, particularly the poor and the defenseless. The tenth-century life of St. Nicholas by Symeon the Translator tells of secret gift-giving to save an impoverished man’s daughters from penury. St. Nicholas secretly left money to provide a dowry for each of the daughters in turn. These stories and more became known in the West and Nicholas became a favorite saint throughout Europe.

Nicholas and Arius

In 325 Nicholas reportedly attended the First Ecumenical Council called by the emperor to combat the Arian schism prevailing in parts of the empire. Arius, a priest in Alexandria, taught that the Son was not equal to the Father but created by Him. The Holy Spirit, thought to be created by the Son, was subordinate to both. Arius’ teaching was spread throughout the Empire as an “earlier” form of Christianity than that of the official Churches. The Council, called by the emperor to restore peace and unity to the Churches, produced the first part of the Creed we use today. St Athanasius the Great, who was present at the council, wrote that 318 bishops participated. Only two finally refused to accept the Creed and it eventually became the standard of faith in all the Churches of its day.

Only a few fragments of the official acts of the council have survived. The lists of participants which have come down to us vary in the number of bishops named. Nicholas is named in a few of them and the story of his participation has become enshrined in the Church’s liturgy and iconography. Always a firm opponent of Arianism, Nicholas reputedly opposed Arius personally at the council. As John the Deacon described it, “Animated like the Prophet Elias with zeal for God, he put the heretic Arius to shame at the synod not only by word but also by deed, smiting him on the cheek.”

Nicholas, the account continues, was deposed as a result. His omophorion and Gospel Book, signs of his office, were confiscated and he was imprisoned. During the night the Lord Jesus and the Theotokos appeared to Nicholas in prison, restoring the items taken from him. When the emperor was notified of what had happened, he pardoned Nicholas and reinstated him.

Since the eye-witnesses at the council, St Athanasius and Eusebius of Caesarea do not mention any such incident in their writings, modern authors tend to discount it. Nevertheless, icons of St. Nicholas often depict his vision of Christ and the Theotokos returning his omophorion and Gospel.

St Nicholas became an increasingly influential public figure later in his episcopate. He successfully intervened to save three convicted looters who had been condemned to death, falsely accused of murder. When a famine struck the region in 333 Nicholas intercepted a ship laden with wheat bound for Constantinople. He persuaded the seamen to leave a substantial portion for the people of Myra. When the ship arrived at the imperial capital it was found that it still had its entire original cargo. Nothing was missing. Another often-repeated story tells how the emperor had levied a heavy tax on the people of Myra. St Nicholas went to Constantinople and pleaded successfully with the emperor to have the taxes reduced. Nicholas dispatched the decree to Myra immediately by sea so that, when the emperor had second thoughts about the tax cut, St Nicholas could tell him that it had already been enforced.

The “Manna” of St. Nicholas

Nicholas died in Myra on December 6, 343 and was buried in his cathedral. His tomb became a famous pilgrimage site, blessed with many miracles. The tomb exuded a sweet-smelling liquid called the Manna of St. Nicholas. As a result his relics were not disturbed and parceled out to other churches. After the Seljuk Turks conquered the area, Italian merchants in Venice and Bari sought to “rescue” the saint from the Turks. In 1087 seamen broke into the tomb and spirited away the saint’s body to Bari. It was enshrined by the pope in a great basilica built there in Nicholas’ honor. The Manna continued to exude from the tomb in Bari as it had in Myra. Every year to this day a vial of this fluid is extracted from the tomb, mixed with blessed water and given to the faithful.