Under Angel Wings


Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Feast of St. Nicholas

This morning, we are devoting our posting to the memory of a remarkable man named Nicholas, who was born during the third century in a village in what was then Greece, but is now Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to his disciples to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to help the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man.

Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals—murderers, thieves and robbers. After his release, Nicholas attended the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325, where our Nicene Creed was written. He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church, where 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.

Probably the most well known story tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman's father had to offer future husbands something of value—a dowry. This poor man's daughters, without dowries, were destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home, providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings, or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. And so St. Nicholas was a gift-giver.

One of the oldest stories showing St. Nicholas as a protector of children took 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, as not knowing the language, Basilios 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 was a very sad one. As the next St. Nicholas' feast day approached, it was said that Basilios' mother would not join in the festivity, as it was now a day of tragedy. She spent the day praying for Basilios' safekeeping. Meanwhile, as Basilios was working at his tasks serving the emir, legend says 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. This is the first story told of St. Nicholas protecting children.

Several stories tell of Nicholas and the sea. When he was young, Nicholas sought to be holy by making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There as he walked where Jesus walked, he sought to more deeply experience Jesus' life, passion, and resurrection. 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 held to be the patron of sailors and voyagers.

Other stories tell of Nicholas saving his people from famine, and sparing the lives of those innocently accused. He did many kind and generous deeds in secret, expecting nothing in return. Within a century of his death he was celebrated as a saint.

Sailors, claiming St. Nicholas as patron, carried stories of his favor and protection far and wide. St. Nicholas chapels were built in many seaports. 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.

Nicholas' tomb in Myra became a popular place of pilgrimage. Because of the many wars and attacks in the region, some Christians were concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult. 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 and many faithful journeyed to honor the saint who had rescued children, prisoners, sailors and famine victims. The Nicholas shrine in Bari was one of medieval Europe's great pilgrimage centers and Nicholas became known as the "Saint in Bari." To this day pilgrims and tourists visit Bari's great Basilica di San Nicola.

Through the centuries St. Nicholas has continued to be venerated by Catholics and Orthodox, and honored by Protestants.

Widely celebrated in Europe, St. Nicholas' feast day, December 6th, kept alive the stories of his goodness and generosity. December 6th is still the main day for gift giving 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 and coins, small gifts, and riddles.

While it is difficult for us living in the 21st century to know the exact facts of Nicholas’ life, and to be able to tell which stories are mere legends, the important thing for us to remember is that Nicholas lived, he loved Jesus, modeled his life after him and lived his life in compassionate service to the people around him. He was a truly holy man.

More information about Nicholas can be found at www.stnicholascenter.org

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