The true greatness of this beloved Saint is hidden in the shadows of legend, obscuring the identity of one of the most endearing of our saints.
Nothing is known of the early life of Nicholas, except that he was born at the turn of the fourth century, during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, in Asia Minor and was a Bishop of Myra, in that area which is now Turkey. Of a quiet and and studious nature, he attended the Synod of Nicaea in A.D. 325. On that momentous occasion he was so withdrawn that he is not even mentioned in the account of the proceedings recorded by St. Athanasios the Great; however, his behind the scenes activity did add to the luster of this memorable convocation. His importance was recognised by the Emperor Justinian, who had a magnificent cathedral erected in his memory in Constantinople.
Prior to his elevation as Archbishop, Nicholas had suffered imprisonment, harsh treatment and torture at the hands of the enemies of the Church. It was not until the reign of the Christian Emperor Constantine that he was able to lead the normal and peaceful life of a prelate. His leadership in Myra, which did not offer very hospitable surroundings for the Christians of the day, was so effective that his fame and popularity gave rise to many legends that were well intended but served only to screen the true character of this very real and industrious saint who laboured for Christ all the years of his life, echoing the truth of Christianity uttered centuries before by the apostles.
So great was St. Nicholas' popularity that he became the symbol of protection of children, which led to many of the legends about him. After his death by natural causes at a venerable age, the legends and myths multiplied, but they only demonstrate how dearly loved he was for his great work. He became not only the patron saint of children, but also of merchants, sailors, and scholars, and was a protective symbol for travellers against highwaymen.
In a fascinating and daring enterprise in the late eleventh century, the residents of Bari, Italy, where Nicholas' popularity had grown with the years, hatched a plot to recover the remains of the saint from Turkey. Through guile and ruse they were able to outwit the unwary but dangerous natives of Asia Minor and succeeded in removing the body of Saint Nicholas and transporting it to Bari. There it was paraded in triumph through the streets before being properly enshrined on 22 May 1087, after which a magnificent basilica was erected in his honour.
Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker
Saint Nicholas the wonderworker of Myra, Lycia, is a saint especially loved by the Orthodox Christians, particularly by Russian Orthodox believers. He is perceived as a prompt helper in various tribulations of life and hardships of traveling. The only son of his eminent and wealthy parents, Theophanes and Nona, he was born in Asia Minor at the end of the 3rd century. His parents dedicated to God the only son He gave them. St. Nicholas was deeply religious since his early childhood and his uncle Nicholas, Bishop of Patara, instructed him in his spiritual life. He became a monk at ‘New Zion’, a monastery founded by his uncle.
After the death of his parents, Nicholas distributed all the property he inherited to the poor and kept nothing back for himself. He tried to help people secretly, so that they would not be thankful to him. As a priest in Patara, he was known for his charitable works, fulfilling the Lord’s words: ‘When you give to the needy, do not let thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth, so that your giving may be in secret’ (Matt. 6:3). The following example shows how he helped those in misery.
In the city of Patara there lived a rich man who had 3 daughters. When the girls were becoming of age, their father’s business went from bad to worse and finally he became a bankrupt. He contrived a felonious scheme to use the beauty of his daughters in order to earn money for living. Saint Nicholas learned about his plans and decided to save that man and his daughters from the infamy. At night Saint Nicholas quietly crept to the house of the bankrupt merchant and threw a purse with gold coins into the window. The merchant was happy to find the money and use it as a dowry for his elder daughter to marry. In a short while Saint Nicholas threw in another purse with gold, which was enough for a dowry for the second daughter to get married. When Saint Nicholas was throwing the third purse with gold for the youngest daughter’s dowry, the merchant was on the watch for him. He fell on his knees before Saint Nicholas and thanked him tearfully for saving him and his family from a horrible sin and disgrace. After giving his daughters to marriage, the merchant put gradually his own affairs to order and began to help people following the example of his benefactor.
Saint Nicholas wanted to visit holy places. So he boarded a ship going to Palestine. The voyage was calm, but Saint Nicholas had a revelation about a coming storm and told his co-travelers about it. And indeed, a strongest tempest came down upon the ship making it a helpless toy of the raging waves. Knowing that Saint Nicholas was a priest, everybody asked him to pray for deliverance. Upon his prayer the wind subsided and the sea got perfectly quiet. One of the sailors, who had been blown off a mast by the wind and died, was resurrected by Saint Nicholas praying.
After venerating the holy places Saint Nicholas wanted to retreat from the world of people to a desert for the rest of his life. But this was not God’s will, He foreordained him to be a good pastor. A voice from on high came to him: ‘Nicholas, return home and set about your work among the people if you desire to receive a crown from Me.’
Saint Nicholas did not want to live in the town where all the people knew and praised him. So he settled as a poor man in Myra, the capital of Lycia. There was a bishop’s cathedra in that city. He loved the church and came to services every day as soon as the doors would open.
At that time the Myra bishop died and the bishops of the neighboring eparchies gathered to elect his successor. They failed to reach a unanimous decision until one of them said, "The Lord God Himself will show us His choice. Let us pray, brethren, let us fast and wait for the sign from above." And indeed, the eldest of the bishops had a revelation that the first man entering the church is to become the bishop. He told other bishops about it and before the morning service started, he went to the door and was waiting for the God’s chosen one to appear. As usual Saint Nicholas was the first to come for morning prayers. When he was entering the church the bishop stopped him and asked for his name. Saint Nicholas told his name humbly.
"Follow me, my son," said the bishop, who took him by his hand, led him into the church and announced that Nicholas was to be ordained bishop of Myra. Saint Nicholas was afraid to accept such a high hierarchical position, but he had to concede to the will of bishops and the people.
When Nicholas became a bishop, he said to himself, "Up to now I could live for myself and the salvation of my soul, but now every moment of my life should be devoted to others." And indeed, with abandonment the holy father opened the doors to everyone, becoming father and benefactor of orphans and the poor, and he protected everybody who was hurt or needed help.
The contemporaries described him as a very kind and humble person, he was wearing most simple cloths and ate only once a day, some fasting food in the evening. Merciful, wise and fearless, Nicholas was a true shepherd to his flock.
He was cast into prison during the persecutions of Diocletian (284-305). But even there, he continued to instruct the people in the Law of God. He supported the Christians suffering persecution together with him, through his example and preaching. But it was not in the will of God for him to die a martyr’s death. A new emperor Constantine was benevolent to Christians and granted them the right to openly express their religious beliefs.
At that time St. Nicholas could return to his parishioners. It would be hard to enumerate all the instances of help and wonderworking that he performed. Once during famine in Lycia, St. Nicholas appeared in a dream to a merchant who was loading his ship with bread in Italy. St. Nicholas gave him gold coins and told him to take his cargo to the city of Myra in Lycia. When the merchant woke up and saw the coins in his hand, he was awed and could not but obey the saint’s order. He brought his bread to the country struck by famine and told the people about the wonderful vision, which brought him there.
At that time many churches were in schismatic revolts due to the Arius’s heretical teaching, which rejected the divinity of Jesus Christ. To reconcile the church, the emperor Constantine the Great convened the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325. St. Nicholas was present there among other bishops. The Ecumenical Council criticized the heresy of Arius and composed "The Symbol of Creed," which formulates in precise wording the faith of Orthodox believers in the Lord Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God, of one essence with the God the Father. During discussions, St. Nicholas got so angry at the heresy that he struck Arius in the face in front of everybody. For breaking order, St. Nicholas was removed from the Council and from his episcopate duties, until some of the chief hierarchs had a vision of our Lord Christ handing a gospel to St. Nicholas and His most holy Mother endowing him with an omophorion. The bishops understood how incompatible with God’s truth were the Arius’s heretical ideas, and they returned the bishop’s title to St. Nicholas.
This wonderful saint was a defender of the truth of God, and was ever a spirited champion of justice among the people. The description of his life also gives us the following example of his being a spirited champion of justice among the people. Once the emperor sentenced three army chiefs to death after they were slanderously accused. Remembering St. Nicholas’s wonder making, they appealed to him asking for protection. After a prayer St. Nicholas appeared in a dream to the emperor and told him to release his loyal servants, warning him of a punishment if he disobeyed. "Who are you — the emperor asked, — that you dare to demand something from me?" "I am the archbishop Nicholas of the city of Myra," said the holy father. Obeying the order the emperor looked thoroughly into the matter and set those men free with all the appropriate acclaim.
Once a ship was sailing from Egypt to Libya. A horrible storm arose and the ship started sinking. Some of the people on board remembered about St. Nicholas and began praying him for help. Then they saw him rushing to their ship across the stormy sea, board it and taking the helm in his hands. The storm subsided and the ship arrived safely to harbor. Merciful, and trustworthy, he walked among the people like an angel of God. People considered him a saint even during his lifetime, and invoked his aid when in torment or distress. He would appear both in dreams and in reality to those who called upon him for help, responding speedily to them, whether close at hand or far away. His face would shine with light as Moses’ did aforetime, and his mere presence among people would bring solace, peace and goodwill.
He lived a very long life full of labor and fruitful toil. In his old age he sickened of a slight illness, and went to his rest in the Lord on December 6th in the middle of the fourth century. Not only his help did not abate upon death, but also it became even stronger. For already a thousand and a half years he remains a prompt helper of those who pray for his support. The recount of his assistance constitutes a voluminous book and people’s devotion to him grows with time.
When in 1087 the Saracens devastated Lycia, St. Nicholas appeared in a dream to a righteous priest in the town of Bari (in Italy) and told to take his relics to that town. This order of the saint was soon carried out and from that time to the present day his relics are preserved in the town of Bari. Healing myrrh is ensuing from them. That event is commemorated on May 22 of the modern calendar.
Troparion, Tone 4: