December 6 – Nicholas of Myra
These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.
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Nicholas of Myra, bishop, faithful servant, pioneer
Few have spoken to power as memorably and effectively as St Nicholas of Myra: ‘I will stir up an uncontrollable revolt against you’, he is said to have threatened the Emperor Constantine, ‘and hand over your carcass and your entrails to the wild beasts for food, bearing witness against you before the celestial king, Christ’. In another account, he apparently biffed the heretic Arius on the nose at the Council of Nicea, receiving a copy of the gospels from Jesus for his trouble. This ‘brightest dawn of piety’, ‘light of justice’ and ‘lover of the poor’ is revered by Christians around the world. He was a fourth-century bishop of Myra, a city in Asia Minor. His relics were translated to Bari (in southern Italy) in 1087.
Nicholas demonstrated his holiness from birth. On Wednesdays and Fridays, the baby Nicholas suckled only once at the appointed hour, demonstrating the ascetic and priestly virtue that would characterise his life. He was cast as an image of John the Baptist, who was born to a women previously barren, whereas Nicholas’ mother was physically barren after his birth, becoming instead fertile in spirit, filled with all Christ-like virtues. Celebrating Nicholas’ saint day on the sixth of December in the lead up to Christmas, we celebrate a holy man whose life, like the Baptist’s, pointed to Christ.
Many of the stories associated with the saint highlight his justice and merciful equity. Born to wealthy parents, he gave up his possessions for the good of the poor, avoiding political and economic corruption (alongside women and the delights of the theatre). The earliest account of his life has him acting to correct a potentially disastrous and murderous miscarriage of justice, when he saves three people about to be executed by a corrupt official. (The fame of this deed makes another prisoner similarly falsely accused call for St Nicholas’ aid, resulting in the warning to the emperor quoted above). Tyrants, we are told, could not endure his just and equitable rebuke.
Throughout, he is depicted as a ‘just tree of life’ who nourishes his flock by his deeds, orthodoxy and holiness. He gave alms to the poor, and famously (and secretly) gave bags of gold to a father so impoverished he was contemplating selling his daughters into prostitution. On one occasion, he multiplied from an imperial consignment sufficient grain to feed his people for two years during a famine, leaving the original consignment undiminished. He cared for the outcast as ‘champion of widows’, ‘father of orphans’ and ‘comforter of the poor’. Dramatically, he cast out Greco-Roman demons, and destroyed their temples. We hear that he went to the Temple of Artemis, that ‘most foul building’, and ‘overthrew not only its upper parts to the ground but also dug up its very foundations and rendered the demons who dwelt there exiles’, thereby securing the inhabitants from the evils of paganism.
Nicholas’ body, always a sweet-smelling sign of divinity, became the source after his death of a perfume or holy manna that wards off all dangers, to the glory of God.
Antiphon: Nicholas, friend of God, when invested with the episcopal insignia, showed himself a friend to all.
Versicle: Pray for us, blessed Nicholas.
Response: That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Oratio: O God, you adorned the pious blessed Bishop Nicholas with countless miracles; grant, we beseech you, that through his merits and prayers, we may be delivered from the flames of hell. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(Hours of Henry VIII, fol. 182v: http://www.themorgan.org/collection/hours-of-henry-viii/45; For these and other stories about St Nicholas, see the sources at http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/home/)
Dr Michael Champion