Today is the feast day of Saint Nicholas. Ora pro nobis.
The real St. Nicholas was a legendary figure – a muscular and generous Christian bishop — in his own time. He saved girls from sexual slavery, raised people from the dead, was thrown into prison for his Christianity, and even punched a famous heretic at a church council. (14)
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
St. Nicholas, whom the Almighty honored with numberless miracles, was born at Patara, in Lycia, of rich and pious parents, who having lived a long time without issue, at last, after many prayers, were rejoiced by the Lord with a son. It was a remarkable fact that Nicholas, when an infant, on Wednesdays and Fridays, refused to take nourishment from his mother's breast until nightfall; and this custom of partaking of no food on those days, he observed as long as he lived. When sent to school, he carefully avoided all interaction young men, and still more with the other sex. He shunned all occasions of evil, chastised his body by watching, fasting, wearing a penitential girdle, and read only such books as aided him to acquire virtue and knowledge. In this manner he preserved his innocence inviolate through all dangers. Having made great progress in virtue and knowledge, he was ordained priest by the bishop of Myra, who was his God-father. As he felt himself obliged by the sacredness of his station to strive to attain greater virtue, he redoubled his austerities, his fervor in prayer, and his zeal in doing good. The rich inheritance which came into his possession after the death of his parents, was employed only to relieve and comfort the needy.
Among these were three young virgins whom their father, impoverished by misfortune, had advised to maintain themselves at the cost of their virtue, as he saw no means to provide for them. St. Nicholas, having heard this, went, during the night and threw into the father's room, through the window, as much money as was necessary to give one of the three maidens a marriage dower. The same was done, after a lapse of some time, for the second and the third; and, by this noble work of charity, the father and the daughters were saved from temporal and eternal ruin. After some time, by order of the bishop of Myra, Nicholas was charged with the care of a monastery, and performed this task with great prudence and care.
Meanwhile, his heart was filled with the desire to visit the Holy Land, and to pass the remainder of his life in solitude. The day on which he set sail he prophesied to the sailors that they would soon encounter a severe storm. The sailors, thinking they were better skilled in such matters, laughed at him, but the issue showed that the Saint was right; for so terrific a storm arose that all on board thought themselves lost. Hence they begged the Saint, as God had revealed to him the danger, to implore Him to turn it from them. Hardly had the holy man begun to pray when the winds abated and the storm ceased. Similar miracles the holy man performed frequently; hence he is honored and invoked as a special patron of sailors. In Palestine he visited the holy places with great devotion, and made the resolution to remain there in some retired spot, where he might serve the Almighty undisturbed. But, by divine admonition, he returned to his monastery, where he did not remain long, as God inspired him to go to Myra, the capital of Lycia.
The bishops of that country had just assembled at Myra, to elect a successor to the late bishop, and while they were praying to be guided by heaven in their choice, God revealed to one of them that they should choose him who, on the following morning, should first enter the church, and whose name was Nicholas. St. Nicholas, knowing nothing of what had passed, was the first who entered the church the next morning. A bishop who had been appointed to be there, having asked his name, took him by the hand and led him to the assembled prelates, who informed him of the divine will and consecrated him bishop in spite of the tears he shed and the objections he offered.
Nicholas considering that so high an office required high virtues, endeavored to lead a still more perfect life than before. He practised severe penance, partook daily of one meal only, and never touched meat; took his short rest on the bare floor, gave all the time left to him from the administration of his functions to prayer, daily said holy Mass, at which he often shed many tears; visited the prisoners, the sick, and the poor of the city, among whom he divided almost all his income; preached on all Sundays and Holydays, and frequently visited the churches and parishes of his diocese, providing all with able priests and a sufficient income. In one word, he did all that could be expected of a bishop, who perfectly fulfilled his sacred duties. At that period there were still many pagans in Myra, besides an idolatrous temple, and the emperor sent his officers to exterminate Christianity and restore the pagan worship. On this occasion our holy bishop showed his generous seal. He went through all the streets and into all the houses exhorting the Christians to remain faithful to Christ, without fearing for himself either danger, persecution or death. He was seized, dragged out of the city, and cast into a dungeon, where he remained until Constantine the Great ascended the throne. The holy bishop experienced the greatest joy when this emperor gave orders to demolish the idolatrous temples and to build churches in their places. He himself assisted at the work and rested not until all pagan temples had disappeared from his diocese. Some time later an opportunity presented itself to him to fight against the Arian heresy, which he condemned in the Council of Nice.
The many and great miracles that he performed and the fame of his holiness gave him great consideration. Eustathius, an avaricious officer, had condemned to death three innocent citizens, living not far from Myra, in order that he might take possession of their property. No sooner had St. Nicholas been informed of this than he hastened to the place, where he found the three men already in the hands of the executioner. The Saint ran towards him and took the sword from him; he then reproved the wicked judge with severe words, and thus freed the innocent persons, amid the great rejoicings of the people.
Still more remarkable is the following: Constantine, the emperor, had condemned three of his most renowned generals to death, on false accusations. These, having heard much of the holiness of the Bishop of Myra, called on God to come to their aid for the sake of His servant. In the night before the day on which the sentence on the three prisoners was to be executed, Constantine saw St. Nicholas standing before him, threatening him with divine vengeance if he did not immediately recall the sentence against the innocent men. In the same manner the Saint appeared to the unjust accuser. Both, greatly frightened, set the prisoners free, and sent them with many rich gifts to St. Nicholas, to thank him for having thus protected them.
Almost at the same time the Saint appeared to some sailors who were in great danger of being wrecked, and had invoked him. They saw him at the helm, guiding the ship safely to land. When they expressed their gratitude to him, he said: “My children, give honor to God; I am but a poor sinner.” Taking them aside, he said that their sins, which he named to them, had been the cause of the danger they experienced, admonished them to repent, and then dismissed them. On account of this and numberless other miracles, the holy bishop was called the Thaumaturgus, or Wonder-worker of his age. All his biographers unite in saying that he raised many dead to life. Among these were three children who had been-cruelly murdered and cast into a tub; and this miracle is frequently represented by artists in their pictures of the Saint.
Although St. Nicholas was gifted with such high graces, and administered his episcopal functions so well, he yet feared that he did not do enough, and frequently prayed to God to release him from this burden. A voice from heaven, however, encouraged him, saying: “Fear not, Nicholas, I will recompense thy faithful services.” God also revealed to him the day and hour of his death, and the Saint, rejoicing soon to see the Lord, received with great devotion, the holy Sacraments, and after a short sickness ended his holy life.
In his last moments he saw heaven open, and a great multitude of angels came to accompany his soul to heaven. His last prayer was the Psalm, “In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped.” When he came to the words, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” he calmly expired. From his body emanated a miraculous oil, which restored the health of many sick. This oil is still flowing at Bari, in Apulia, where the holy body is enshrined, and is yearly visited by many devout pilgrims. (1)
St. Nicholas of Bari, Bishop and Confessor (†343; Feast – December 6)
Divine Wisdom has willed that on the way which leads to the Messias, our great High Priest, there should be many Pontiffs to pay Him the honor due to Him. Two Popes, St. Melchiades and St. Damasus; two Doctors, St. Peter Chrysologus and St. Ambrose; and two Bishops, St. Nicholas and St. Eusebius—these are the glorious Pontiffs who have been entrusted with the charge of preparing, by their prayers, the way of the Christian people towards Him, Who is the Sovereign Priest according to the Order of Melchisedech. Today the Church celebrates with joy the Feast of the great wonder–worker Nicholas, who is to the Eastern Church what St. Martin of Tours is to the West. The Church of Rome has honored the name of St. Nicholas for nearly a thousand years (especially since the translation of the majority of his relics to Bari in 1087). Let us admire the wonderful power which God gave him over creation; but let us offer him our most fervent congratulations for that he was permitted to be one of the three hundred and eighteen Bishops, who proclaimed, at Nicaea, that the Word is consubstantial with the Father. The humiliations of the Son of God did not scandalize him. Neither the lowliness of the flesh, which the sovereign Lord of all things assumed to Himself in the womb of the Virgin, nor the poverty of the crib, hindered him from confessing the Son of Mary to be Son of God, equal to God; and for this reason, God has glorified this His servant, and given him the power to obtain, each year, for the children of the true Church, the grace of receiving this same Jesus, the Word made flesh, with simple faith and fervent love.
At the Council of Nicaea, St. Nicholas slapped Arius in the face for teaching that Christ was a created being instead of eternally one with the Father and the Holy Ghost. This action was in conflict with the directions of the Emperor, so the Bishop of Myra was brought before Constantine to answer for himself. The Emperor wisely deferred judgment to the Fathers of the Council, but this resulted in St. Nicholas being deposed as bishop. However, several of the Council Fathers that night shared a dream in which they saw St. Nicholas reinstated as bishop by Christ and His Holy Mother Mary. The next day, St. Nicholas was reinstated as bishop and treated with respect. It is possible that this incident accounts for his reputation as one who punishes bad children at Christmas (or on the eve of his feast) as well as rewarding good children.
Let us now listen to the eulogy of St. Nicholas, which the Roman Church has inserted in Her liturgy:
St. Nicholas was born of a noble family at Patara, in the province of Lycia. His birth was the fruit of his parents’ prayers. Evidence of his great future holiness was given from his very cradle. For when he was an infant, he would take his food only once on Wednesdays and Fridays, and then not till evening; whilst on all other days he nursed frequently: he kept up this custom of fasting during the rest of his life. Having lost his parents when he was a boy, he gave all his goods to the poor. Of his Christian kindheartedness there is the following noble example. One of his fellow citizens had three daughters; but being too poor to obtain them an honorable marriage, he was minded to abandon them to a life of prostitution. St. Nicholas having come to know the case, went to the house during the night, and threw in by the window a sum of money sufficient for the dowry of one of the daughters; he did the same a second and third time; and thus the three were married to respectable men.
Having given himself wholly to the service of God, he set out for Palestine, that he might visit and venerate the holy places. During this pilgrimage, which he made by sea, he foretold to the mariners on embarking, though the heavens were then serene and the sea tranquil, that they would be overtaken by a frightful storm. In a very short time the storm arose. All were in the most imminent danger, when he quelled it by his prayers. His pilgrimage ended, he returned home, giving to all men example of the greatest sanctity. He went, by an inspiration from God, to Myra the metropolis of Lycia, which had just lost its bishop to death, and the bishops of the province had come together for the purpose of electing a successor. Whilst they were holding a council for the election, they were told by a revelation from Heaven, that they should choose him who, on the morrow, should be the first to enter the church, his name being Nicholas. Accordingly, the requisite observations were made, when they found St. Nicholas to be waiting at the church door: they took him, and, to the incredible delight of all, made him the Bishop of Myra. During his episcopate, he never flagged in the virtues looked for in a bishop: chastity, which indeed he had always preserved, gravity, assiduity in prayer, watchings, abstinence, generosity, and hospitality, meekness in exhortation, severity in reproving.
He befriended widows and orphans by money, by advice, and by every service in his power. So zealous a defender was he of all who suffered oppression, that, on one occasion, three tribunes having been condemned by the Emperor Constantine (who had been deceived by calumny) and having heard of the miracles wrought by St. Nicholas, they recommended themselves to his prayers, though he was living at a very great distance from that place; the Saint appeared to Constantine, and looking angrily upon him, obtained from the terrified Emperor their deliverance. Having, contrary to the edict of Diocletian and Maximian, preached in Myra the truth of the Christian Faith, he was taken off to a great distance and thrown in prison, where he remained until Constantine, having become Emperor, ordered his release, and the Saint returned to Myra. Shortly afterwards, he repaired to the Council which was being held in Nicaea: there he took part with the three hundred and eighteen Fathers in condemning the Arian heresy. Scarcely had he returned to his see, than he was taken with the sickness of which he soon died. Looking up to Heaven, and seeing Angels coming to meet him, he began the Psalm, “In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped;” and having come to those words, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” his soul took its flight to the heavenly country. His body, having been translated to Bari in Apulia, is the object of universal veneration.
Almost all the breviaries of the Latin Church, up to the seventeenth century, contained most fervent praises of the virtues and miracles of St. Nicholas, and give more explicitly some circumstances of the Saint's life than is in the above Lessons. The following portions of this Office dwell with complacency on a fact which is not mentioned in our more recent liturgy—we mean the miraculous oil, which, for more than 900 years, has flowed from the tomb of the holy Bishop, and by means of which God has frequently wrought miracles. The responsory and antiphon below were formerly so familiar to the faithful, that in the thirteenth century their music was sung to the responsory Unus Panis, and to the antiphon O quam suavis est, of the Office of Corpus Christi:
R. From his marble tomb there flows a holy oil, wherewith the blind are anointed and healed: * The deaf recover their hearing: and the weak return home strong. V. The people rush in crowds, desiring to witness the wonderful works which are done by him. * The deaf…
Ant. Oh! the mercy of Christ, worthy of all our praise, which makes known, through the length and breadth of the world, the merits of his servant Nicholas: for from his tomb there flows an oil, and it heals all that are infirm. (2)
Novena Prayer of Petition to St. Nicholas
(Also can be said separate from the Novena)
Glorious Nicholas, my own protector! from that bright throne where thou dost enjoy the vision of thy God, in pity turn thine eyes upon me; ask for me from God those graces and helps most seasonable in my present necessities, whether spiritual or temporal, and especially the grace of . . . . . . if such be expedient for my eternal welfare. Forget not, glorious and holy bishop, our Sovereign Pontiff, the holy Church, and this pious city. Bring back to the right way of salvation those who live steeped in sin, or buried in the darkness of ignorance, error, and heresy. Comfort the sorrowing, provide for the needy, strengthen the weak-hearted, defend the oppressed, help the sick; let all know the effects of thy powerful patronage with Him Who is the supreme giver of all good. Amen
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be to the Father.
V. Pray for us, blessed Nicholas.
R. That we may made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Let us pray:
God, Who has honored, and ceasest not daily to honor, Thy high-priest and glorious confessor, blessed Nicholas, with innumerable miracles: grant, we beseech Thee, that, by his merits and prayers, we may be delivered from the fires of hell and from all other dangers. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Indulgence of 50 days, Pope Gregory XVI., 1880)
In 1087 Italian merchants stole his body at Myra, bringing it to Bari in Italy. His representations in art are as various as his alleged miracles. In Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, they have the custom of making him the secret purveyor of gifts to children on 6 December, the day on which the Church celebrates his feast; in the United States and some other countries St. Nicholas has become identified with Santa Claus who distributes gifts to children on Christmas eve. His relics are still preserved in the church of San Nicola in Bari; up to the present day an oily substance, known as Manna di S. Nicola, which is highly valued for its medicinal powers, is said to flow from them. (4)
Image: Russian icon depicting St Nicholas with scenes from his life. Late 1400s or early 1500s. National Museum, Stockholm (15)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff