We are commemorating the transfer of the relics of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Myra. Centuries ago, the Christian faithful transported them from Asia Minor to Bari, Italy, to prevent them from being desecrated.
Saint Nicholas is well-known and revered around the world. He is one of the most beloved Orthodox saints in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, where multiple cathedrals, monasteries, and churches have been dedicated to him. People have named their children after this saint and prayed to him for protection from evil and disaster. For millennia, he has assisted countless people in their most difficult situations. We honour him for his unending love and countless miracles.
From his life, we also learn of a distinct side to Saint Nicholas, one that differs from our present notions of tolerance and moderation. He demolished pagan temples and idols while serving the Church. He was the saint who slapped Arius, the infamous heretic who rejected the divinity of Christ. In today's hymns, he is lauded as an example of faith and a teacher of humility. What do these qualities mean for us today, and what can we learn from Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker?
He was born around 270 in Patara, now Turkey, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, a noted persecutor of Christians. His parents were devout Christians. They had been praying to God for years to be healed from their barrenness and vowed to dedicate their only son to God's service.
Nicholas excelled in the study of the Scripture. He spent the day at church and prayed at night. His spiritual development impressed his uncle, Bishop Nicholas of Patara, who ordained him as a reader and then as a priest.
He inherited a large estate from his rich parents. Aware of the temptation of his wealth, he accepted it as God's endowment. He gave it all away, always behind the scenes, to the destitute and the needy. One of his hometown's impoverished inhabitants had three grown daughters. He made the desperate decision to sell them into prostitution since he had no money, not even for food. The saint visited by night after learning about his predicament and put a bag of gold inside. The man had enough money to honourably marry his daughters. The saint prevented the family from spiritual destruction.
He was giving in secret, but word of his generosity spread, making him popular. He had overcome the temptation of wealth, now he faced the allure of fame. So he embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where he planned to retreat into the wilderness as a monk.
However, the Lord quickly made clear to him the limitations of human wisdom. A storm struck his ship while it was sailing to the Holy Land. His fellow travellers despaired. He calmed the storm with his prayer. He saved the life of a mortally wounded sailor who had fallen off a mast. In the Holy Land, the Lord appeared to him in a vision and commanded him to return to his hometown. He listened, but after he joined a monastery near Patara, the Lord commanded him again to return to the world and honour His Name there, by serving the people.
He was chosen as Bishop of Myra. After his consecration, Saint Nicholas remained a great ascetic, appearing to his flock as an image of gentleness, kindness and love for people.
To His humble servant, the Lord accorded the great gift of being able to see His truth, and the courage to defend it. Bishop Nicholas and many of his fellow Christians were imprisoned under the Roman emperor Diocletian (284–305) for their refusal to worship Pagan gods. He stood by those who suffered for the faith and assisted them in enduring their hardships until Diocletian's successor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of Rome.
He bravely intervened, putting his life in grave danger, to save three prisoners who the Governor had unlawfully sentenced to death. When the executioner's blade was already over the heads of the condemned men, he snatched it from him. The saint denounced the Governor for his unfair punishment, and he repented. Three officers who saw the saint intervene were later defamed in front of the emperor and given death sentences. In a dream, the saint came before Emperor Constantine, who reversed the judgement.
He passionately denounced the heretic Arius before the First Ecumenical Council in 325 and struck him in the face. For his actions, he was defrocked and placed under surveillance. Soon after, the fathers of the Council beheld a vision of the Lord and the Theotokos returning the Gospel to Saint Nicholas and restoring him to the episcopacy.
So, what can Saint Nicholas teach us about being humble and firm in our faith in this day and age? Perhaps true belief is not about militancy: he does not want us assaulting our opponents or demolishing other people's chapels. However, he calls us to be brave at all times, because belief in Christ always entails going against the grain.
In today's society, when competitiveness and self-promotion reign supreme, he provides an example of doing good in secret. We publicise ourselves and our good actions to get rewards from others. He donated to others out of his trust in the Lord and a strong desire to serve Him. Earthly rivalry produces victors and losers, but placing the Lord at the core of our actions produces love.
He demonstrates how conversing with the Lord may give us the insight to discern His truth and act on it with bravery. Indifference is the enemy of love, and one must reach out to people in need and care for those we love.
Finally, we should emulate Saint Nicholas by not being afraid to speak openly about our religion. Anyone consumed by pain or passion could get relief instantly just by looking at the saint. His single word of truth was sufficient to eradicate the evil of doubt. May we be as compelling and forceful as Saint Nicholas was to his sheep as we proclaim our religion by word and deed.
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