By Fr. John McCuen
Our father among the saints, Nicholas, was the only child born to wealthy parents, and was instructed in the Christian faith by his uncle (also named Nicholas), who was the bishop in the town of Patara, where St. Nicholas was born. When his parents reposed, Nicholas gave away his considerable inheritance to help the poor, and entered the monastery his uncle had established. It was his uncle who tonsured Nicholas as a monk, and who ordained Nicholas a priest.
Throughout his life, Nicholas was known for his love and mercy, and for miracles worked both before and after his repose. Part of his legacy can be seen in his presence in our midst even today. Many nations, including Russia, look to him as a protector of their land and people, and more than 1,200 churches are named in his honor, including 400 in Great Britain – more than any other saint. It is estimated that western artists have depicted him more frequently than any other saint, apart from the most holy Theotokos.
Many people don’t realize that the “right jolly old elf” dressed in red and driving a sleigh with reindeer has his origins in this saint: “Santa Claus” is the anglicized version of “Sinter Klaus” – Dutch for, “St. Nicholas.”
Most of us are familiar with certain aspects of the life of St. Nicholas. Probably the most well-known story is how the saint secretly provided gold coins to a family where poverty threatened to cause the sale of three daughters into prostitution. The gold – in some stories, it is dropped down a chimney to land in the stockings of the daughters, which had been hung by the fire in order to dry – spared the family from such a terrible decision.
Many of us also know, and, in a way, sort of enjoy, the story of how St. Nicholas, enraged by the heretical teachings of Arius, struck Arius – according to some accounts, he punched Arius in the nose – at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325. Perhaps you even know how, on two separate occasions, St. Nicholas intervened to spare three men who had been wrongfully sentenced to be executed: once, when he confronted a regional governor who had taken a bribe to find three men guilty; and again when he appeared in a dream to the Emperor Constantine to tell him that three officials of the imperial court were innocent of the charges that had been brought against them. In each case, the condemned men were set free.
While these stories are familiar to us, we seem to be less familiar with the deeper details of the life of the saint, the details that make such actions as are celebrated in these stories possible. What power makes it possible to confront a government official, risking imprisonment or even death – and St. Nicholas certainly suffered for the faith during the persecutions under the emperors Diocletian and Maximian – to save innocent lives? What power makes it possible to stand up against popular false teachings to defend the Christian faith? What power – and this is particularly crucial in our world today – makes it possible to break the grip of wealth and possessions, and to give away a fortune? There is only one power capable of doing these things: the power of the love of God in Jesus Christ, that flows through those who love God above all else, and whose love flows to everyone made in the image of God, making them sources of God’s love for each one of us to everyone around them.
If we do not love God, we will not put ourselves at risk to protest injustice and unrighteousness, to spare others from suffering or to save innocent lives. If we do not love God, we will not take a stand against false teachings; and we will even make compromises with teachings and practices that do not agree with those of the Orthodox Church and faith. If we do not love God, then we cannot truly love each other as we should; and the things of this world that attract and hold our attention – wealth, fame, honor, power, pleasure – these will capture us and keep us from rising toward heaven, as St. Nicholas rose, living as an angel on the earth in the midst of others.
St. Nicholas is loved by many because he loved so richly. His love for God caused him to turn his back on the world, giving away his worldly possessions, and not seeking any worldly honors. His love for God led him to be obedient when, in pursuing a solitary life, he was instructed by God to live his life in the midst of the people around him. His love for God led him to love every one of us – and in his love for us, to seek justice and righteousness for us, and to give gifts of love.
Brothers and sisters, let us love one another as Christ loves us – for He went to His passion and death through the power of His love. Let us love one another as St. Nicholas loves us, and ask for the grace to follow the example of his life.
Holy hierarch, father Nicholas, pray to God for us!