Saturday, December 4, 2010

Saint Nicholas - Part 1 (The Early Years)

Santa Claus is synonymous with the culture of Christmas, but before the common image of a fat man in read coat guzzling down Coca-Cola, he was a real man known as Saint Nicholas of Myra. He taught the Gospel simply, so ordinary people understood, and he lived out his faith and devotion to God in helping the poor and all in need. He was such a devoted and holy bishop that, much like Mother Teresa, people regarded him as a saint while he was still alive. There are more churches named after St. Nicholas than any other saint with the possible exception of the Virgin Mary. More than 2,000 churches are named after him, including three hundred in Belgium, thirty-four in Rome, twenty-three in the Netherlands and more than four hundred in England. Amongst many other things, he is the patron saint of sailors and in the Greek world sailors still wish one another safe voyages with the words, "May St. Nicholas hold the tiller." 

Saint Nicholas was born in the third century around 275 AD in Patara, a village on the southeast Lycian coast on the Mediterranean Sea in what is now Turkey. There existed in Patara an early Christian community which was likely started by the Apostle Paul when he and Luke were there on Paul's third missionary journey to Tyre in the first century. Three miles from Patara is the capital of Lycia called Myra, which was the seat of a bishopric founded by St. Nicander.

Nicholas was brought up by pious and virtuous parents, his father Epiphanes and his mother Johane, who had been practicing Christianity for several generations and taught him to study the Scriptures at a young age. Nicholas's parents were relatively wealthy business owners; some say that they managed a fishing fleet. His parents died during a plague while he was still young, leaving him with a substantial fortune. Michael the Archimandrite wrote The Life of Saint Nicholas in the first half of the 9th century. Here he writes about how Saint Nicholas asked God for direction:
"Make known to me, Lord, the path upon which I am to journey, because to You I have lifted my soul from all triviality and worldly lowliness." (Psalm 143.8). He seemed to hear God, as it were, speaking clearly through the holy prophet David: "Even if wealth abounds, do not surrender your heart" (Psalm 62.11). And similarly the author of Proverbs plainly teaches: "Let almsgiving and acts of faith not abandon you, but fasten them around your neck and you will find grace" (Proverbs 3.3) as well as "That person benefits his soul, who has pity on the destitute and those who happen to be poor in their livelihood." (Proverbs 11.17). Nicholas did not cease to continually hand over his abundance — to store it up in the secure treasure-houses of heaven."
He would use his inheritance to help the desperate, the sick, and the suffering as is evident from the story of one of his his first and most well known deeds. A citizen of Patara had lost all his money and his three daughters could not find husbands because of their poverty. In these times, a woman was expected to give her prospective husband a dowry. Michael said, "They were so poor that no man of their order wanted them as his wife. Not even men of lower rank thought about marrying them. Therefore, their father thought about ordering them to work in a brothel, so that he and the family would have some income." When Nicholas heard of this, he took a bag of gold and at night tossed it through an open window of the man's house. The daughters had been washing clothes that evening and they hung them on the fireplace to dry. Nicholas' bag of gold landed in one of the stockings. Here was a dowry for the eldest girl, and she was quickly married. Nicholas did the same for the second and then for the third daughter. On the last occasion the father was watching by the window, and overwhelmed his young benefactor with gratitude.

This led to the current custom of hanging stockings or putting out shoes for gifts from Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus depending on what country you are from. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold which is why three gold balls (sometimes oranges) are seen in pictures of St. Nicholas. It is also why sometimes you will see three gold balls on the signage of pawnbrokers, of which Saint Nicholas is also their patron.

Whenever he helped anyone he did it secretly, so that only God would know, as he did not want praise from people. He was soon suspected to be behind a large number of other anonymous gifts to the poor, using the inheritance from his wealthy parents. After he died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously, and such gifts were still often attributed to St Nicholas.

Nicholas made an extended pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land where he decided to live a solitary life dedicated to God like monks of the time. However, after returning to Lycia and settling in Myra, he learned this was not to be. God told him, "Nicholas, for your ascetic labor, work among the people, if thou desirest to be crowned by Me." At the same time, the people and clergy of Myra were meeting to elect a new Bishop, as the previous Bishop had recently died. The oldest bishop was given a dream telling him appoint the first man to enter the church during the Matins service and that his name would be Nicholas. When the Bishop asked the first man to enter the church his name, Nicholas replied, "I am a Nicholas, a sinner." He was quickly escorted to the altar and consecrated a bishop. According to Symeon the Metaphrast who wrote in the tenth century, The Life of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker,

In a loud voice the bishops proclaimed: "Accept, our sons, this man as your shepherd, whom the Holy Spirit has anointed for you and to whom he has submitted your souls for guidance and instruction. He has been made our leader not by human but by divine determination. He whom we have been longing for we have: whom we were seeking for, now we receive. As long as we may truly be shepherded and protected by him, we need not lack hope that in the day of the Coming and the Revelation we may stand firm as a people beloved of God."
This is the story of how the orphaned Nicholas became the much revered Bishop Nicholas of Myra, defending his church and bringing the gospel to the poor and unfortunate. However, he was made bishop during the Diocletian persecutions, and hardship was soon to follow...

No comments:

Post a Comment