St Nicholas the Wonderworker (of Myra, of Bari)
We have no idea why St Nicholas was chosen as the patron of our parish in the 12th Century. The towns and cities where he is normally patron are sea ports so with no obvious connection to the sea we can only assume that the original founder and patron of our parish did. Today St Nicholas remains one of the most popular saints in both the Greek Orthodox and Latin Catholic Church. He is also one of the few saints (not found in the Bible) to retain or indeed gain in popularity in Protestant countries, from St Nicholas’ traditions in the Low Countries and Scandinavia via the USA come our traditions of Santa Claus; some of which probably date back to the man himself.
Yet substantial information about St Nicholas is scarce. We know he was bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (S.W. Turkey) in the 4th century and that he died on the 6th December sometime between 345 and 352 AD in Myra. We know that his life spanned a period in the Roman Empire when imperial policy went from one of hostility too and persecution of Christians to tolerance and then support for the Church. He also comes from a time when the Latin and Greek Church was one.
We also know that Italian merchants, in the 11th century, ‘took his body to safety’ or depending on whose account you read ‘stole his relics’ from Myra after the Islamic invasions. His relics were then taken to Bari in Southern Italy, where the fine Church of San Nichola was built to house them. This event stands as evidence to his popularity amongst Eastern Christians prior to this. It was St Nicholas’ reputation as a saint who protected sailors that attracted the merchants’ attention. Bari was an important sea port with a Greek heritage and from there Nicholas’ reputation grew in Western Europe, particularly in port towns and countries where sea travel was part of life. Hence cities in Brittan such as Portsmouth, Newcastle and Aberdeen have connections with St Nicholas.
Not only patron of sailors and fishermen, his feast day, so near to Christmas, gets him involved in the Christmas traditions, he becomes the gift bringer, the children’s saint. His reputation as a man of compassion will make him patron of pawnbrokers and the falsely accused.
What of the man Nicholas himself? For that we need to sift through the ‘lives’ of St Nicholas written years after his death. These lives relied on oral story telling which involves the whole process of the development of legend: where the actual deeds of the saint become exaggerated in the telling moving from the real and wonderful to the fabulous and fictional. In sifting through legends we are left with the probable truth rather than verifiable facts. However we are not rationalists: we believe God works marvellous miracles through holy men and women, that prayer and intercession does work and that if we involve them the Saints in Heaven do get involved in our lives. To our ears the stories sound fabulous but who knows what is possible for God…
Never the less it is impossible to sort out – at this distance – fact from pious fiction. So what can we say is probable. Well bishop Nicholas’ life impacted on the people of Myra. They remembered him as a good bishop, as a loving caring pastor of the poor and needy; they remembered him as a leader who sought justice and who would challenge authority to get it; they remembered him as man through whom God worked in miraculous ways and they remembered him as one who, as a younger man, had suffered for his Christian faith. They also remembered him as a robust defender of the Faith perhaps at times intolerant of others views perhaps with a bit of a temper – so as the Christmas song says, ‘You’d better watch out…’ Onto the ‘black and white’ of these memories time and story telling added colour and texture building legend upon legend which linger with us in surprising ways.
Before leaving you two of the ‘saint stories’ which are illustrated on our church’s stained glass window of St Nicholas another saint, this time one of Western Europe’s great philosopher bishops, the French monk Anselm of Canterbury has left us a prayer to God and St Nicholas.
God, in you have I trusted,
St Nicholas, to you I entrust my prayers,
Upon you both I cast my care,
even on you I throw my soul.
This is what you exact from me
You by your commands, you by your counsels.
Receive him who throws himself upon you both,
Have him who is prostrate before you.
Keep me when I sleep, help me in whatever I do,
Inspire me in whatever I think,
You, Lord, by your grace,
You, Nicholas, by your intercession
You for the merits of your so loved confessor,
You according to the name of your and my Creator,
who is blessed forevermore. Amen.
In our window you see a bishop in western vestments holding a book of the gospels on top of which are three golden balls these are the three bags of gold in the following story.
‘Legend has it that Nicholas became brutally aware of the poverty of others when hearing of a local man who had three daughters who were of the age to be married. The father lacked the financial and material needs for a dowry – the custom of the time, so the daughters could not be offered in marriage. The end result was likely slavery, or prostitution for the three women. Secretly one night, Nicholas climbed onto the roof of the home of the man and his daughters, and dropped a round bag of gold down the chimney. In the morning a stunned father found the miraculous gold and realised that at least his eldest daughter would be saved from the horrors that could be hers without a dowry. Great rejoicing, yet sadness for the father, as there were two other daughters that needed help. The next night, Nicholas repeated his secret visit to the house and produced a second bag of gold for the same purpose. In a spirit of thanksgiving, and praise, the father rejoiced at the new freedom for his second daughter. But how was this happening? Why was this gold appearing anonymously to this poor family? Realising a third bag of gold might be forthcoming, the next night the father hid from sight in order to witness the actions of their benefactor. Nicholas made his third and final approach and released the bag of gold into the chimney and started to move away quickly. The father embraced Nicholas and fell on his knees before the gift giver. Nicholas quickly asked the man to stand and thank God, not him, for God’s goodness and for the gifts.’
These three bags of gold can still be seen as the three balls outside of old pawnbroker shops and so the three balls of our window. Santa of course still comes down chimneys!
At the foot of our window are thee children in a barrel. One suggestion is that in pictures the three balls in the previous story were mistaken for three heads and that this gave rise to yet another story this time filled with the miraculous.
‘This time it is three children kidnapped by a rural butcher and innkeeper, murdered and put into brine for pickling. Bishop Nicholas’ stopping in the country inn was no accident in God’s eyes. He exposed the murderous act of the butcher. Thrusting his hand into the brine barrel, the three boys were at once restored, and began praising Nicholas. At once, the bishop halted their words and told them to praise God alone for this wondrous act.’
Absurd to modern ears perhaps but who knows… What is true is that this story gave rise to St Nicholas being associated as the patron of children. So the 6th of December becomes a time for children with various traditions of boy bishops and gift giving associated with the Saint. Now mixed up with the pagan ‘Father Christmas’ and the commercialised ‘Santa’ of department stores and popular music St Nicholas never the less remains a witness to a time when gifts were given to remember the gift of the Christ-child to the only Saint who outshines Nicholas in Christian imagination… ‘The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin … and the virgin’s name was Mary … whose child will be holy and will be the called Son of God’ – God’s gift to us.Each different section of the page can be edited by clicking the ‘Edit’ button. Changes can be saved by clicking any of the save buttons located within the edit area, or on the ribbon at the top of the page.