December 6: Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, c. 342

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About this commemoration

Very little is known about the life of Nicholas, except that he suffered torture and imprisonment during the persecution under the Emperor Diocletian. It is possible that he was one of the bishops attending the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325. He was honored as a saint in Constantinople in the sixth century by the Emperor Justinian. His veneration became immensely popular in the West after the supposed removal of his body to Bari, Italy, in the late eleventh century. In England almost 400 churches were dedicated to him.

Nicholas is famed as the traditional patron of seafarers and sailors, and, more especially, of children. As a bearer of gifts to children, his name was brought to America by the Dutch colonists in New York, from whom he is popularly known as Santa Claus.

 

Collects

I Almighty God, who in thy love didst give to thy servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness both on land and sea: Grant, we pray thee, that thy Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

II Almighty God, in your love you gave your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness both on land and sea: Grant, we pray, that your Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Lessons

Proverbs 19:17,20–23

1 John 4:7–14

Mark 10:13–16

Psalm

145:8-13

Preface of a Saint (1)

Text from Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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12 Responses to December 6: Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, c. 342

  1. Cynthia Gilliatt says:

    Would it be possible to briefly add one of the more well known stories about Nicholas? I’m thinking of the one well known in the middle ages about his rescuing three young women from llves as prostitutes. He was walking in the city and overheard a father’s angushied words to his three daughters, telling them he had no money for doweries, so they would have to go on the streets. The next night, Nicholas secretly tossed three sacks of gold through the poor man’s window, so that the women had doweries and could marry. Thus he is associated with gifts, and expecially gifts of money.

    I klow at least one other tale about him, but it’s much more far-fetched and rather grisly.

  2. Michael Hartney says:

    New Hebrew reading: The reading seems to fit the commemoration.

  3. dewluca says:

    I agree with Cynthia . . . this seems pretty lame without the inclusion of at least one of the legends . . . Many congregations actually celebrate this date, so I had hoped for something more . . . There’s sticking to the facts, and then there’s being so factual that no one would actually use the commemoration . . . some happy medium would be appreciated.

  4. Steve Lusk says:

    But which legend? How he nursed only once a day on Wednesdays and Fridays (both were then fast days)? How he bloodied Arius’ nose at the Council of Nicaea? Fed the people of Myra on 300 measures of wheat for two years? Rescued the dismembered children from the pickle barrel? Freed the unjustly accused courtiers? Posthumously converted the thieves who stole the treasure his his statue was set to guard?
    And why leave out the later developments? How his remains were piously stolen by the Societas Sancti Nicolai of Bari? The boy bishops and the feasts of fools? His role in the American Revolution (as patron of the Sons of St. Nicholas)? His survival in Holland as Sinter Klaas? His Americanization by Diedrich Knickerbocker, Clement Clark Moore (or was it Henry Livingston, Jr.?), Thomas Nast, and Haddon Sendblom? His existential vindication by Virginia O’Hanlon and Francis Church? His subsequent rise to become by 1912 “our biggest captain of industry”?
    The Nicholas legends are like potato chips . . . I think we’d better leave well enough alone. HWHM is weighty enough as it is.

  5. Suzanne Sauter says:

    Nicholas suffers from the same problem as some of the proposed persons for inclusion such as Cecilia and Anne-there is little, if any, factual information. This is an issue because the “Principles of Revision” clearly state that the persons to be included were “exemplary witness[es] to the Gospel of Christ in lives actually lived…” I, for one, love the legends of St. Nicholas, but they are just that, legends, especially the three bags of gold which was to be transformed into the symbol for a pawn shop. The difference between Nicholas and Cecelia and Anne is that Nicholas is already a part of the liturgical calendar. The text for Nicholas is so short that perhaps a bit more could be said about the association of Nicolaus with gift giving and how it developed without the text for the commemoration becoming “weighty.” After all, most of the page available is empty.

  6. Thomas Lindsay says:

    The thing is, this short description of St. Nicholas doesn’t even hint at the reasons that he has become so prominent and important in the church calendar. The very mythology (and iconography) surrounding him is important in understanding his prominence. This commemoration mentions that almost 400 English churches were named for him; but what about him caused him to be so popular? This commemoration implies that it was merely because his body was (or perhaps wasn’t) moved to Bari; but that’s not correct. He was venerated so widely because of the mythology surrounding him, which is not reflected in the facts listed above.

    “Catholic Online” has a fantastic article on St. Nicholas, a segment of whose content I copy here below. It seems that for saints pre-schism (and especially pre-Nicaea) it should be fine to work with the more ecumenical resources available. Given especially St. Nicholas’ tremendous popularity in the Russian Orthodox tradition, it might be worth while to supplement with their materials as well.

    Anyway, the text below is from http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=371:

    St. Nicholas, called “of Bari”, Bishop of Myra (Fourth Century) 6 Dec. Feast day. The great veneration with which this saint has been honored for many ages and the number of altars and churches which have been everywhere dedicated in his memory are testimonials to his holiness and of the glory which he enjoys with God. He is said to have been born at Patara in Lycia, a province of Asia Minor. Myra, the capital, not far from the sea, was an episcopal see, and this church falling vacant, the holy Nicholas was chosen bishop, and in that station became famous by his extraordinary piety and zeal and many astonishing miracles. The Greek histories of his life agree that he suffered imprisonment of the faith and made a glorious confession in the latter part of the persecution raised by Dioletian, and that he was present at the Council of Nicaea and there condemned Arianism. The silence of other authors makes many justly suspect these circumstances. He died at Myra, and was buried in his cathedral.

    This summary account by Alban Butler tells us all that is known about the life of the famous St. Nicholas, and even a little more; for his episcopate at Myra during the fourth century is really all that seems indubitable authentic. This is not for lack of material, beginning with the life attributed to the monk who died in 847 as St. Methodius, Patriarch of Constantinople. But he warns us that “Up to the present the life of this distinguished Shepard has been unknown to the majority of the faithful”, and sets about enlightening their ignorance nearly five hundred years after the saint’s death. This is the least unreliable of the “biographical” sources available, and a vast amount of literature, critical and expository, have grown up around them. Nevertheless, the universal popularity of the saint for so many centuries requires that some account of these legends should be given here.

    We are assured that from his earliest days Nicholas would take nourishment only once on Wednesdays and Fridays, and that in the evening according to the canons. “He was exceedingly well brought up by his parents and trod piously in their footsteps. The child, watched over by the church enlightened his mind and encouraged his thirst for sincere and true religion”. His parents died when he was a young man, leaving him well off and he determined to devote his inheritance to works of charity. An opportunity soon arose. A citizen of Patara had lost all his money, and had moreover to support three daughters who could not find husbands because of their poverty; so the wretched man was going to give them over to prostitution. This came to the ears of Nicholas, who thereupon took a bag of gold and, under cover of darkness threw it in at the open window of the man’s house. Here was a dowry for the eldest girl and she was soon duly married. At intervals Nicholas did the same for the second and third; at the last time the father was on the watch, recognized his benefactor and overwhelmed him with his gratitude. It would appear that the three purses represented in pictures, came to be mistaken for the heads of three children and so they gave rise to the absurdstory of the children, resuscitated by the saint, who had been killed by an innkeeper and pickled in a brine-tub.

    Coming to the city of Myra when the clergy and people of the province were in session to elect a new bishop, St. Nicholas was indicated by God as the man they should choose. This was at the time of the persecutions at the beginning of the fourth century and “As he was the chief priest of the Christians of this town and preached the truths of faith with a holy liberty, the divine Nicholas was seized by the magistrates, tortured, then chained and thrown into prison with many other Christians. But when the great and religious Constatine, chosen by God assumed the imperial diadem of the Romans, the prisoners were released from their bonds and with them the illustrious Nicholas, who when he was set at liberty returned to Myra.” St. Methodius asserts that “thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as death-dealing poison”, but says nothing of his presence at the Council of Nicaea in 325. According to other traditions he was not only there but so far forgot himself as to give the heresiarch Arius a slap in the face. Whereupon the conciliar fathers deprived him of his episcopal insignia and committed him to prison; but our Lord and His Mother appeared there and restored to him both his liberty and his office. As against Arianism so against paganism, St. Nicholas was tireless and took strong measures: among other temples he destroyed was that of Artemis, the principal in the district, and the evil spirits fled howling before him. He was the guardian of his people as well in temporal affairs. The governor Eustathius had taken a bribe to condemn to death three innocent men. At the time fixed for their execution Nicholas came to the place, stayed the hands of the executioner, and released the prisoners. Then he turned to Eustathiujs and did not cease to reproach him until he admitted his crime and expressed his penitence. There were present on this ocfcasion three imperial officers who were on their way to duty in Phrygia. Later, when they were back again in Constantinople, the jealousy of the prefect Ablavius caused them to be imprisoned on false charges and an order for their death was procured from the Emperor Constantine. When the officers heard this they remembered the example they had witnessed of the powerful love of justice of the Bishop of Myra and they prayed to God that through his merits and by his instrumentality then might yet be saved. That night St. Nicholas appeared in a dream to Constatine, and told him with threats to release the three innocent men, and Ablavius experienced the same thing. In the morning the Emporor and the prefect compared notes, and the condemned men were sent for and questioned. When he heard that they had called on the name of the Nicholas of Myra who had appeared to him, Constatine set them free and sent them to the bishop with a letter asking him not to threaten him any more but to pray for the peace of the world. For long this was the most famous miracle of St. Nicholas, and at the time of St. Methodius was the only thing generally known about him.

    The accounts are unanimous that St. Nicholas died and was buried in his episcopal city of Myra, and by the time of Justinian there was a basilica built in his honor at Constantinople. An anonymous Greek wrote in the tenth century that, “the West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him. Wherever there are people, in the country and the town, in the villages, in the isles, in the furthest parts of the earth, his name is revered and churches are built in his honor. Images of him are set up, panegyrics preached and festivals celebrated. All Christians, young and old, men and women, boys and girls, reverence his memory and call upon his protection. And his favors, which know no limit of time and continue from age to age, are poured out over all the earth; the Scythians know them, as do the Indians and the barbarians, the Africans as well as the Italians.” When Myra and its great shrine finally passed into the hands of the Saracens, several Italian cities saw this as an opportunity to acquire the relics of St. Nicholas for themselves. There was great competition for them between Venice and Bari. The last-named won, the relics were carried off under the noses of the lawful Greek custodians and their Mohammedan masters, and on May 9, 1087 were safety landed at Bari, a not inappropriate home seeing that Apulia in those days still had large Greek colonies. A new church was built to shelter them and the pope, Bd. Urban II, was present at their enshrining. Devotion to St. Nicholas was known in the West long before his relics were brought to Italy, but this happening naturally greatly increased his veneration among the people, and miracles were as freely attributed to his intercession in Europe as they had been in Asia. At Myra “the venerable body of the bishop, embalmed as it was in the good ointments of virtue exuded a sweet smelling myrrh, which kept it from corruption and proved a health giving remedy against sickness to the glory o f him who had glorified Jesus Christ, our true God.” The translation of the relics did not interrupt this phenomenon, and the “manna of St. Nicholas” is said to flow to this day. It was one of the great attractions which drew pilgrims to his tomb from all parts of Europe.

    It is the image of St. Nicholas more often than that of any other that is found on Byzantine seals; in the later middle ages nearly four hundred churches were dedicated in his honor in England alone; and he is said to have been represented by Christian artists more frequently than any saint except our Lady. St. Nicholas is venerated as the patron saint of several classes of people, especially, in the East, of sailors and in the West of children. The first of these patronage is probably due to the legend that during his life time, he appeared to storm tossed mariners who invoked his aid off the coast of Lycia and brought them safely to port. Sailors in the Aegean and Ionian seas, following a common Eastern custom, had their “star of St. Nicholas” and wished one another a good voyage in the phrase “May St. Nicholas hold the tiller”. The legend of the “three children” gave rise to his patronage of children and various observances, ecclesiastical and secular, connected there with; such were the boy bishop and especially in Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, the giving of presents in his name at Christmas time. This custom in England is not a survival from Catholic times. It was popularized in America by the Dutch Protestants of New Amsterdam who had converted the popish saint into a Nordic magician (Santa Claus = Sint Klaes = Saint Nicholas) and was apparently introduced into this country by Bret Harte. It is not the only “good old English custom” which, however good, is not “old English”, at any rate in its present form. The deliverance of the three imperial officers naturally caused St. Nicholas to be invoked by and on behalf of prisoners and captives, and many miracles of his intervention are recorded in the middle ages.

    Curiously enough the greatest popularity of St. Nicholas is found neither in the eastern Mediterranean nor north-western Europe, great as that was, but in Russia. With St. Andred the Apostle he is patron of the nation, and the Russian Orthodox Church even observes the feast of his translation; so many Russian pilgrims came to Bari before the revolution that their government supported a church, hospital and hospice there. He is a patron saint also of Greece, Apulia, Sicily and Loraine, and of many cities and dioceses (including Galway) and churches innumerable. At Rome the basilica of St. Nicholas in the Jail of Tully (in Carcere) was founded between the end of the sixth and the beginning of the seventh centuries. He is named in the preparation of the Byzantine Mass.

  7. Steve Lusk says:

    As I’ve noted before, the traditional anchors of the Christian calendar ought to be in HWHM, even if all we really know of them is their name. These include hold overs from LFF like Nicholas, Agnes, Anne and Joachim (or, if you must, the parents of the BVM) and those we’re restoring to their old places like Cecelia, Lucy, and George. These ancient and much-loved feasts should be in the calendar. If the law (i.e., the Principles of Revision) says otherwise, then I stand with the good Beadle Bumble.
    That said, I have more sympathy with those who question additions like Charles de Foucauld, Francis Xavier, and William Carey. It’s not that they’re not exemplary Christians, it’s that they’re not part of our tradition, and the denominations of which they are a part are unlikely to return the favor. Including them suggests that we’ve run out of Episcopalians and pre-Reformation figures worth honoring. But I can think of lots of exemplary Christians whose impact, either within the Episcopal Church or the broader world, is at least as great. Among the Episcopalians are John Peter Gabriel Muhlenberg, James Madison (the politician, not the bishop), Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, John Marshall, Richard Channing Moore, William Meade, John Johns, Robert E. Lee, Franklin and Eleanore Roosevelt, and Fiorello La Guardia. Neglected pre-Reformation theologians, educators, and the like include Cassiodorus, Origen, Ulphilas (the Apostle to the Goths), Heloise and Abelard, William of Occam, Peter Lombard, John Scotus Eriugena, and Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher. (OK, Schleiermacher isn’t pre-Reformation, but surely “the father of liberal theology” has at least as good a claim to a date in the Episcopal calendar as Thomas Aquinas or Newman the Apostate.)

  8. John LaVoe says:

    About the readings, whoever came up with the Psalm selectiton has my profound admiration — it’s perfect. Thank you. I wish I could say the same about the Old Testament lesson, but I don’t see any particular reason for its selection other than the reference to being kind to the poor (verse 17). After that, you have to omit the next two verses just to keep a straight face (disciplining children and violence probably aren’t the topic of choice for jolly old St Nick), most of the other verses simply don’t connect with the commemoration, and the “repaid in full” and “rests secure and suffers no harm” (vv. 17 and 23) are “lucky charm” theology — superstitious pablum! Granted, it’s part of the “Wisdom” tradition, but hardly the best part — never mind background for Christianity’s taking up one’s cross, regardless! I think it needs a better OT selection.

    17 Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and will be repaid in full.
    18 Discipline your children while there is hope; do not set your heart on their destruction.
    19 A violent tempered person will pay the penalty; if you effect a rescue, you will only have to do it again.
    20 Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom for the future.
    21 The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will be established.
    22 What is desirable in a person is loyalty, and it is better to be poor than a liar.
    23 The fear of the LORD is life indeed; filled with it one rests secure and suffers no harm.

    As for the NT selections, the gospel plays off the children’s theme, understandably. The epistle is appropriate, too.

    Regarding the write-up, I see the comments about the legendary material, and my reaction was to note the sense of restraint so evident in what we have now. I can understand not getting into the legendary accretions, but I did feel there was remarkably little of substance in the present material. There’s nothing to explain why he’s patron of seafarers, for example, nor is there anything about him in relation to children. Surely, there must be something between abject silence and his appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade that we can include? It needs some beefing up.

  9. Philip Wainwright says:

    In the collect, could we replace ‘the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief’ with ‘the guidance of the doubtful, and the consolation of the grieving’? The abrupt use of a figure of speech in their case where none was felt necessary for children, sailors, or the poor destroys the flow. Good to include the grieving, at least, in a collect so closely connected with Christmas, though, even at the price of a long list, although the doubtful get a much better opportunity quite soon.

  10. Celinda Scott says:

    I very much agree with Thomas Lindsay’s comments on the shortcomings of the bio. Maybe because I taught French and was aware of some of the French traditions around St Nicolas, “le 6 décembre” has been important to me for a long time–those traditions (I usually remembered to give my students chocolates in the shape of coins on that day) and others’ “opened my eyes,” so to speak, to a way to ground the mythological Santa Claus on some sort of Christian reality: he really was a bishop (hence the candy canes symbolizing bishops’ crooks, which gathered in the weak and protected them from danger at the same time); he did care about the poor; he made anonymous gifts; he was aware that the dowry custom made it difficult for girls to marry, and did something about it; the “chimney” was the anonymous way the life-saving gifts were made. I really don’t think HWHM’s central purpose is so much to build up Anglican Christianity, as to commemorate exemplary Christians in general–and I don’t think HWHM should ignore the traditions of orthodox churches. “Christmas” is a feast most Christians, including Anglicans, celebrate. For that reason, I think it’s OK (contra Steve Lusk, if I understood him correctly) to repeat some of the traditions which have built up around it, telling the basis for them, even if we’re not absolutely sure of their accuracy. And (again, contra Steve) I don’t think we need to officially “forget” the edifying traditions that have built up around the saint because we’ve heard some things pertaining to him that aren’t edifying. –I really feel bad about what’s happened to our Christmas traditions in America: for instance, many (if not most) children don’t know the carols anymore because they aren’t allowed to be taught in public schools (no way around that, I think the rules against it have a pretty firm legal basis), and their parents don’t take them to church. Probably a separate issue, but I can’t help thinking debunking the saint contributes to the general debunking of Christmas in popular culture.

  11. Celinda Scott says:

    I thought the following paragraphs from a recent _Washington Post _article now being discussed on Fulcrum were relevant. The Fulcrum thread has to do with the possible choice of “redeeming” Christmas folklore like Santa Claus as opposed to simply shunning it and was started by quotations from the Post article, whose author thought telling about St. Nicholas was a way to “redeem” the Santa Claus folklore. The SCLM bio, apparently, doesn’t agree with that–it seems to follow what’s described below as the Protestant Reformation take on the Bishop of Myra, which was not to honor him–or any human being–with a special day–that is, unless what we (modern day Episcopalians) know about the person is indisputable fact.

    “Following his death on December 6, 343, he was canonized as a saint. The anniversary of his death became the St. Nicholas holiday when gifts were given in his memory. He remained a very popular saint among Catholic and Orthodox Christians, with some two thousand churches named after him. The holiday in his honor eventually merged with Christmas, since they were celebrated within weeks of one another.

    Misnomer
    During the Reformation, however, Nicholas fell out of favor with Protestants, who did not approve of canonizing certain people as saints and venerating them with holidays. His holiday was not celebrated in any Protestant country except Holland, where his legend as Sinterklass lived on. In Germany, Martin Luther replaced him with the Christ child as the object of holiday celebration, or, in German, Christkindl. Over time, the celebration of the Christ child was simply pronounced Kris Kringle and oddly became just another name for Santa Claus.

  12. Nigel Renton says:

    We probably don’t know enough about the historical St. Nicholas to select an ideal subtitle, but I suggest “Advocate for the Poor, and Bishop”. I would leave the reference to Myra to the text.

    Line 1, first paragraph: I suggest beginning: “Nicholas was born at Patara in Lycia, now part of southwestern Turkey, in about 270.” (A consequential amendment is to substitute “his life” for “the life of Nicholas”)

    Line 3, first paragraph: insert after “Diocletian.” “He is reported to have been appointed as Bishop of Myra (another town in Lycia) at a very young age.”

    Add a final paragraph: “Nicholas died in Myra on December 6, 343.”

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