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St. Nicholas, Wonderworker

St. Nicholas, Wonderworker by Lewis Williams, OFS

Artist Narrative:

Artists represent the “Wonderworker” more than any other saint, with the exception of Mary, Mother of our Lord. What made him so beloved, worldwide, these past 1700 years? By the late middle ages, more than 400 churches were dedicated in his honor in England alone. He is the patron of Russia and other countries, and patron of sailors, merchants, scholars, bakers, prisoners and children. His remains, now in Bari, Italy, are incorrupt. They ooze sweet-smelling myrrh that offers restoration of health. This “manna of St. Nicholas” continues to flow today.

Unfortunately, of the many stories and miraculous legends of his life, few details are historically verifiable. He was born at the turn of the 4th century in Patara, Asia Minor (now Turkey). His parents nurtured in him a pursuit of piety, resulting in his being named bishop of nearby Myra, which was near the sea. He condemned the Arian Heresy, which claimed that Christ was only a man, not both man and God. During the Nicean Council of 325, he confronted the Bishop Arius on this issue, slapped him publicly, and was imprisoned as a result. Our Lord and His Mother appeared to him in prison, gained his release and the return of his bishopric. Several others stories represent Nicholas’s intervention on the behalf of prisoners who were falsely accused.

His most famous gift-giving legend led to the tradition we now know as Santa Claus. A man in Patara lost all his wealth and was unable to marry his three daughters, as they had no dowry. Aware of the father’s dire need, Bishop Nicholas went to their home under cover of darkness and dropped a bag of gold through the open window on three separate occasions. The fathers’ prayer was answered and his daughters were able to marry.

In this icon, a gift to my daughter, St. Nicholas is depicted as bishop, his robe red with the “Fire of Charity.” It is a “night icon”, symbolized in the green and purple of the background, representative of his late night gift giving. He carries a bejeweled bible, indicating the riches contained therein. His eyes shine with a fierceness that shows he is willing to fight to retain the only true wealth and yet reveals a grandfatherly love for his church and his people. His right hand offers us the traditional orthodox blessing, his fingers forming the Greek letters IC XC, the name of Christ and his peace on you.

His feast day is December 6.

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Our father among the saints Nicholas of Myra, Wonder-worker, was the archbishop of Myra in southern Asia Minor in the fourth century and is also the basis for the Santa Claus legends and imagery which accompany Christmas celebrations in much of the world.

While widely honored and venerated, not only in the Orthodox Church, but throughout most Christian groups, little is known historically of the life of Nicholas. He is known to have been archbishop of Myra and he may have participated in the Council of Nicea in 325. In addition to being honored as the patron saint of many countries, notably Greece and Russia, and of cities, he is the patron of many occupational groups, most notably of sea-farers. St. Nicholas is commemorated by the Church on December 6, and also on May 9 (the transfer of his relics) and on July 29 (his nativity).

Life and tradition

By tradition, Nicholas born in the province of Lycia in the southern part of Asia Minor in the city of Patara to well-to-do parents. The date of his birth is not known. Having inherited his parents' estate, he became known for his generous gifts to those in need. As a youth, he made pilgrimages to Palestine and Egypt. He was subsequently consecrated Archbishop of Myra as the fourth century began. He was imprisoned during the persecutions of Diocletian and released by Constantine after his ascension to emperor. Nicholas was noted for his defense of Orthodoxy against the Arians. He is reputed to have been present at the Council of Nicea, but his name does not appear among any documents from that era. He died in Myra on December 6 in a year uncertain, but between 342 and 352.

St Nicholas the Wonderworker

Many of the details of his life that we have appeared during medieval times. St. Methodius, Patriarch of Constantinople, in the middle of the ninth century produced a life of Nicholas in which he noted that the life of Nicholas was unknown to most of the Christians of the time, thus indicating his composition was probably based mainly on legend. Methodius noted that Nicholas was raised well by pious and well-to-do parents and related how Nicholas contributed from his inheritance the dowry for three daughters of a citizen of Patara who had lost all his money.

His feast was being celebrated by the time of St. Justinian two centuries after his death. After Methodius' life of Nicholas became available, Nicholas was acclaimed and honored throughout Europe and especially in Italy. When Myra was captured by the Saracens in 1034, many Italian cities planned to "rescue" his relics. In 1087, forces from Bari, Italy, attacked Myra and carried away his relics from the lawful Greek guardians in Myra to Bari where they were enshrined in a new church. His fame increased. The story of his rescue of sailors in the Aegean Sea during his lifetime established him as the patron of mariners. His popularity in Russia rose to the point that almost all churches had some sort of shrine honoring St. Nicholas.

Secular fame

In time his fame in northern Europe as a saintly bishop began changing to that of a giver of gifts to children, usually done on December 6. As immigrants from the Germanic and Nordic lands settled in the United States the image of St. Nicholas, or "Sinterklaas," as he is known among the Dutch, slowly changed to that of "Santa Claus" with little tie to the spirituality of Christianity.

Died: c.346 at Myra; relics believed to be at Bari, Italy

Also known as: Mikulas; Nicolas; Niklas; Klaus; Santa Claus; Nicholas of Bari; Nicolaas