Who is Saint Nicholas?
As Bishop of Myra, Nicholas lived the qualities that caused his fame and popularity to spread throughout the Christian world. His vigorous actions on behalf of his people and in defense of the Christian faith reveal a man who lived his convictions. Nicholas was bold — he did what was necessary and was not easily intimidated by others’ power and position. His concern for the welfare of his flock and his stand for Orthodox belief earned him respect as a model for bishops and a defender of the faith.
Nicholas was born about 235 A.D. in Patara, a seaport city in Lycia, a province of Asia Minor. His parents were Theophanes and Nonna. His uncle, for whom he was named, was Bishop of Patara. Bishop Nicholas observed the virtuous life his nephew led from an early age, and advised his parents to give their son to the service of God. They consented to do this, and under the tutelage of his uncle, Nicholas was ordained a priest. At the ordination ceremony, Bishop Nicholas prophesied concerning his nephew: “I see, brethren, a new sun rising above the earth and manifesting in himself a gracious consolation for the afflicted. Blessed is the flock that will be worthy to have him as its pastor, because this one will shepherd well the souls of those who have gone astray.” This prophecy was indeed later fulfilled.
Sailors are saved
Wanting to worship in the Holy Land and follow the steps of our Lord, the priest Nicholas boarded an Egyptian ship. On the way he told the sailors that there would be a storm, for he had dreamt that Satan boarded their ship to sink them in the sea. Soon a dark cloud covered the sky and a fierce storm arose. The storm was so violent that the sailors were sure that they would die. They pleaded with the saint to pray to God for their salvation. They said: “If you, God’s servant will not help us with your prayers, we will all die immediately!”
Telling them to stay calm and trust in God, the saint started to pray with confidence. Immediately the storm subsided, all was quiet and grief turned into joy. The rejoicing sailors thanked God and his servant Nicholas, and were astonished at his prediction and the cease of the storm. From this and many other miracles at sea, Saint Nicholas has become the patron of sailors and all who travel. An icon of St Nicholas even travels aboard the International Space Station.
Selection and consecration
Nicholas’ selection to be a bishop was unusual. After the repose of the bishop of Myra, the synod gathered to select the next bishop of Myra. During the conclave, one hierarch heard a voice in the night telling him to watch the doors of the church the next morning at Matins. The first person to enter named “Nicholas” was to be the new bishop. The wise one told the others, counseling them to be at prayer while he waited at the doors. When the hour of Matins came, the first person to arrive was a young priest. When asked his name, he replied, “I am Nicholas.” The bishop addressed him, “Nicholas, servant and friend of God, for your holiness you shall be bishop of this place.” They brought him into the church and placed him in the bishop’s seat where he was to be consecrated the new Bishop of Myra.
Grain ships and famine
Myra experienced famine in AD 311 and 312, and again in 333. Crops had failed and people were hungry. Bishop Nicholas learned that ships bound for Alexandria with cargos of wheat had anchored in the harbor. The holy man implored the sailors to take a measure of grain from each ship so that the people would have food. The sailors said, “No,” as the wheat was “meted and measured” and every bit must be delivered. Nicholas replied, “Do this, and I promise, in the truth of God, that it shall not be lessened or diminished when you get to your destination.” So the sailors took a measure from each ship and continued on their way to Alexandria. When the wheat was unloaded, the full amount was accounted for and the tale told—all the emperor’s ministers worshiped and praised God with thanksgiving for his servant Nicholas. Throughout the famine people came to Bishop Nicholas for wheat. He gave it to all who had need and the grain lasted for two years with enough remaining to plant new crops.
Three young women are saved
A citizen of Patara lost his fortune, and because he could not raise dowries for his three daughters, he was going to sell them into prostitution. After hearing this, Bishop Nicholas took a bag of gold coins and threw it through the window of the man’s house by night. The eldest girl was married with it as her dowry. He performed the same action for each of the other girls. Because of this and similar accounts, the saint became a symbol of anonymous gift-giving; because the purse landed on the shoes of one of the girls, to this day we still give gifts in stockings on St Nicholas’ Day. The three bags of gold are also thought to be the origin of the pawnbrokers’ symbol of three gold balls.
Council of Nicaea
In 325 Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea, now known as the First Ecumenical Council. More than 300 bishops from all over the Christian world came to address the disorder stirred up by Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria, who taught that Christ the Son was not co-equal with God the Father. This new notion had spread so that it caused confusion among Christians in nearly every place, and the Church needed to respond. According to one account, when confronted by the unyielding Arius, Nicholas slapped him in the face. For such a breach of decorum, Nicholas was brought before Constantine, who stripped him of his office and had him thrown into prison. During the night, Christ with His Mother appeared to Nicholas: Christ carrying the book of the Gospels, and the Theotokos bearing the bishop’s stole which had been taken from him. In this way Nicholas was reinstated. Many icons of St. Nicholas reflect this event with Jesus on the left returning the Gospels, and Mary on the right, bringing the stole or omophorion.
Three condemned innocents
In the time of Emperor Constantine, all was not peaceful in the empire. When unrest would break out, soldiers would be sent to restore order. Some such soldiers were on shore leave in Andriaki, the port which served Myra. As they were in the marketplace, disputes began and there was some disturbance and looting. Bishop Nicholas went to the port to help settle the trouble. On his way back to the city, he saw people crying and saying, “If you had been in the city three innocent men would not have been handed over to death, as they have been ordered beheaded.” Nicholas ran to the place, asking if the men were still alive. The three men were in position – faces covered, hands bound behind, expecting death. The executioner’s sword was up and ready to fall. Nicholas fearlessly grabbed the sword, throwing it down. The freed men went on their way while Nicholas sought to have the charges against them cleared.
Details of Nicholas’ death are not known. But shortly after his earthly life, early reference is made to the manna of St. Nicholas, a liquid that formed in his tomb and was renowned for its healing properties. For 750 years St. Nicholas’ tomb in Myra was an ever-increasingly popular pilgrimage site as reverence for the saint grew and spread throughout the Christian world.
The remains of St. Nicholas now repose in Bari, Italy, having been transported there in 1087 A.D. after Myra fell to Muslim invaders. A fragrant myrrh still exudes from the relics. Miracles are performed even today through the intercessions of Saint Nicholas.
The truth of things hath revealed thee to thy flock as a rule of faith, an icon of meekness, and a teacher of temperance; for this cause, thou hast achieved the heights by humility, riches by poverty. O Father and Hierarch Nicholas, intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved.