The Life and Ministry of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, the Archbishop of Myra

Commemorated May 9/27, December 6/19

‘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.’

So reads the troparion of St Nicholas, hierarch of the Church of Myra in Lycia (now Demra in Turkey), known as 'wonderworker' and 'father' throughout the Christian world. He is beloved in the Orthodox Church, and indeed far beyond, for his kindness, almsgiving and aid, meted out both during his earthly life and after. As one of the multitude of English lives of the saint joyously proclaims, 'he is one of the best known and best loved saints of all time.' And in another: 'The name of the great saint of God, the hierarch and wonderworker Nicholas, a speedy helper and suppliant for all hastening to him, is famed in every corner of the earth, in many lands and among many peoples. In Russia there are a multitude of cathedrals, monasteries and churches consecrated in his name. There is, perhaps, not a single city without a church dedicated to his honor.'

Childhood and early life

St Nicholas was born (c. 270) in the the region of Lycia, in the city of Patara. His parents, Theophanes and Nonna, were both pious Christians, and being childless until his arrival, consecrated Nicholas to God at his birth (the name Nicholas meaning 'Conqueror of nations'). His birth considered by both an answer to their prayer, and especially the prayer issued during Nonna's illness, his mother was said to have been healed immediately after giving birth. Nicholas would always remember his parents' love and devotion to God.

Various traditions recount signs of Nicholas' future glory as 'wonderworker' (Gr. thaumatourgos), apparent already in his earliest childhood. One recalls that as an infant in the baptismal font, Nicholas stood on his feet for three hours in honor of the Trinity. Another proclaims him a childhood faster, not accepting milk from his mother until after the conclusion of evening prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays.

His later life revealed that Nicholas had from a young age been absorbed in the study of the Church's sacred scriptures. He thrived on reading divine texts, and earned a reputation as a devoted youth who often would not leave the church, reading the sacred texts late into the night.

Such activity soon came to the attention of the local bishop, Nicholas' uncle (his father's brother), also called Nicholas. Seeing his nephew's fervour for the Christian life, this elder Bishop Nicholas of Patara tonsured him reader, and later ordained him priest. At Fr. Nicholas' ordination, the elder Bishop Nicholas remarked:

'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, will nourish them on the pasturage of piety, and will be a merciful helper in misfortune and tribulation.'

The newly-ordained Fr. Nicholas' special charge as assistant to the bishop of Patara was the instruction of the faithful—a unique and uncommon role, given his young age.

The ministry of Fr. Nicholas

Nicholas approached his duties as priest and teacher of the faith with the same fervour his uncle had witnessed in him during his childhood. Despite his youthfulness, many of the faithful considered him an elder, and his ability to respond to questions of the faith in love and wisdom earned him the deep respect of those in the city. He was noted in particular for the fervency of his prayer and kind-hearted nature, and the attention to charitable work that characterised his priestly ministry. Following the injunction of Christ, Fr. Nicholas sold his possessions and, following his parents deaths a few years after his ordination, distributed his inheritance to the poor and afflicted, who would often seek him out for assistance.

In one of his most well-known acts of selflessness as a young priest, Fr. Nicholas reacted to the intention of a wealthy businessman of Patara who had fallen on hard times and lost his fortune. Desparate, the man had determined to sell the bodies of his three daughters in order to raise funds for the family. Hearing of the plan (in some accounts, through a divine revelation), Fr. Nicholas called by his home in secret during the night and threw an offering of gold—three hundred coins wrapped in a handkerchief —through the man's window. Convinced of the goodness of the gesture, though unaware of the identity of his benefactor, the man used the funds to arrange for his eldest daughter to be married honourably to a nobleman. Later the man arose to find the act had been repeated; and eventually, a third time. In each instance, the priest made his offering secretly, attempting to conceal his works of charity.

Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

Following the example of his bishop, who had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land a few months before, Fr. Nicholas requested to travel to Jerusalem himself, to visit the holy places of the city. Icons today continue to recount the miraculous nature of his voyage there by ship, during which a great storm arose (Nicholas having earlier predicted that it would). Seeing in a vision the devil climbing aboard the ship, Nicholas warned the crew and prayed for the salvation of the craft and its occupants, and the sea shortly calmed.

Arriving in the Holy Land, Nicholas made his pilgrimage of the holy places in Jerusalem, especially Golgotha where Christ was crucified. Overcome by the reality of these places where the incarnate Son of the Father had walked and acted, Nicholas determined to retreat into the desert to live a life of solitude. But he was stopped by a divine voice, which forbad this course and urged him to return home. This he did, though still longing for quiet and the solitary life. 

Having been moved by his experiences on Mount Sion in Jerusalem, he entered the monastic community of Holy Sion in Lycia (which had earlier been founded by his uncle); but again, the Lord made known to him that this was not to be his path. The voice of the Lord is said to have come to him: 'Nicholas, if you desire to be vouchsafed a crown from me, go and struggle for the good of the world. This [monastery] is not the vineyard in which you shall bring forth the fruit I expect of you; but turn back, go into the world, and let my Name be glorified in you.' Desirous above all to follow the command of God, Nicholas departed the brotherhood of Holy Sion and moved to Myra.

Consecration to the episcopate

Shortly after his arrival in Myra, the elder Archbishop of that city, a certain John, died. There was some discussion as to who should succeed him as the chief bishop of the region, the local synod of bishops desirous that the new archbishop should not be an individual chosen by men for the office, but one revealed by God. One of their eldest number beheld a vision of the illumined Christ, who indicated that the old bishop should go into the church, for the one who was first to enter it that night — who would be called Nicholas — was he who should become the new archbishop.

The elder bishop went to the church to await Nicholas' arrival, in obedience to the vision. When Fr. Nicholas arrived, the bishop stopped him. God's chosen one replied, 'My name is Nicholas, Master, and I am your servant.'

The bishop took St Nicholas immediately to the other bishops and exclaimed, 'Brethren, receive your shepherd whom the Holy Spirit himself anointed and to whom he entrusted the care of your souls. He was not appointed by an assembly of men but by God himself. Now we have the one that we desired, and have found and accepted the one we sought. Under his rule and instruction we will not lack the hope that we will stand before God in the day of his appearing and revelation.'

Nicholas was consecrated to the episcopacy during a tumultuous time in the life of the Church in Lycia. The persecutions under the emperor Diocletian (284-305) effected that region deeply, and for a time, Bishop Nicholas was imprisoned with other Christians for refusing to bow down and worship the idols of the imperial cult. He was remembered later for the exhortations he delivered to his fellow prisoners, urging them to endure with joy all that the Lord lay before them, whether chains, bonds, torture or even death.

Bishop Nicholas' imprisonment came to an end with the ascension of Constantine to the throne in the early fourth century. He returned to his flock in Myra, which received him with joy, and resumed his episcopal work. He was known as a great ascetic, as he had been since his childhood, and for his gentleness and love. But his kind-hearted spirit was also one of zeal, and with the new freedoms offered under the peace of Constantine (following the 'Edict of Milan' in 312), he was known to travel through his city, visiting pagan temples and overthrowing their shrines and idols.

The First Ecumenical Council, Nicaea 325

In the year 325, a great council of bishops—the largest in the history of the Church—was held in the city of Nicaea under the patronage of Emperor Constantine, who had, since his miraculous vision of the cross at Milvian bridge, himself converted to Christianity. This synod, which in later years would come to be known as the First Ecumenical Council (commemorated on the seventh Sunday after Pascha), was attended by over three hundred bishops from throughout the Christian world, to establish various canons of order for the growing Church, affirm the faith, and combat heresy. In particular, the teachings of Arius, a presbyter in Alexandria, were addressed and condemned by the council, which formulated a statement of faith that, with later refinements at Constantinople in 381, became the Creed of the Church.

St Nicholas was a participant at this council, and is particularly remembered for his zeal against Arius. Having openly combatted him with words, Bishop Nicholas, in a fit of fervour (some accounts indicate he was displeased with Arius' monopolisation of the meeting with his 'constant arguing'), went so far as to strike Arius on the face. Shocked by this behaviour, especially given that the canons forbid clergy from striking any one at all, yet uncertain of how to react to such actions by a hierarch they knew and respected, the fathers of the council determined to deprive Nicholas of his episcopal emblems (traditionally his omophorion and the Gospel book), and placed him under guard. However, a short time later, several of the assembled fathers reported having a common vision: the Lord and His Mother returning to Nicholas his episcopal items, instructing that he was not to be punished, for he had acted 'not out of passion, but extreme love and piety'. This was taken as a sign that the extreme behaviour of Nicholas was nonetheless pleasing to God, who was thus restored to the fulness of his episcopal office.

Nicholas the Wonderworker

St Nicholas' title 'wonderworker' comes from the multitude of reports of miracles that issued forth at his intercession, both during his life and after. The renown of his miraculous acts was widespread in his own lifetime. As he had secretly delivered gold, many years before, to the father of three destitute daughters, so he secretly delivered gold to an Italian merchent (by some accounts, this gold was left miraculously by an apparition of the saint appearing to the merchant in Italy), convincing him to sail to Myra with a shipment of grain. And so by his prayers and deeds, his city of Myra was rescued from a terrible famine.

One miracle, particularly widely known, was Bishop Nicholas' conversion of the local governor, who had been bribed into unjustly condeming three men to death. The saint approached the executioner, who had already raised his sword to issue the death-blow, and swiftly removed it from his hands. He then approached the governor and denounced his unjust action. This latter, convicted by St Nicholas' words, repented and asked the saint's forgiveness. This episode is remembered as connected directly to another: for three officers of the imperial military were present to see St Nicholas stay this execution, who were later slanderously accused before the emperor, who condemned them to death. St Nicholas appeared to Emperor Constantine in a dream and urged him to reverse this sentence, which the emperor did.

Many times, the saint's prayers were said to have saved those drowning in the sea (just a his prayers had calmed the sea on his own journey, as a young priest, to Jerusalem). Prisoners unjustly condemned prayed to him and were delivered. The poor prayed to him and were provided for. And so Nicholas' reputation as thaumatourgos was established during his life. It continues to this day.

The saint's departure

Living his life in ascetic labour and zealous ministry, St Nicholas fell asleep in the Lord at an old age (d. 6th December 343), by some accounts quite ill. A church was built in his honour by the residents of Myra, in which his relics were kept for many centuries.

Alexei Cominos ascended the throne of the Byzantine Empire in 1081, in which year Asia Minor suffered various attacks and threats of barbarian invasion. St Nicholas' relics at this time remained in his city of Myra. However, a priest in the Italian city of Bari soon beheld a vision in which Nicholas appeared and informed him that he did not wish to remain in a city as barren as the defeated Myra. He instructed the priest to remove his body from the city. After informing the residents of Bari of his vision, three ships were sent to Myra to retrieve the saint's relics.

On their arrival in the city in 1087, the travellers from Bari found the Church of St Nicholas in Myra abandoned, save for the presence of four devoted monks. These led the men to the coffin of the saint, which they had hid to keep it safe from invaders. On opening the coffin, the men found St Nicholas' relics flowing with myrrh which they collected in vials, before securing the coffin and placing it on one of the ships for the return voyage to Bari, accompanied by two of the Myran monks.

Some time later, the ships arrived in Bari, and were met at the port by throngs of the local faithful. A great festal Liturgy was held in in the Church of St John the Forerunner and Baptist, to which the saint's relics were taken in procession. Craftsmen had fashioned an ornate silver box, into which St Nicholas' head and hands were placed, while the remainder of his relics remained in their original coffin from Myra. A short time later, a large church was built and dedicated to St Nicholas, and the two boxes containing his relics were transferred to it from the Church of St John, where they remain to this day. Chrism continues to flow from the saint's relics, as it has for centuries.

Parish of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker,

Oxford, England

Source: http://www.spc.rs/eng/life_st_nicholas_wonderworker_archbishop_myra
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