Our Holy Father Nicholas: truth vs. legend; or does it matter?.
Eph. 4:1-6; Luke 17:12-19.*
The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, known as The Eleventh Sunday of Luke.
The Eleventh Sunday after the Holy Cross; also, the Holy Great Martyr Barbara, and our Venerable Father John of Damascus.
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11:47 AM 12/4/2011 — Tomorrow and the next day, we will be observing the feast of Our Holy Father Nicholas the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia. In fact, during this time of Philip's Fast, we celebrate the feasts of number of important saints from the early sub-Apostolic period;—the first 350 years of the Church's existence—and, almost without exception, we know a lot more about them than we do about Nicholas of Myra; saints whose service to the Church seems to have been far more outstanding than his: for example, the Apostle Phillip, after whom we have named the Christmas Lent, and his brother Andrew; or St. John of Damascus and St. Ambrose of Milan, whose theological writings helped to form and guide the early Church. And yet, their feast days are not celebrated with nearly as much solemnity as that of Our Holy Father Nicholas, about whom we know practically nothing for certain. Most of the stories we were taught as children connected with his life belong more to legend than to history; and even most of the history we know we can’t prove with any certainty.
Historians over the centuries have posited that he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, that he took part in the Council of Nicaea, that he was imprisoned during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian; and, if we can’t be certain about even these innocuous sounding facts, then what are we to think of the hundreds of miracles and acts of charity attributed to him by popular legend—which is why he is called the Wonderworker? He’s credited with the setting free of captives, with saving schoolboys from death and young girls from dishonor. We all know the stories about how he supposedly distributed gifts to the poor and paid the dowries of girls so that they could marry and so avoid being sold into slavery. On the tretrapod I've put that icon which I display every year at this time, which shows him rescuing some sailors caught in a storm at sea, hence his title “Hope of Mariners,” which is just one title out of many. As early as the sixth century a church had been dedicated to him in Constantinople. So anxious were people to have relics of him that in 1087 merchants stole his body from Myra where he was bishop and brought it to the Italian city of Bari, where it remained until very recently; and where, we are told, he continued to work miracles.
When Kaiser Otto II took a Greek woman as his empress, he brought not only her but also her devotion to St. Nicholas to Germany; which has the dubious distinction of having turned this popular saint into something called Santa Clause.
Probably no other saint has been more portrayed both in western art and Eastern iconography; and many Eastern Catholic Churches, including our own Ruthenian Church, count St. Nicholas as their patron. We have more Churches dedicated to him than any other single saint; and every icon screen we have shows his image. And yet, in spite of all of this, there are only two facts we know about him for certain: that he was bishop of a town called Myra in Asia Minor, and that he died sometime around the middle of the fourth century.
How these things happen is hard to say. Many of the legends connected with St. Nicholas probably have some basis in fact; but when a story is passed down over generations by word of mouth, it can’t help but be embellished and fancified. Lord only knows what St. Nicholas himself would think of some of the stories told of him over the centuries. But if every legend has some basis in fact, then there is some significance to the fact that most of those legends have to do with great acts of charity and help to others, as well as wise and prudent service as a bishop. Think, for a moment, of the Troparion of his feast with which we are so familiar: “The sincerity of your deeds has revealed you to your people as a teacher of moderation, a model of faith, and an example of virtue.” See, most of these other saints that we commemorate during Philip's Fast—Ambrose of Milan, John of Damascus, Clement of Rome, Gregory the Decapolite (you may see the names flash by in the bulletin some particular week day)—they’re all remembered as great theologians and thinkers, great teachers and, in the case of St. Clement, a great pope. But St. Nicholas isn’t remembered for any of that. If he did preach great sermons like St. Ambrose, they were never written down; if he had been a great teacher and administrator like St. Clement, no one remembered it; if he ever did write great volumes of theological works like St. John Damascene, no one knows what they were. What he’s remembered for—what all the legends about him, true or not, point to—is exactly what we sing about in the Troparion: “The sincerity of your deeds...”
So, even if we were to play devil’s advocate and presume that all of the cute little stories about St. Nicholas are just bologna, any historian worth his salt would still have to agree that, if all those stories seem to paint a picture of the same kind of man, then, even if the stories themselves are not true, it must be because that was the kind of impression he left with those who remembered him, and who passed that on by word of mouth to others over a fifteen hundred year period.
We’re all familiar with the cliché: “actions speak louder than words.” Well, St. Nicholas is the living proof of that. When a man leaves absolutely no written record of himself behind, it’s almost a sure bet that a millennium and a half later he’s going to be forgotten. If he isn’t, it can only mean that the way he lived his life must really have made an impression!
So many of the ancient Fathers of the Church we remember because they left behind great writings that survive and continue to nourish the Church today; if they hadn’t, they’d have been forgotten long ago. If St. Ambrose’s glorious sermons, which inspired St. Augustine to convert, had never been written down and preserved, we wouldn’t know his name today. If St. Clement had not written his famous Letter to the Corinthians about papal authority, who would have remembered him? If St. John Damascene hadn’t written so beautifully about the Mother of God in anticipation the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, why would we have remembered him? And maybe this is the reason that St. Nicholas’ feast is a Holy Day while the other saints feasts are not. There are a lot of saints who lived what they believed;—if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be saints—but there are very few, at least from so early a period, who are remembered for the example of their lives alone; and even fewer who’s lives continue to inspire devotion long after the actual events of their lives have been forgotten.
But when you think about it, you don’t need to know the events of such a life; for all you have to do is open up the Gospel and read the life of Christ; and there you will find the life of every saint; for that is really what a saint is: someone who reproduces, in his own life, the life of Christ. Of course, when you read the life of Christ you realize very quickly that this is exactly how Jesus is asking all of us to live. And as we prepare, during this Philip's fast, to celebrate the birth of our Savior, if we have not yet thought much about what we will say in confession, we might want to take that Troparion of St. Nicholas, and see how much of it could be said about us: do the sincerity of our deeds reveal us to others as teachers of moderation, models of faith and examples of virtue? And, if not, how can we change to make it so?
Father Michael Venditti
* Due to the "Lucan Jump," the Gospel read today would be for the 28th Sunday after Pentecost (cf. the note appended to the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost); however, because that Gospel is read each year on the Sunday of the Forefathers (this year, December 11th), the Gospel for the 29th Sunday is read today. The matter is moot since today's homily is not based on the Scriptures of the day.