“O Father Nicholas, renowned through every land, wonderworker and helper to all in need, anointed by God’s own hand.”
So goes the first verse of a Byzantine hymn for St. Nicholas, a bishop from the early fourth century, who is venerated in both Eastern and Western Christianity, and whose feast we celebrate today in churches throughout the world on the Gregorian calendar. Churches on the Julian calendar will celebrate the feast in 13 days.
How did St. Nicholas — a Greek bishop from Myra, a large port town in present-day Turkey — gain such international renown and maintain such fervent devotion over the centuries?
An important figure in early Christianity, his renown grew due to his total commitment to teaching and defending the truth about Christ, putting Jesus’ teachings on love of neighbor into action, and leading his people with integrity — and all without the crown of martyrdom. Indeed, St. Nicholas is one of the first Christians of the early church to have been hailed a saint without being martyred.
While not much is known about the life of St. Nicholas, what has been passed on from tradition captures the best qualities of what it means to be a Christian and a holy bishop.
Nicholas was born into a wealthy family in Patara in present-day Turkey, but was orphaned at a young age when his parents died during an epidemic. As a young man, he turned his back on the luxury and privilege of his inheritance to enter a monastery in nearby Myra.
Tradition says when the bishops of Myra were having difficulty electing a new bishop, they heard a voice in the night that said they were to elect the first person to walk into the church for prayer the next morning. Nicholas, first to enter the church that morning, was made bishop.
As bishop, he attended the first ecumenical council in 325, also called the Council of Nicaea, which laid the foundations for the faith Christians still profess today, and where he acted against the heresy of the priest Arius regarding the nature of Christ.
As well, during a short time of Christian persecution in the early fourth century, tradition says St. Nicholas was imprisoned and tortured, but remained steadfast in his faith.
St. Nicholas also developed a reputation for being compassionate to the poor. One of the most famous stories in this regard is about three girls who could not marry because their father was unable to provide dowries for each of them. When St. Nicholas heard about this family, he tossed purses of gold coins through an open window of their home, providing sufficient funds so they could marry.
Tradition says people were also healed through the holy bishop’s intercessory prayer, hence the moniker “wonderworker.”
Devotion to St. Nicholas spread quickly upon his death in 343 A.D., and thousands of churches, both East and West, were named for him around the world.
In 1087, his relics were brought to Bari, southern Italy, where they continue to ooze a myrrh-like oil, called Manna of St. Nicholas, believed to have healing properties.
As Bishop Abel Szocska of the Eparchy of Nyiregyhaza, Hungary, said in a homily on the saint: “This is how all of us, Christians, should live our lives: to love according to Jesus’ teaching, to pray according to Jesus’ example, because if we do so, we are sure to hold the hearts of others.”
If St. Nicholas continues to capture the hearts of children the world over — and inspire hope and childhood wonder in adults, too — it is because he lived out the heart of the Gospel sincerely and generously. St. Nicholas is the church and Christianity at its best.
The celebration of his feast day in Advent is providential, as it provides yet another “tuning fork” during this season — a much-needed reminder of the generosity and sincerity with which to live the Gospel as we prepare for the feast of the Nativity.
Laura Ieraci is assistant editor of ONE magazine.