People, Look East: St. Nicholas the Wonderworker

Happy Feast of St. Nicholas!

Today, the universal church celebrates the feast of one of the most favored saints in the history of Christianity.

Throughout East and West, images of the “Wonderworker” abound. Majestic statues of the fourth-century bishop can be found in Baroque churches throughout Middle Europe, especially in the German-speaking lands and in the Czech and Slovak republics. 

Sculptures of the saint grace the portals and naves of Romanesque and Gothic churches and cathedrals throughout France, Italy and Spain. Icons of the saint dominate churches throughout the Byzantine East, especially in the Balkans, Lebanon and Syria and in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. And in North America, the beloved St. Nicholas was transformed into Santa Claus, a figure who, with a little persistence, bears some similarity to the great saint.

Just a hundred years ago, folk spirituality among the peasantry in the East considered St. Nicholas a member of a trinity, just after Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.

Why would an obscure bishop from Asia Minor, who has left no writings or teachings behind, take the world by storm for more than 1,600 years?

The reason for this special veneration of this special bishop, who left neither theological works nor other writings,” writes Leonid Ouspensky, a noted theologian, “is evidently that the church sees in him a personification of a shepherd, of its defender and intercessor.

There is much that could and should unite Christians of the East and West, beginning with our shared belief in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But alas, our common belief has not warded off the foes of our communion.

Some 25 years ago, I visited his tomb in the southeastern Italian city of Bari.

In the 11th century, sailors from that port city were dispatched to ancient Myra, where the relics of the saint were venerated, and “transferred” them by sea to Bari. (Whether the sailors stole, extorted or purchased the relics lies outside the scope of this letter.) A magnificent basilica was erected to enshrine the relics, which continues to draw hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year.

Let us go back to that day in Bari in early May 1997:

“While a powerful organ boomed a Latin hymn, the aisles of the basilica were lined with penitents seeking absolution from the Dominican priests who now staff the shrine. As I walked down a flight of stairs into the crypt where Nicholas’s body is enshrined, I heard the distinct sound of Byzantine chant. A Byzantine Divine Liturgy was in progress. The language, however, was not Greek or Slavonic, but Italian. Italo-Byzantine Catholics (who number some 65,000 people) were not alone in their worship. Greeks, Russians and curious Latin Catholics all took part in the liturgy as well.

“One Russian family caught my eye. The father watched his youngest child as his wife and daughters, their heads covered in colorful scarves, lit candles, kissed icons, pressed their heads to the sacred images and prostrated themselves before the altar. Although they abstained from the Eucharist, this family and the other Orthodox pilgrims who were in attendance rushed to the iconostasis to receive the blessed bread and to be anointed with the holy myron, or oil, of St. Nicholas.

“The holy myron of St. Nicholas is a clear substance that, according to Byzantine accounts, has oozed from the remains of St. Nicholas since his burial in the early fourth century. Many Barese families still possess the elaborately painted bottles that were blown to hold the sacred oil.

“After the completion of the liturgy, I went to the chapel where Nicholas lies buried under a simple stone altar. While the Italians were busy throwing their offerings of lire through an iron gate, my Russian family — who were now joined by other Russian pilgrims — stood near the tomb of their beloved saint and wept.”

There is much that could and should unite Christians of the East and West, beginning with our shared belief in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

But alas, our common belief has not warded off the foes of our communion — not only between Eastern and Western Christians, but among our own traditions, most notably the Christians of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

May St. Nicholas, the great Wonderworker, once more be a figure to unite us all, particularly as people of good will worldwide combat together the forces of evil seeking to instill fear, loathing and hate.

As the Byzantine hymn tells us, “O Father Nicholas, renowned through every land, wonderworker and helper to all in need, anointed by God’s own hand.

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