An 18th-century Russian icon of St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker
hangs in CNEWA’s New York offices.
Today, throughout the universal church, Christians celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas, a reluctant bishop of the early church in Asia Minor. Before the Communists suppressed the Orthodox Church in Russia, St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker virtually dominated the popular piety of the nation. Countless churches were dedicated to him. Russian men, from the exalted tsar to the humblest peasant, honored him as their patron. A pious peasant asked to identify the Holy Trinity would, more often than not, mutter the names of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker. Icons of this trinity, enshrined in every Russian home, reinforced this understanding.
Devotion to the Wonder Worker has not been confined to Russia. England, Greece, Holland, Lorraine, Sicily and southern Italy all honor him as patron. And his influence has spread to the New World, where it has taken on new life, particularly among children during the Christmas season, who associate him with Santa Claus.
In 1997, I traveled to the Italian region of Puglia, home to my paternal ancestors. While there, I visited the basilica in the city of Bari that has housed his relics for more than 900 years. “Nowhere is the universal nature of St. Nicholas?s popularity more apparent than in the southern Italian city of Bari,” I wrote in our magazine in an article entitled “Bari?s Borrowed Wonder Worker.”
One Russian family caught my eye. The father watched his youngest child as his wife and daughters, their heads covered in colorful scarves, lighted 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.
“In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith, an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence,” exclaims the Troparion for today?s feast. “Your humility exalted you; your poverty enriched you. Hierarch Father Nicholas, entreat Christ our God that our souls may be saved.”