In the Orthodox and Catholic/Anglican tradition the feast of St Nicholas is 6 December.
Although Nicholas is a very popular saint in the Greek and Latin churches (i.e., Orthodox and Western), there is little known about the historical Nicholas. We know he was Bishop of Myra (Lycia in modern Turkey) at the beginning of the fourth century. Beyond that, our knowledge of Nicholas moves into legend.
It is said that he was imprisoned during the Diocletian persecution of the church in AD 303-304.
He may have participated in the first Council of Nicaea in AD 325, one of the crucial Ecumenical Councils of the Church that helped forge Christian orthodoxy (from which we have the Nicene Creed).
Nicholas is remembered for his generosity and goodwill. For this, he is considered a patron saint of sailors and children.
The truth of these legends is lost in the mists of time, so how might they be important to us today?
First is the priority of care for those who are denied justice. In Nicholas’ day, children had no legal or other form of status. That was a given in the Roman Empire. Unless affluent, they were profoundly vulnerable. That is still true across the globe today. This is totally contrary to the teachings of Jesus, who points to the child as an exemplar of the Kingdom of God and in special need of care and protection.
In saving the unjustly convicted sailors Nicholas shows that due process is integral to justice. In the days of Twitter storms and social media condemnation we are losing the art of measured judgement and are rushing to condemn. Nicholas warns us away from that nasty basic impulse to point the finger. He does that surely in the spirit of Jesus’ hesitancy to judge, despite being the Judge of All. Secondly in Nicholas we see someone who delights in the Gift of Life and wants to see life in others. How we live our lives – from conception to a natural death – is increasingly contested, even amongst Christians. Nicholas brought his gifts by night so as not to be noticed. We don’t see, and barely acknowledge, the Giver of our lives. In dark times when so many refugees die and suffer, when we have homeless people living on the street, when many have little food and poor shelter, part of the Christian task, in the spirit of Nicholas, is quietly and patiently, yet insistently, to promote the priority of life.
St Nicholas was no ‘bah-humbug’ sort of person, and nor should we be, so following his example, let us pray that we might be humble in generosity, vibrant in our daily lives and always compassionate to the needs of the vulnerable. Then we can truly say we honour this great and popular saint.
The Link is a monthly publication by members and staff of Morningside United Church.