Wednesday, December 06, 2006

St Nicholas of Myra

Today we celebrate our “father among the saints, Nicholas the Wonder-worker, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia.” I have to chuckle sometimes with that full title. Just in case we’re not sure where Myra is, we are given our bearings by being told that it’s in Lycia. Good, that clears it up, doesn’t it? Well, just in case that didn’t clear it up, Lycia was a Roman province in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), in the southern part of the country, and Myra was one of the chief cities of the province.

The liturgical texts offer us some plays on words, for “Myra” (say “mira” not “my-ra”) is related to the Greek myron which means a perfumed oil, like that which the myrrh-bearing women brought to anoint Jesus’ body. So, is it the same word as “myrrh”? Not quite, but close. Myrrh is smyrna in Greek, which happens to be the name of another city in Asia Minor, one that is mentioned in the Book of Revelation (“New Smyrna” is also a beach on the Atlantic coast of Florida, but I won’t drag my past into this!). And to add to the mystery, after the death of St Nicholas a fragrant oil began to exude from his relics and has continued to do so for centuries. So we have liturgical texts like this: “O holy Father Nicholas, your relics poured out myrrh and protected the city of Myra… You anoint (myrizo) us with the myrrh of the Holy Spirit… you lived your life with the people of Myra, and since your spirit was anointed, your fragrance of sanctity was known by all…”

It is this sanctity of St Nicholas that we are primarily celebrating today, and thus we come to another interesting term, which I’ll mention shortly. Usually readings are chosen for a saint according to the category into which he falls. There are common sets of readings for hierarchs, martyrs, monks, apostles, etc. St Nicholas shatters stereotypes, however, because he has one reading (the epistle, Heb. 13:17-21) for hierarchs—since he was a bishop—but the Gospel reading is commonly used for monks (Lk. 6:17-23), even though he wasn’t a monk. That’s because this category is not exclusively for monks, but for the prepodobni, into which category monk-saints usually fall. This is that other interesting word, though it’s not Greek but Slavonic. It’s rather odd. It means “most like” (pre—most; and podobni—like or similar to). Problem is, the word itself doesn’t tell us what they are most like! But we’re all supposed to know that it means they are most like God, or most like Christ.

So St Nicholas is categorized—along with being a bishop—as one who is most like the Lord. How was he like the Lord? The events of his life, and the miracles and devotion accorded to him after his death, make him a kind of symbol of the loving providence of God. He was known to be a champion of the cause of the poor, and he would secretly provide for those he knew were destitute or in trouble, in one case sneaking into the home of some young maidens who were about to be sold into slavery, and leaving enough money to save them from that fate. He was also a defender of the innocent, for he saved from death several people who had been unjustly condemned by the emperor Constantine. He was also a stalwart preacher of the true faith, especially as the Arian heresy was raging during his lifetime.

Because of the holiness of his life and the abundance of his good works, St Nicholas was often called upon after his death to intercede for those who were in need or distress. He had rescued some sailors in a storm at sea, and so eventually became a patron saint of travelers. Because of his orthodoxy and defense of the faith, he became a patron of Eastern Christians. And because our founder, Fr Boniface, liked him so much, he was made the patron of our monastery church! Finally, because he was a friend and helper of the innocent, he also became a patron of children. This is probably why his secular alter ego, Santa Claus, is depicted as one who sneaks into houses and leaves gifts for children—although what Santa Claus has become today in our crassly mercenary Christmases is a far cry from the real St Nicholas, who gave gifts to those who were really in need, not merely to feed the desires of those who live to accumulate possessions.

So St Nicholas is “most like” or “similar to” God in what he stands for: charity, righteousness, truth, generosity, mercy, care for the disadvantaged and for his spiritual flock, availability to rescue the distressed, etc. And for us here at Mt Tabor he stands also as a friend and intercessor, since our holy temple here at the monastery is dedicated to him. He is present with us as we worship the Lord with the whole communion of saints. And perhaps it was through his intercession that we have received enough money to buy a new furnace for his church—which, of course, gave up the ghost just as that frosty arctic front was moving in last week! We didn’t see the angels worshiping with us, but we did see our breath with every “Lord have mercy!”

St Nicholas may not guarantee us a toasty church to worship in, but, as the epistle reminds us, he is keeping watch over our souls, and he will intercede for us, that God will equip us with everything good, so that we may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Let us now pray for a spiritual anointing with the myrrh of divine grace, through the intercession of the Archbishop of Myra, whose relics run with holy myron, and let us rejoice in this feast day, receiving spiritual gifts from the Giver of Life. The feast of St Nicholas is traditionally the gift-giving day, while the feast of the nativity of our Lord is meant to be spent in worship and contemplation, free from the noise of video games and drum sets (have you ever questioned the sanity of parents who would give their child a drum set for Christmas?) But in any case, let us give thanks to God for St Nicholas, for his protection and intercession, for his example of holiness and service—and if he wants to leave a few gifts, well, why not? To God be the glory, both now and forever!