The Life of Saint Nicholas
Holy Hierarch Nicholas the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia, was glorified as a great saint of God.
It was a very long time ago, during the last half of the third century AD, when a devout Christian couple lived in Patara, an important port on the Mediterranean coast of Lycia in Asia Minor (now in modern Turkey). St. Paul had visited Patara while making his missionary journeys and the Christian community was established there.
This couple, Theophanes and Nonna, deeply desired a child. As the years passed (and some say it was thirty long years), they prayed and wept, but still there was no child.
And so it was with great rejoicing and deep gratitude that a son, who they named Nicholas, was born.
Immediately after giving birth to him, his mother Nona was healed of sickness. From infancy, St. Nicholas set out on a life of fasting. On Wednesdays and Fridays, he accepted his mother’s milk only once, after his parents’ evening prayers.
Theophanes and Nonna chose the name in honor of the child’s priest-uncle, Nicholas, who came to bless the baby. This uncle was abbot of a monastery in nearby Xanthos. Nicholas was a familiar name among Christians, though not common, as a man named Nicholas was one of the first chosen to serve as a deacon in Jerusalem.
Boyhood: Tragedy Strikes
As a boy Nicholas loved to visit the nearby monastery, where his uncle, who was also named Nicholas, was the abbot.
From childhood, Nicholas became accomplished in learning Divine Scripture. During the day, he did not leave the church, and at night he prayed and read books, building within himself a worthy home for the Holy Spirit. His uncle, Bishop Nicholas of Patara, rejoiced in his spiritual accomplishments.
There Nicholas began his life-long dedication to the church, as he joined in the daily cycle of worship, chanting prayers together with the monks. He learned to love and serve God from both his parents and his friends the monks.
Nonna and Theopanes took their son Nicholas to a local teacher, where he studied the classical subjects of the time. He learned philosophy, as well as scripture and theology from the monks. His home life, too, reflected love for God and the family belonged to the Christian community in Patara. Even though Roman authorities in Lycia were tolerant, Christians would have met in homes or other out-of-the-way places.
Nicholas’ parents died of the plague while he was still young, perhaps in his mid to late-teens. As Theophanes and Nonna had prospered during his childhood, Nicholas received a large inheritance. He went to live with his beloved Uncle Nicholas, who took responsibility for the youth. Nicholas lived with his uncle and the other monks of the monastery where he continued to study, to grow in faith, and to love and serve God.
Three Impoverished Maidens or The Story of The Dowries – The Origin of the Christmas Stocking
There was a man, once rich, who had fallen on hard times. Now poor, he had three daughters of an age to be married. In those days a young woman’s family had to have something of value, a dowry, to offer prospective bridegrooms. The larger the dowry, the better the chance a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man’s daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery, or worse.
Word of the family’s misfortune reached Nicholas, who had the wealth inherited from his parents. St. Nicholas came secretly at night and threw some gold coins tied in a stocking through the window. In the morning they found the money and gave thanks to God for saving them from misfortune. The first daughter soon wed.
Not long after, another bag of gold again appeared mysteriously. The second daughter was married. The father, now very anxious to know who the secret benefactor was, kept watch during the night.
A third bag of gold landed inside the house and the watchful father leaped up and caught the fleeing donor. “Ah, Nicholas, it is you!” cried the father, “You have saved my daughters from certain disaster.”
Nicholas, embarrassed, and not wishing to be known, begged the man to keep his identity secret. “You must thank God alone for providing these gifts in answer to your prayers for deliverance.”
Pilgrimage to the Holy Land – Saint Nicholas Saves the Storm-Tossed Sailors
While yet a young man, Nicholas followed the example of his uncle, the abbot, by making a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Christianity—the Holy Land. Desiring a serene time of preparation, Nicholas set sail on an Egyptian ship where the other pilgrims did not know who he was. The first night he dreamed a storm would put them all at peril. When he awoke in the morning he warned the sailors that a severe storm was coming, but they need not fear, for “God will protect us.”
Almost immediately the sky darkened and strong winds roared round the ship. The wind and waves made it impossible to keep the ship under control. Even with lowered sails, the sailors feared for their very lives and begged Nicholas to pray for safety. One sailor climbed the main mast, tightening the ropes so the mast would not crash onto the deck. As he was coming back down, the sailor slipped, fell to the deck, and was killed.
While Nicholas prayed, the storm did quiet, relieving the sailors. Their comfort, however, was dampened by grief over their comrad’s death. As Nicholas prayed over the dead sailor, he was revived, “as if he had only been asleep.” The man awakened without pain and the ship finished the journey to the Holy Land.
Nicholas then embarked on his pilgrimage to the holy places, walking where Jesus had walked. One night he wanted to pray at the only church remaining at the time in Jerusalem, the Church of the Room of the Last Supper on Mount Zion. As he approached the heavy, locked doors, they swung open of their own accord, allowing him to enter the church. Nicholas fell to the ground in thanksgiving.
Having gone to all of the holy sites , St. Nicholas decided to go off into the desert. He was stopped by a Divine voice which directed that he return to his homeland. Drawn to a life of silence, upon his return to Lycia the saint joined the brotherhood of a monastery known as Holy Zion. However, the Lord once again announced to him that a different path awaited him: “Nicholas, this is not field from which I expect you to bring forth My expected fruit. Turn and go back into the world, that My Name will be glorified in you.” In a vision, the Lord gave him the Gospels, bound in a richly decorated cover, and the Most-Holy Mother of God gave him an omophorion.
How Nicholas Became a Bishop
A very long time ago, after the Bishop of Myra died, the other bishops in Lycia gathered to select the new bishop for the See of Myra. As they met, they discussed and prayed, but could not discern who would be the right choice.
One night, the oldest and wisest bishop heard a voice in the night telling him to watch the doors of the church the next morning before matins. The first person to enter the church by the name of “Nicholas” was to be the new bishop. This wise bishop shared his vision with the others, urging them to pray while he waited at the doors.
As the time for morning prayer drew near, the first person to come was a young man. The waiting bishop asked, “What is your name?” “I am Nicholas,” came the reply. “Nicholas, servant and friend of God, for your holiness you shall be bishop of this place,” said the bishop.
Nicholas protested he was not worthy to be named bishop. He said he was too young and inexperienced for such great responsibility. All the bishops said it was God’s will for Nicholas to be the new bishop.
They brought him into the church and placed him in the bishop’s seat. There he was consecrated the new Bishop of Myra. Nicholas promised to bring the Gospel of Christ to the people and defend the faith from all those who would attack it.
Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, lived his life in faithful service to God; he was protector of the poor and helpless, advocate of justice for those in need, and faithful defender of the Christian faith.
Famine Relief or The Miracle Of The Grain
When crops failed, famine descended throughout Lycia. The people of Myra were hungry. Bishop Nicholas was very concerned about the people’s welfare.
In far off Italy, a merchant loaded his ship with grain to sell in Egypt. That night Bishop Nicholas appeared to the merchant in a dream. He pledged payment of three gold coins, and commanded the merchant to come to Myra and sell the grain. The merchant was amazed and frightened when he awoke to find three gold coins miraculously in his hand.
Since the merchant was afraid to ignore such a command, he sailed to Myra and sold all his grain. The people had food and would be able to survive the famine. Still amazed, the merchant told everyone about his dream and the gold. The citizens listened to his story and were amazed. They thanked God for their good fortune and for their extraordinary bishop, Nicholas.
Bishop Nicholas Loses His Cool (At The Council of Nicaea)
In AD 325 Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, the very first ecumenical council. More than 300 bishops came from all over the Christian world to debate the nature of the Holy Trinity. It was one of the early church’s most intense theological questions. Arius, from Egypt, was teaching that Jesus the Son was not equal to God the Father. Arius forcefully argued his position at length. The bishops listened respectfully.
As Arius vigorously continued, Nicholas became more and more agitated. Finally, he could no longer bear what he believed was essential being attacked. The outraged Nicholas got up, crossed the room, and slapped Arius across the face! The bishops were shocked. It was unbelievable that a bishop would lose control and be so hotheaded in such a solemn assembly. They brought Nicholas to Constantine. Constantine said even though it was illegal for anyone to strike another in his presence, in this case, the bishops themselves must determine the punishment.
The bishops stripped Nicholas of his bishop’s garments, chained him, and threw him into jail. That wwould keep Nicholas away from the meeting. When the Council ended a final decision would be made about his future.
Nicholas was ashamed and prayed for forgiveness, though he did not waver in his belief. During the night, Jesus and Mary his Mother, appeared,* asking, “Why are you in jail?” “Because of my love for you,” Nicholas replied. Jesus then gave the Book of the Gospels to Nicholas. Mary gave him an omophorion, so Nicholas would again be dressed as a bishop. Now at peace, Nicholas studied the Scriptures for the rest of the night.
When the jailer came in the morning, he found the chains loose on the floor and Nicholas dressed in bishop’s robes, quietly reading the Scriptures. When Constantine was told of this, the emperor asked that Nicholas be freed. Nicholas was then fully reinstated as the Bishop of Myra.
The Council of Nicaea agreed with Nicholas’ views, deciding the question against Arius. The work of the Council produced the Nicene Creed which to this day many Christians repeat weekly when they stand to say what they believe.
Righter of Wrongs
During the time of Emperor Constantine, unrest and revolt would break out here and there around the empire. Soldiers would then be sent to restore order. Three generals, named Nepotianus, Ursus, and Eupoleonis were sent to put down a revolt in Phrygia. These generals, with their troops, landed in Andriaki, to wait for wind so they could continue on their way.
Some soldiers came ashore and went to Myra to buy bread and other supplies. Seeing an opportunity, troublmakers impersonated the soldiers, looting and causing general mayhem. Townspeople mobbed the soldiers, thinking they were causing the problems.
Hearing the noise and fearing a riot, Bishop Nicholas hurried to the port to restore order. There the generals greeted the Bishop and asked his blessing on their mission. Then the generals admonished their soldiers to bring order and avoid arrest. The Bishop invited the generals to return with him to Myra.
As they approached the town, people came running to tell the bishop, “If you had been in the city, three innocent men would not have been handed over to death.” Nicholas asked, “Are the men still alive?” “Yes,” they answered, and told him where they had been taken.
Still with the generals and hoping it wasn’t too late, Nicholas ran to the place. The three men were in position with their faces covered and hands bound behind their backs, expecting death. The executioner held the sword up in readiness. Fearlessly, Nicholas grabbed the sword, throwing it to the ground. He freed the men and took them into the city.
They went to the Pretorium where Bishop Nicholas confronted the Prefect Eustathios for accepting bribes and nearly causing the deaths of three innocent men. Frightened, Eustathios confessed his crimes. Nicholas pardoned him after the charges against the men had been cleared.
The generals, joining Bishop Nicholas for refreshments, asked him to pray for them. He blessed them and said good-bye as they left to sail on to carry out their mission.
The Emperor Dreams
Having completed their mission the three generals, Nepotianus, Ursos, and Eupoleonis, returned as conquering heros to Constantinople. Emperor Constantine gave a great reception honoring the generals; this made the Master of the Forces green with envy.
The Master offered Prefect Ablabius a bribe of 1700 pounds of gold to betray the three generals. Agreeing, Ablabius went to Constantine, telling him, “My lord, the officers who were sent to serve you have instead committed treason. When I learned of this, I could not keep silent. Now, if it please my lord, act!” The furious emperor immediately ordered the three generals to prison without further inquiry.
The jealous officers, now afraid they would be found out, pressured Ablabius, saying, “Why do you keep the generals alive in prison? As long as they are there they can help their cause.” So Ablabius went again to Constantine, saying, “My lord, those generals that you ordered to prison, continue to plot against you.” The emperor ordered the men to be beheaded that very night.
The warden told the generals they were to be executed before sunrise. The three rent their garments, crying, “What evil did we do, that we should perish so miserably?” For they had served the emperor loyally and well; now, without trial, they were condemned by the same emperor. They knew not what to do.
Then Nepotianus remembered what they had witnessed in Myra—Bishop Nicholas saving three innocent men from unjust condemnation and death. He cried out, “Lord God of Saint Nicholas have mercy upon us. Save us now, as you saved the three men who were unjustly condemned to death in Lycia. Saint Nicholas, servant of Christ, though you are far from us, pray to your God that we may be saved.” They all prayed the same way.
Saint Nicholas himself came to Emperor Constantine in a dream, saying, “Rise and free the three generals you have put in prison, Nepotianus, Ursus, and Eupoleonis. They have been condemned on hearsay. If you do not obey, I will stir up such a revolt that your body will be given to wild animals.” Constantine asked, “Who are you, and how did you get into my palace?” The saint replied, “I am Bishop Nicholas, from Lycia.” And he vanished.
Nicholas then appeared to Ablabius the prefect, saying, “Rise and free the three innocent generals you have put in prison. If you do not listen to me, you and your whole family will die.” Ablabius asked, “Who are you and where do you come from, to speak to me like this?” Nicholas answered, “I am Nicholas, servant of God, the Metropolitan in Myra.” And again he disappeared.
Constantine awoke and sent a messenger for Ablabius. The prefect sent the messenger back with the same story. Constantine ordered the three generals, the prefect, and the public into his court. Constantine asked the generals, “What kind of magic do you do that you can affect us while we sleep?” The three stared at the ground, afraid of being accused of working spells on the emperor. The question was repeated. Nepotianus replied, “My lord, we know nothing of magic. If we have done anything against Your Excellency, punish us.” The emperor then asked, “Do you know anyone named Nicholas?” Inspired and emboldened, they answered, “Lord God of Saint Nicholas have mercy upon us. Save us now, as you saved the three men who were unjustly condemned to death in Lycia.” The emperor asked, “Who is this Nicholas?” Nepotianus told him what Nicholas had done, freeing the innocent men in Myra.
Emperor Constantine spared the generals, saying, “It is not I who frees you, but Nicholas to whom you called for help. Get dressed in your uniforms, and go to give him thanks.” Constantine sent them away with rich gifts of gold holy vessels, a Gospel of gold, and two golden candelabra. The generals journeyed to Myra to thank Bishop Nicholas for their amazing rescue. Nicholas brushed aside their thanks, urging them to praise God who had so miraculously saved them. They then gave of their wealth to the poor, continuing to do so for many years while giving thanks to God.
Tax Relief For Myra
The people of Myra were suffering under the burden of heavy taxes. They begged Bishop Nicholas to ask the emperor to relieve them of the high taxes which caused such hardship. Nicholas went to Constantine to plead the cause of his people. The emperor heard Nicholas’ pleas and granted a large cut. Nicholas received a written copy of the order. He immediately took the copy and went down to the sea where he threw the parchment out into the water. Soon afterwards it was fished out of the water near Myra and taken to the proper authorities. It was put into immediate effect and taxes were lowered substantially.
Meanwhile the finance ministers had convinced Constantine that losing this revenue would seriously harm the royal treasury. Constantine summoned Nicholas back and asked to have the order returned so it could be changed to a much smaller tax cut. When Nicholas reported that the order had already been put into effect in Myra, Constantine sent a runner to determine the truth. How could it be true when Bishop Nicholas was still in Constantinople? However, when Nicholas’ words were confirmed, the emperor allowed the full reduction to stand. A century later Myra’s people still attributed their low taxation to St. Nicholas.
One year, as the good people of Myra were celebrating good Saint Nicholas on the eve of his feast day, a band of pirates from Crete came into the district. They stole treasure from the Church of Saint Nicholas—gold chalices, jeweled icons, and silver candlesticks—to take away as booty. As they were leaving town they also snatched a young boy, Basilios, to keep as a slave.
The emir, or ruler, selected Basilios to be his personal cupbearer. Not knowing the language, Basilios could not eavesdrop any state secrets. So, for a year Basileos waited on the king, serving his wine in a beautiful golden cup.
The year passed slowly for Basilios’ parents, who were devastated at the loss of their only child. As St. Nicholas’ feast day approached again, Basilios’ mother said, “I simply cannot join in the any festivity. For me, St. Nicholas Day has become time of sorrow. She decided to have a simple observance at home—with quiet prayers for Basileos’ safekeeping.
Meanwhile, far away, Basilios remembered this was the day of St. Nicholas feast. He was downcast and discouraged. The emir asked why he looked so unhappy. Basilios replied, “I’m thinking of home and the special feast day of St. Nicholas.” “You will never be there again!” declared the emir. As Basilios was filling the golden cup, he was suddenly whisked up and away. The boy was terrified, but St. Nicholas appeared to him, blessed him, and set him down in his home in Myra. Imagine the joy and wonderment when Basileos appeared, still holding the emir’s golden cup.
Basilios and his family celebrated St. Nicholas feast day with great rejoicing and thanksgiving. The whole town offered prayers of thanksgiving to God and to the saint who had once been their bishop.
Grace Received: Death of Nicholas
Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, in the land of Lycia, in the poetic words of Symeon the Metaphrast, “had long lived . . . renowned for his virtuous conduct, he asperged the metropolis of Myra with sweet and lovely unction distilled from the blossoms of divine Grace.” As Nicholas came to the end of his life, he prayed that God would send his angels to receive his spirit. When Nicholas saw the angels, he spoke the psalm, “I have hope in thee, O Lord” . . . . “into thine hands I commend my spirit.” He gave up his spirit and died in the year of our Lord three-hundred and forty-three.
His earthly body, borne by a great procession of bishops, priests, monks, and deacons, was laid to rest in a marble tomb in the crypt of his own cathedral church in Myra. From his tomb there flowed a fountain of manna that has continued until this day.
Translation of the holy relics
After Myra fell under the control of the Seljuks, who were not sympathetic to the Christian faith, Italian merchants in both Venice and Bari saw an opportunity for their cities. A major place of pilgrimage, such as Nicholas tomb, would be a great boon to both spiritual and economic life. Forty-seven set out from Bari, sailing in three ships, to accomplish the task. Making port in Andriaki, they made their way to the church in Myra. A small community of monks guarded Saint Nicholas’ shrine. To the monks horror, the Barians broke into the tomb and made off with the saints’ relics. The ships arrived triumpantly back in Bari on May 9, 1087. The townspeople were overjoyed and San Nicola became the patron saint of Bari and all Apulia.
A great church, the Basilica di San Nicola, was built for the saint, who is now known as Saint in Bari as well as Bishop of Myra. The tomb of St. Nicholas has been a major pilgrimage site ever since.
Many icons show Saint Nicholas with Jesus on one side and Mary the Blessed Mother on the other. They hold symbols of a bishop’s office: the Book of the Gospels and an omophorion. They appeared this way in two events of Nicholas’ life. The first was when he was selected to be consecrated as a bishop. The second was at the Council of Nicaea. They symbolize God’s favor resting upon Nicholas and confirm his vocation as a bishop.
The name of the great Saint of God, the Holy Hierarch and Miracle-worker Nicholas, the quick helper and man of prayer for all who run to him, became famous in many countries and among many peoples throughout the world. In Russia, many cathedrals, monasteries, and churches are dedicated to his holy name. No, rather, there is not a single town without a church dedicated to St. Nicholas. More often than not, churches to St. Nicholas were erected on market squares by Russian merchants, those who sailed the seas and who trod the earth, those who revered St. Nicholas the Miracle-worker as the patron of all travelers, both on land and on sea. Sometimes the people named them churches of “Nichola the Wet.” Many village churches were dedicated to the Wonder-worker Nicholas, whom peasants revered as a merciful intercessor for all working people before the Lord. Holy Hierarch Nicholas did not cease acting as an intercessor for the Russian land. Ancient Kiev passed down to us the story of how the Holy Hierarch saved a drowned child. After hearing the sorrowful prayers of parents who had lost their only heir, St. Nicholas took the child from the water, brought him back to life, and placed him before his miraculous icon in the choir loft of the Church of the Holy Wisdom. In the morning, the parents were overjoyed to find their rescued child there. Together with a multitude of people, they glorified St. Nicholas the Wonder-worker.
Many miraculous icons of St. Nicholas appeared in Russia, or came to Russia from other countries. These include the ancient (12th century) Byzantine icon, brought from Novgorod to Moscow and depicting the Saint to the waist, as well as the enormous icon, written in the 13th century by a Novgorod master. Two types of depictions of the Wonder-worker are especially wide-spread throughout the Russian Church: The first is Holy Hierarch Nicholas of Zaraisk, showing a full-length figure of St. Nicholas, his right hand in an attitude of blessing, and his left holding the Gospels. It was this icon that was brought to Ryazan’ in 1225 by the Byzantine Princess Eupraxia, who married Theodore, Prince of Ryazan’, and who perished, together with her husband and her infant son, during the invasion by Baty Khan. The second is Holy Hierarch Nicholas of Mozhaisk, which also depicts a full-length figure of St. Nicholas, holding a sword in his right hand and a city in his left. This commemorates the miraculous saving, through the prayers of the Holy Hierarch, of the city of Mozhaisk from enemy attack. It would be impossible to list all of the grace-giving icons of Holy Hierarch Nicholas. According to the prayers of the Holy Hierarch, every Russian town and every church is blessed with such an icon.