06 December 2011

6 December - Saint Nicholas of Myra

At Myra, the metropolis of Lycia, the birthday of St. Nicholas, bishop and confessor, of whom it is related, among other miracles, that, while at a great distance from the emperor Constantine, he appeared to him in a vision and moved him to mercy so as to deter him from putting to death some persons who had implored his assistance.

Today is the feast of Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bishop and Confessor.  Children will be checking their shoes to see what the good saint has left them.

For his many miracles, he is known as “the Wonder-worker”.

For his aid to mariners in a stormy sea, he became the patron of sailors, and extended his patronage to seaport towns, where a chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas could often be found near the docks.

After forcing a gang of robbers to restore their plunder, he became the patron of thieves [hopefully repentant] who afterward called themselves Knights or Clerks of St. Nicholas.

But it is for two stories of his unselfish goodness to children that he is best known.  The lesser-known story, albeit one that appealed to medieval hearts, is that in which he restored to life the murdered children.

Saint Bonaventure related the story of two young boys who, while traveling to a school in Athens, stopped at an inn.  The wicked innkeeper, tempted by the large amount of money they carried, killed them both, cut up their bodies, and hid the pieces in a salting barrel.  Saint Nicholas discovered this and reprimanded the penitent murderer severely.  Through his intercession and prayers, God rejoined their limbs and restored the two boys to life.

Bonaventure told this story, as no doubt he had heard it, in the 13th century; by the 16th century, the number of children changed to three, and the murderous innkeeper became a butcher, who slew the children for meat he could sell during a famine.  Hence, most representations of the story will show three children in a tub, as does the one seen here. 

The better-known story is found in The Golden Legend: how he saved three poor young women from lives of infamy and degradation by tossing bags of gold in through their window at night.  This is thought to have given rise to the custom of giving gifts on his day, in imitation of his generosity.  In many countries, especially in Northern Europe, St. Nicholas is the grand and beloved personage who brings presents and good things to good children (and switches to the bad) on the eve before his feast day; many young hopefuls put out their shoes or stockings to be filled, not forgetting hay and carrots for the good saint’s mode of transportation.

Of course, sour ol’ Naogeorgus, who frowned on any frivolous pursuits, sneered at the customs of St. Nicholas day (Naogeorgus probably got coal and switches in his shoe - for the awful spelling, if nothing else):

"Saint Nicholas money usde to give to maydens secretlie,
Who, that he still may use his wonted liberalitie,
The mothers all their children on the Eeve do cause to fast,
And when they every one at night in senselesse sleepe are cast,
Both Apples, Nuttes, and Peares they bring, and other things beside,
As caps, and shooes, and petticotes, which secretly they hide,
And in the morning found, they say, that this Saint Nicholas brought:
Thus tender mindes to worship Saints and wicked things are taught.”

[Other than the spelling, how very modern Naogeorgus sounds.  Are we not surrounded still by those to whom innocent fun and enjoyment is but the path to hell?]

A former custom, and one that is yet found in some churches, is the election of a Boy-Bishop today.

A description of the event and the participants is found in All the Year Round, Volume 61 (1887):

"One of the most curious customs anciently observed in connection with the anniversary of a saint's death was that which on St. Nicholas's Day, December the sixth, was formerly observed at Salisbury Cathedral, or Old Sarum, as it is called.  This consisted of the choice of a boy Bishop from among the choristers, whose term of office lasted from this date until Innocents' Day, twenty-two days later.  The boy was invested with the full authority of a genuine prelate, dressed in Episcopal robes and mitre, and carried also the pastoral crozier.  His fellow choristers, for the time named, acted as prebendaries, and were obliged to render due homage and respect as such.  

The evening before Innocents' Day, there was a special service, attended by the juvenile prelate and his equally juvenile clergy in solemn process, chanting hymns as they marched solemnly up the aisle to the choir.  There the little Bishop took his seat upon the Episcopal throne, surrounded by his youthful clergy, when a service was rendered in remembrance of the massacre, by Herod, of "all the male children that were in Bethlehem".  Multitudes used to assemble to witness the spectacle, and so great was the crush that special enactments were passed to prevent any undue crowding of the little fellows."

This young person and his 'priests' would preach sermons and go about the limits of their 'diocese', collecting money and generally being feted by their neighbors.  Unfortunately, there were abuses; the money collection took on the hue of extortion, and play-acting as prelates seemed to be "rather to the derysyon than to anie true glory of God, or honour of his saints." Forbidden in England by Henry VIII in 1541, but revived for a time by his daughter Mary I, the practice slowly died out. 

"I shall only remark, that there might this at least be said in favour of this old custom, that it gave a spirit to the children; and the hopes that they might one time or other attain to the real mitre made them mind their books."  John Strype, Eccleciastical Memorials.
Nicholas, the friend of God, adorned by a priestly fillet, showed himself loving to all.

Pray for us, blessed Nicholas,
That we be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

O God, Who adorned the blessed Nicholas Thy priest with innumerable miracles, grant to us, we beseech, that by his favors and prayers we be freed from the fires of hell.  Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, O God, world without end.  Amen.