ST. NICHOLAS, BISHOP OF MYRA AND CONFESSOR
Divine Wisdom has willed that on the way which leads to the Messias, our great High Priest, there should be many pontiffs to pay Him the honour due to Him. Two Popes, St. Melchiades and St.Damasus; two holy doctors, St. Peter Chrysologus and St. Ambrose; two bishops,St. Nicholas and St. Eusebius; these are the glorious pontiffs who have been entrusted with the charge of preparing, by their prayers, the way of the Christian people towards Him, who is the sovereign Priest according to the order of Melchisedech. As each of their feasts comes, we will show their right to have been thus admitted into the court of Jesus. To-day the Church celebrates with joy the feast of the great thaumaturgus Nicholas, who is to the Greek Church what St. Martin is to us. The Church of Rome has honoured the name of Nicholas for nearly a thousand years.
Let us admire the wonderful power which God gave him over creation; but let us offer him our most fervent congratulations for that he was permitted to be one of the three hundred and eighteen bishops, who proclaimed, at Nicaea, that the Word is consubstantial with the Father. The humiliations of the Son of God did not scandalize him. Neither the lowliness of the flesh, which the sovereign Lord of all things assumed to Himself in the womb of the Virgin, nor the poverty of the crib, hindered him from confessing the Son of Mary to be Son of God, equal to God; and for this reason, God has glorified this His servant, and given him the power to obtain,each year, for the children of the Church, the grace of receiving this same Jesus, the Word, with simple faith and fervent love. Let us now listen to the eulogy of St. Nicholas, which the Roman Church has inserted in her liturgy.
“Nicholas was born of a noble family at Patara, in the province of Lycia. His birth was the fruit of his parent’s prayers. Evidences of his great future holiness were given from his very cradle.For when he was an infant, he would take his food only once on Wednesdays and Fridays, and then not till evening; whilst on all other days he frequently took the breast: he kept up this custom of fasting during the rest of his life.Having lost his parents when he was a boy, he gave all his goods to the poor.Of his Christian kind heartedness there is the following noble example.
One of his fellow-citizens had three daughters; but being too poor to obtain them an honourable marriage, he was minded to abandon them to a life of prostitution. Nicholas having come to know the case,went to the house during the night, and threw in by the window a sum of money sufficient for the dower of one of the daughters; he did the same a second and a third time; and thus the three were married to respectable men.
Having given himself wholly to the service of God, he set out for Palestine, that he might visit and venerate the holy places. During this pilgrimage, which he made by sea, he foretold to the mariners on embarking, though the heavens were then serene and the sea tranquil, that they would be overtaken by a frightful storm. In a very short time the storm arose.All were in the most imminent danger, when he quelled it by his prayers.
His pilgrimage ended, he returned home, giving to all men example of the greatest sanctity. He went, by an inspiration from God, to Myra, the metropolis of Lycia, which had just lost its bishop by death, and the bishops of the province had come together for the purpose of electing a successor. Whilst they were holding council for the election, they were told by a revelation from heaven, that they should choose him who, on the morrow, should be the first to enter the church, his name being Nicholas. Accordingly, the requisite observations were made, when they found Nicholas to be waiting at the church door: they took him, and, to the incredible delight of all, made him the bishop of Myra. During his episcopate,he never flagged in the virtues looked for in a bishop; chastity, which indeed he had always preserved, gravity, assiduitv in prayer, watchings, abstinence, generosity,and hospitality, meekness in exhortation, severity in reproving.
He befriended widows and orphans by money, by advice, and by every service in his power. So zealous a defender was he of all who suffered oppression, that, on one occasion, three tribunes having been condemned by the emperor Constantine, who had been deceived by calumny,and having heard of the miracles wrought by Nicholas, they recommended themselves to his prayers, though he was living at a very great distance from that place:the saint appeared to Constantine, and looking angrily upon him, obtained from the terrified emperor their deliverance. Having, contrary to the edict of Diocletian and Maximian, preached in Myra. the truth of the Christian faith, he was taken up by the servants of the two emperors.
He was taken off to a great distance and thrown into prison, where he remained until Constantine, having become emperor, ordered his release, and the saint returned to Myra. Shortly afterwards, he repaired to the Council which was being held at Nicaea ; there he took part with the three hundred and eighteen fathers in condemning the Arian heresy.
Scarcely had he returned to his see, when he was taken with the sickness of which he soon died. Looking up to heaven,and seeing angels coming to meet him, he began the psalm, • In thee, 0 Lord,have I hoped;’ and having come to those words, • Into thy hands I commend my spirit,’ his soul took its flight to the heavenly country. His body, having been translated to Bari in Apulia, is the object of universal veneration.”
Almost all the breviaries of the Latin Church, up to the seventeenth century, contain most fervent praises of the virtues and miracles of St. Nicholas, and give the beautiful Office of the holy bishop, which was composed about the twelfth century. We have spoken elsewhere of this Office as regards the music; at present we will only mention its being drawn up exclusively on the Acts of St. Nicholas, and its being more explicit on some circumstances of the saint’s life than is the legend of the Roman breviary. The following portions of this Office dwell with complacency on a fact which is not mentioned in our liturgy: we mean the miraculous oil,which, for almost eight hundred years, has flowed’ without ceasing from the tomb of the holy bishop, and by means of which God has frequently wrought miracles.
The responsory and antiphon which we give are upon the miracle of the oil itself. They were formerly so familiar to the faithful, that in the thirteenth century their music was sung to the responsory Unus Panis, and to the antiphon O quam sauvis est, of the Office of Corpus Christi.
R. From his marble tomb, there flows a holy oil, wherewiththe blind are anointed and healed: The deaf recover their hearing: and the weakreturn home strong.
V. The people rush in crowds, desiringto witness the wonderful works which are done by him. The deaf recover theirhearing: and the weak return home strong.
Oh! the mercy of Christ, worthy of all our praise! which makes known, through the length and breadth of the world,the merits of his servant Nicholas: for from his tomb there flows an oil, and it heals all that are infirm.
Tell, 0 my tongue, the praise of the pontiff Nicholas; that so the sovereign Adonai, the King and Father of all creatures,may grant us to be brought by his Son, to the port of salvation.
When yet a babe at his mother’s breast, he took it but once on each fourth and sixth feria, nor would the child break his fast by one drop of milk.
Elevated to the dignity of pontiff,Nicholas so abundantly gave to all men the dew of piety, that scarce could any age find a better or so good a pastor.
He gives his gold to secure virgins their treasure; he distributes corn to the people in a famine; he brings up from the depths of the sea a vase that had fallen in; he brings help to mariners who were well-nigh to shipwreck.
He brings to life a dead man who had committed a theft; the Jew is baptized and recovers what had been stolen from him; the one is restored to life; the other is brought to the faith.
Nicholas! thou fair gem, and honour, and glory of the priesthood! help by thy gracious intercession the whole people, the whole clergy; that their minds, and hands, and lips, may pay their tribute to our God.
Praise, power, and triumph, to the most high Trinity! May it give us to come, after this life, with our laurel wreaths upon us, to the joys which Nicholas the blessed possesses in our countryof heaven. Amen.
Let the clergy joyfully raise their voice in song, and magnify Nicholas the father and patron of the clergy; and let their chants give fresh devotion to their already fervent and docile heart.
Let the Greeks, and Latins, of every tongue and tribe and nation; let the sea, and land; let all, whatever their sexor condition, guest or citizen or stranger, sing the praises of Nicholas with one like enthusiasm.
This pontiff, whose name is immortal in the memory of men, ever gave, gives, and will give favours to all; he will. make him, who was pining away in grief, bloom in joy as a lily.
Whilst living in the flesh he spurned the deeds of the flesh; he did nothing and spoke nothing but what was unto salvation: and now, having been loosed from the bonds of the flesh, he has mounted to the starry realms.
How great is the power of his charity,even in this very age, is plainly enough manifested by the oil which flows from his tomb, giving to all people, that ask it, the boon of health.
Praise, power, and triumph to the most high Trinity. May it give us to come, after this life, with our laurel wreaths upon us, to the joys which Nicholas the blessed possesses in our country of heaven. Amen.
It was impossible for Adam of Saint-Victor to remain silent in the praise of St. Nicholas. The Churches, in the middle ages, received from him the following beautiful sequence.
“With our hearts and songs in unison, let us exult on this festive solemnity of blessed Nicholas.
When a babe in his cradle, he began to fast, And thus deserved, before weaned from the breast, the joys of heaven. He enters, when a boy, upon a course of studies, Yet follows not, yet knows not, impurity.
Blessed confessor indeed, whose worth was known by a message from heaven, at whose bidding he was promoted and exalted to the supreme dignity of pontiff. There was in his soul the most tender compassion, which prompted him to bestow continual benefits on those who suffered oppression.
He averted infamy from virgins by the gold he gave; and by the same he relieved their father’s poverty.
Some mariners had set sail; when a furious storm attacked them, and their bark was well.nigh wrecked: Despairing of life, and in this extreme danger, they cry out with one voice, saying: • O holy Nicholas! Help us out of these straits of death and lead us into harbour! • Yea, lead us into harbour, thou whose kind heart is ever ready to help them that are in affliction.’
They prayed; nor was it in vain:for lo! a voice was heard saying: • I am here to help you.’ Straightway arose a favourable wind: the storm was lulled: the sea was calm.
From his tomb there flows an abundant oil: It heals all kinds of sickness, through the intercession of the saint.
We who are now living in this world, have already suffered shipwreck in the sea of sin: Ah! glorious Nicholas, lead us into the harbour of salvation, where there is peace and glory. There is an unction, which thy merciful prayers must get us from the Lord: It is that unction which healed the wound of Magdalene’s many sins.
May they that keep this feast come to the eternal joys; And may Jesus crown them after this life is run. Amen.”
But none of the sequences of St. Nicholas was so popular as the one we now give. It is to be found in a great many processionals up to the seventeenth century, and on its model were composed innumerable others, which, though drawn up in praise of various patrons,not only kept the measure and the melody, but the very expressions, ingeniously turned here and there, of the sequence of St. Nicholas.
“The sick are restored to health by the miraculous oil. They who are in danger of shipwreck are delivered by Nicholas’ prayers. He raised from amongst the dead a corpse which lay on the road.
A Jew asks for baptism on witnessing the miraculous recovery of his money. A vase that had sunk in the deep sea, and a child that was lost to his father, are both recovered. Oh how great a saint did he appear by multiplying corn in a famine!
Let, then. this congregation sing the hymns of Nicholas’ praise; For all who pray to him with earnest hearts. will go back cured of their spiritual ailments. Amen.”
But no Church has evinced such enthusiasm for St. Nicholas as the Greek Church in its Menoea. The illustrious thaumaturgus was evidently one of the firmest hopes of the Byzantine empire,and Constantinople transmitted the same confidence to Russia, which even to this day professes great devotion to St. Nicholas. We extract, as usual, a few stanzas from the sacred chants which the Church of St. Sophia anciently sang in the Greek language, and which the gilded domes of Moscow re-echo still, every year,in Sclavonic.
HYMN TO ST. NICHOLAS
(Taken from the Menoea of the Greeks)
Thou didst dwell in Myra, and being spiritually anointed, thou didst show thyself to be truly a mystic myrrh, O saintly Nicholas, great high priest of Christ! Thou anointest them that ever come with faith and love to celebrate thy memory; for, by thy prayers to God, 0father, thou deliverest them from every necessity, and peril, and tribulation.
How well indeed hast thou fulfilled thy name, The people’s victory!for, saintly Nicholas, and high priest of Christ, thou art the powerful helper of them that are in temptation. Wheresoever thou art invoked, thou swiftly art with those that lovingly have recourse to thy protection, for day and night thou shows thyself to the eye of faith, and saves them from temptations and necessities.
Thou didst appear to the emperor Constantino and to Ablavius in their sleep, terrifying them, and thus bidding them speedily set their prisoners free: • These men, whom ye keep bound in prison,deserve not the death to which ye have unjustly sentenced them: and if thou, O prince, settest my word at nought, I will beseechingly bear a petition against thee to the Lord.’
Thou didst fix thy keen vision on the heights of the mystery, and didst look down into the cloud-covered abyss of Wisdom. 0 father, who didst enrich the world by thy doctrines, pray for us to Christ,0 high priest Nicholas!
Christ our God showed thee to thy flock as the rule of faith and the model of meekness, thou high priest, thou sainted hierarch Nicholas! for thou pourest forth in Myra a delicious fragrance,and thy splendid deeds give out their bright light, thou the protector of the orphan and the widow: therefore, cease not to pray for the salvation of our souls.
Rejoice, most holy soul, most pure abode of the Trinity, pillar of the Church, support of the faithful, help of the wearied, star, which by the vivid rays of thy most efficacious prayers,dost dispel the darkness of every temptation, holy priest Nicholas! most tranquil port, into which the tempest-tossed run and find safety, beseech Jesus to show unto our souls His great mercy.
Rejoice, 0 thou that burns with divine zeal, who, by thy terrible threat spoken to men in their dream, didst rescue them that were unjustly condemned to death. o fount of Myra overflowing with sweetness, that refreshes souls, that cleanses what passion defiles! Sword that cuts down the tares of error! Oh come and winnow away the chaffy doctrines of Arius;and beseech Jesus to grant unto our souls his great mercy.
O thou the most high King of kings, almighty Lord, 0 divine Word, we beseech thee hear the prayer of this thy holy pastor, and give to all Christians to pass their days in peace: grant to our good king victory and energy against the barbarians: that thus we may all and in all times hymn thy power, and extol thee for ever and ever.
Holy pontiff Nicholas, how great is thy glory in God’s Church! Thou didst confess the name of Jesus before the proconsuls of the world’s empire and suffer persecution for His name’s sake;afterwards thou was witness to the wonderful workings of God, when He restored peace to His Church; and a short time after this again, thou didst open thy lips,in the assembly of the three hundred and eighteen fathers, to confess with supreme authority the Divinity of our Saviour Jesus Christ, for whose sake so many millions of martyrs had already shed their blood. Receive the devout felicitations of the Christian people throughout the universe, who thrill with joy when they think of thy glorious merits. Help us by thy prayers during these days when we are preparing for the coming of Him, whom thou didst proclaim to be consubstantial with the Father.
Vouchsafe to assist our faith and to obtain fresh fervour to our love. Thou now beholds face to face that Word by whom all things were made and redeemed; beseech Him to permit our unworthiness to approach Him. Be thou our intercessor with Him. Thou hast taught us to know Him as the sovereign and eternal God; teach us also to love Him as the supreme benefactor of the children of Adam. It was from Him, 0 charitable pontiff, that thou didst learn that tender compassion for the sufferings of thy fellow-men,which made all thy miracles to be so many acts of kindness: cease not, now that thou art in the company of the angels, to have pity on us and to succour ourmiseries.
Stir up and increase the faith of mankind in the Saviour whom the Lord hath sent them. May this be one of the fruits of thy prayer, that the divine Word may be no longer unknown and forgotten in this world, which He has redeemed with His Blood. Ask for the pastors of the Church that spirit of charity, which shone so brilliantly in thee; that spirit which makes them like their divine Master and wins them the hearts of their people. Remember, too, O holy pontiff, that Church of the east which still loves thee so fervently. When thou was on this earth, God gave thee power to raise the dead to life; pray now, that the true life, which consists in faith and unity, may return once more and animate that body which schism has robbed of its soul. By thy supplications, obtain of God that the sacrifice of the Lamb, who is so soon to visit us, may be again and soon celebrated under the cupolas of St. Sophia. May the sanctuaries of Kiev and Moscow become re-sanctified by the return of the people to unity. May the pride of the crescent be humbled into submission to the cross, and the schismatic be brought to acknowledge the power of the keys of St. Peter: that thus there may be henceforth neither Scythian, nor barbarian, but one fold under one Shepherd.
Let us resume our considerations upon the state of the world at the time immediately preceding the coming of the Messias. Everything proves that the prophecies which foretold the great event have now been fulfilled. Not only has the sceptre been taken from Juda; the weeks of Daniel also are almost expired. The other scriptural predictions relative to the great revolutions, which were to take place in the world, have been successively fulfilled. The empires of the Assyrians, the Medes, the Persians, and the Greeks, have fallen one after the other; that of the Romans is now at the zenith of its greatness; in its tum, it must yield to the eternal empire of the Messias. This succession of empires, which was to result in a perfect kingdom, was foretold; and all is now ready for its final accomplishment. God has also said, by one of His prophets: ‘Yet one little while,and I will move heaven and earth … and I will move all nations, and the Desired of all nations shall come.’ Descend, therefore, 0 Thou eternal Word!All is consummated. The misery of the world is extreme; the crimes of men cry to heaven for vengeance; the whole human race is threatened with self-destruction,and without knowing what it does, it calls for Thee as its only resource. Then come!All the predictions which were to designate the Redeemer have been spoken and promulgated.
There is no longer a prophet in Israel, and the oracles of the Gentile world have ceased to speak. Come, Lord Jesus, and fulfil all things, for the fulness of time has come.
PRAYER FOR THE TIME OF ADVENT
(The Mozarabic breviary, first Sunday of Advent, Capitulum)
Despise not our prayers, O Lord:look down upon us and mercifully hear us: that we who are in trouble and cast down at the voice of our enemy, may be comforted by the most sacred coming of thine only begotten Son. May faith give us wings, that, like the dove, we may take our flight to the things that are above. Separate us, O Lord, from the wicked world,and keep us from the snare of the enemy. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.