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 honor due to Him. Two Popes, St. Melchiades and St. Damasus; two Doctors, St. Peter Chrysologus and St. Ambrose; and 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. Today the Church celebrates with joy the Feast of the great wonder–worker Nicholas, who is to the Eastern Church what St. Martin of Tours is to the West. The Church of Rome has honored the name of St. Nicholas for nearly a thousand years (especially since the translation of the majority of his relics to Bari in 1087). 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 true Church, the grace of receiving this same Jesus, the Word made flesh, with simple faith and fervent love.
At the Council of Nicaea, St. Nicholas slapped Arius in the face for teaching that Christ was a created being instead of eternally one with the Father and the Holy Ghost. This action was in conflict with the directions of the Emperor, so the Bishop of Myra was brought before Constantine to answer for himself. The Emperor wisely deferred judgment to the Fathers of the Council, but this resulted in St. Nicholas being deposed as bishop. However, several of the Council Fathers that night shared a dream in which they saw St. Nicholas reinstated as bishop by Christ and His Holy Mother Mary. The next day, St. Nicholas was reinstated as bishop and treated with respect. It is possible that this incident accounts for his reputation as one who punishes bad children at Christmas (or on the eve of his feast) as well as rewarding good children.
Let us now listen to the eulogy of St. Nicholas, which the Roman Church has inserted in Her liturgy:
St. Nicholas was born of a noble family at Patara, in the province of Lycia. His birth was the fruit of his parents’ prayers. Evidence of his great future holiness was 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 nursed frequently: 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 kindheartedness there is the following noble example. One of his fellow citizens had three daughters; but being too poor to obtain them an honorable marriage, he was minded to abandon them to a life of prostitution. St. 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 dowry of one of the daughters; he did the same a second and 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 to death, and the bishops of the province had come together for the purpose of electing a successor. Whilst they were holding a 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 St. 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, assiduity 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 St. 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 off to a great distance and thrown in 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 in Nicaea: there he took part with the three hundred and eighteen Fathers in condemning the Arian heresy. Scarcely had he returned to his see, than 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, O 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, contained most fervent praises of the virtues and miracles of St. Nicholas, and give more explicitly some circumstances of the Saint's life than is in the above Lessons. The following portions of this Office dwell with complacency on a fact which is not mentioned in our more recent liturgy—we mean the miraculous oil, which, for more than 900 years, has flowed from the tomb of the holy Bishop, and by means of which God has frequently wrought miracles. The responsory and antiphon below 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 suavis est, of the Office of Corpus Christi:
R. From his marble tomb there flows a holy oil, wherewith the blind are anointed and healed: * The deaf recover their hearing: and the weak return home strong. V. The people rush in crowds, desiring to witness the wonderful works which are done by him. * The deaf...
Ant. 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, O 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 Wednesday and Friday, nor would the child break his fast by one drop of milk.
Elevated to the dignity of bishop, 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 grain 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 honor 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 grant that we may come, after this life, with our laurel wreaths upon us, to the joys which Nicholas the Blessed possesses in our country of Heaven. Amen.
None of the sequences of St. Nicholas was so popular as the one we give below. 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:
Sospitati dedit ægros
Relevavit a defunctis
Defunctum in bivio.
Baptizatur auri viso
Vas in mari mersum, patri
Redditur cum filio.
O quam probat sanctum Dei
Ergo laudes Nicolao
Concinat hæc concio.
Nam qui corde poscit illum
Sospes regreditur. Amen.
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 the dead
a corpse which lay on the road.
A Jew asks for Baptism, on witnessing the miraculous recovery of his money.
A vase sunk in the sea and a child lost to its father are both recovered.
O how great a Saint did he appear by multiplying grain in a famine!
Let then this congregation sing
the praises of St. Nicholas;
For all who pray to him with earnest hearts, will go back cured of their
spiritual ailments. Amen.
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