When coming into church this morning, I was surprised to see a different icon on the icon stand. A white beard, a bishop’s stole. And then I was surprised that I was surprised. I knew I had come for the divine liturgy on St. Nicholas’ Day. Who did I think would be there?
There was no good reason for it, and nothing came to mind. But I was just surprised by him, that’s all.
I thought about that as I prepared for the service. it certainly could’ve been the earliness of the hour that made me unprepared for the meeting. But it made me recollect another icon of St. Nicholas that I had seen.
What is it about this saint?
Eyes Brightened by Centuries
The icon that came to mind was one I had seen 20 years ago or so. It wasn’t a famous one; I have no idea who painted it. At the time, Greg and I knew a non-Orthodox woman who loved icons. She made occasional trips to Russia and loved what she saw. She got in a habit of buying icons and bringing them back for resale, but some she couldn’t part with. (I always thought that over time, such an iconophile would be bound to end up Orthodox, but I don’t know what happened. We lost touch.)
One time we went to her house to buy icons, and she laid them out all over the floor for us to see. They were all so beautiful! We picked them up one by one, and it was hard not to buy them all. But then she remembered one particular one and got it out of another room. She put it in my hands — oh my! It was an icon of St. Nicholas and — how do I say it? It was almost like it was backlit, like an ebook or smart phone. It was lit up from inside. Amazed, I asked her how old it was — I assumed it must’ve been painted more recently than the others. I was more amazed when she told me it was just the opposite — that was the oldest icon in the room. It had been painted in the early 1800′s. I couldn’t stop looking at it.
Of course, she thought she had a sale, and she wouldn’t let us say no. She insisted that we keep the icon for a month and let her know at the end of that time. It was a wily sales maneuver, or it would have been if the icon hadn’t been so expensive. We knew all month that we couldn’t buy it (and we didn’t, to give a spoiler), but we couldn’t resist taking it around for others to see. I especially wanted my priest to see it, since St. Nicholas was his patron saint, and it was obvious he saw the same thing in the icon that I did.
I don’t have any special stories to tell about the icon. I don’t remember any special occurrences at our house that month, and we duly returned it at the end of the time. But the memory of it stayed with me — I’ve never forgotten how alive that icon looked, how very much it looked like the saint was about to speak.
Not an A-Lister
Our priest, Fr. John, told us something this morning that I didn’t know. Saint Nicholas isn’t officially on the top list of saints. The Church has a definite hierarchy, and he isn’t, so to speak, on the top tier. But that just goes to show that sometimes, even the pious and learned men who make these determinations don’t have the last word. Is there any doubt that if you asked most Americans to name three saints, St. Nicholas would be one of them?
We can say that that’s actually because of the whole crazy Santa Claus thing, but that only really exploded in the past couple centuries. The reason that Santa Claus was a traditional visitor in the first place is because the custom for many centuries was to offer prayers and expect visitation from this early-December saint. Think of it: St. Nicholas of Myra died in 343, but he has grown in popularity ever since. As this website said,
It is interesting to note that in 1087, Myra was under siege from invading Muslim armies, and Italian sailors transferred (or stole, depending on whose side of the story you take!) Nicholas’ remains to protect them and interred them in a church in Bari in southern Italy. Nicholas’ notoriety spread from there along with his patronage of giving gifts to children. The Dutch called him Sinterklaas [which was Anglicized into Santa Claus]…
So I suppose if you won’t go to the saint, he may just come to you — by way of robbers, pilgrims, children or chimneys. Never underestimate an archbishop.
Happy St. Nicholas Day!
By the way, I’d appreciate some prayers right now. It’s a coincidence that St. Nicholas is the patron saint of travelers. My sister-in-law is flying out today, and she and my husband are driving out to see their parents tomorrow. It’s not just an ordinary visit; it’s one of those that every child with elderly parents dreads. We got news from my father-in-law’s hospice nurse that he’s not doing well, and she expects he may pass away in the next few weeks. It will be a sad time for the family, but most of all, I think my prayer for be that he have a modest and dignified end. That may be the saddest Christmas present I’ve ever asked St. Nicholas for, but as you get older, your wish list alters greatly. Your prayers for Greg’s family and my father-in-law Charles would give us peace.