Life of Saint Irene https://orthochristian.com/96000.html
Father, Presbytera, Sub-deacons, Friends, thank you all for joining us to mark and honor St. Nicholas Day. You honor my home and my family by celebrating with us the feast day of our family slava
or patron saint.
Sub-deacon Vasili, the Godfather of my son Timothy Nicholas, prodded me after Liturgy this morning to say something edifying tonight about St. Nicholas. I am unequal to this teasing challenge, certainly, but will try to honor his request. Perhaps, by your indulgence, I might have a go at explaining why St. Nicholas is so important to my family and to Orthodox Christians of all nationalities – and even more important to us all in the age of Santa Claus and a pretend, commercial Christmas. I ask your
forgiveness in advance for this overlong phillipic.
Where to begin? In the Marine Corps they only let you speak in public after you learn how to speak and how much to say. Every talk, they say, you tell them what you’re going to say, you say it, then you tell them what you said. And never say more than three things you want them to remember. “Once a Marine, always a Marine” so here are the three things I will say about our beloved Saint Nicholas: he is a saint, he was the scourge of contemporary naturalists, and he was an uncompromising anti-ecumenist.
Now to say it!
I mentioned that American Christmas is “pretend” and I don’t mean only that it is mostly about presents rather than the Nativity. I mean that what D.T. Suzuki said about the three ages of Buddhism
might also be said truly about Christianity: that there was an Age of true Buddhism, one of imitation Buddhism, and at last, in the end, the Age of Pretend Buddhism. American Christmas is a pretend Christmas because, even at its least commercial and most noble, at the height of its sentiment of peace and good will towards man, we neglect the shocking truth and challenge of Nativity. God did not become man that we might learn to stop killing or even to be nice to each other; God became man, the Fathers tell us, that man might become God. We are called to perfection, to deification, by the Incarnate God in Bethlehem. We are shamelessly deaf to this call, however, as we hum “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolf” in our self impressed “Christmas Spirit.”
St. Nicholas, however, was not deaf to this call. St. Simeon the Theologian taught that illumination and theosis were prerequisites for episcopal ordination in the Apostolic Age. In the Life of St. Nicholas we learn that St. Nicholas achieved this participation in the uncreated energies of God as a young man. After ordination as presbyter by his uncle and a wonderworking pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he tried to enter a monastery and then the desert but was told by a voice he was to remain in the world and serve the people (his name, meaning “victory of the people” points to this destiny). He reluctantly obeyed and traveled to Myra, where he lived silently in the shadow of the cathedral. In what to us seems equally fabulous or miraculous, he was chosen by the gathered bishops of Lycia (though a stranger and seemingly a layman) to be their Archbishop. If St. Simeon is to be believed, St. Nicholas’
purity of heart and spiritual accomplishment was visible to these bishops and his elevation was not incredible, consequently, but inevitable.
I will not tell any of the miraculous wonders worked by St. Nicholas here because I fear, like the Catholic Church which reduced St. Nicholas to a saint only of “local devotion” in 1970, you might in your hearts believe the events recorded in his life are only children’s tales, legendary accretions or even just Christian makeovers of pagan mythology. That St. Nicholas worked contra-natural wonders in the third century and has continued to work wonders up to the present time I believe is demonstrated by the contra-natural gushing ex nihilo of myrrh occurring at his relics in Bari and from his miraculous icon in Michigan City, Indiana. The miracles worked by his relics and this myrrh gushing are testified
of not only in his hagiography but by the Barian thieves who stole his relics from Myra in the tenth century, by the reliquary built with ducts for the “manna di S.Nicoli” by the Italians, by the scientific examination of these bones and the “manna” in 1953 and 1957, and by the witness of Orthodox pilgrims to Bari in our lifetime. For those of us with eyes to see and the courage to think, St. Nicholas remains a visible witness of the goal towards which we are all to strive: not a sentimental, feminine sanctity, but a perfection in Christ by participation and life in His uncreated Glory – to which life we can only attain by sacrificial ascesis and synergy with the Divine Will.
So please remember tonight first that St. Nicholas is a saint – and that his sanctity is an invitation to paradise for us to accept or deny. His victory over death has been and remains the victory of
If you struggle to think of St. Nicholas as a flesh and blood man perfected in Christ, despite the physical evidence of his relics and despite the greater part of two millenia’s testimony of his wonderworking, I ask you to reflect on the power of the subliminal association we all have of St. Nicholas with Santa Claus.
Socrates in his defense before the Athenian assembly claimed his most dangerous accusers were not Meletus and his crowd but those who approached the jurors “at the most impressionable age, when
some of you were children and adolescents, and they literally won their case by default, because there was no one to defend me.” The Santa Claus myth immunizes us against belief in one of, if not the
greatest Orthodox Saint because we learned as children ‘logic’ we all hold as an unexamined core belief today:
• Santa Claus is a fairy tale for children that grew out of the “legends” of St. Nicholas (assumed to be fictional as well);
• only children believe in Santa Claus;
• Therefore, in a broken syllogism, only children believe in the existence of “Saint Nick.”
When I ask you to believe in the sanctity of St. Nicholas, consequently, you must be an extraordinary American if you don’t think I am neglecting my medication or that I am speaking sentimentally of the “Spirit of Christmas” (as in “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”). I can count on one hand the number of Christians I have met who do not smile knowingly when I talk about St. Nicholas as if to tell me they are “onto” my tricks and will allow me the deception for the sake of any children present.
I put it to you for your reflection that this universal immunization against St. Nicholas in Santa Claus and the shrouding of his glory is no small victory for the world against the Church. Just as the
deceiver may appear to us an angel of light and we have been warned to expect the Anti-Christ to appear in Orthodox vestments, I suggest to you the evil one can appear in a red suit and a white
beard, urging us to choose “happiness” and “good cheer” before kenosis and theosis. In a pithy, memorable phrase a like-minded friend shared with me last year, please keep in mind that “Santa
Claus is to St. Nicholas what Madonna the pop star is to the Theotokos.”
I once saw a visiting priest harangue a Russian Orthodox congregation against Halloween. They openly laughed at his message because Halloween to them was only fun for children. I leave “Santa Claus” for my last two points with the hope that you will return St. Nicholas to his rightful place in your hearts and the lives of your children - and that you will remember tonight’s festivities in his honor as “fun” as “fun” can be for both children and adults. Our good cheer here in light of Orthodox truth and the
victory we have over death trumps any ephemeral jollies delivered by the fat man of Madison Avenue.
The second thing I hope you will remember about St. Nicholas is what Protestant friends would call “the focus of his ministry.” Saint Nicholas warred with the Mother Nature worshipping devotees of Artemis in Myra and went so far as to destroy her temple with his own hands “down to its foundation.” Many of his miracles, especially those about saving those imperiled at sea and providing grain for the starving, are to demonstrate to those worshipping the Nature Goddess that Christ is the Creator God of
Nature and only through Him can they expect supernatural or contra-natural action.
As an aside, I am alarmed by Christians, even Orthodox, who are eager to confess to historians they “understand” Christian scripture feasts and customs are largely out-growths or covers for pre-
existing pagan stories, festivals, and rites. Christmas, to this way of thinking, is a baptized Saturnalia, Pascha a Judaic version of rites of the Mithra cult, and the Hebrew scriptures creative retelling of
Babylonian creation myths and legends. St. Nicholas has become for these historicists the Christian version of Artemis to which we should pray if we are in trouble while traveling or need help finding food during a drought.
Let me say quickly you can only believe this if you misunderstand what a saint is and what your relation to him or her is. A saint is a human being as designed. Our relation to them because we are
broken human beings is akin to that of lost travelers and a guide. They inspire us, they lead us, they point us to the way to get where we want to go. As invaluable as this help is, however, the saints
only call us to travel along the Way they have already traveled. We must go ourselves where they lead. As “little Christs” within Christ, they intercede for us, certainly, but as trailblazers and in the
hope we are laboring to imitate their accomplishment. The worshipper of Artemis like the Naturalists of our times, both the scientific crowd who deny the existence of any reality not quantifiable and the naïve New Agers to whom all of nature (to include the demonic and perverse) are divine, did not believe that they could do any better than adore the natural world in the form of the goddess and expect some supernatural mercy.
St. Nicholas cannot be the Christian version of this because there is no Christian version of this. He does not offer himself as the New Artemis to be adored and asked for favors. He demonstrates, by his
existence, that men can become greater than nature, something like the Creator of Nature even, and work contra-natural miracles in His likeness. He destroys the Artemis cult and its two storied
universe by showing men that they have access, through the Church and Her supernatural mysteries, to the contra-natural power that creates and sustains the natural world. St. Nicholas ‘replaces’ Artemis only as wisdom and knowledge ‘replace’ sophistry and superstition.
Why do I ask you to remember that St. Nicholas was the scourge of Naturalists in his lifetime? Because I believe that the principal obstacle to faith in Christ and spiritual accomplishment in our time is what Phillip Johnson calls “the state religion” of naturalism. We are immunized as children against believing in even the possibility of anything beyond the visible, material world and the icons of the regime of quantity – evolution, progress, and secular democracy – however illogical and ill-founded, these modernist icons remain our cultural core beliefs. More so than even our thoughts about Santa Claus!
If we are to avail ourselves of the supernatural means we have in the Church to our ends in the contra-natural life in Christ, we must first believe such things greater than nature exist! I offer you St.
Nicholas’ example not only as a saint but a zealot destroyer of naturalist temples to encourage your prayers to this “little Christ” to help us follow the Way to perfection.
As an aside I should add that as Old Calendarists, naturalism, even before ecumenism, is our principal adversary. We do not accept the Gregorian calendar because it offers nature and scientific observation as the standard by which we are to orient our lives. The Julian Calendar with Orthodox Paschalia was baptized for supernatural use at the First Ecumenical Council and, if, like all calendars (to include the Gregorian), it is an imperfect measure of the natural world’s rotations, it remains a very precise clock of the work within the Body of Christ. Ecumenism springs from ground prepared by the naturalists, most notably philosophical relativism, and our first battle with the ecumenists of all stripes is that their
faith is with men and the natural world rather than in God and His Church. Our choice to be ecclesial outliers is to stand with St. Nicholas and the other Fathers at the First Council and the other
Ecumenical Councils which affirmed the Church Calendar.
The last thing I ask you to remember tonight about our family slava or patron is that he was an uncompromising anti-ecumenist. He was cast into prison during the persecution of Diocletian and
remained there until freed by the general edicts of St. Constantine the Great. You will forgive me I hope in what follows the weakness of quoting naturalist scientists as authority that verify tradition;
you see before you sadly an example of the weakness and infidelity I have described in our culture. His relics in Bari when examined under the microscope in 1957 led the Professor in charge
of the “anthropometrical examination” to conclude – and I quote here:
The condition of certain bones showed further that the individual to whom they belonged must have suffered a good deal under the particularly adverse circumstances of his way of life, which left marks on the remainder of his life. The crooked spondylo-arthritis and the general endo-cranial hyperostosis, which were detected on the corresponding bones, must have been inherited from some damp jail, where
he would have passed several years of his life and especially at an advanced age. (Markou, p.20)
St. Nicholas suffered painful, bone wrenching imprisonment of years, we see, rather than renounce Christ to the pagan Emperor. Soon after he was released he traveled to Nicea for the First Ecumenical Council. There he committed a capitol crime and was defrocked and imprisoned! His crime was striking a man in the presence of the Emperor, before whom physical violence was a death sentence. What moved him to punch a man at the certain cost of his life?
The First Ecumenical Council, you recall, was about the Arian heresy which denied the Divinity of Christ. Arius himself was at the council to represent the pale ideology that was supplanting faith in the God-Man. St. Nicholas, ashamed to argue with the heretic, struck him full in the face and was removed, imprisoned, and defrocked. He was only released and returned to the episcopacy by the intervention of Christ Himself and His Mother.
I ask you to remember St. Nicholas’ zeal in defense of the Orthodox faith for two reasons: first, because he is an anti-ecumenist for the only valid reason and, last, because the Aryan heresy is alive and well.
St. Nicholas is not an anti-ecumenist because he is an ethnic Orthodox Christian fighting to preserve an enclave or ghetto from Frankish invasion. He is not a convert ideologue enamored of the intellectual ‘higher ground’ of punk patristics and ‘knowing better.’ He is not an anti-ecumenist because he prefers the Chrysostom Liturgy aesthetic to the Novo Ordo guitar mass. St. Nicholas is a defender of Orthodoxy against all heresies just as a mathematician who has solved a problem defends his right answer against all other necessarily wrong answers.
As a witness of the uncreated energies of God and a miracle worker by synergy with the Divine Will, spiritual accomplishments he makes through the Church’s right belief and right practice, how could he deny the faith under any circumstance or persecution?
How could he tolerate dilatory argument with heretics who could not see what he saw, could not experience the Light in which he lived? He embodies the right answer, the Truth Himself, and is unable to do anything but be testimony of Him.
Please understand that I am not encouraging you to slap any Arius you happen to meet tomorrow – at least not until we are accomplished enough in the faith to raise the dead, calm enraged seas, and unchain the innocent. But when you meet Arius’ legion of descendants – the Muslims, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, even the Protestants and Catholics and Orthodox believers who worship Christ as another Artemis Pole-star rather than God Himself who became man that we might be like Him – please do remember the faith and zeal of St. Nicholas. You are on the Way of deification and any other way or “short-cut” from the Way is only an early exit or a wrong turn. Our lives in the end times, St. Nicholas reminds us, are about focusing on the Way and traveling as fast as we can in this life along it. And we must accept no substitutes or ‘spiritual seconds.’
So what have I said? I have said, first, that St. Nicholas was a saint or deified man and we are challenged by this both to revere him and, more importantly, to join him.
I have said as well that St. Nicholas assaulted the naturalism of his day with all his might as an enemy of the Church and faith in Christ. We are inspired I hope by his example and his intercessions to destroy the naturalist temples in our souls that would have us believe we are created by chance alone and as disposable chemistry-kit body-bags rather than Sons of God.
And last I ask you to remember that St. Nicholas was an anti-ecumenist to the point of throwing away his earthly life in order not to renounce the faith or in any way to allow it to be diminished. Our resistance to temptation and “pick and choose” orthopraxis I hope springs from the surety that we may someday experience the Glory of God as joy and light if we “keep the faith” as we have it from our fathers.
Please forgive me for speaking at such length and for the errors I have made in my self-importance and enthusiastic ignorance. I beg your correction and your prayers. Thank you again for joining us this St. Nicholas Day in celebrating the Glorious intercessor we have in him before Christ Our God.
Holy Father Nicholas, pray to God for us!
- by Reader John Granger