By Rev.Michael Byars
St. Nicholas is a wonderful and very well-known saint from the late third century and early fourth century. Of course, he is the historical figure on whom all the stories of Santa Claus are based. St. Nicholas was born in the Greek village of Patara which is now in Turkey. He was born of very wealthy Christian parents in a time when Christians were persecuted greatly for their faith.
Nicholas’ parents, however, vowed to dedicate him to the service of God. From a very young age he was educated in the Holy Scriptures and lived a life of devotion to his faith. His uncle was the bishop of Patara and recognized early on that Nicholas was called of God. He was ordained a priest while still a young man.
Nicholas was very committed to his ministry and loved by all his flock. He suffered with great perseverance under the persecution of the Roman government of the time and was imprisoned. Eventually, when he was released from prison, Nicholas was made bishop of Myra in Lycia (southern coast of the Asia Minor).
When Nicholas’ parents died he was left an inheritance of their great wealth. He decided to give away all this wealth to those who were in need. He often gave his help to others striving to stay anonymous. Nevertheless, his loving generosity became legendary even in his own time. Throughout the centuries since St. Nicholas lived, many stories and legends have sprung up relating his miraculous compassion. According to Orthodox tradition, Nicholas died at a very old age on Dec. 6 AD 343 in Myra.
In Orthodox Christianity, the honor and commemoration of saints of the caliber of St. Nicholas is a very important part of our spiritual life. These heroes of the faith inspire us and give us wonderful examples of how we should dedicate ourselves to our faith in God. Their lives also encourage us to be Christ-like. Keeping their memory alive also helps to remember that, according to our faith, the saints of old did not cease to exist, but still live on in a mysterious way in the heavenly realm. While we do not believe they are omnipresent or that they are magic, we do believe that we have a mystical communion with them through Christ, and that the power of God is present in their memory just as it was in their godly lives.
During this time of year, Orthodox Christians are in the midst of a time of spiritual preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ (Christmas). We call this the Nativity Fast. In the West this corresponds to Advent. In the Eastern Orthodox we begin this time of spiritual preparation 40 days before Christmas and it lasts until Christmas Eve. This Nativity Fast is a concentrated time of spiritual discipline in which we control our appetites, dedicate ourselves to more consistent prayer, and also try to be concerned less of ourselves and more of others.
We do not stop doing this on Christmas Day, but on Christmas we turn our attention to celebration and joy for the Incarnation of God — the most wonderful miracle of God’s love for mankind in which the eternal and only begotten son of God becomes a man for our salvation. I wish you all a joyful and miraculous Christmas.
The Rev. Michael Byars is pastor of Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Ormond Beach. To suggest a topic or clergy person in Volusia and Flagler counties for this feature, contact Faith editor Denise O’Toole Kelly at 386-681-2214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.