ENGLISH VERSION: Sermon on the Feast Day of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. By Hieromonk Gregory (Lourie). (Now Bishop of Petrograd and Gdov). December 6/19, 2002
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!
Today we celebrate the memory of St. Nicholas, who for a long time was the most venerated saint in Russia, so venerated that this led to a well-known extreme: when simple people were asked what the Holy Trinity was, they responded that it was the Lord Jesus Christ, the Most Holy Theotokos, and St. Nicholas. Now we can say that, fortunately, the time of such an extreme has passed. But we need to say that, unfortunately, the time of another extreme has arrived. Because now educated people come to church who do not understand why St. Nicholas, who did not write a single theological treatise, is so well known among the people while a saint such as Athanasius of Alexandria, for instance, who participated in the First Ecumenical Council and made perhaps the greatest contribution to the battle against the Arian heresy, is completely unknown. Educated people generally say that it is unclear who St. Nicholas was, because in his life it says that he participated in the First Ecumenical Council, but a list of all the bishops who participated in this Council has come down to us, the signatures of all these bishops stand under its decisions, and among them there is no sign of St. Nicholas. Finally, some know that his life was compiled rather late, at the end of the eleventh century, and that it changed before our eyes, with various episodes appearing there. Such people come to the conclusion that perhaps there was no St. Nicholas at all and, even if there was such, that he was a figure like Santa Clause. Indeed, in the West St. Nicholas is called Santa Clause. And so they conclude that this is all pure superstition, and that there is nothing here to believe. But this is also an extreme.
Indeed, the life of St. Nicholas is late; indeed, there are all kinds of impossible facts there. But we know earlier lives – they have been preserved in several Byzantine manuscripts – from which the later ones came and developed before our eyes. It turns out that St. Nicholas, like St. Dionysius the Areopagite, is a composite figure. Just as under the name of St. Dionysius the Areopagite we venerate, first of all, the author of works written in his name but that were actually composed by a fifth-century man whose name we do not know, but also venerate the disciple of the Apostle Paul who actually bore this name and, perhaps, St. Dionysius of Paris (an historical figure and first bishop of Paris, who was not a disciple of the Apostle Paul), so too in St. Nicholas do we venerate several saints under one name. The most important are two St. Nicholases (their names was indeed Nicholas), who were bishops in the city of Myra in Lycia: the first lived in the sixth century (and it was his life, which in time ceased to be copied, but which has come down to us in several manuscripts, that lay at the foundation of all the lives of St. Nicholas that we know) and the second one lived still later. Moreover, it may be that in this saint we venerate several other figures as well. These were indeed holy bishops famous for all the things that the holy bishops of provincial cities are famous for: that is, they cared for the flock entrusted to them and, besides that, like our own St. John of Kronstadt (who was not a bishop, but could well have been in other historical circumstances) they indeed prayed for all the needs of the people, had their prayers answered, and frequently answered in such a way that miracles took place. It was for this reason that the people so venerated them.
Yes, it is fair to say that the people venerated them because they received satisfaction for their gross bodily needs, such as healing from illness or rescue from various oppressive circumstances; indeed, this is all very crude and very far from the desire to save one’s soul. But it does happen in such cases that, if not many then at least a few people, having thus received the Lord’s help in their bodily needs, begin to have true faith in God and to ask of God more valuable things, of the sort that one should ask of Him, and not just deliverance from some of life’s misfortunes. Therefore the deeds of such saints who simply helped ordinary people in their needs, just like our St. John of Kronstadt and like these St. Nicholases, are, it goes without saying, appropriate and necessary. Therefore not only such saints, it goes without saying, are worthy of our veneration, but we need to venerate them – even if we know and venerate saints who wrote spiritual books and theological tracts and who did in fact do battle with heresies. Both one and the other are good; both one and the other are necessary. If we venerate saints of one type, that is fine; but that should not get in the way of venerating other saints who lived other ways, but who brought no less benefit to the Church than the others.
Through the prayers of St. Nicholas – or, more accurately, of those real saints who are venerated under his name – may the Lord grant us those same goods that they gave to their flocks and, most importantly, to imitate their faith and their life’s paths leading to the Kingdom of Heaven.