Dear brothers and sisters, greetings on this feast of the most beloved of saints, Nicholas the Wonderworker, the recipient of universal devotion in all corners of the world, Orthodox and otherwise.
There can hardly be a single Orthodox temple that is without his icon, virtually every Orthodox home is graced by his image, and such is the spiritual eminence of St Nicholas in the conscience of the Orthodox Church, that we not only celebrate his nativity, his dormition and the translation of his relics, but also the feasts of his many wonderworking icons and every Thursday as his weekly memorial.
This presence is built upon the fact that the Church sees the perfection and perfect example of the Christian life and the living-Gospel in the holy hierarch of Myra. As we sang in the troparion,
“The truth of things hath revealed thee to thy flock as a rule of faith, an icon of meekness and a teacher of temperance; therefore thou hast achieved the heights by humility, riches by poverty…”
What do we mean by this rule of Faith? It has nothing to do with legalism and avoiding offences and black-marks, but rather with living according to the measure of the Gospel, emulating Christ’s example by willing obedience to the spiritual and moral teachings that He has given us: simply, joyfully, willingly, and without compromise – and because we wish to do so because of our love for Christ.
As I have said more times than I can remember, the Beatitudes that we heard in today’s Gospel found their living and perfected realisation in the saints (as they should do in all of us), not as a set of moral ideas, but as the concrete and necessary qualities of the Christian life.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
As ideas or sentiments, the Beatitudes will change neither us or the world, but when they become the very quality of our everyday Christian living, then they shed the Light of Christ upon the world and banish darkness, transforming us and those around us, transfiguring and showing the reality of new life in Christ. As the manifesto of the Christian life and holiness, they are not a set of ideas, but a set of actions: actions which showed St Nicholas to the world as an ideal and example of what it means to be an arch-pastor who will do anything for the sheep in his fold, and more simply just to be a true Christian.
When we are aware of our own poverty and the need for God’s Grace and love; when we mourn for what is fallen and sinful in our lives, whilst looking to God for healing and salvation; when meekness and humility overcome our pride and self-conceit; when our longing for God and the kingdom raises us above all that is earthly, temporary and fleeting; when we are merciful and always struggle for peace; when our Faith is worth the prejudices and judgement of others, even insult and exclusion, and when we bear everything joyfully for the sake of God and the Kingdom yet to come – then we ate TRULY following in the footprints of St Nicholas, and we ourselves are living as “a rule of faith”.
But, the grim truth of our human existence is that sometimes we don’t feel that we even want to do the things that Christ has commanded us to do. We feel angry or resentful; we don’t want to help, or don’t want to be kind to certain people; don’t want to share or give; we feel mean-spirited, impatient and intolerant.
We should see this as a direct challenge to Christ and His commandments, recognising that He orders us to do them at all times and not only when we feel like it. The Christian life and the Law of God are not man-centred, but God-centred – not depending on how we feel when we get up in the morning and walk out through the front door. When we feel reluctance or hostility to the implicit commandments of the Beatitudes we must force ourselves EVEN UNWILLINGLY to fulfil them, knowing that through doing so God’s Grace may warm our hearts and dissolve our hardness of heart, heal us and raise us up.
As I recently reflected in a homily, the Law of God is not to chain us, but to set us free; not to drag us down, but to raise us up; to lead us to VICTORY… and victory – nika – is the very root of the name of St Nicholas: Nikolaos, the victorious one.
As we chanted in vespers, “As a true namesake of victory, to the faithful people thou hast shown thyself to be mighty amid perils, O holy Nicholas, hierarch of Christ…”, and in the Gospel sticheron, we sing, “as was thy name, so also was thy life”: a life of victory over the old man; victory over sin; victory over the world, the flesh and the devil – and all through Christ the Victor living and abiding in him and ruling his life.
Through our individual obedience to the Gospel, confirmed with the Grace of the Holy Spirit, as children of the resurrection of Christ, we are all called to be namesakes of victory, and to conquer in Christ’s Name, as did St Nicholas, as unlikely and improbable as it may sound to us weak sinners.
However weak or doubtful we may feel, we must at least try, called to prayer, repentance, acts of love, kindness, mercy and selflessness in Christ’s stead, through the example of St Nicholas, and the celebration of his feast.
To honour St Nicholas, let us conquer pride in ourselves, and see ourselves as the least of Christ’s children, called to serve others and love our neighbour as ourself.
To honour St Nicholas, let us make peace and be reconciled to those with whom we have fought and argued, being the one to take the first step towards the peace and reconciliation which is Christ’s commandment – NOT an option, a commandment!
To honour St Nicholas, let us forgive and let go of the resentment of others due to past wrongs and the memories of what they have done to us or said about us – praying for them and begging God for the love that may be lacking in us for this necessary healing to happen.
To honour St Nicholas, let us be merciful by giving to at least one person in need or one worthy cause, even if that act challenges us.
To honour St Nicholas, let us bow down in prayer for those in need, sickness, tribulation and sorrow.
To honour St Nicholas, let us try to do as he would do; act as he would act; speak as he would speak; have mercy as he would have mercy; love as he loved… and all because he was a mirror of Christ, as we also should reflect the Saviour in our lives.
Through these actions, in our small and feeble way, we will at least begin to be a rule of faith, and reflect the boundless love, mercy and compassion in our lives, remembering the Saviour’s words in the parable of the sheep and the goats in the 25th chapter of Gospel of St Matthew.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “
Just as St Nicholas heeded the Saviour’s words, and translated them into the Gospel-in-action, let us do likewise!
In Christ – Hieromonk Mark