We have another feast falling on a Sunday, so there’s a whole series of readings for the Liturgy, which the hapless preacher has to bring into some sort of coherence (Heb. 13:17-21, Eph. 6:10-17, Lk. 6:17-23 and 17:12-19). With our Father among the saints Nicholas of Myra as our guide, I trust that all manner of things shall be well.
In the context of today’s readings, I’d like to look at St Nicholas as a kind of spiritual father for us, rather than focusing on the historical elements of his life or the legends that grew up around his, well, legendary charity and holiness. He was, after all, a bishop and thus a spiritual father to all those within the boundaries of his episcopal see, which was in modern-day Turkey. That is probably the reason the epistle reading from Hebrews was chosen, in which Jesus is called “the great shepherd of the sheep.” Every bishop is supposed to be a shepherd in imitation of Christ, who said to his chief shepherd, St Peter: “Feed my sheep.”
We are counseled at the beginning of the epistle reading to obey our leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over our souls. I think we should invoke the protection and intercession of St Nicholas as one who keeps watch over our souls. We here at Mt Tabor have a special reason for this confidence in him, not only because he is one of the main patrons of Byzantine Catholics, but also because our own monastery temple is dedicated to him. By his patronage of our holy temple he has accepted the burden of watching over the souls of those who regularly worship and pray here.
In one of the priest’s prayers of the Divine Liturgy, we ask the Lord to “make straight our path… watch over our lives, make sure our steps…” and this calls to mind the watching-over of our souls that we ask St Nicholas to do as he serves the Lord in our behalf. Again, as a bishop, this is his task. A bishop, in Greek an epi-scopos, is literally an over-seer, one who watches over his flock. I think there’s a certain comfort in that, in the fact that there is someone watching over our souls, perhaps many: not only St Nicholas, but our guardian angels, our patron saints, the Mother of God and the Lord Himself. We are in good hands, and we should thank the Lord for all those to whom He entrusts the care of our souls.
If the holy bishop Nicholas is to watch over our souls, what form does this episcopal overseeing take? From the readings of the Liturgy, I think we can see it in negative and a positive sense (in this case, both negative and positive senses are good things, but here negative means against something and positive means for something).
The watching over our souls that is against something is indicated by the reading from St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, in which we are exhorted to put on the armor of God against the wiles of the devil and his fiery spiritual arrows of temptation, delusion, or whatever other trick he might have up his infernal sleeve. If St Nicholas is to be a spiritual father for us who is to watch over our souls, he has to protect us from the evil one and support us in our spiritual warfare.
We invoke him thus in some of our liturgical prayers: “Surrounded by a multitude of temptations, tossed about by the storms of this life, shipwrecked in the sea of perils and beaten down by all types of sorrow, I place my hope in you, O holy father Nicholas… Having received such a grace from God, O holy Nicholas, you obtain healing for all those who have recourse to your protection. You drive away incurable possessions by demons and your patronage brings healing to all who are suffering… Intercede with the Lord that He save from all danger those who sing praises to your name.”
So we see that he can help us in our struggle with the spiritual hosts of wickedness. But that doesn’t mean we sit back and watch him do all the work. Sometimes it may seem that he sits back while we do the work! This was the case with the Lord and St Anthony the Great, in one of his famous struggles with the powers of darkness. Anthony fought all night against demons who severely attacked him, and then as dawn broke and they finally left, he turned to the Lord, exhausted, asking Him why He didn’t come and help him. But the Lord replied that He was there the whole time, only He wanted Anthony to win the crown of persevering endurance, so the Lord didn’t directly intervene. It may be that way sometimes for us. Not being of the spiritual stature of St Anthony, we will not likely be tested as severely as he was, but sometimes we have to learn our lessons or strengthen our spiritual resources through the use of faith alone, without any special divine intervention. In any case, the Lord is always with us, as well as those, like St Nicholas, whom He has commissioned to watch over our souls. Whatever the Lord does for us (or doesn’t do for us) in our spiritual warfare is always meant for our good, our spiritual growth and maturity, and ultimately for our salvation, so we should always give thanks.
Now let’s look at the positive sense of St Nicholas’ overseeing, that which is not against something but for something. This is indicated by the Gospel reading of the Beatitudes from St Luke, which is the common reading for venerable fathers. St Nicholas watches over our souls in our fight against evil and sin, but he also watches over our souls in the positive pursuit of virtue, in the conforming of all our thoughts, words, and actions to the spirit of the Beatitudes, which makes us most like our Lord Jesus Christ.
In this case his overseeing takes the form of leading us into the spiritual poverty, the hunger for righteousness, and the mourning for our sins and those of the world, which make the image of Christ shine more clearly in us. He exhorts us to accept even revilement and denigration and persecution for the sake of Christ—and even calls us to rejoice in it! Not that there’s anything joyful in those painful experiences as such, but as the Lord says: “Rejoice… and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven.” That’s what really matters, and that’s what our spiritual life is all about; that’s why we invoke the vigilant overseeing of our souls by spiritual stalwarts such as St Nicholas. We want to get to Heaven, and we should be willing to do and even suffer whatever it takes, for to miss out on Heaven is to miss out on everything, our whole reason of being and our eternal destiny.
So we need the help of St Nicholas and all the heavenly intercessors that God may be pleased to send to help us. It’s not just a pleasant idea to have heavenly overseers, and it’s not just a thoughtful gesture on God’s part to send them to us—it’s a matter of life or death! Just floundering about on our own, with nothing more than our own wits to serve us, we would never make it. We wouldn’t be able to unmask and fight off the deceptive illusions of the devil, and we wouldn’t have the stamina and courage to pursue virtue consistently and diligently. So we need a constant influx of the grace of God, which often comes to us through the prayers of the members of the Body of Christ, whether they are on Earth or in Heaven. We tend to trust in the efficacy of the prayers of the heavenly members all the more, since there is no sin or defect or selfishness in them to hinder their prayers, which are always pure and perfect in the sight of God.
Finally, I’d like to say a bit about the Gospel for this Sunday, even though it’s not as easy to relate to St Nicholas as the other readings. This is the healing of the ten lepers, and the Lord’s blessing upon the only one who had the sense to give thanks for the Lord’s compassionate intervention in his life. This is perhaps the conclusion to all we’ve seen about St Nicholas watching over our souls, against the encroachments of evil and for the pursuit of holiness. If we’re without gratitude for all that the Lord has done for us, either directly or through his saints, then we’ll never get very far in our spiritual lives. Jesus cleansed all ten lepers, but nine of them did not give Him thanks. We don’t know what ultimately became of the nine, if something worse befell them (as Jesus had warned the paralytic when he healed him and told him to sin no more).
But I think that we can safely assume that the one who gave thanks to the Lord was not only healed but saved. In Greek, the word for “heal” and “save” is the same, so there is at times an ambiguity which translators don’t always agree upon. Usually the context will tell us. I think that in this case we should say that the Lord meant, “Your faith has saved you.” All ten were healed, and the Lord had no praise for the ungrateful nine, so most likely the faith of the grateful leper was at the root of both his healing and salvation.
The point is, though, that we should always give thanks to the Lord, not only when we are aware of some particular gift He has granted us or some specific prayer He has answered favorably. The fact that we have heavenly overseers like St Nicholas means that God is doing good for us all the time, that He doesn’t let us out of his sight, that He’s trying to guide us and mature us to the point where we can actually rejoice even in our sufferings, knowing that Heaven with all its glories and blessings awaits those who persevere in faith, hope, and love, in gratitude and in fortitude, in spiritual warfare and in the peace that passes all understanding.
Along with everything else I’ve mentioned here, St Nicholas is a kind of icon of the charity that characterizes Christmas, which is why his own legendary generosity is the basis for that legendary figure who gives gifts to children on Christmas. That holy day is less than three weeks away, so let us intensify our preparations, being concerned not merely with material gifts but with the grace that God wishes to give us for our spiritual growth and salvation. Let us look to St Nicholas as one who not only intercedes for what we need—both spiritually and materially—but who has been given the charge to watch over our souls, which are most precious in God’s sight.
The eyes of children grow large and bright as they gaze upon all the lights and gifts and colors of Christmas. Let us prepare now for the Day when our own eyes will at last grow bright with the vision of the face of Christ, who came to Earth so that we could go to Heaven. And let us thank St Nicholas and all those who even now are assisting us on our way to the Kingdom of Light and Glory.