By Father Michael N. Lavallee
Early in the Advent season, it seems appropriate to consider some of the major figures in the Church’s liturgical calendar during this time.
On Dec. 6, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, Turkey, who was imprisoned and tortured for the faith and died at 65 between the years 345 and 350 A D.
In “Saints of the Roman Calendar,” author Enzo Lodi tells us that St. Nicholas was “a great miracle worker” who “raised to life three youths who had been executed” and “saved three sailors from shipwreck.”
St. Nicholas’ association with gift-giving comes from a legend about his life recorded in “Saint of The Day.” In this text, the authors state that Nicholas exercised charity “toward a poor man who was unable to provide dowries for his three daughters of marriageable age. Rather than see them be forced into prostitution, Nicholas secretly tossed a bag of gold coins through the poor man’s window on three separate occasions, thus enabling the daughters to be married.”
In “Saints of the Roman Calendar,” the author also significantly notes that St. Nicholas, as Bishop of Myra, “was among those who signed the document affirming the divinity of Christ at the Council of Nicea in the year 325.”
The Museum of Russian Icons, located at 203 Union St., in Clinton, currently offers us an invaluable opportunity to enter into the mystery of St. Nicholas’ life through an exhibit titled “Discovering St. Nicholas.” It is on display until Jan. 23. A museum flier advertising the exhibit tells us that the exhibit, “created by the St. Nicholas Center in Holland, MI, showcases a wide collection of art, icons, symbols, toys, statues and other treasures from around the world that define and interpret the development of the image of St. Nicholas and the evolution of the concept of Santa Claus.” The flier goes on to state that the exhibit is “family-oriented, and is festive, fun and educational for all ages!”
Laura Garrity-Arquitt, Registrar at the Museum of Russian Icons, said that, in addition to the exhibit, the Museum permanently owns 20 icons of St. Nicholas. Interestingly, the first icon that museum owner Gordon Lankton found was an icon of St. Nicholas. Garrity-Arquitt also said that she hopes that when people come to “Discovering St. Nicholas” they will take the time to see the museum’s other galleries. It is in these galleries that the other icons of St. Nicholas are on display.
Garrity-Arquitt said that approximately 16,000 people per year visit the museum.
An icon is an image of Christ, Mary or the saints which is considered a “window into heaven.” Rather than being simply “pictures,” icons reveal divine realities which presently gaze upon the viewer, inviting that viewer into prayer, contemplation and reflection. Icons are venerated by Eastern Christians, both Orthodox and Catholic, and are prominently featured in their churches. Many of the icons on display at the Museum are formerly from such settings. In recent years, Roman Catholics have also begun to appreciate the value of icons in the spiritual life.
“Discovering St. Nicholas” tells us that the saint is “one of the most highly revered saints in the Orthodox tradition,” is “recognized as one of the Church Fathers” and is seen as the “Wonderworker.” It goes on to inform us that “many Orthodox homes have St. Nicholas icons in family religious shrines.” The exhibit notes that Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches, which follow the Julian Calendar, celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas on Dec. 19.
“Saints of the Roman Calendar” tells us that St. Nicholas’ relics were translated from Myra, Turkey, to the city of Bari, Italy, in the year 1087. Ever since that time, Bari has been a pilgrimage site and has built there both a Roman Catholic basilica and an Orthodox chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas. One of the most interesting parts of “Discovering St. Nicholas” is “manna” or “pure water that forms in the tomb of St. Nicholas.” Bottles of “manna” are on display and the exhibit tells us that on May 9, the Feast of the Translation of Relics, the “prior of the basilica crawls into the opening of St. Nicholas’ tomb to extract the manna.” It is then diluted with holy water and distributed to the faithful.
The exhibit notes that St. Nicholas, as Santa Claus, first was depicted wearing red clothes in the 1868 edition of “Harper’s Weekly” periodical. The exhibit stresses that our current image of Santa Claus evolved over time and previous depictions of Santa look unlike the image we have come to commonly cherish.
St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, and the patron of Russia, Greece and Sicily, is associated with multinational Christmas traditions. Children throughout the world yearly and anxiously await his arrival, as legend tells them he visits them and brings them gifts and favors around the date of Christ’s birth. It would be interesting to discover, however, how many of today’s children would recognize that “Santa” is actually a saint of the Church.
Any visit to the Museum of Russian Icons affords weary seekers opportunities for prayer and reflection. On the lower level of the museum is a quiet location which the owner hopes people will use as a haven of peace. There, icons are displayed and the atmosphere is conducive to stillness. Beyond works of art, icons are created prayerfully by their makers, meant to be used to help viewers to grow in union with God. During the holiday season’s rush and bustle, such locations provide the faithful with opportunities to consider Advent’s true meaning.
May we confidently seek the intercession of the Wonderworker, St. Nicholas of Myra, so that this Advent we may grow in holiness.
– Father Lavallee is pastor of St. Ann Parish, North Oxford.
For more information on the Museum, visit its website at www.museumofrussianicons.org.