Just How Jolly?

Yes, there is a St. Nicholas, but he wasn't the jovial fellow most people imagine.

BY: Terry Mattingly

 

Father Constantine White was ready when his young son asked the big December question: "Is Santa Claus real?"



Instead of answering "yes" or "no," the Orthodox priest responded with another question: "Well, what is the name of our church?"



That would be St. Nicholas Cathedral, named after the fourth-century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. Nicholas has for centuries been one of Eastern Orthodoxy's most beloved saints, the patron of orphans, merchants, sailors, and all those in distress. His feast day is December 6.

St. Nicholas is a saint. The church insists that saints live on, in a heavenly "cloud of witnesses." So, yes, there is a St. Nicholas.

"I tell people who are touring our sanctuary: 'We never have to tell our children that there is no St. Nicholas,'" said White, dean of the Orthodox Church in America's cathedral in Washington, D.C. "There is, in fact, a St. Nicholas and he gives us his love and his prayers. These gifts are much more precious than anything people get at a mall."

The secular superman called Santa Claus will be nowhere in sight when parishioners at St. Nicholas Cathedral gather for weekend services honoring their patron. They will chant ancient prayers and send clouds of incense into a small, but glorious, five-story limestone vault. As in most Orthodox parishes, and some Eastern Rite Catholic churches, the feast day will be moved to the closest Sunday.

He participated in the Council of Nicea and, when theological debate was not enough, reportedly punched the heretic Arius, who argued that Jesus was not fully divine.

The hymns are solemn, befitting a shepherd known for fasting and self-sacrifice. These lines are typical: "With what songs shall we praise the holy bishop Nicholas? O holy father Nicholas, Christ has shown you to be a model of faith. Your humility inspired all your flock. You are known as the protector of widows and orphans."

The sanctuary's interior is covered with iconography, the work of Russians who began working in the fall of 1991 and finished three years later. The main images are of Christ triumphant and of Mary with the infant Jesus. The Russian saints soaring over the choir include martyrs huddled behind barbed wire in Soviet prison camps. The north wall features six rows of large icons--34 images in all--depicting the life of St. Nicholas, the Wonderworker.

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