I am serving in the St. Nikolaos church located near the St. Benediktos clinic that is a part of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem where I have been living for 11 years now. I always served according to the Julian old calendar, i.e. on December19th, as this is the rule of the Church of Jerusalem. The Greek Church changed and adopted the common Gregorian new style date of December 6th. This is a special day throughout Christianity. I would not track back to the historical or “fairy tale” reports about the life and the deeds of Saint Nicholas, Sint Niklaas in Dutch, Sv. Nikolai – Nikola in most Slavic tongues and Mykolai in Ukrainian.
The name of the Saint has always been present in my life for different reasons: Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Rebbe of Lubavitch was born in the Ukrainian town of Nikolayev/Mykolayiv-НиколаевМиколаiв at the same time as my parents, same year and same city. It is situated 125 versty [miles] from Odessa, the famous international and very ancient city of merchants that was created long before Christian ear and inhabited by the Jews, Greeks, Scythes and many other nations. There is another Nikolaiev 36 km from L’viv. The name of the Saint and his personality as a wonder-maker and a great man of faith is very prestigious in all Slavic countries and traditions, also in Greece and on the Italian-Sicilian line that never really disrupted the connections between the Western and Eastern parts of the Roman Empire Church. The Great Schism is a bit softer there.
St. Nikolaos was very compassionate toward the needy. He shared all his money and saved many poor. In a time of dire economic and cruel social attitudes, in particular towards women and young women, his providing dowries to three daughters of a humble man who could fall into prostitution is an example of caring love ans real charity. The problems are quite the same at the present. Nikolaos woh became the bishop of Myra was always ready to give assistance. He used to do that in all sorts of miracles that show the significance of Christian faith.
The bishop of Myra spent many years in Beit Jala, now in the West Bank, close to the Mar Sabbas Monastery and Beit Sachur. It is the local custom for the Patriarch of Jerusalem to celebrate the Divine Liturgy at Beit Jala every year, remembering the life and pastoral activities of the holy man in the famous city. Many of the inhabitants spread over the century to South America, Buenos Aires, remaining faithfully too the home city blessed by the presence of the Saint.
There is more: St. Nikolaos Day – starting with December 6th – climaxes on December 19th in the Middle East and in Russia. This year, the Italian government solemnly returned the Russian St. Nikolaos church at Bari to the Patriarchate of Moscow. The point is that St. Nikolaos Day marks the beginning of the Feast of the Nativity in the Middle East. The Holy Land does not focus on the Nativity of Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem. It is a major historical and theological event. Nonetheless, Jerusalem and the Holy Land in general is a place of Tombs that recalls us the importance of hope and resurrection. And the personality of St. Nikolaos as well as the miracles that he performed are more onl ine with the faith in resurrection. This shows some similarities with prophet Elijah ubiquity and eschatological importance in the Jewish communities.
This is why St. Nikolaos Day marks the beginning of the time of Nativity, Baptism and Theophany of the Lord at the Jordan River, going through the period of Nativity Lent for the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Churches at the moment, till Nativity Day. It is a long sequence that shall end on January 19th, 2009 with the Baptism of Jesus Christ, the blessings of the Waters inside of the Holy Sepulcher/Anastasis Church and a final touch with the Armenian Nativity-Baptism-Theophany Feast usually celebrated in the Holy Land on January 18th [Astvadz-a-Haytnutyun = Revelation of God].
There is no way to connect the feast of the Saint with the Feast of Hanukkah, the feast renewal of new dedication of the Temple and the miracle of the oil lamp. In other areas, the feast of the Lights tends to develop in various manners outside the Jewish world. From Halloween to the two Canadian and American Thanksgiving days, new paganism often try to secularize and merchandise the memorial of very strong and unique man of loving-kindness. The common point is certainly the flickering of permanent hope beyond any hope. Everything is possible, not only some odd gifts, sweets and coins for the children.
On the other hand, since the year 2000, the name is given to a lot of Israeli baby girls, mostly in its female form, maybe influenced by French “Nicole” [Nikol, Nikola – ניקול-ניקולה ]. The Hebrew “translation” has never really been adopted: “נצחיה – Natzchiyah”.
Still the name is meaningful! “Nikolaos = victorious, victory of the [consecrated] people = Νικα του λαου”. Let’s say that it sounds very “democratic”. But it does not relate to “demos = demo(cratic) people”. “Laos” in Greek = the “Chosen, elected” people with regards to the Jewish interpretation and to the Christian tradition of Baptism/Chrism anointing -Communion (Slavic custom to give the three Sacraments in the course of one celebration). Greek clearly follows the Jewish tradition of distinguishing “laos – λαος (chosen, elected, consecrated) people” and “ethnos – εθνος (Gentile, pagan) nation”.
The name may also sound also very “comrade-like” or “communist-proletarian fashioned” relevant… Take it easy. A bit kidding… Still, I experienced that at times: a kind of unexpected protection given by Nikolaos. Harshly attacked in a church placed under his patronage, the Hebrew-Jewish tongues and Slavic-speaking communities, which I am heading, were granted exceptional and miraculous assistance by the civilian and religious authorities. We all felt like a joyous intervention of this holy man whose name is so typical for any former communist group… It happens from time to time, but it seems that Nikolaos has some very modern anti-defamation bobsleigh league with some compassionate and caring brigade… Lol))).
Nikolaos is working wonders. We live in a part of the world where miracles happened during winter time while it is summertime in the south hemisphere. Niklaas shows with De Zwarte Piet, the Black Pieter in the Netherlands, Flemish tradition that also spread to South Africa. I dream of a possible encounter that would allow Israeli society as a whole to carry out the same peaceful and reconciliation process as it happened in South Africa with much respect toward the inter-racial and interfaith national move. The etymology of the saint’s name makes sense everywhere. Rejection is much more powerful each time any group denies the rights and existence of other groups anywhere.
Patriarch Aleksii II passed away the day after the feast of Presentation of the Lady to the Temple of Jerusalem, on the eve of St. Nicholas day in the new style calendar. Like Prophet Elijah, St. Nikolaos is always forward and on the move. May he protect the immense Russian territories and inhabitants. Patriarch Aleksii was the man of the tremendous changes after the times of apostasy of the atheist regime. This was also a huge achievement for a inter-Soviet clergyman, born to a German former Lutheran noblesse of the Baltic countries. Strange how it is so close to Fr. Schmemann’s destiny, also born in Estonia. Eternal memory!
Nikolaos changes us into instruments of peace.
Av Aleksandr [Winogradsky Frenkel]
December 7/November 24, 2008 – 10 Kislev 5769 – י’ דכסלו תשס”ט
Photograph: Hagios Nikolaos in my church in Jerusalem