Feast of Nicholas the Wonder-worker / Tenth Sunday of Luke, December 6, 2015
Hebrews 13:17-21; Luke 13:10-17
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
On the sixth of December we remember one of the most famous Christians in the world, Nicholas the Wonder-worker, archbishop of Myra in Lycia, which is in modern Turkey. He is universally beloved throughout the Orthodox Church and even beyond the Christian tradition. It may be observed that almost every Orthodox parish, no matter what its historical heritage, has at least one guy named “Nick,” and it is precisely for this reason, because St. Nicholas is such a popular saint.
There are many incidents we could talk about from his life. The description of his life and miracles takes up nearly forty pages in the Great Synaxaristes. And you can see several of these incidents depicted in the large icon we have of St. Nicholas here in the church. I would like to speak today about one of the moments in his life which is perhaps less well-known, and it’s about the time he chopped down a tree. But first we have to learn a little history.
As you know, from the time of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost until the earth fourth century, the Christian Church was essentially illegal. Christians were hunted down by the Roman government and frequently tortured and killed for their faith. Christian worship was conducted largely in secret. The martyrs imitated their Lord in going to their deaths voluntarily and with love. A war had been declared on Christ’s people, the last vengeance of paganism upon the worship of the one true God.
But with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the year 312 and the edict that he issued the next year, things changed for the Church. Christianity became legal. Most people in the Roman Empire were still pagans, but Christians were now free to worship and live as Christians and even to build churches. The tide of the battle had turned. The Church was not the official faith of the empire at that point, but it was now legal.
It is hard in our own day to understand these things truly as a battle, since we live in a secular society with a veritable buffet of religions to choose from. We don’t think of our country as a battleground where competing theologies wage war for the souls of human persons. But we should. Even though the government does not enforce religion on everyone in our country, the souls of our family, friends and neighbors who are not Orthodox Christians are very much “occupied territory” in a sense.
After the persecution of the Church was lifted, the bishop of Myra in Lycia, the Nicholas we celebrate today, began to travel freely throughout his diocese. He found that there were many altars built throughout his diocese which were dedicated to pagan gods. And, as the Synaxaristes says, “The saint recognized that these unhallowed precincts were the habitations of the demons who received homage from men who were deceived by the ancestral imposture.” That is, the locals believed that they were worshiping pagan gods, but they were actually worshiping demons, and these pagan temples were actually the houses of demons.
So St. Nicholas began to do what any good Christian bishop would do in the face of such a discovery. He began to pray. And then, as it is written, “The saint, by the lever of his prayers alone, demolished these accursed haunts into dust and drove out the unclean spirits with authority. The demons could be heard fleeing in the air, crying over their misfortune.” So Nicholas literally would stand outside a pagan temple and begin praying. And not only would the demon inside the temple run away at his prayers, but the temples themselves crumbled into dust. God heard Nicholas’s prayers and answered them spectacularly.
One time, Nicholas approached a particularly large temple, dedicated to the Greek goddess Artemis, who was also called Diana. This temple was in Myra itself. When Nicholas came to this temple, the demons began to shudder, because they knew how powerful his prayer was. And then he began to pray, and immediately, the idols in the temple fell down on their faces, and the altar itself also fell over.
And the demons cried out, “Do us no wrong! Though we have committed no offense against thee, yet thou dost drive us from our home. It is here that we have long dwelt and led astray the people who worshipped us; and now, where are we to go?” And the saint replied, “Go to the fire, the everlasting one, which has been prepared for the devil and his angels!” (cf. Matt. 25:41). And so all the pagan altars in the region were also destroyed by this same method.
And there was one final outpost which the saint came upon, a place where certain people practiced their worship of Artemis under a tree which was dedicated to the demon who claimed to be that goddess. And so St. Nicholas saw to it that the tree was chopped down, giving that demon no place to dwell.
So what are we to take away from all this? For one thing, we learn that St. Nicholas is a multi-faceted person. In addition to being the guardian of children and of sailors, in addition to being the giver of gifts to ransom those in danger from slavery, in addition to being the one who struck the heretic Arius in the face at the First Ecumenical Council for his blasphemy, he is also the protector of the people of Myra against the delusion of demons and idolatry.
Such a role does not look very “nice” in our own day. It’s hard to imagine imitating St. Nicholas like this. That said, if you should happen to stand outside a pagan temple, and the force of your prayer knocks down the idols and altar contained in it, that’s probably a pretty good sign that that is what God wants you to do!
But even if we are not literally knocking down the dwelling places of demons, we still have a responsibility to imitate St. Nicholas in this kind of work. And how do we do that?
We have to protect our children, our family and our friends from false teachings. We do that by knowing the teachings of our Orthodox faith. Like that incident with St. Nicholas hitting Arius, he did so when Arius was blaspheming against the divinity of the Son of God, saying that Jesus was not God. Nicholas would not have done that if he didn’t know the truth about Who Jesus is.
But we also need to know the Gospel, the teachings of the Apostles and the Fathers and Councils of the Church. We need to study. And we also need to know what the false teachings around us are. We need to know what is true and what is not true in the teachings of other religions, philosophies and ideologies.
If we don’t do that, then we leave ourselves at the mercy of demons. And yes, it is demons who inspire all falsehood in our world, even if it is falsehood mixed in with what is true. Yes, people can be innocently mistaken, and that is understandable. But the reason why there is false teaching out there is because of Satan and his demons.
And so we have to remember who our enemy is—it is Satan and his demons. It is not the people who believe in other religions and philosophies. They are not our enemy. They are God’s children, God’s rightful territory. So we are not fighting against them. We are fighting for them, and we fight for them by fighting against the demons.
And we fight those demons by study and by experience, but we also have to fight them just like St. Nicholas did—with prayer. How much do you earnestly pray for your children and those whom you love that they would not be overtaken by delusions and false teachings? Is prayer your weapon? Do you see it as a weapon? It definitely is one. Is it a little rusty, perhaps?
We thank God for the great example of St. Nicholas and the power of his prayer. And we join him in that prayer during this holy season, when the great Champion of our faith is being born into this world so that He can do battle with death itself, which is the power of Satan.
To Christ, Who is our light, be all glory, honor and worship, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.