How a Turkish bishop became a patron saint in Palestine

By Patricia Kasten | Catholic News Service | December 5, 2014

St. Nicholas has brought more than candy to a little town near Bethlehem

In the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches, only one saint is more often represented on icons than St. Nicholas: Mary, the Mother of God. And, like Mary, Nicholas also has a tie to Bethlehem.

St. Nicholas of Bari was born and died in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). In between, he spent a number of years in Palestine, some of it in the small town of Beit Jala which is now part of the larger district around modern Bethlehem.

Many of us know legends about St. Nicholas, who is called “Nicholas the Wonderworker” by the Eastern Orthodox.

He is a patron of children, because he rescued many from perils such as pirates and prostitution rings, as well as raised three murdered children from the dead.

Nicholas is also a patron of sailors. Myra, where he served as archbishop, was a port city and, in 1087, sailors from Bari in Italy took his relics from Myra to their town because of the threat of Turkish invasions into Myra.

The legends about oranges and stockings — and his status as the patron saint of pawnbrokers — all come from the same legend: that a poor merchant with three daughters had no money to dower them for marriage. He planned to sell his daughters into prostitution, but Nicholas came at night to throw three bags of gold down the merchant’s chimney to save the girls. It is said the gold landed in the stockings by the fire. The gold reminded people of oranges, while the three bags together reminded them of the three-golden-balls symbol of pawnbrokers. From the same story, St. Nicholas has merged with the legends of Santa Claus, with a few changes added via the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

St. Nicholas is also revered not only by Catholics and Easter Orthodox, but also by Anglicans and Lutherans, as well as some other Protestant churches.

But there are other stories that we in the West may not be as familiar with, since they come from Beit Jala. Nicholas, on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, arrived in 312 A.D. His journey from Asia Minor to Palestine was by boat and, according to legend, a terrible storm arose. Nicholas’ prayers saved the vessel — and, no doubt, added to his fame as a patron of sailors. The composer Benjamin Britten wrote a cantata about St. Nicholas in 1948 and one part of the cantata is devoted to this storm.

In Palestine, Nicholas lived for three or four years in Beit Jala in a tiny cave underneath the altar of the present St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. On his feast day — Dec. 19 on the Orthodox calendar — Christians of the village celebrate with concerts, parades, meals, a candlelight procession to the cave under the church and, yes, gifts for children.

There are many local stories about the protection of Beit Jala by St. Nicholas, most of them related to the conflicts after the 1948 founding of Israel and during the Second Intifada (2000-2005). A recently created icon in the church, written by Ian Knowles, captures some of these stories, including the reported appearance of St. Nicholas over Beit Jala in 1948, spreading his hands over the town to catch falling bombs. (No bombs hit Beit Jala or, if any did, they did not explode.)

In 2007, a 73-year-old Beit Jala resident, Anita Knesevich, told Catholic News Service of her recollection of the event: “No bombs reached Beit Jala. Only the tower of the St. Nicholas Church was damaged. We know that it was St. Nicholas that saved Beit Jala from any problems.”

The same type of appearances of St. Nicholas are said to have occurred during 1967’s Six-Day War and are likewise depicted on the icon.

So whether we think of oranges, stockings or of deflected bombs on the feast day of St. Nicholas, we can remember him as someone who cared for others — both while he was on earth and from the glory of heaven where all the saints now reside in God’s glory.

 

Sources: Catholic News Service; stnicholascenter.org; liturgicalmovement.org; travelpalestine.ps; jewishvirtuallibrary.org and stgeorgegreenville.org.

 

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