The Sufferings of Saint Nicholas

This weekly bulletin insert complements the curriculum published by the Department of Christian Education of the Orthodox Church in America. This and many other Christian Education resources are available at

December 6 is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of everyone from longshoremen to embalmers, and of places from New York City to Argentina. In fact he is the patron of more occupations, causes, people and places than any other saint we know of.

The stories of his humility and compassion are well-known. He had no ambition to become a bishop, but accepted the office in obedience. When he saved three marriageable and impoverished girls from disaster by providing money, he planned to do it secretly. There are stories of sailors caught on stormy seas, defenseless peasants wrongly accused of crimes, and countless others in need or in danger who were saved by his intercession. His kindness to children helped them to see Christ in him, so that even if their life circumstances were harsh, they knew a Savior cared for them.

But additional aspects of his life give even more luster to his example. Though he was not a martyr, Saint Nicholas suffered greatly in his life, and had to stand up to powerful forces that could have undermined the Church.

He became a bishop at the beginning of the fourth century and during the reign of Diocletian, a Roman emperor who detested Christianity as an enemy of Rome's glory. Nicholas, having become a publicly visible leader of the Christians, was imprisoned and tortured. The incarceration was not brief, either. Not until Constantine ascended the throne were the Christian prisoners released.

It was not only outward threats that faced the Church during Nicholas' time as bishop. Within the Church the Arian heresy, denying that Christ was truly the Son of God, was widely popular. Bishop Nicholas had to work against its falsehoods, and defend his people against its influence.

At the Council of Nicaea the threat of Arianism was made physically present. Arius had eloquence enough to make his "reasonable" version of the faith appealing to listeners and did so at the Council, speaking to those in attendance in his intelligent and engaging manner. How painful it must have been for Nicholas to hear this smooth talker distort everything for which Christ had died and risen. His memories of his own imprisonment and that of so many others who would not compromise the faith only added to the pain.

Troparion - Tone 4

In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith,
an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence;
your humility exalted you;
your poverty enriched you.
Hierarch Father Nicholas,
entreat Christ our God
that our souls may be saved.

So Saint Nicholas exemplifies more than loving benevolence. He also shares our experience of suffering, and shows how to carry on without flinching from it. The words of Jesus Christ in Luke 21: 12-19 apply to Nicholas' life: "...they will lay their hands on you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors...some of you will be put to death; you will be hated by all for my name's sake."

But Christ's final words in this passage are the ones Nicholas would encourage us to remember: "By your endurance you will gain your lives."