“God is wonderful in His saints, the God of Israel!”
As we well know, Saint Nicholas was a bishop who served in Asia Minor in the opening decades of the fourth century. As a hierarch of the Church, he was a man who had authority, meaning that he was someone to be respected and obeyed. This has been a characteristic of the Church’s hierarchy “from the beginning,” as we hear in the Epistle reading appointed for the feasts of Saint Nicholas and other great hierarchs of the Church: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account” [Hebrews 13:17]. This sacramental, pastoral and administrative authority of the episcopos (bishop) was further strengthened by the Apostolic Father, Saint Ignatius of Antioch, writing in the early second century: “Let no one do anything that pertains to the Church apart from the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is under the bishop or one whom he has delegated. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be; just as wherever Christ Jesus may be, there is the catholic Church” [To the Smyrnaens, 8].
These well-known exhortations, many of which became the basis for later Church canons pertaining to the authority of the hierarchy, could certainly be multiplied from a variety of impressive sources. Yet, it is therefore quite significant that the troparion for Saint Nicholas mentions nothing of the bishop’s authority, but rather stresses his pastoral image and care for his flock: “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.”
As Father Thomas Hopko has written, this troparion “has become in Orthodox liturgical services the ‘general troparion’ for most canonized bishops of the Church, thus revealing the ‘mind of the Church’ about what a Christian pastor should be” [The Winter Pascha, p. 40].
Granting the role of authority that a bishop “inherits” in his consecration to the episcopacy, the Church concentrates on the qualities of a true pastor, of one who will “shepherd” the flock entrusted to him by the Lord that the bishop sacramentally represents to and for his flock. The troparion has nothing to say about “power” or “authority.” Quite the opposite! We hear of humility, abstinence and even poverty. These are Christ-like characteristics that we learn of from the Gospels. Only by manifesting such qualities is the bishop a man who will receive the support, love and obedience of his flock in a spirit of trust and confidence in his leadership. Perhaps we should add that this is also true of the parish priest in his ministry to the flock entrusted to his care. This happens when a bishop leads by example. He then becomes a living “rule of faith” as the troparion opens with, meaning essentially that the bishop is a living, flesh-and-blood realization of the Gospel. Whenever we experience a “crisis of leadership” in the Church, it is precisely such Christ-like characteristics that are so painfully lacking in the Church’s hierarchy. The faithful realize this, and the whole Church then suffers from a lack of trust and confidence in that leadership.
In relation to Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, there is a fine passage from the great iconographer, Leonid Ouspensky, who summarizes the Church’s love of this great saint throughout the centuries: “The quite exceptional veneration of Saint Nicholas is well known. He is revered not only by Christians but often also by Muslims. In the weekly liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Church, among the days of the week dedicated to the Savior and to different orders of heavenly and earthly sanctity, only three persons are singled out by name: the Mother of God, John the Forerunner and Saint Nicholas. The reason for the special veneration of this bishop, who left neither theological works nor other writings, is evidently that the Church sees in him the personification of a shepherd – of one who protects and intercedes. According to his Life, when Saint Nicholas was raised to the dignity of bishop he said, ‘The office demands a different type of conduct, so that one may live no longer for oneself but for others.’ This ‘life for others’ is his characteristic feature and is manifested by the great variety of forms of his solicitude for men: his care for their preservation, their protection from the elements, from human injustice, from heresies and so forth. This solicitude was accompanied by numerous miracles both during his life and after his death. Indefatigable intercessor, steadfast uncompromising fighter for Orthodoxy, he was meek and gentle in character and humble in spirit” [Quoted in Time of the Spirit, p. 69].
Following Christ faithfully, Saint Nicholas endures as the purest manifestation of authority and leadership in the Church—a living rule of faith, practicing humility, abstinence and voluntary poverty as an example to his flock.
O Bishop Nicholas,
You have divinely taught all things well,
And now wearing your unfading crown,
you intercede for our souls.
[Vespers of the Feast of Saint Nicholas]