Today is the Feast of St Nicholas - Bishop of Myra, prolific miracle-worker and zealous defender of the Catholic faith. As most of us know, there are many wonderful stories associated with this Saint, which resulted in him becoming very popular during the Middle Ages. His cult gave us the Santa Claus (St Nicholas) tradition - which arose from a discreet act of alms-giving through which Nicholas saved the honour of three young maidens. Many people throughout the world celebrate this day by giving presents to loved-ones and to those in need. To read more about his life and the subsequent traditions and legends associated with St Nicholas, please visit the St Nicholas Centre website.
Born during the third century in Patara, modern-day Turkey, St Nicholas' parents died when he was still very young. Obeying Jesus' words to the rich young man (cf Lk 18:18-30), Nicholas gave away his whole inheritance to assist the needy and the sick. He then entered the sacred priesthood and was soon appointed Bishop of Myra. Nicholas was subsequently exiled and imprisoned for his faith under the anti-Christian Emperor Diocletian.
After the persecutions, St Nicholas continued to witness to the truth - condemning the heresy of Arianism as an active participant in the Council of Nicea (325). He died on this day in AD 343 and the place where he was buried in Myra Cathedral soon became the site of great miracles and wonders. During the centuries his relics were transferred, and are now preserved in Bari, Italy - recent examination of these remains indicate that the Saint was about 5ft tall and had a broken nose. Miracles are still being attributed to the intercession of St Nicholas, who is often known as "the wonder-worker" in the Eastern Church.
During the 12th century, the prolific poet and composer of Latin hymns and sequences, Adam of Saint Victor, wrote a sequence for the Mass of St Nicholas - many scholars now think that this poem was actually written by an earlier liturgist. This hymn would have been sung before the Gospel in most churches throughout the Middle Ages. The Tridentine Missal of Pope St Pius V (1570) drastically reduced the number of sequences in the Roman Rite.
All the ones used for individual Saints' Days were removed from the Mass (including St Nicholas' Sequence), and their number was reduced to four: Victimae paschali laudes (11th century) for Easter, Veni Sancte Spiritus for Pentecost (12th century), Lauda Sion Salvatorem (c1264) for Corpus Christi, and the Dies Irae (13th century) for All Souls' Day and Masses for the Dead. In 1727, the 13th century Stabat Mater for Our Lady of Sorrows was added to the list, whilst the Dies Irae was removed from Missal of Pope Paul VI (1969).
To celebrate the Feast of St Nicholas, I thought it would be nice to publish the sequence that was sung at Masses on his feast day from the 12th century until 1570. After it was removed from the Mass by Pope St Pius V, this sequence became the basis for many hymns dedicated to the Saint. It is a beautiful poem, and I am sure that many of our pre-Reformation forefathers would have enjoyed listening to it being chanted during Masses on this day. I offer this joyful sequence as a prayer for the intentions of a friend of mine called Nikolaus, thanking God for the gift of his friendship.
Sequence for the Feast of St Nicholas
(From The Liturgical Sequences of Adam St Victor,
translated into English by Digby S Wrangham in 1881)
Con gaudentes exultemus vocali concordia
Ad beati Nicolai festiva solemnia;
Let us all exult together, as with one united voice
We upon his solemn feast-day in St Nicholas rejoice;
Qui in cunis adhuc jacens servando jejunia
A papillis coepit summa promereri gaudia.
Who, whilst in his cradle lying, by observing duly fast,
Heavenly joys began to merit even at his mother's breast.
Adolescens amplexatur literarum studia,
Alienus et immubis ab omni lascivia.
In his youth he chooses letters, that his study they may be,
To all evil lust a stranger, from all sinful passions free.
Cujus fuit dignitatis vox de coelo nuntia!
Per quam provectus,
Praesulatûs sublimatur ad summa fastigia.
This blest confessor,
Whom, as worthy of the office,
'twas a voice from heaven praised,
Amongst bishops to the very highest rank is forthwith raised.
Erat in ejus animo pietas eximia,
Et oppressis impendebat multa beneficia.
There was too in his character benevolence exceeding,
And many a bounty he bestowed, the tale of sorrow heeding.
Auro per eum virginum tollitur infamia,
Atque patris earundem levatur inopia.
With gold he saved some maidens, who had else vile lives been leading,
Relieving all their father's want, when help most sorely needing.
Quidam nautae navigantes,
Et contra fluctuum saevitiam luctantes,
Navi pene dissoluta,
Jam de vita desperantes,
In tanto positi periculo, clamantes
Voces dicunt omnes una:
Certain sailors once, when sailing,
And fighting 'gainst fierce waves with struggles unavailing,
Shipwrecked nigh through stress of weather;
Hope of life already failing,
Amid such dangers set, aloud their fate bewailing,
Lift their voices altogether:
The Dutch Sinterklaas (St Nicholas - Santa Claus)
"O beate Nicolae,
Nos ad maris portum trahe
De mortis angustia.
Trahe nos ad portum maris,
Tu qui tot auxiliaris
"Blessed Nicholas! O steer us
From the straits of death so near us
To the haven of safe sea!
To that harbour in the distance
Draw us, who dost grant assistance
Through the grace of charity!"
Dum clamarent, nec incassum,
"Ecce!" quidam dicit, "assum
Ad vestra praesidia."
Statim aura datur grata
Et tempestas fit sedata:
"lo!" - while thus they cried, nor vainly,
-"I am here!" a voice said plainly
"To watch o'er you and to aid!"
Instantly blow favouring breezes,
Instantly the tempest ceases,
And to rest the sea is laid.
Nos, qui sumus in hoc mundo,
Vitiorum in profundo
Jam passi naufragia,
Ad salus portum trahe,
Ubi pax et gloria.
We, now in this world abiding,
Have been wrecked,
as we were riding
O'er the deep abyss of vice:
Draw us, Nicholas most glorious!
To the home of peace victorious,
To the port of Paradise!
Ex ipsius tumba manat
Quae infirmos omnes sanat
Per ejus suffragia.
From his tomb, to heal diseases,
Oil abundant floweth forth,
Which the sick from pain releases
Through his prayers' availing worth.
Ipsam nobis unctionem
Impetres ad Dominum,
Quae sanavit laesionem
May we of the self-same ointment
Through thy pious prayer to God
Which did by the Lord's appointment
Heal the wounds of Mary's load
Hujus festum celebrantes gaudeant per saecula,
Et coronet eos Christus post vitae curricula!
Amen dicant omnia!
Let them joy throughout all ages, who observe this holy day,
And, when this life's course is ended, crowned in heaven by Christ be they!
Amen! let all creatures say!
Collect for the Feast of St Nicholas
Deus, qui beatum Nicolaum Pontificem innumeris decorasti miraculis tribue, quaesumus: ut ejus meritis et precibus a gehennae incendiis liberemur. Per Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum Filium Tuum, Qui Tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti, Deus, Per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen .
O God, Who didst adorn the blessed Bishop Nicholas with countless miracles: grant, we beseech Thee, that by his merits and prayers we may be delivered from the flames of hell. Through our Lord Jesus Christ Thy Son, who livest and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen..
Sancte Nicolae, ora pro nobis
Saint Nicholas, pray for us.
Dylan Parry is a Spero columnist who writes from Wales.