There are many legends and stories surrounding the good Saint Nicholas but it has always been a puzzle as to how he, amongst so many in the litany, is honoured with not one but two feast days. And equally as puzzling is why Saint John Cassian, his contemporary, is only commemorated once every four years. If you have a minute or two I’ll tell you how I was told it came about.
Now in the New Testament book Of Hebrews we are told that in Heaven there are “myriads of angels”, “clouds of witnesses”, and “multitudes of saints” all going about their heavenly business of striking harps and bearing messages, standing before the throne singing praises and waiting in attendance, and in the case of the Saints seeing to the concerns of those on earth below. If all the descriptions of Paradise are to be believed it is a busy place. But of all the denizens of the Heavenly Kingdom the busiest is Saint Peter. His work never seems to be done.
One day as he sat at his porter’s desk at the Gates of Heaven the good Saint rested his head in his hands: it never seemed to end with that bell forever ringing with people wanting to enter into Paradise. But once they’ve been checked in the big book it didn’t end there – oh no they had to be assigned their heavenly duties. Some how he had got tasked with that too. And frankly the way some of them bickered over their assigned jobs you wonder how they ever got on the “good”side of the ledger. And there were some cases that were more difficult than others; times when you have to cast the rule book to one side; to go with “your gut” he thought he had heard one of his latest candidates say. And he began to think of one time when he did exactly that and it was a decision that he never regretted.
It was back when he was first setting up the calendar of the faithful who had been named as Saints in the early days of Christianity; this was long before that Bishop of Rome took over that work. He was charged with interviewing each of these holy ones and giving them both their charges and the day that they were to receive special thanks for their care, love and intervention. It was a long process and again the bickering often made you question the saintliness of a few of the blessed.
One afternoon he was confronted by two very different men in appearance and demeanour: Saint John Cassian and Saint Nicholas of Myra. The first was stately with a solemn visage and his robes were perfectly folded and unsoiled; and though his visage was solemn it was not entirely unfriendly just a bit on the stern side. The other was, to be polite, unkempt with frayed garments and in other places he would have been mistaken for a vagabond. His face was etched with lines though to be fair the lines made by laughter were the deepest.
The other was, to be polite, unkempt with frayed garments and in other places he would have been mistaken for a vagabond. His face was etched with lines though to be fair the lines made by laughter were the deepest.
In deference to his immaculate state Peter began questioning the Blessed John about his work on earth. With serene piety the Saint explained that his writings had been the source of faith and prayer in monastic life and his thoughts were constantly turned to heavenly things and the ways of the world were not his concern. Peter nodded sagely, yes indeed these were important things in encouraging people to lead good lives.
Then turning to Nicholas, and trying not to be influenced by his tattered robes, he asked “What have you done on earth?” The good Saint spoke without guile or pride about his works in the wide world. “Holy Father,” he said “I was constantly going to and fro in the world of humankind. I struggled with one problem after another. In the earthly world my garments become worn and frayed but the people I helped care not about how I looked but about the things I did.”
After Peter had interviewed all the Saints he called them together and began to distribute their tasks and allot them a day in which they would be honoured. When he got to John Cassian he rested his hand on his shoulder in a brotherly fashion, as Saints often do amongst themselves, and said “Saint John Cassian you will be the patron of those who seek spirituality, and the monastic life. You will be remembered on February 29th.” Next it was the turn of Nicholas; Peter took him by the hand, smiled and said “Brother Nicholas, for your many wonders personally attended to on earth, you will be honoured in the cold on December 6th and again, when it is warm, on the 9th of May. And you will protect the little children, sailors and fishermen will call upon you, prisoners and those who have been wrongly accused will seek your help, and the poor shall look to you for solace and comfort.” And he added to the list a goodly number of other trades, and people in need of caring as well as a few countries where the Saint had done his works.
St Peter saw Saint John Cassian’s eyebrows rise at the thought of only being honoured once every four years while his brother had two yearly celebrations of his life and work. And being of a kind mind he reassured him, “Your concerns were for the heavenly and your work inspires those who seek the spiritual. Your work sits on the shelves of holy places to be read by those seeking the monastic life. Your brother Nicholas looks to the earthly needs of many, those who on earth have constant need of his protection and care. In the balance it is only right that one who cares for so many be twice honoured.”
And so it is that twice a year the good Saint Nicholas is commemorated throughout the Christian world. And especially at this time of year as we drawn near to the birth of a child he is remembered by the children that were given in to his protection by Blessed Peter all those times ago.
On this day in 1922: One year to the day after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Irish Free State comes into existence.
*And there may be a prize for the person who catches the reference. Just saying.