Order of Service

with Saint Nicholas Icons

St Nicholas Icon
One of the icons painted in class
Photo: Kate Sterner
Luther Seminary Chapel, St. Paul, Minnesota

December 19, 2006
Presented by the iconography class that had written Saint Nicholas icons


Prayer for Illumination


Russian Orthodox Traditional (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 155)


Ephesians 3.14-21


Icons and the Orthodox Faith

The word, icon, can be found in many cultures in contemporary society. For centuries, holy icons have been handed down to Christians as a "sacred doorway" into the spiritual world. The primary purpose of a holy icon is to enable a face-to-face encounter with a holy person or make present a sacred event. Icons communicate Christian Truth in a visual form. Narrative icons are images corresponding to the written Bible, portrait icons reveal information in regards to the virtues that we try to observe and remember in the holy person being depicted. We as onlookers are invited to enter into the living presence and power of the holiness being depicted and into the celebration of the sacred event.
Icons are painted in a way that is designed to be timeless and to represent the eternal Kingdom or the Heavenly Jerusalem. It is for this reason that icons convey an art purely idealistic and creating forms not meant to be realistic. The art form in a Holy icon is intended to be an abstraction producing a spiritual art meant to recur in the painting of icons in any generation or country and always remaining constant, consistent and prescribed by canon rule. Icons do not depict the natural world, but another world using artistic technique. The icon becomes a window open to those who read it with spiritual eyesight—those who want to come closer need to see them with the eyes of a believer in God's Kingdom. Icons speak a symbolic language—such as the example of a canonized saint—they lost their human physical features and turned into symbols; signs of celestial spirituality and reality.
Class icons in chapel
Class icons in the chapel Photo: Kate Sterner


Blessed be the God of Israel (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 250) stanza 1 FOREST GREEN


St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, and his Legend

Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in the 4th century, has become one of the most popular saints of the Christian calendar. He became an interesting subject for our icon class, though nearly nothing is known for sure about his life. He did live in the 4th century in the area of Asia Minor which is now known as Turkey. His day is celebrated in the Western Church on December 6, though the Eastern Church remembers Nicholas on December 19, today. As a bishop, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea where (it is said) he gave the heretic Arius a smack on the head. Beyond these bare facts nothing else is certain.

In the absence of facts, however, legends abound. One story tells of a man who was so poor that he could not provide dowries for his three daughters. Such being the case, it was unlikely that the three young women would marry. Worse, without dowries they were likely to be sold into slavery or prostitution. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home, which provided the needed dowries. The bags of gold (it is said) were tossed through an open window in stockings. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings in anticipation of a visit from St. Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. Hence, three gold balls are one of the symbols for this gift-giving saint. Incidentally, three balls often hang outside pawn shops, which accounts for the fact that Nicholas became the patron saint of pawn brokers.


Blessed be the God of Israel (Evangelical Lutheran Worship p. 250) stanza 2 FOREST GREEN


Further Narrative about St. Nicholas

Another story about Nicholas has pertinence to those engaged in theological studies. It seems that three theological students were once traveling on their way to study in Athens. Along the way a wicked innkeeper robbed and murdered them. He tried to conceal the evidence by hiding the remains of the three students in a large pickling tub. Fortuitously, Bishop Nicholas had been traveling along the same route and happened to stop at the in where the crimes had been committed. Like Sherlock Holmes the bishop deduced the fact that murder most foul had been done. In the night he dreamed of the crime, got up, and confronted the innkeeper, who broke down and confessed. Nicholas did more than accuse the perpetrator, however. He prayed earnestly to God; and miraculously the three students were restored to life and sent on their way to complete their studies for leadership in the church. It is a story all seminarians might take to heart. Over time Nicholas became the patron saint of students.
Several stories tell of Nicholas and the sea. When he was young, Nicholas went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Like pilgrims today he walked where Jesus walked and sought to understand the story of the Bible in its physical context. Returning by sea, a mighty storm threatened to wreck the ship, a tempestuous experience that paralleled that of St. Paul. And, like Paul, Nicholas prayed, which caught the attention of the terrified sailors. These hard-bitten seamen were amazed when the wind and waves suddenly calmed down. They, the ship, and the cargo were saved. And so it is that St. Nicholas (in addition to all the rest) became the patron saint of sailors and voyagers.


Blessed be the God of Israel (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 250) stanza 3 FOREST GREEN


Concluding Narrative about St. Nicholas

There are many, many stories about Nicholas, which help explain his popularity among Christians even today. They tell of his saving people from famine, how he spared the lives of those innocently accused, and much more. His fame and legend ballooned, though he did many of his kind and generous deeds in secret and expected nothing in return. Today he is venerated in the East as a miracle worker and in the West as a patron of a great variety of persons: children, mariners, bankers, pawn brokers, scholars, orphans, laborers, travelers, merchants, judges, paupers, maidens of marriageable age, students, victims of judicial mistakes, even thieves and murderers! He is known as the friend and protector of all in trouble or need. By his example of generosity to those in need, especially children, St. Nicholas continues to be a model of the compassionate and generous life. In this latter capacity, of course, Nicholas (for better or worse) has morphed into the figure who arrives with a bag full of toys in a sled pulled by eight flying reindeer. But that is another story for later this month. As we discovered in our class Nicholas has truly become an iconic figure.



St. Nicholas (in history, legend, and inflated myth) reminds us that the world is full of glitz, but also that there is still a hunger and need for simple truth, well-sung and well-spoken. That, of course, is what we've been called to do. So, sure, let us remember St. Nicholas. But even more (much more) let us anticipate and remember Jesus who comes to us as he bids his children come to him. All along the way, though, let us speak the truth—plainly and in season. Hear the Word, proclaim the Word, and go in peace.


After chapel people crowding around to see class icons
Photos: Kate Sterner

Writing a Saint Nicholas Icon
An account and reflection on the class experience

By Robert M. Brusic, Seminary Chaplain Emeritus Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. Used by permission.

Paragraph on Icons and the Orthodox Faith is by Debra Korluka, Icon Art Studios, who taught the iconography class. Used by permission.

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