In Search of St Nicholas

preached by the Very Revd Christopher Dalliston, the Dean, St Nicholas Cathedral, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, at St Paul's Seaton Sluice in the Diocese of Newcastle on 18th May 2006

Lections: Isaiah 43.1-7, 2 Corinthians 4.5-12; John 12.20 -26

Basilica di San Nicola across the piazza
Basilica di San Nicola seen across the piazza through the Angevin Arch
Photo: C Dalliston
Statue in procession
San Nicola di Bari statue in procession to go out to sea
Photo: C Dalliston
Relief carving on building
Evidence of devotion to San Nicola is shown on many buildings in the old city
Photo: C Dalliston

[Early in May], my wife and I were in Bari in southern Italy on the trail of a saint. And not just any saint but Nicholas, patron saint of course of our Cathedral Church, patron saint moreover of children, sailors, pawnbrokers and prostitutes; the original Santa Claus and one of the most popular saints in Christendom.

We were in Bari (the back of the heel of the boot for those unfamiliar with that city) because 919 years ago some Bariese sailors had undertaken an audacious smash and grab raid—seizing the bones of the venerable Nicholas from his resting place in Myra (now southern Turkey) where he had exercised his remarkable ministry as a bishop in the 3rd century.

What were their motives? As with so many human endeavours they were mixed. Preserving the relics from the advancing threat of Islam was certainly the presenting case—but the commercial and moral advantages of having a top ranking saint resident in your city was certainly a factor in the calculation. After all St Mark had proved a big hit for Venice ever since their trading rivals up the coast had stolen, or in that wonderfully euphemistic term "translated", his relics some 250 years previously.

Nowadays Bari, second city in southern Italy, is a reasonably prosperous if not wildly glamorous industrial and commercial centre for the region of Puglia; a largely workaday place and yet with an historic core containing two great Romanesque churches—the Cathedral and the Basilica di San Nicola, which itself contains those self same bones of Nicholas—a clay jar of a city, you might say with some priceless treasures.

And on the anniversary of the translation of the relics and on the days preceding the celebration of that momentous event on the 9th May, the city is in festive mode; the streets are packed with tens of thousands of people, the buildings ablaze with myriads of fairy lights; the sky illuminated with fireworks and, at the heart of it all, a parade in which a great statue of St Nicholas in full Episcopal robes and with rosary in hand makes his way round the streets, carried on the shoulders of black suited bearers who contrive to give the saint a rather jaunty gait in the process. The celebrations culminate, at least for the faithful, in a mass celebrated at the Basilica by the Archbishop of Bari, concluding with an extraordinary ceremony in the crypt where the Prior of the Dominican community which has stewardship of the relics, scrabbles beneath the shrine altar to draw off a precious liquid, an oily water, the Manna of St Nicholas, reputed to have miraculous as well as holy qualities.

All very un-English, very unreformed, very Italian, huge fun!

But is there anything here, other than what might sympathetically be seen as folk religion, at worst superstition or idolatry, to all of this—within the clay jars of statues and arcane ceremonies, does anything truly precious, truly worthy remain? In short, did we find the saint we had been seeking?

Well I think the answer to both questions would have to be "yes".

First of all what seemed to be so striking was the experience of a community energised and brought together by the celebration of saintliness. I am not saying that all the crowds consisted of pious pilgrims, far from it. Though there undoubtedly were some, most were simply there to enjoy the spectacle to meet with friends, to share in the experience. And yet that sense of community, of shared traditions and common values was a very powerful one and one that we largely seem to have lost. Perhaps the World Cup will prove me wrong—after all football is virtually a religion to many of us—yet Italians also love their football but also continue to draw on older traditions, on their spiritual roots, to express the important truths of their identity. The Kingdom of God may be about more then generating a great sense of community but it is certainly not less than that. One senses that if the Italian church has been weakened, as has every church in Western Europe by materialism and secularism, nevertheless there remains a bond between sacred and secular that the privatisation of religion and the spiritual individualism of this country has managed to sever.

As the historian Eamon Duffy seeks to suggest in his book, The Stripping of the Altars, the English Reformation may have sought to purify religious life by cleansing our churches of statues and ceremony, and our calendar of a myriad of holy days and other observances, but could it, in the process have irrevocably shattered the clay jars in which much treasure is contained?

In Cardinal Newman's great poem the "Dream of Gerontius" (known to most through Elgar's wonderful music) a chorus of devils rhetorically pose the question: "What's a saint?" "A bundle of bones, which fool's adore" is their sneering reply.

As we gathered in the crypt of the Basilica of St Nicholas, with Christians from west and east (for Bari is a great centre of ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and particularly Russian orthodox) round the tomb of the long dead saint, one might imagine this to be a meaningless ritual—fools adoring a bundle of bones. Yet rationality can only take us so far; at a symbolic level much more was happening: we were, I like to think, acknowledging the extraordinary power of God to transform the ordinary into something extraordinary. Nicholas of Myra—and now of Bari—an ordinary man who by God's grace has become for millions a symbol of generosity and self-offering love—a giver of gifts who inspires others to look beyond satisfying self so as to be open to the needs of others and points not to his own virtue but to the One who created him and called him to His service.

At its best the celebration of saintliness is a reminder of the potential of all of us to aspire to the status of saints. St Paul reminded readers of his letters that they were called to be saints and Isaiah centuries earlier has assured the people of God of God's abiding presence among those who were called by name and precious in his sight. The truth of our incarnational faith is that God uses the ordinary things of his creation to be signs of his loving purposes; in the sacraments of the church, water, oil, bread, and wine become the vehicles of his spiritual presence in the world. In our service of humanity it is through the ordinariness of our lives, through acts of loving service, however flawed our motives or fragile our efforts—it is in short the clay jars of our humanity that become, through his grace and power the treasures of the Kingdom.

Remember the story of John the Baptist sending messengers to Jesus to check out his credentials for messiahship? When they had departed Jesus reflected on the importance of John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?" he asked them. "A reed shaken by the wind, someone dressed in fine robes? No, you went to see a prophet."

What did we go to Bari to experience? A great festival, a plaster saint, a bundle of bones? No. We went to find a saint and not only found the one we sought, but more importantly rediscovered the truth that we too are called to be saints and that God has the power to transform us, if we let him, into vessels of his loving purposes for the world. Amen.

By the Very Revd Christopher Dalliston, Dean of Newcastle, St Nicholas Cathedral, Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Used by permission.

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