A Visit to St. Nicholas

by Norman Kolenbrander

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church is located above The Mystical Rose Catholic bookstore, across from Van Den Berg’s Gift Shop on the busiest shopping street in my town, Pella, Iowa. It is the twenty-first century, after all, and we have our own little smattering of diversity to prove it.

A friend and I decided to join their congregation for the St. Nicholas Day liturgy, the feast day of their namesake, on December 6. We met under the tower clock that chimes and charms the tourists every quarter hour, and proceeded up a long wooden stairway that led us into another world.

A floor-to-ceiling iconostasis, a wall of religious paintings, filled the front of the room, displaying an impressive complement of icons of Jesus, his mother, and the saints, with icons also on the walls and on lowered music stands about three feet off the ground. A mother and her five children clattered up the stairs. Once their coats had been shed, the children headed to the icons to plant sweet kisses on the brows of the saints. One girl, who seemed about four years old, planted especially strong kisses with smacks loud enough to be heard across the room. Grandfathers and grandmothers, in a heritage of faith across the centuries, were being lovingly greeted.

Folding chairs had been set up facing the iconostasis, each bearing loose-leaf notebooks filled with about three pounds of liturgy to be read, sung, and chanted. We were warmly welcomed and handed a few more ounces of special materials regarding St. Nicholas. In all, about twenty folks gathered, half of them children. The mother of five chanted several psalms as the prelude to the service. She did so with a babe in her arms and one or two other children circling nearby.

The doors to the iconostasis opened and Father Bartholomew, an ordained Orthodox priest, offered the solemn but joyful words: “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit now and forever and to the ages of ages.” Then, swinging the thurible to and fro, he filled the room with the fragrance of the incense. Father Bartholomew’s day job is at Vermeer Manufacturing, but he had the day off to lead his congregation in this holy time.

Clouds of incense were directed toward all the icons and finally toward us worshipers, living icons, representatives of our Lord to a greater or lesser degree. As I saw and smelled the sweet smoke rising, Psalm 141 came to mind—”Let my prayer be counted as incense before you”—along with an image of the Christmas hams being smoked at that very moment at Ulrich’s Meat Market, just a block down the street. I prayed that I might be cured just as pleasantly and sweetly in this smoky atmosphere of prayer and praise.

Father Bartholomew led us in St. Chrysostom’s fourth-century liturgy. As I fumbled on unfamiliar liturgical paths, a woman kindly led me to the right page. About halfway through the service, her ten-year-old granddaughter shyly took over guiding this pilgrim to the appropriate words and music.

The liturgy lasted two hours, but it was obvious that no one was watching the clock. In the midst of a season known for its frantic activity and harried busyness, it was refreshing to let time stand still. Nothing was omitted. Nothing was abbreviated. Nothing was hurried. I soon realized that the chairs were there primarily to show us where to stand. The only time we sat was when Father Bartholomew gave the homily. We were carried along on a timeless stream of trinitarian praise conveyed through scripture, prayer, and song. It pleased the ear, delighted the eye, and rejoiced the heart.

I was struck by how many children participated—singing the responses and sharing in prayers by heart. At times, the younger children stood with a parent or ranged about the room or gathered with friends. The liturgy’s formality and weight tolerated—even welcomed—the high informality of children playing at the edges. I noticed one young boy gleefully carried upside down by his mother while she conferred for a moment with the worship liturgist.

St. Nicholas was the fourth-century Bishop of Myra on the Lycian coast of present-day Turkey. He came into focus in a special way for me a few months earlier when I visited Myra and saw the excavation and restoration of the eighthcentury church on the site where he had once presided over his flock. Nicholas is especially remembered for his great kindness and generosity to the poor and thus became the template for the popular Santa Claus of Christmas legend. Apparently, Nicholas gathered with other bishops in Nicea in 325 AD when the Nicene Creed was debated and adopted. His ability to think carefully about matters essential to our faith trumps his ability to come down the chimney on Christmas Eve.

As the service proceeded, I noticed a young girl reading and speaking every word. Here is an excerpt of what that third grader proclaimed regarding St. Nicholas, hastily jotted down in my effort to remember her words: “A great leader, shield and teacher of the Church . . . putting all inglorious heresy to shame. The destroyer and fierce opponent of Arius, whose arrogance Christ laid low on his account through his great mercy.”

I have no idea how much of what she was reading registered, or what it meant to her. All I know was that I had never in my wildest imaginings thought to see a third grader declaiming against inglorious heresies, a child speaking such deep, fearsome, and holy things. It got me to thinking of all the conversations I need to have with my grandchildren, if they can be fitted between games of basketball and soccer.

On that same trip to Turkey, I visited Hagia Sophia, the magnificent church built by Emperor Justinian in 537 AD. It has stood as a church for one thousand years, as a mosque for five hundred, and as a museum now. Although the liturgy of St. Chrysostom no longer echoes under Hagia Sophia’s magnificent dome, it still resonates above a bookstore in Pella, Iowa, as well as in thousands of locations throughout the world. My morning with St. Nicholas offered a window into God’s kingdom as understood, experienced, and practiced by our companions on the road of faith. It confirmed for me once again the magnificent heritage of the communion of saints. And now when I smell the faint incense that has settled into my old blue sport coat, I lift up my heart to God for the life of the world and all its peoples and places.

Norman Kolenbrander is a “retired” minister of the Reformed Church in America living in Pella, Iowa.