A TWO BISHOP CELEBRATION
Our Parish popularly calls this coming weekend “St. Nicholas Weekend,” which is a pretty standard event across parishes in the Orthodox World. Parishes annually celebrate the memory of their community’s patron saint and often with the presence of their Bishop to preside over the celebration. But the fact that these two blessings coincide should not take away from the power of each.
In one of the first blog posts I wrote soon after coming to Grand Rapids, I celebrated a local culture where people understand what it means to have a patron. I wrote then:
DeVos and Van Andel. Two names that I had never heard before moving to Grand Rapids four months ago, but names that I’ve heard quite a few times since. Of course all of you have known their names well and for some time, mainly because they have been great patrons of the arts, education, health care and many other aspects of life here in our beautiful city.
We are fortunate to have this good example for us of what patronage is all about. We all know that Saint Nicholas is the patron of our Holy Community, and his feast day this weekend gives us a moment to stop and think about what his patronage means to us, as individual members and as our community as a whole.
Our lives and those of countless others have been blessed by the expressions of the patronage of the DeVos and Van Andel families: the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, DeVos Performance Hall, DeVos Place (one of the sites of the 2019 Antiochian Archdiocese convention which we will be hosting in four years), the Van Andel Arena and Van Andel Institute, to name only a few. These expressions of patronage all do the same thing, albeit in different ways: they GIVE to the community, supplying the community’s needs. This is, simply put, what patrons do.
So if Saint Nicholas is our patron, what does he give us? I could offer a long list, but let me focus on just two major things that he gives us. His first gift to us is the gift of the example of his life. In the Apolytikion (main hymn) of his feast, which we sing at almost every Liturgy in St. Nicholas Church, we call him “The canon of faith, the likeness of humility and teacher of abstinence.” A “canon” is the very instrument by which we measure other things. His faith was so powerful and so complete that he is the measurement for what faith is. He offers us, therefore, an example to follow in our quest to be faithful Christians.
The second expression of his patronage is the gift of his prayers of intercession. As all patrons do, he looks upon our needs and in his love and generosity acts to do something. In the case of our Heavenly Patron, he intercedes with our Lord on our behalf. There are many, many examples of the power of his prayers working in the lives of our fellow parishioners. I was told by several parishioners after the car accident during our move to Grand Rapids that their experience led them to ascribe our deliverance from tragedy to the prayers of Saint Nicholas. And even more important than his prayers for our earthly protection, we look to St. Nicholas to pray for God’s mercy on our souls when we leave this life.
So it’s a tremendous blessing to understand what it means to have a patron in general, and to celebrate our specific Patron Saint, St. Nicholas. This is what makes a Patronal Feast so important and why it is treated in each parish on the same level as a Great Feast of the Church. We celebrate a figure who, while still providing an example for us and continuing to intercede for us, lived in this world over a millennium and a half ago. But while doing so, we should not lose sight of the importance of having our Bishop in our midst, who lives at this time and guides us in every step as a parish. Perhaps no more important words have been written about the importance of the presence of the bishop than those penned by Saint Ignatius. Speaking about this importance, he wrote:
Wherever the bishop shall appear, let the multitude of also be, just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic [i.e., universal] church. It is not lawful either to baptize or to celebrate a love feast without the bishop, but whatever he approves of, that is also pleasing to God.
He also wrote,
Where the bishop is present, there is the Catholic (Universal) Church.
As such, the importance of the presence of the bishop cannot be overstated. He is for the Church the living representation (meaning “another presentation”) of the presence of Christ Himself. He is also the fundamental point of contact that each Parish has with the Holy
Tradition of the Church, that body of truth, wisdom and experience which was given to the Apostles from Christ Himself and passed from generation to generation through history through such luminaries as St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Nicholas, and now comes to us through our Bishop.
We are blessed this year that Saint Nicholas “Weekend” is scheduled to last an entire week, with a variety of opportunities to both celebrate our Patron Saint and to spend time with our beloved Bishop ANTHONY. This is sure to be one of the highlights in our year-long effort to “Rejoice in the Lord and Celebrate His Goodness.” So, let’s celebrate these twin blessings among all of the countless ones sent to us from God!