The Evolution of a Saint

I said in my last post that Coca Cola created the modern image we have of Santa Claus. Though that may be somewhat factually true, the image of Santa Claus developed over time. Perhaps Thomas Nast was the first, as far as we know, to illustrate what evolved into the image that most people carry today. (If you want to read the whole story enter "Did Coca Cola Invent Santa Claus" into your browser and read the Snopes article. It really is most interesting.)

We have completed the first full day, actually as I write this a bit more, of our time in Bari, which is the place where there is the most concentrated focus on St. Nicholas. This is where, in the Basilica of St. Nicolas, most of the bones of Nicolas are interred. The rest are in Venice.

Nicolas was one of the very early Christian leaders and by the time of his death he had gained quite a following. At the time of his death he was buried, as was the manner at the time, inside the church in Myra located in what is now Turkey. He was a major player in the controversy that would eventually divide the church, in the 11th century, between Orthodox and Catholic. The term "Roman Catholic" simply refers to the fact that the faction, among those who did not become Orthodox, in Rome had more wealth and power. So Rome became the seat of religious power.

By the 11th century the Muslims had overtaken Myra. The back-and-forth battle for territory between, mostly, Muslim and Christians had gone on since the rise of Islam. You can, if you are interested, read about this fascinating and disturbing history in Karen Armstrong's book, "The Battle for God." (This book is required for religious literacy.)

In the 11th century the bishop of Bari claimed to have had a vision in which Nicolas appeared to him and informed him that he wanted his shrine relocated in Bari. Whether one believes that God would, or one of God's "saints" would, actively encourage "grave robbing," or, whether this was a move that would financially enrich the the area of Bari, which it did, or, whether one believes, as is more likely, that the group of those who were devoted to the growing memory of St. Nicholas, resulted in the moving the bones of Nicholas to Bari, is a matter of personal choice. Regardless, there has continued over the ages an increasing population of those for whom St. Nicholas has become their primary and patron saint.

Here, in Bari, the celebration honoring St. Nicholas begins, according to the official printed program, on Tuesday May 2nd and ends Friday May 26th. The most intense celebrations have been since we arrived here.

We saw on the first full day here, a reenactment of the Baria sailors going to Myra and taking the bones of St. Nicholas. This is something that actually happened. The sailors from Bari had to overcome what security there was at the site and in their rush to get away, left some of the remains. These, as I have indicated, ended up in Venice. This event was and has been an occasion for much joy and celebration in Bari. Those who lived in Myra experienced this as a major loss.

In the reenactment, the relics are brought back in a boat. As a part of this celebration, children reenact in dramatic fashion the event. When the box containing the relics is brought on shore, a huge procession goes from the harbor to a place on the edge of "old town" Bari. The cathedral that would eventually contain the relics took a hundred years to build. When it was finished, the relics were moved there.

The next day, there are masses said all day long. We thought we were attending one that was supposed to be in English but it wasn't. No matter. The service we attended was lively - lots of young people, a priest who gave the sermon walking about, the Eucharist open to all, the singing enthusiastic and the people around us warmly welcoming.

That night we went to see the HUGE parade that celebrates the icon of St. Nicholas coming into the city. This was the event "not-to-be-missed." We were lucky in that all we had to do was go from our hotel a half a block to the main parade route. The procession was to supposed to begin at 8:30. It was over forty minutes late.

As we were waiting Peter told a joke that, though I had heard before, I hadn't thought of in ages. It is:

In heaven the police are British, the chefs are Italian, the mechanics are German, the lovers are French and everything is organized by the Swiss.

In hell the police are German, the chefs are British, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss and everything is organized by the Italians.

I don't think I have ever seen a procession or parade quite like it. (The three photos posted are thanks to Sharon and Pam Rowe. On the third one, if you look carefully in the bottom right hand corner, you'll see Peter, Helen, Sherry and me.)

There were hundreds of people and "floats" in the parade - including magnificent preforming horses, two different assemblies of hundreds of helium balloons from which were suspended acrobats. Occasionally those holding the guide ropes would pull their cargo to the ground and then release them. There were two different huge brigades of drummers playing so loudly you could feel the vibration in your body. We had "front row seats." It was magnificent.

We attended more events the next day. I'll post about that later.

If I had to say what differentiates this pilgrimage from the two others we have been on with Peter, I would say that it has been the focus of the pilgrimage. The other two pilgrimages we have been on focused on places - churches, cathedrals, basilicas and other "sacred" sites. This one has focused on a person - Nicholas.

Once again, I am left feeling a complexity of emotions and thoughts about this person, Nicholas. I did not have more than a superficial knowledge of him before this pilgrimage. Likely, I have now only a smattering more. I feel outside the religious culture that nourishes the beliefs and behaviors we have been exposed to the last many days. I confess to a bit of envy about some of the genuine devotion I have seen. Of course, there are many people - the crowds here number into the thousands - who likely are here only for the holiday experiences. But beneath it all is a real person who evolved, however remembered, into St. Nicholas.

If it is the nature of Sacred Mystery to evolve, which I believe it is, I am on this pilgrimage invited to wonder if I too am consciously, deliberately participating in this "evolution." I invite you into that wonderment as well.