Thursdays in the weekly cycle of prayer
The life of the Orthodox Church is carried through cycles of worship and prayer. If you follow these cycles, you’ll encounter St. Nicholas over and over. He has three feast days on the annual cycle of fixed feasts. And he’s also commemorated every Thursday, during the weekly cycle of prayers.
A poet captured by pirates
The answer to that question seems to begin in the year 842. A man named Joseph, a poet, was going from Constantinople to Rome on official business. The ship he was on was captured by pirates on the high seas, and he and his fellow passengers were imprisoned on Crete. Joseph, following the example of St. Paul, accepted his chains with joy, and encouraged his fellow prisoners with hymns and prayers.
One night, a holy old man wearing a bishop’s stole appeared to Joseph in his prison cell. The man said he had just come from Myra, and he handed Joseph a scroll. “Read it,” he said. Joseph recognized the words as a prayer, so he sang the text: “Hasten, O Merciful One, and in compassion come quickly to our aid.” The next morning, according to the oldest version of the story, Joseph was released and sent on his way to Constantinople. Other versions of the story said that the chains fell away immediately, and the mysterious bishop from Myra took him by the hand and flew with him to Constantinople, much as the Ghost of Christmas Present flew with Ebenezer Scrooge.
Hymns as icons
However it happened, Joseph’s imprisonment in Crete, and the role St. Nicholas played in his liberation, came to define the rest of his life. He was freed just as the iconoclast controversy ended. He knew that smashing the icons had been meant to destroy the memory of the saints represented in them. And he wanted to be sure that every saint was remembered.
He wasn’t an artist, though. He was a poet. And so he began composing hymns and melodies for all the saints. A monastic community formed around him, and he set his monks to work researching the lives of all the saints, including those who were known by no more than their name and the date of their death. He wanted to know all that he could, so that he could record their lives in his songs.
He became known as Joseph the Hymnographer. He focused his efforts on the creation of canons, liturgical songs written in eight odes. Each ode was made of many verses that praised the saint and begged for the saint’s prayer and protection.
Saints and the weekly cycle of prayer
Joseph wasn’t the first to write canons, of course. There were already canons for Pascha and the great feasts. But Joseph was the first to address canons to particular saints. By the time he quit his hymn-writing, he had composed some 385 canons to saints.
And St. Nicholas figures prominently in that number. In addition to the hymns to be sung on a saint’s day each year, Joseph wrote a collection of canons to be used for each day of the week. Already, churches were using a system of eight tones for their music. The first week after Pascha, all the hymns would be sung according to the first tone, the second week according to the second tone, and so on. In the ninth week after Pascha, the music would start over with the first tone.
So Joseph wrote a canon for each tone for each day of the week, 56 canons in all. He dedicated the canon for each day to a specific person or event. Sunday, of course was already a little Pascha, a celebration of the Resurrection of Christ. Wednesday and Friday were already consecrated to the Cross, and to the Betrayal and the Crucifixion. (This is why, to this very day, we keep Wednesdays and Fridays as fast days.) To this, Joseph added canons to the angels and archangels on Monday. He honored the prophets, especially St. John the Forerunner and Baptist, in his canons for Tuesday. Saturday he dedicated to all the saints, especially the Mother of God, and to the memory of everyone who has died in the hope of resurrection and eternal life.
And every Thursday, he commemorated the Holy Apostles and St. Nicholas.
The communion of the saints
Theologically, the canons manifested the sanctification of time. By connecting each day of the week, and each day of the year, to the story of salvation, the canons brought things of earth into line with the things of heaven.
But they did more than that. The hymns written by Joseph the Hymnographer were accessible, not just to priests and monks, but to everyone. It didn’t matter how well educated you were, or how often you went to church. The hymns created a sense of deep intimacy with the saint. They were often written in the first person, and addressed directly to the saint. They made the communion of the saints feel palpable and real.
And so, as people sang the canons to St. Nicholas week after week, year after year, they grew ever more devoted to him.
Symbols and Images: When you see an image of a saint or a bishop, how do you know if it’s Saint Nicholas?
St. John Cassian and St. Nicholas: St. Nicholas is celebrated on three feastdays and every Thursday. St. John Cassian is celebrated once every four years, on February 29. A folk tale explains why.
For more information about St. Nicholas and St. Joseph the Hymnographer, read “Canon and Calendar: The role of a ninth-century hymnographer in shaping the celebration of the saints,” an article by Nancy Patterson Sevcenko, included in Byzantium in the Ninth Century: Dead or Alive?: Papers from the Thirtieth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Birmingham, March 1996.
Buy the Book: The Saint Nicholas Day Snow
Shoes or stockings? Horse or sleigh? Does St. Nicholas visit on December 6 or on Christmas Eve? Will a little girl’s prayer be answered? When Elizabeth has to stay at Catherine’s house, she’s worried about her grandmother, and worried that St. Nicholas won’t find her. The grownups, though, are worried about snow.
Celebrate the wonder of St. Nicholas Day through the magic of a book: The Saint Nicholas Day Snow.