St. Nicholas is commonly associated with the Russian Orthodox Church as they have for many centuries considered him to be the representative of all the saints.
Beloved as the protector of Russia and that of the weak from the strong, the poor from the wealthy and the oppressed from the oppressor, he was considered to be the greatest of all the Saints and the ultimate champion of the disadvantaged.
The image of St. Nicholas is so revered in the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church that his image is often placed alongside both Jesus and Virgin Mary. The image of St. Nicholas is the only Saint ever shown in three dimensional statuary in the entire Russian Orthodox Church.
The belief that he is the protector of all Russians has led to many followers carrying relics of him wherever they go, and in whatever occupations they hold.
Truck drivers and ship captains all carry his image when they go on the road or the high seas to protect them and to keep them safe. He is considered to be the Patron Saint of Travel as well.
Most North Americans and many others throughout the world only recognize him as the person that Santa Claus was based on. Born and raised in Lycia in Asia Minor in the 4th century, his reputation for giving gifts and assistance to those in need became legendary.
Very little is known of his life other than the fact that he became Archbishop of Myra and was persecuted and imprisoned for his beliefs under Diocletian.
Over time, his name became less synonymous as the Saintly Bishop that he had become and was replaced by the fame he garnered by giving gifts to children, usually around December 6th. The name St. Nicholas was then changed by the Nordic and Germanic immigrants to “Sinterklaas” which over time evolved into what we now know as Santa Claus.
For many people who believe in faith, the word Orthodox can be confusing leaving many wondering exactly what the differences between Roman Catholic and Orthodox faith are.
The name “Orthodox” by definition means “conventional”. This means that those who practice their faith in the Orthodox traditions believe in conventional Christianity.
The name was originally intended to distinguish between those who chose to accept other teachings about the word of Christ that opposed the original doctrines that are commonly accepted by most practicing Christians. The division took place with the Great Schism of 1054 when the church was essentially divided into two camps, those who followed the “universal” or Catholic beliefs and those who followed the Orthodoxy or “conventional” beliefs.
The main difference between the two camps relates to the fallibility of the Pope that both recognize in very different ways.
The Roman Catholics believe that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on Earth and that essentially anything that he says regarding the word of God or interpretation thereof is considered true and must be believed. The Orthodox tradition however believes that the word of God is contained in the original Gospels and Testaments in the Bible, and cannot be altered or changed by anyone at any time, including by the Pope.
There are other more philosophical differences and rationales between the two religions as well, but they are extremely difficult to interpret by ordinary and laymen. Suffice to say that the differences though may seem little to the outsider are enough to make both the Churches two complete and separate faiths.
Both do, however, believe that there is one God and he sent his son Jesus Christ to die on the cross to atone for the sin committed by Adam. There are differences between the two faiths as to the Holy Spirit and the way that the Trinity is interpreted as well, but both are referred to as essentially Christian faiths along with others such as Protestantism.
After Russian traders settled in Alaska around the beginning of the 18th century, the orthodox traditions and faith reached the American soil for the first time when missionaries attempted to convert the local populations into Christians. This led to a diocese of the faith being established in Alaska.
Around the mid-19th century, the diocese was moved from Alaska to California and the foothold of the Russian Orthodox Church and its traditions were firmly entrenched in the mainland of the American Republic.
The diocese did not remain in California for long however, they moved again, this time to New York. The move was not a coincidence or an event that was unplanned.
During this time, there was great rift that was developing between members of the Roman Catholic Church in America and a very influential Ruthenian Catholic Priest by the name of Alexis Toth. The failure of the Archbishop of Saint Paul, Minnesota, John Ireland to fully recognize the credentials of the Ruthenian Priest led to Mr. Toth leaving the Catholic Church and aligning himself and his parish of St. Mary’s with the Orthodox Church.
This switch led to the conversion of tens of thousands of Greek-Catholics who were then recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church. Around the same time the number of immigrating Greeks and other traditional Christian Orthodox followers was also expanding at a rapid pace. This led to the formation of a united diocese that was under the patronage of the Patriarch of Moscow.
The turmoil of the Russian Revolution, however, was felt even by those who practiced their faith many thousands of miles away in the North American diocese, even though considered autonomous was financially struggling without the assistance it had once received from the Mother Church in Russia that prior to the calamitous events that were taking place in the Russian homeland.
The turmoil notwithstanding, the Church gained its foothold and would later flourish in America as well as in many other countries around the world.
The programs that were enacted and carried out under Lenin led the Communists party against the Russian Orthodox Church, and almost dismantled the entire church.
The carnage and widespread slaughter of the church and its proponents during the period between 1927 and 1940 was shocking in numbers. The number of churches that were still active in the Russian Republic during that time fell from 29,584 to a number that totaled less than 500 during that time period.
Of the estimated 130,000 Orthodox priests that were arrested under the direction of the ruling Communist Party, at least 95,000 of those were sentenced to death by the administration.
It was no wonder that under the full brunt of this extermination policy of the Communist Party, the Church would later seek ways of aligning itself with the State in order to somehow escape the complete destruction that seemed so imminent in those days. In 1927, against the majority of wishes of the parishes, the Metropolitan Sergius issued a Church declaration that essentially said that the Church would accept the authority of the State and would hence forth co-operate and condemn any political dissension from the pulpit.
This led to revolt among those in power who felt that Sergius had overstepped his boundaries and led to a split in the Church. The Church decided that it would enter the political arena and field its own candidates for election in the year 1929 elections to no lasting avail.
The mere fact that the Church still existed after the many years of persecution under the regimes of both Lenin and Stalin are direct testament to the strength and the will of both the leaders of the Church and the followers of the faith.
It was the German invasion of the Soviet Union that saw the resurgence of the power of the Church when Stalin, recognizing the precarious position of the State, saw fit to reestablish ties with the Church in an effort to bolster patriotic fervor against the invading German hordes.
As bad as the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Russian Civil War were looking to the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, things were about to go from bad to much, much worse.
With Lenin now in power, the intentions of the communist Party was to establish a society that would free all of the world’s people from capitalism, exploitation and one of the tents of this new “religion” was the virtual elimination of any of the old “religions”.
The Communists under direct orders from Lenin began a widespread attack on the organized religion and on the Russian Orthodox Church in particular.
Atheism was propagated in the schools of that time and the State began a campaign of terror aimed at the Church. Churches were summarily confiscated by the State and turned into secular institutions and many more were simply destroyed.
Members of the Church were outlawed from the ruling party and many were stripped of their possessions and sent to the gulag or labor camps to be tortured or killed, and yet many more were subjected to various mind control experiments in an effort to break the cycle of religion.
During the first five years of the Bolshevik Revolution, a staggering 28 bishops and no less than 1200 priests of the Russian Orthodox Church were executed.
The attack from the State was not, however, the only thing that the Russian Orthodox Church would have to contend with during those tumultuous years. While the ambition of the state was to exterminate as much religion as it possibly could in Russia, they realized that the Church and worship was far too ingrained in people and would most likely never be eradicated completely.
The opportunity to weaken the most popular church was seized by rival entities and in the early 1920s, the Renovated Church, a reform movement that was supported by the State seceded from the Orthodox Church and brought even more division to the already weakened Church.
In the beginning of the 19th century, the Russian Orthodox Church had enjoyed many years of relative calm and a period of massive expansion.
The number of Churches and clergy had grown to phenomenal numbers within the State. With over 55 Thousand Churches, 29 thousand plus chapels, and over 100,000 priests and deacons in addition to the 550 monasteries and 475 convents that housed a grand total of 95 thousand monks and nuns, to say that the Russian Orthodox Church had reached its pinnacle would be no understatement.
This period of expansion and backing from the state was rapidly coming under threat and the year 1917 proved to be a major turning point in the history of not only the Russian Orthodox Church, but also for the entire population of Russian people.
The Church, which had seen its interests protected by the State and the Tsars up to that point, found themselves under attack for the first time in millennia. The Tsar was finally overthrown and the Russian Empire that had been in existence for generations was forced to dissolve.
In October of that year after some political infighting, the Bolsheviks seized power. One of the first edicts from this ruling power was the separation of the church and state. For the first time in its long history, the Russian Orthodox Church found itself without the protection and official backing of the state that it had enjoyed for many years. This was potentially a crushing blow to the power of the Church.
The new Communist Government was trying to make itself heard by issuing a decree that declared freedom from religious propaganda as one of its first official announcements. The fallout of this decree was the persecution of the Church by the State in which many members and leaders of the Church were arrested and executed.
The Church, sensing the change of events, took the side of the White Movement during the subsequent Russian civil war and would ultimately pay the price for backing the wrong and losing side.
The expansion of the by now fully organized, respected and extremely powerful Russian Orthodox Church really began in the late 17th and 18th centuries respectively.
Local political leaders were convinced that if they converted to orthodoxy that they would be amply rewarded with financial as well as political gains if they would bring their followers with them. They were also offered the chance to escape military service for this conversion which led to the widespread conversion of many among them including their followers.
The next two centuries saw countless missionary expeditions into the Siberian regions and well into Alaska as well. The missionaries in their zeal to convert the local learned the languages and had the gospels and hymns of the religion translated in order to spread the word of Christianity as a whole, and Russian Orthodoxy in particular to the inhabitants of those lands.
After the Treaty of Pereyaslav, the Metropolis of Kiev was transferred from the jurisdiction of Constantinople to Moscow. The result was the heavy and controversial transfer of millions of followers into the patriarch of Moscow and the domination of the Ukrainians which lasted well into the 18th century.
The Church continued to flourish and the rapid expansion continued along these lines for many decades. There was a period of modernization in this era as well. In the later part of the 18th century, there was mass spiritual revival that became very significant and in which some of the key concepts of the newly renovated Orthodox doctrine was established and communicated to the masses.
This revival and resurgence of Eastern Orthodoxy was heavily reflected in much of the Russian literature around this time, and gave one a great understanding of the power and influence the Church had over its many followers at that time in history.
This period of relative calm and easy existence would soon be tested by the Russian revolution and the emergence of a new and unknown threat that was to become communism.
The very beginnings of what was to become the Russian Orthodox Church began when Apostle Andrew, who it is said visited the Greek colonies via the Black Sea and Scythia during his travels. When he finally reached the spot that later became Kiev who prophesied that there would be a great Christian city built upon that site, and erected a cross on the spot that now houses the great St. Andrews Cathedral.
Around the same time when the Slavic lands came under the cultural influence of the Eastern Roman Empire, Saints Cyril and Methodius were busy translating the bible into the Old Church Slavonic language which opened the door for Christianity to begin flourishing among the peoples of the Eastern Europe and Balkans regions and well into Southern Russia.
The Christian community was already established in the Kiev nobility by the 10th century, and was under the influence of the Byzantine Greek priests, but on the whole paganism was still the dominant belief system. Around 945-957 AD, the Princess of Kiev, Olga, became the 1st ruler to officially convert to Christianity and her Grandson Vladimir made Rus the official Christian state and ordered that all his people be baptized by the priests from the Eastern Roman Empire.
While it would be many more centuries before Christianity would successfully spread across the European regions, and the Russian Orthodox Church would dominate the landscape, it was these beginnings that allowed the Christian religion to gain its foothold in the world.
During the Mongolian invasion, the city of Kiev began to lose its foothold as the cultural, economic and political center of the nation, and the Church moved its Metropolitan, the leader of the Church to Moscow.
The power the Church held was evident in that the Mongolians understood its potential influence and were not only tolerant of the Church but even granted it tax exemptions. This allowed the Church to consolidate its power and continue its work that would eventually become the Russian Orthodox Church began to take a deeper and more meaningful root.