06 December 2014

Hymns for Advent (7): ‘Saint Nicolas’
a cantata by Benjamin Britten

Chocolate Santas on shelves in a supermarket in Bettystown, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflections for Advent this year, I am looking at an appropriate hymn for Advent each morning. This morning, on the Feast of Saint Nicholas [6 December], I have chosen Saint Nicolas, which is not a hymn but a cantata written by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) in 1948, with text by Eric Crozier, and incorporating the text of two well-known hymns, and the words of the canticle Nunc Dimittis.

Britten wrote Saint Nicolas (note Britten spells the saint’s name without the letter H) for the centenary celebrations of Lancing College, Sussex, the old school of Peter Pears. This was his first professional work intended primarily for performance by amateur musicians. The audience also gets to join in singing two well-known hymns, All people that on earth do dwell (Irish Church Hymnal, No 683) and God moves in a mysterious way (Irish Church Hymnal, No 13).

Although it was written for Lancing College, the first performance was in Aldeburgh Church at the opening of the first Aldeburgh Festival in June 1948.

The text of Saint Nicolas was written by Eric Crozier after extensive research into the legendary life of Saint Nicholas, the fourth century Bishop of Myra. This libretto is a work of great poetry and sensitivity, offering a dramatic portrait of the saint who has become the model for Santa Claus.

As the patron saint of sailors, Saint Nicholas was a popular saint among mediaeval seafarers and gave his name to churches in many port cities, including Saint Nicholas Within-the-Walls in Dublin’s Liberties, dating from 1166, Saint Nicholas Without-the-Walls, a parish church that was contained within Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, from 1192, and the Collegiate Church of Saint Nicholas in Galway.

Over the past few years, I have visited a number of churches and cathedrals, islands and towns, associated with Saint Nicholas, including: Aghios Nikolaos in Crete; churches named after Saint Nicholas in Dublin, Galway, Dundalk, Co Louth, and Adare, Co Limerick; the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas in Newcastle, England; the former Nerantze Mosque in Rethymnon, which was converted into a Church in 1925 with a dedication to Saint Nicholas after the last Turks left the town; the Venetian Cathedral of San Nicolo or Saint Nicholas on the Fortezza in Rethymnon, which the Turks converted into the Sultan Ibrahim Han Mosque; the Church of Aghios Nikolaos Rangava in Athens; and the abandoned Church of Saint Nicholas on the deserted the Island of Gemile, about 9 km south of Fethiye and off the Aegean coast of Turkey.

Christopher Columbus named a port in Haiti after Saint Nicholas on 6 December 1492 – perhaps recalling his stop-off in Galway on his way to the New World, and prayers in Saint Nicholas Collegiate Church.

In eastern Crete, I have often visited the attractive harbour town of Aghios Nikólaos (Άγιος Νικόλαος), on the Gulf of Mirabello. The town is built around an inner lagoon, Voulismeni, which is surrounded by palm trees and cafés. Modern hotels and apartments may dwarf surviving older buildings, but it is still a charming place, and local people love trying to convince visiting tourists that the lake is bottomless.

The town takes its name from the tiny 11th century church of Aghios Nikólaos. Many years ago, on my first visit to the town, a visit to this Church of Aghios Nikólaos with its icons of the saint was enough to end the doubts about Santa Claus that were beginning to emerge in hearts of two small children.

As Christmas approaches, I think of Saint Nicholas as the bishop who cared for the poor, was the patron saint of children and seafarers, the generous and benevolent dispenser of gifts, the defender and rescuer of children in distress and poverty and who were in danger of exploitation and abuse, and the defender of Orthodox Christian doctrine.

Saint Nicholas remains a model for how all Christians – especially priests and bishops – are meant to live, with Christ not just at the centre of our Christmas festivities this year, but at the centre of our lives every year.

Saint Nicolas , by Benjamin Britten

I. Introduction

Our eyes are blinded by the holiness you bear…
the bishop’s robe, the mitre, and the cross of gold
obscure the simple man within the Saint.
Strip off your glory, Nicolas, and speak!
Across the tremendous bridge
of sixteen hundred years
I come to stand in worship with you,
as I stand among my faithful congregation long ago.
All who knelt beside me are gone.
Their name is dust, their tombs are grass and clay,
yet their shining seed of faith survives in you!
It weathers time, it springs again in you!
With you it stands like forest oak or
withers with the grasses underfoot.
Preserve the living Faith for which your fathers fought!
For Faith was won by centuries of sacrifice
and many martyrs died that you might worship God.

Help us, Lord, to find the hidden road…
that leads from love to greater Love…
from faith to greater Faith.
Strengthen us, O Lord!
Screw up our strength to serve thee with simplicity.

II. The Birth of Nicolas

Nicolas was born in answer to prayer, and
leaping from his mother’s womb he cried:
God be glorified!
Swaddling bands and crib awaited him there,
but Nicolas clapped both his hands and cried:
God be glorified!
Innocent and joyful, naked and fair,
he came in pride on earth to abide.
God be glorified!
Water rippled Welcome! in the bathtub by his side;
he dived in open-eyed, he swam, he cried:
God be glorified!
When he went to church at Christmastide,
he climbed up to the font to be baptized.
God be glorified!
Pilgrims came to kneel and pray by his side.
He grew in grace, his name was sanctified.
Nicolas grew in innocence and pride.
His glory spread a rainbow round the countryside.
“Nicolas will be a saint!” the neighbours cried.
God be glorified!

III. Nicolas devotes himself to God

My parents died… all too soon…
I left the tranquil beauty of their home…
and knew the wider world of man. Poor man!
I found him solitary, racked by doubt: born, bred,
doomed to die in everlasting fear of death:
the foolish toy of time, the darling of decay –
hopeless, faithless, defying God.
Heartsick, in hope to mask the twisted face of poverty,
I sold my lands to feed the poor.
I gave my goods to charity but Love demanded more.
Heartsick, I cast away all things
that could distract my mind
from full devotion to His will; I thrust my happiness
behind but Love desired more – still.
Heartsick, I called on God to purge my angry soul,
to be my only master, friend and guide.
I begged for sweet humility, and Love was satisfied.

IV. He journeys to Palestine

Nicolas sailed for Palestine across the sunlit seas.
The South West Wind blew soft and fair,
seagulls hovered through the air
and spices scented the breeze.
Everyone felt that land was near,
all dangers now were past,
except for one who knelt in prayer,
fingers clasped and head quite bare,
alone by the mizzenmast.
The sailors jeered at Nicolas, who paid them no regard
until the hour of sunset came
when he stood up and stopped their game
of staking coins on cards.
Nicolas spoke and prophesied a tempest far ahead.
The sailors scorned such words of fear
since sky and stars shone bright and clear,
so “Nonsense!” they all said.
Darkness was soon on top of them,
but still the South Wind blew.
The captain went below to sleep, and
left the helmsman there to keep his course
with one of the crew.
Nicolas swore he’d punish them for mocking the Lord.
The wind arose, the thunder roared,
lightning split the waves that poured
in wild cascades on board.
Waterspouts rose in majesty until the ship was tossed
abaft, aback, astern, abeam,
lit by lightning’s livid gleam,
and all aboard cried “Lost!”
Lightning hisses through the night,
blinding sight with living light! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah!
Man the pumps! Man the pumps! Axes! Axes!
Winds and tempests howl their cry
of battle through the raging sky!
Spare us! Save us! Lifeboats! Lower away!
Waves repeat their angry roar,
fall and spring again once more.
Let her run before the wind!
Shorten sail! Reef her! Heave her to! Thunder rends the sky asunder
with its savage shout of wonder
. Pray to God! Kneel and pray!
Lightning, thunder, tempest, ocean…
praise their God with voice and motion.
Nicolas waited patiently
till they were on their knees.
Then down he knelt in thankfulness,
begging God their ship to bless,
and make the storm to cease:
O God! We are all weak, sinful foolish men.
We pray from fear and from necessity at death,
in sickness or private loss.
Without the prick of fear our conscience sleeps,
forgetful of Thy Grace.
Help us, O God! to see more clearly.
Tame our stubborn hearts.
Teach us to ask for less and offer more
in gratitude to Thee.
Pity our simplicity, for we are truly pitiable in thy sight.
The winds and waves lay down to rest.
The sky was clear and calm.
The ship sailed onward without harm
and all creation sang a psalm of loving thankfulness.
Beneath the stars the sailors slept
exhausted by their fear, while I knelt down
for love of God on high and saw his angels in the sky
smile down at me and wept, wept, wept.

V. Nicolas comes to Myra and is chosen Bishop

Come, stranger sent from God!
Come, man of God!
Stand foremost in our Church
and serve this diocese,
as Bishop Nicolas, our shield,
our strength, our peace!
I Nicolas, Bishop of Myra and its diocese
shall with unfailing grace of God,
defend his faithful servants,
comfort the widow and fatherless, and
fulfill his will for this most blessed church.

Amen! Amen!
Place the mitre on your head
to show your mastery of men.
Take the golden robe that covers you
with Christ’s authority.
Wear the fine dalmatic woven with the cross of faith.
Bear the crozier as a staff and comfort to your flock.
Set the ring upon your hand in sacramental sign,
in sign of wedlock with our God.
Amen! Amen!
Serve the faith and spurn his enemies…
Serve the faith!

All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice;
Him serve with fear, His praise forth tell,
Come ye before Him and rejoice.

O enter then his gates with praise,
Approach with joy His courts unto,
Praise, laud and bless His name always,
For it is seemly so to do.

For why? The Lord our God is good:
His mercy is for ever sure;
His truth at all times firmly stood,
And shall from age to age endure. Amen.

VI. Nicolas from Prison

Persecution sprang upon our Church
and stilled its voice.
Eight barren years it stifled under Roman rule:
And I lay bound, condemned to celebrate
my lonely sacrament with prison bread,
while wolves ran loose among my flock.
O man! The world is set for you as for a king!
Paradise is yours in loveliness.
The stars shine down for you,
for you the angels sing.
Yet you prefer your wilderness.
You hug the rack of self,
Embrace the lash of sin,
pour your treasures out to bribe distress.
You build your temples fair without and foul within…
you cultivate your wilderness.
Yet Christ is yours, yours!
For you He lived and died.
God in mercy gave his Son to bless you all,
to bring you life,
and Him you crucified to desecrate your wilderness.
Turn, turn, turn away from sin!
Ah! Bow down your hard and stubborn hearts!
Confess yourselves to Him in penitence,
and humbly vow your lives to Him, to Holiness.

VII. Nicolas and the Pickled Boys

Famine tracks us down the lanes,
hunger holds our horses’ reins.
Winter heaps the roads with snow…
O we have far to go.
Starving beggars howl their cry,
snarl to see us spurring by.
Times are bad and travel slow...
O we have far to go.

We mourn our boys, our missing sons,
We sorrow for three little ones.
Timothy, Mark and John are gone.
Are gone! Are gone! Are gone!
Landlord, take this piece of gold!
Bring us food before the cold…
makes our pangs of hunger grow…
O we have far to go!

Day by day we seek to find
some trace of them but Oh! Unkind!
Timothy, Mark and John are gone, are gone….
Let us share this dish of meat!
Come, my friends, sit down and eat!
Join us, Bishop, for we know that you have far to go!

Mary meek and Mother mild
who lost thy Jesus as a child,
our Timothy, Mark and John are gone, are gone.
Come, Your Grace, don’t eat so slow!
Take some meat…
O do not taste! O do not feed on sin!
But haste to save three souls in need!
The mothers’ cry is sad and weak…
within these walls they lie whom mothers sadly seek.
Timothy, Mark, and John!
Put your fleshly garments on!
Come from dark oblivion!
Come! Come! Come! Come!

See! Three boys spring back to life,
who slaughtered by the butcher’s knife,
lay salted down!
And entering, hand in hand they stand and sing:
Alleluia! Alleluia! to their King!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

VIII. His piety and marvellous works

For forty years our Nicolas, our prince of men,
our shepherd and our gentle guide
walked by our side.
We turned to him at birth and death,
in time of famine and distress,
in all our grief, to bring relief.
He led us from the valleys to the
pleasant hills of grace.
He fought to fold us in from mortal sin.
O! He was prodigal of love!
A spendthrift in devotion to us all,
and blessed as he caressed.
We keep his memory alive in legends
that our children and their children’s
children treasure still.
A captive at the heathen court wept sorely all alone.
“O Nicolas is here, my son!
And he will bring you home!”
“Fill, fill my sack with corn,” he said,
“We die from lack of food!”
And from that single sack he fed a hungry multitude.
Three daughters of a nobleman were
doomed to shameful sin till our good Bishop
ransomed them by throwing purses in.
The gates were barred, the black flag flew,
three men knelt by the block,
but Nicolas burst in like flame and
stayed the axe’s shock.
“O help us, good Nicolas! Our ship is full of foam!”
He walked across the waves to them
and led them safely home.
He sat among the Bishops
who were summoned to Nicaea:
then rising with the wrath of God
boxed Arius’s ear!
He threatened Constantine the Great
with bell and book and ban,
till Constantine confessed his sins
like any common man!

Let the legends that we tell,
praise him with our prayers as well.
We keep his memory alive in
legends that our children
and their children’s children treasure still.

IX. The Death of Nicolas

Death, I hear thy summons and I come in haste,
For my short life is done;
and Oh! My soul is faint with love
for Him who waits for me above.
Lord, I come to life, to final birth.
I leave the misery of this earth for light,
by thy eternal grace,
where I shall greet Thee face to face.
Christ, receive my soul with tenderness,
for in my last of life I bless Thy name,
who lived and died for me,
and dying, yield my soul to Thee.

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation…
which thou hast prepared before
the face of all people.
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles….
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning, is
now, and ever shall be…
world without end. Amen!

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
and rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
of never failing skill
He treasures up his bright designs,
and works his sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
the clouds ye so much dread
are big with mercy
and shall break in blessings on your head.

Saint Nicolas, Op. 42 by Benjamin Britten © Copyright 1948 by Boosey & Co Ltd.

Saint Nicholas in an Earley stained-glass window in the north nave of the Church of Saint Nicholas of Myra, Francis Street, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Tomorrow:On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry,’ by Charles Coffin (No 136).

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