Relics of Saint Nicholas, one of the Russian Orthodox Church’s most revered figures, arrived in Moscow on Sunday, May 21 from an Italian church where they have lain for 930 years. Intense media coverage accompanied the arrival, underlining the church’s influence in post-Soviet Russia.
After reaching Vnukovo airport, a glass-topped metallic ark bearing the relics was visited by a long stream of pilgrims who bowed and kissed the container. It was to be taken to Christ the Savior Cathedral, the enormous Moscow church that is a reconstruction of a cathedral dynamited in 1931 by officially atheistic Soviet authorities.
The relics are to be moved to St. Petersburg in mid-June before being returned a month later to the church in Bari, Italy, where they have been kept since 1087. Large crowds of Orthodox faithful are expected to visit the relics in Russia.
An agreement to send the relics to Russia was made last year between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill during the first meeting of the heads of the Russian and Roman Catholic churches.
Nicholas, who is known in the Russian church as Nikolai Chudotvorets (the Miracle-worker), was the Bishop of Myra, now the Turkish city of Demre. He is revered for reports of his generosity.
At the cathedral, Kirill said Nicholas is credited with many miracles and “with the deliverance of the Fatherland and our people from many, many historical catastrophes.”
One story attached to him is that he provided gold coins as dowries to three daughters of a poor man who worried that they would remain unmarried and fall into disrepute. According to some versions of the story, the coins were thrown through a window and landed in stockings hanging up to dry.
The story is the precursor of the Christmas tradition of children hanging stockings to receive gifts; the name Santa Claus is a variant of Saint Nicholas.
Among the miracles attributed to him is that he persuaded merchants to unload grain from a ship to feed a town suffering from famine and that the grain was replenished when the ship reached its final port.
State TV news channel Rossiya-24 devoted hours of live coverage to the departure of the relics from Bari and their arrival in Moscow, at one point showing split-screen shots of the plane taxiing at the airports in both cities. .
Although Russia officially is secular, the moral authority of the Orthodox Church has grown steadily under President Vladimir Putin, who sides with the church in promoting traditional family values. The church’s opposition to gay rights is seen as a driver of Russia’s law banning dissemination of so-called gay “propaganda” to minors.
Orthodox activists have forced the closure of some art exhibitions and last year succeeded in banning a provincial theater’s planned production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”