We take a look at St. Nicholas of Myra, also called “the Wonderworker”, “Nicholas of Bari” (for his remains were translated to the Pugliese capital), and of course, “Santa Claus”.
Myrae, quae est metropolis Lyciae, natalis Sancti Nicolai, Episcopi et Confessoris, de quo, inter plura miraculorum insigna, illut memorabile fertur, quod Imperatorem Constantinum ab interitu quorumdam se invocantium, longe constitutus, ad misericordiam per visum monitis deflexit et minis.
At Myra, the metropolis of Lycia, the death of Saint Nicholas, bishop and confessor, of whom, among other miraculous signs, this memorable one is recorded, that though far distant, he dissuaded the Emperor Constantine, by warnings and threats, from destroying some persons who invoked his help.
Strangely, the Martyrology recounts for us one of the lesser known stories concerning this 4th century bishop of Myra. It does, however, point to the universal recognition that Nicholas was a man famed for his charity and care for the oppressed. Whether or not he telepathically convinced Constantine to spare the lives of some people is not as important as the fact that, true to the Lord’s command, Nicholas did in fact give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, shelter to the homeless, and kindness to the sick and imprisoned. Through his acts in favor of widows and orphans, he has become their patron saint.
Certainly, when the secular world thinks of St. Nick, the character of Santa Claus (derived from Sinterklaas, a Dutch corruption of the Latin Sanctus Nicolaus) comes to mind. In northern European lands where he enjoyed much devotion, the practice of secretly leaving gifts for children occurred on the eve of his feast day, or the night of 5 December. By contrast, in Southern Europe, where devotion to the Three Magi was more prominent, gift giving occurred on the Epiphany (6 January). Both practices were eventually transferred, most appropriately, to Christmas.
Besides his charitable fame, today’s saint is beloved by Orthodox and Catholic Christians for perhaps a far more important reason: Nicholas was one of the bishops present at the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea, which definitively established the Scriptural canon and the first Creed for the universal Church. Convoked by the Emperor Constantine to settle a major Christological controversy, the Council of Nicaea saw a showdown between the orthodox faction (who held the Apostolic doctrine that Christ was divine) and the Arian faction (named for Arius, a priest who held that Christ could not be equal to the Father). Many clerics, faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, opposed the Arians and vigorously defended Christ’s divinity: prominent among them were Alexander of Alexandria, the deacon Athanasius (Alexander’s assistant who would later succeed him), Eustathius of Antioch, Hosius of Cordoba (legate of Pope Sylvester I and president of the proceedings), and, of course, Nicholas of Myra.
Yet the Arian opposition was firm; they sincerely believed that admitting the Son’s divinity was a step toward polytheism, and thus they held that the Son was the most perfect of all creatures rather than the eternal Word made flesh. With no conceptual precedent in Greek philosophy to explain the divinity of Jesus without rejecting monotheism, Athanasius developed the the idea that Christ was ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί/consubstantialem Patri, meaning that the Father and the Son are of the same divine substance. To explain using Athanasius’ phrase, “what we say of the Son we also say of the Father, except the name ‘Father'”. This will lead to the idea of ὑπόστασις/persona to distinguish Sonship (begotten, not made) from Fatherhood (unbegotten begetter), while ὁμοούσιος/consubstantialis refers to their substantial divine unity. This crucial word (consubstantial) became the rallying cry of the orthodox party, and eventually, most other Arians at the Council (except Arius and two of his partisans) accepted it and returned to the Apostolic faith. The dogmatic articulation achieved at Nicaea finds an echo in the Preface of the Trinity in the Roman Mass: quod enim de tua gloria, revelante te, credimus, hoc de Filio tuo, hoc de Spirito Sancto, sine differentia discretionis sentimus.
With the rest of the orthodox clerics, Nicholas was deeply immersed in the debate, disputing directly with Arius. At one point, Nicholas became so frustrated during an argument that he punched Arius in the face (depicted in the photo above). This story is well known in the Catholic blogosphere, and most recounters of the story will, with the usual apologetic triumphalism, simply dwell on the punch without continuing with the rest of the story. The Council Fathers, in fact, were so scandalized by Nicholas’ violent meltdown that they ordered him arrested. Stripped of his episcopal robes and insignia, he was deprived of office, chained, and thrown into prison.
Sometime in the night, a vision of Christ and the Blessed Virgin appeared to Nicholas in prison. The Lord asked, “Nicholas, why are you here?” He responded, “I am here for love of you, Lord.” At those words, the shackles came undone, and Mary vested Nicholas with new, resplendent robes. The guards, roused by the commotion, ran to find the bishop alone in his cell, unchained, and adorned with full episcopal regalia. At this miraculous sight, the Romans restored Nicholas to freedom, and he returned to the Council to witness Arius’ final condemnation and the ratification of the Creed. Upon returning to Myra, he resumed his charitable activities, the highest of which was the eradication of remaining Arian tendencies in his flock.
Though Nicholas was not a martyr, he still suffered greatly for the faith, and thus the Church calls him “confessor”. The aforementioned story of Nicholas in prison is probably not the only reference to his suffering. Constantine’s Edict of Toleration was only twelve years old at the time of Nicaea. Quite a few Nicene Fathers, like Paul of Neocaesarea, openly bore the scars of persecution on their faces, while most of the bishops lived their formative years in the era of martyrs. Through the steadfast testimony of men like Nicholas, this last persecuted generation courageously preserved the truth of faith until, by the grace of God and the help of Constantine, they became the first Christian generation to flourish in freedom.
Thanks to Nicholas and to all the Nicene Fathers, we have a gift more precious than any material luxury: the Creed. Against the modern tendency to focus completely on praxis at the expense of correct doctrine, in the person of St. Nicholas we also find an exemplary synthesis of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. For the holy Bishop of Myra, through his work at Nicaea and his celebrated kindness for the poor, dogmatic precision and Christian charity were always inseparable.
In honor of the true Saint Nicholas (not Santa Claus), for the first time on these pages, here is a musical presentation for your enjoyment. The tune is one that most English-speakers will recognize, while lyrics have been modified to reflect the spirit of the real St. Nick.
a VMNT (quasi) original
Not-so-jolly Nicholas jumped into the fray,
for he new that Arius wildly went astray!
Heresy proved far too much for this dear old man;
Arius left with a bruise and Imperial ban.
“Once there had to be a time when the Son was not;
John’s prologue is a mistake!”– or so Arius thought
“Consubstantial” was the term Nicholas preferred;
Christ’s divinehood was resolved by Nicaea’s word.
Arius and Nicholas on the Council floor
argued with such vehemence few had seen before.
Just as Christ once cracked a whip in God’s sacred place,
Nicholas, with holy ire, smacked the skeptic’s face!
In the end, St. Nicholas and his faith held firm;
he and Athanasius made apostates squirm!
If you say that Jesus ain’t True God of True God:
(as in Proverbs 23) Nick won’t spare the rod!
Hear, O orphans’ comforter; listen, widows’ aid:
Thanks to you, we know that Christ was begot, not made!
If tonight you bring no gifts, we won’t make a fuss;
All we ask, dear Nicholas: kindly pray for us!