Hang out your stockings: today, December 6th, is the feast day of St. Nicholas of Myra. Over the last couple of centuries the modern Santa Claus has somehow developed from the figure of this 4th century bishop, but the real Saint has retained a strong devotion in both the Eastern and Western churches. I say the “real Saint” with the proviso that he is another one of those Saints about whom little is known with historical certainty; as the biography at Catholic Online [here] tells us, “his episcopate at Myra during the fourth century is really all that seems indubitably authentic.” Nonetheless, I think it’s reasonable to assume that what has come down to us has some basis, at least, in his life and in the way he conducted himself.
The most well-known story today concerns his generosity. Having inherited great wealth from his parents, he decided, while still a young man, to give his money to the poor. He famously rescued three poverty-stricken young women from being sold into prostitution by secretly throwing bags of money through the windows into their home. This incident is the inspiration for the tradition of leaving gifts in shoes or stockings on St. Nicholas Day. He is also known as an exemplar of mercy, which fits nicely with generosity (and with the image of Santa Claus). The best-known story about him in the first millennium tells how he appeared in a dream to the Emperor Constantine on behalf of three men who had been imprisoned unjustly; having learned that the official who was holding the men had a similar dream, and that the men had been praying for Nicholas’s help, the Emperor set them free.
Another old story about St. Nicholas, one which has recently enjoyed new popularity, tells of him attending the Council of Nicaea in 325 where, in a fit of anger, he slapped Arius, for whom the Arian Heresy is named. This story has an irresistible appeal for many Catholics involved in apologetics, particularly when cast as a humorous contrast to affable image of Santa Claus (the Saint’s slap is often upgraded in these accounts to a more manly punch). One can find numerous reproductions online, for instance, of ancient frescoes depicting the incident with captions like “I came to give kids presents and punch heretics . . . and I just ran out of presents!” I have to admit, I have chuckled at some of these myself. At the same time, it would seem that smacking Arius, heresiarch though he was, falls a little short of the Christian Charity test. The council fathers thought so, at least: we are told that they “deprived [Nicholas] of his episcopal insignia and committed him to prison”. We are also told that Jesus freed him from prison and restored him to his bishopric, so we can take that as confirmation that, despite his impulsiveness, his heart was in the right place. In any case, the incident illustrates another important aspect of the Saint: a man who was fiercely dedicated to preserving and defending the Truth.
There may seem to be an incongruity between the Jolly Old Saint Nick who comes to the aid of poor maidens and innocent prisoners on the one hand, and the righteous crusader who puts a whuppin’ on heretics on the other, but that’s not the case. The salvation that Jesus lived, suffered and died to bring us is salvation from sin, not from discomfort or physical hardships. What could be more generous or merciful than rescuing a brother from sin, or even more so, preventing him from leading others into it? Granted, we are called to do so with love (Ephesians 4:15), so I wouldn’t recommend emulating St. Nicholas’s smackdown of Arius. Nonetheless, St. Nicholas embodies an important truth: that Generosity and Mercy are not opposed to Justice and Truth, but are, indeed must be, different sides of the same coin, as Scripture attests:
Show us thy steadfast love, O LORD,
and grant us thy salvation.
Let me hear what God the LORD will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people,
to his saints, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
that glory may dwell in our land.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky. (Psalm 85:7-11)
That’s not a bad thing to reflect on this week as we celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas – Bishop, Lover, and Fighter.
Featured image top of page: detail from The Blessing of St. Nicholas by Francesco Guardi, 1770