I have no objection to jolly laughs; I enjoy a hearty “ho-ho-ho” as much as anyone. Nor do I have any reservations about long white beards, soft red velvet, fat round tummies, or bright rosy cheeks. I certainly have nothing against bringing children presents, whether down the chimney or otherwise. But I do regret the way in which the legend of Santa Claus crowds the Christ child out of Christmas. This is all the more regrettable when I consider the life of the real Saint Nicholas, who may have understood the true meaning of Christmas as well as anyone in the history of the church.
Apparently, the real Saint Nicholas was born around A.D. 280 on the Mediterranean coast, in Patara, a Greek fishing village that is now a part of modern day Turkey. We know this and a few other basic facts about the man’s life from the medieval writings of Methodius (and also Metaphrastes). Sometime early in the fourth century Nicholas became the bishop of Myra, the Turkish city where he died around A.D. 350 and was later buried. Most of the rest of what we know about the man is probably legendary, for as Methodius himself admitted, “up to the present the life of the distinguished shepherd has been unknown to the majority of the faithful” (which sounds like a dignified way of saying that he had to make up a few details as he went along).
The most famous legends of Saint Nicholas concern his generous giving. According to Methodius, Nicholas was born to a pious and prosperous family. His parents taught him the Scriptures and sought to raise him in the fear and admonition of the Lord, yet sadly they died in an epidemic when he was young. When Nicholas later came into his inheritance, he had substantial wealth at his disposal, which he vowed he would use to help the poor and the destitute. His first chance came when the father of three daughters was left penniless. As the story goes, Nicholas rescued the family from poverty and misery by throwing three bags of gold coins through their window (or maybe their chimney) and into their shoes (or was it their stockings?).
Methodius also recounts how Nicholas was persecuted for his faith. This is not unlikely. The bishop was alive at the beginning of the fourth century, when the Roman Emperor Diocletian persecuted the church. Methodius recounts how “Nicholas was seized by the magistrates, tortured, then chained and thrown into prison with other Christians. But when the great and religious Constantine, chosen by God, assumed the imperial diadem of the Romans, the prisoners were released from their bonds and with them the illustrious Nicholas.” Because Nicholas did not deny his faith, afterwards he was known as “Nicholas, Confessor.” We do not usually think of Santa Claus being persecuted for his faith in Christ, but this is the story of the real Saint Nicholas.
Whether they are all true or not, the legends of Saint Nicholas at least bear witness to virtues that were prized in the ancient and medieval church: compassion, justice, generosity, longsuffering. The hero of these stories shows us the godly pattern of a life that is fully devoted to Christ.
But perhaps the most important thing to know about the real Saint Nicholas is that he is said to have served as a delegate to the Council of Nicea in the year 325. This council, which took place in Nicholas’s native Turkey, was called to resolve a growing controversy over the teachings of Arius, who denied the deity of Christ. According to Arius, Jesus was an exalted being—the pinnacle of creation—but he was not divine. Arius therefore denied the doctrine of the Trinity, as well as the true doctrine of the person of Christ, for although he believed in one God, he did not believe in Three Persons.
The Council of Nicea settled this dispute once and for all by affirming the two natures of Christ—his divine nature and his human nature. Saint Nicholas took part in these discussions, which resulted in the declaration that Arius was a heretic and in the composition of the Nicene Creed. According to legend, at one point in the dispute Nicholas was so provoked by Arius denying the eternal pre-existence of Christ that he walked up and slapped the heretic in the face. Again, this is hardly the image most people have of jolly old Saint Nicholas!
Nicholas later asked forgiveness for resorting to violence, but as far as his defense of orthodoxy was concerned, there was no need for any apology. The bishop was right to defend biblical teaching about the person of Jesus Christ, who is both the Son of God and the Son of Man (see Luke 22:69-70). This doctrine is aptly summarized in the famous words of the Nicene Creed:
in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only-begotten Son of God,
begotten of his Father before all worlds,
God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God,
begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
by whom all things were made;
who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven,
and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary,
and was made man;
and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried;
and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures,
and ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father;
and he shall come again, with glory,
to judge both the living and the dead;
whose kingdom shall have no end.
You probably won’t hear any of that from Santa Claus, but it is the true meaning of Christmas, which good old Saint Nicholas knew as well as anyone at the Council of Nicea, or anyone else ever since.
[Methodius is quoted from an article entitled “Saint Nicholas of Myra,” as posted at www.ewtn.com]
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