Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Real St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas of Myra

Patron of: Children, sailors, the falsely accused.

It’s Advent time! And you know what that means; Christmas is just around the corner! Since we’re going to be hearing a lot about Ol’ St. Nick in the coming weeks (and since today, Dec. 6th, is his feast day), I thought now would be a good time to give you a primer on the real St. Nick. Oh, yes; Santa Claus is real, don’t let anyone tell you differently (as a matter of fact, there are a number of St. Nicks, including one of the greatest Popes of the Middle Ages, but for some reason only one of them got pop-culture status and an academy award for Edmund Gwenn).

Of course, our image of Santa Claus is much different from the real thing. The real St. Nick never went to the North Pole, for instance; he lived in Turkey. As far as we know, he didn’t own a flying sleigh pulled by eight-or-nine reindeer, and ‘Rudolphus’ was the name of his horse (still had a fluorescent red nose though; that part is historical fact).*

*Haven’t been able to find documentation confirming this.

As a matter of fact, the real St. Nick was less like this:

And more like this:
Yes, I’m serious. St. Nicholas was the 4th Century Church’s equivalent of that one uncle who was a Marine before coming home and doing a nickel for assault, but who’s a blast when he comes around for Thanksgiving and always sends you the kind of presents that your parents won’t let you play with until you’re older.

When Nicholas was a boy, growing up in Patara (in modern day Turkey), he was first raised by his rich Christian parents, but then when they died by his uncle and namesake, who was bishop. Young Nicholas was exceptionally religious and devout, so Uncle Nick ordained the young man as a priest.

Once that was done, Nicholas determined to go on pilgrimage to Egypt and the Holy Land, which he duly did (he was the kind of guy who typically got his way when he made up his mind to something). Upon returning from his pilgrimage, Nicholas was installed as Bishop of Myra (another city in Asia Minor). Bad timing, though, since this was during the rise of Diocletian, when Catholics were viewed with suspicion, publically ridiculed, and persecuted for their beliefs.

Mutationis Possumus Credere

Nicholas was comparatively lucky; he only got thrown in prison. Many of his fellow bishops and Christians got executed. Of course, prison meant frequent beatings, torture, and (judging by his later actions) probably his fair-share of fights. Prison life is always rough, and Roman jails were no different. We can assume that, when he wasn’t beating or getting beaten, Nicholas spent his time ‘inside’ evangelizing his fellow prisoners, ministering to fellow Christians, and teaching squealers the price of betrayal.

“Ho ho ho!”
But, of course, Diocletian couldn’t live forever. After his death (and a lot of civil war and intrigue that we can’t get into here), Constantine assumed the throne and declared religious freedom throughout the Empire. Nicholas and his fellow bishops walked free again, though whether any of them went south, built a boat, and started a fishing business with their best friend isn’t recorded. Instead, Nicholas found a bunch of pagan shrines messing up his diocese and inviting a bunch of pesky demons to trouble his people. In response, he went on something of a pious rampage; smashing pagan structures, breaking idols, and driving the presumably-terrified demons out of his city.

So, released from jail and purged of demonic influence, Nicholas resumed his ministry, free at last. But all was not well. An old heresy, given new life by the smarmy, ivory-tower intellectual Bishop Arius of Nicomedia, was seeping through the Church like poison. Arianism, as it was called, denied the Divinity of Christ, instead positing that He was an inferior, intermediary ‘god’ created by God to be a kind of buffer to creation (this was based on the neo-platonic system of belief, which is way too complicated to get into here).

This, as you can imagine, was causing problems; bishops were falling away, and there were ‘Orthodox-vs.-Arian’ riots all throughout the empire. The bishops who remained faithful typically found themselves run out of town by angry mobs, or, alternatively, were stirring up angry mobs to run the Arians out of town.

Constantine, of course, found all this most distressing and tried to settle the matter with a ‘cease and desist’ letter, in which he urged the bishops to stop making such a fuss over matters of no real importance.

That worked about as well as you’d expect.

Having failed spectacularly at his first attempt, the emperor decided to try a different approach. With the help of Pope Sylvester I (of whom there is no recorded instance of his attempting to eat Tweety Bird), the emperor invited all the bishops to meet at Nicea so that they could discuss the matter (Sylvester himself didn’t attend; he had enough work to do in Rome. He did, however, send representatives to ensure a papal presence).

Nicholas, who had spent ten years on the inside for his faith, wasn’t going to stand for some jumped-up little college-boy spreading lies about it; no sir! So he saddled up and, together with bishops from all around the world, made his way to Nicea.

At the council, with Constantine presiding, the bishops heard the different arguments for and against the Divinity of Christ, both from experts and from novices (most notably from a young deacon named Athanasius of Alexandria). 

When Arius got up and made his case, with (presumably) many a sneer and snide remark about the intelligence of his opponents, Nicholas sat quietly and listened for as long as he could, but finally had had enough. He got up and offered his counterargument: a sock to the jaw.
“Consubstantial with the Father, punk!”
For this outburst of righteous anger, Constantine had Nicholas stripped of the symbols of his office: his pallium and personal copy of the Gospels, and threw him in the dungeon to cool off. While he was in there, Nicholas had a vision of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin.

"Why are you here?" Jesus asked.
"Because I love you, my Lord and my God," Nicholas replied.

Then Jesus presented Nicholas with his copy of the Gospels, and Mary re-vested him with his pallium.

Needless to say, when Constantine and the other bishops heard of this, they let Nicholas out of the dungeon and allowed him to rejoin the council.

Whether that well-placed blow and subsequent diving intervention had anything to do with it or not the Council rejected Arianism; affirming that Jesus was “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father;” the same faith that we profess today. 

Final vote?  230 to 2.

Of course, life wasn’t all prison riots and debate-floor brawls; he had his flock to manage. Nicholas may have been a tough-old-spit, but he was a tough-old-spit who loved his people; particularly children. For instance, one famous tale involves a poor father who had three daughters, whom he couldn’t afford dowries for. Nicholas, hearing about this, surreptitiously tossed sacks of gold through the man’s window as each girl came of age, thus saving them from falling into destitution and probably becoming prostitutes.

There’s another story about three soldiers, who were stationed near Myra and came into town on leave. A fight broke out around them, and the three were hauled off to be executed for causing a disturbance. Nicholas arrived to help calm things down (guy knew his way around riots, remember) and witnesses swore to him that the three soldiers were innocent and lamented that if only he had come sooner he could have saved them. Nicholas raced to the jail to find the three men bound and just about to be put to death. As the executioner raised his sword, Nicholas charged in, grabbed it out of the man’s hand and threw it away.

I assume that afterwards he had a stern conversation with the guy on the left about wearing pink skirts.

Another miracle happened during the great famine that occurred at Myra from 311-12; a ship loaded with wheat bound for Constantinople and the Emperor’s table was docked at Myra. Nicholas asked that some of the wheat be given out to help the starving people. The sailors were reluctant, since they’d get in big trouble if they didn’t deliver the correct amount of wheat. Nicholas assured them that they wouldn’t suffer any loss, and so they agreed (again, Nicholas typically got his way). After leaving two-years worth of wheat behind, the sailors moved on to Constantinople, presumably wondering how they let that scary bearded priest talk them into this, and oh, god, they were going to get fired and possibly killed…but upon arrival they found that they had the exact same amount of wheat as they had loaded on.

During that same famine, there’s a story of an evil butcher who decided to save his business by luring three children into his shop, murdering them, and hiding their bodies in vat of pickles to be served later as tenderloins. Nicholas got word of it, uncovered the bodies, and miraculously brought the three boys back to life (no word on what he did to the butcher; it probably wasn’t pretty).

St. Nicholas: if you hurt children he will beat you to death and then raise you from the dead to do it again.

So you’d better watch out. You’d better not lie. You’d better not blaspheme, or he’ll make you cry…
He died on the 6th of December, in either 345 or 352 (we’re a little hazy on how or where exactly), and was buried on the island of Gemile. Most of his relics, however, were removed in the 11th century in the wake of the invading Turks and today reside in Venice.

Devotion to St. Nicholas includes the practice of giving gifts to children on his feast day. Traditionally, children would leave their shoes outside their doors at night, which their parents would fill with goodies to be discovered when they awoke. Over the years, and thanks to a large commercialization effort, this has morphed into the image of Santa Claus that so dominates the Advent season (though I’m still not clear why we have a fat, jolly-old reindeer-farmer/toy-maker instead of a badass ex-con heresy-and-crime fighter/demon slayer)

As a side note, while I’m not necessarily against Santa Claus, I can’t help thinking that St. Nicholas would have been a bit miffed to discover that a cuddly hallmark version of himself has largely usurped the celebration of Christmas from Jesus. I imagine he would have words for the people and organizations responsible. And by ‘words’ I mean ‘savage beatings.’

Be afraid, Coca-Cola; be very afraid.
St. Nicholas, pray for us that the True Meaning of Christmas may shine through.


Vive Christus Rex!

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