Feast Day: December 6th | Bishop, Wonderworker | Patronage: Children, Sailors, Merchants, Broadcasters, Repentant Thieves, Brewers, Pharmacists, Unmarried | Attributes: Vested as a Bishop, Holding Gospel-Book, Three Gold Coins/Balls; Blessing with Right Hand.
There is an amazing tale told of St. Nicholas, who, being bishop of Myra (in southwest Turkey, a port-city visited by St. Paul 300 years before), attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., and at one particularly strident moment stood before Arius, the priest from Alexandria, who argued that Christ was not fully divine, unequal to God the Father, not eternally begotten, but the first and highest of the Father’s Creation. Nicholas, it is said, stood before the heretic and slapped him in the face. Or maybe punched him. Or maybe it had been that Nicholas knocked Arius to the floor and was stripped of his episcopal regalia and imprisoned by the other bishops for such an unseemly outburst during a Church council. But then, the following morning, he was found in his cell not only wearing his vestments again (in particular, art often depicts him wearing the omophorion, an ancient precursor to the pallium that archbishops now receive) but also carrying the book of the Gospels. It is said that Mary appeared to him restoring his vestments, with Our Lord Himself placing in Nicholas’ trustworthy hands the Holy Gospels. The other bishops were admonished, Nicholas was exonerated, and Arius condemned as a heretic.
Now, this particular story was not written down until a thousand years after the Council of Nicaea, and different lists that date back closer to the time of that council differ on whether Nicholas is included among the bishops in attendance. Of course, since he lived until 345 A.D., Nicholas would have lived during the tumultuous years before and after that great convocation of bishops. Also, with Athanasius (himself quite the strident defender of the faith) and others considered the leaders of the council, perhaps it is not surprising, especially given the lack (and costliness) of documents at that time, that there would be disagreement between the few, and fragmentary, documentation we do have. (This is true not only of Church documents, but also in the Roman Empire at large. Our records of those years are spotty.)
But perhaps we can uphold the core of this tradition without ever tracking down a parchment that recounts Arius getting knocked flat by a righteously angered Bp. Nicholas. Nicholas’ parents died while he was a priest, or early in his episcopal care, for the people of Myra. Already known for his holiness and generosity, he turned to the Scriptures to find what the Lord was calling him to do with the large inheritance he received from his parents. Hearing “give to the poor and come follow me”, he began his famous incognito visits, distributing funds and food to those who needed them under cover of darkness. This was how he saved the three sisters from prostitution – tossing bags of gold through their window in the middle of the night. Not only does this kind of charity fit with a Church known across the ancient world for its defense of the dignity of women, but it is also told of no other character in antiquity. It stands out among many other stories of the heroism of saints, and so must link back to the actual heroic generosity of Good St. Nicholas. Other legends with similar distinctiveness speak of Nicholas’ being imprisoned before the legalization of Christianity under Constantine, and also providing for the city during famines whether by miracles or plain, audacious, leadership.
One thing is irrefutable. Nicholas was loved and heralded as a saint very soon after his death. Within a century or two pilgrimages were taking place to his tomb, and other priests were taking his name as their own, choosing him as their patron. If I may link a few things together, though we have no writing of St. Nicholas himself, it is eminently logical that as daring, sacrificial, and Christ-like a bishop as Nicholas, would have spoken and acted much like his more famous confrere, Athanasius. Defending the divinity and humanity of Christ, Whom He emulated with a boldness that has not dimmed through the long centuries since.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin cannot help but notice that Nicholas’ risking his own life, his livelihood, even his episcopacy, is itself only an emulation of Christ, Who not only risked, but truly gave away his own life, livelihood, and all earthly esteem in order to give His followers eternal life. When I receive Christ’s Body and Blood am I similarly disposed to risk my own body and blood to love in that same way?