by Aaron Alford
If you ever find yourself being pickled in a cask, jolly old Saint Nicholas is a good man to have in your corner. If you find yourself attempting to deny the divinity of Christ at a Church council, not so much. But more on these things later.
Today Bearded Gospel Men celebrates one of the most famous figures in bearded Gospel history, Saint Nicholas of Myra. With his feast day falling on December 6, and his long association with being a protector of children, it’s easy to see how he became so closely associated with the Christmas season.
There are not a lot of clear, hard facts known about the life of Nicholas, but we do know that he died on December 6, in 345 or 352 AD, and that he was bishop of Myra, a city in what is now Turkey. We can, however, get a general picture of who he was and what he was like from the stories and legends that made him famous.
Nicholas was born as the only son to a wealthy Christian family, and his parents died in an epidemic while he was still quite young. Nicholas, seeking to live out the gospel’s invitation to “sell everything you own and give to the poor”, held his inheritance lightly. The earliest story of his care for children and for the poor comes in the tale of an impoverished man and his three daughters. Having nothing as a dowry for his daughters to be considered eligible for marriage, the three young women were destined for a life of slavery or prostitution. The story goes, however, that as each daughter reached the age for marriage, young Nicholas secretly tossed a bag of gold through their window. (In some versions of the story, these bags of gold land in the girls’ shoes or stockings, or were tossed down the family’s chimney.)
Another somewhat horrific legend is told of three boys being murdered by a butcher and their bodies pickled in a cask to cure. Nicholas, by the Holy Spirit, learns of the butcher’s deeds, and through his intercession the children are brought back to life. Yet another story is told of an unjust governor who had taken a bribe and sentenced three young men to death. As Bishop, Nicholas intervened, stayed the hands of the executioner, then proceeded to rebuke the governor until he admitted his crime!
Nicholas also knew the hardship of suffering for his faith, and, along with hundreds of other Christian clergy, was exiled and thrown in prison under the persecution of Diocletian. It was not until Constantine came to power that Nicholas and the other Church leaders were released.
After his release, Nicholas is said to have been present at the Council of Nicaea. There he is said to have confronted Arius, who denied the divinity of Christ, with a dramatic slap to the face. Unfortunately, this story can’t be confirmed, but if Nicholas was as passionate as the other stories about him infer, it is easy to imagine his passion for truth igniting him in such a way. After all, even saints are only human!
The journey of the historical Saint Nicholas to the modern Santa Claus is an interesting one with a lot of fascinating connections to our modern Christmas traditions and images, not the least of which being his red bishop’s vestments and long white beard. But what has made Nicholas’s life and the stories around him truly endure is his passion for the truth, and his great love for the poor, the weak, and the innocent — particularly children.
When I hear the story of the poor man and his three daughters, I’m reminded of families living in strikingly similar situations today. I’m especially reminded of impoverished Burmese families I met when I spent time in the Thai border town of Mae Sot. Many of these families face a similar kind of desperation, and their children face the same danger of being sold into slavery and prostitution. Thankfully there are a lot of modern Saint Nicks working to help these families, though the need is still great.
To get to the real heart of the historical Saint Nicholas, one needs only to look to the heart of the God he served. Who is weak or vulnerable in my world? Whose cause deserves justice? Whose stocking could use a visit from Saint Nicholas, and what can I do to bless them?
As we walk out these days leading up to Christmas, may each sidewalk Santa we see be a reminder to us of the real Saint Nick. May we be reminded to live out the love of the One who for love’s sake became poor.
A good source of info about St. Nicholas and his relationship with the Christmas season can be found here: http://www.stnicholascenter.org/