I was awoken this morning by shouts of joy coming from my two boys, ages seven and four. They had found presents under the tree, left there by Saint Nicholas. My wife and I had instituted the celebration of this day as a way to temper the Santa Claus fever that runs rampant this time of year. December 6 is the big gift giving day in Germany, along with other countries. Gifts come from Saint Nick on this day. On Christmas day, gifts that appear come from the Christkind, the Christ-child. How successful we have been on that front still remains to be seen. But we have followed this tradition for several years now and we will continue on.
Because we have gone this route, I am always drawn to stories of Saint Nicholas, images of him, churches that bear his name and so on. Saint Nicholas is one very popular saint. Something I read a while back and cannot lay my hands on right now claimed that there were more churches named after Saint Nicholas than any other figure. In some ways, this move is surprising since very little is actually known. Most of what passes around comes from legend. But we do know a few things.
He was a bishop in Myra, a city of Lycia in Asia Minor. We know that he was at the Council of Nicea in 325. There we get the tale that he slapped the heretic Arias and was saved from any discipline because all the other bishops had experienced a vision of Mary and Jesus, where Mary pleaded for the bishops to excuse Nicholas' actions since they had been done in zeal for her son.
The red robe is the bishop's robe. His symbol is three bags of gold due to the story where a poor man was faced with the possibility of selling his daughters into prostitution because he was too poor to provide a dowry. Nicholas, having inherited wealth from his parents at a young age and vowing to use it to for charity, slips three bags of gold into the bedroom window of the daughters, thereby providing the necessary money for the dowry.
A 1953 work, Lives of Saints (not Butler's mind you), put together by Franciscans, speak of Nicholas being imprisoned under the persecutions of Diocletian, after being chosen to be the Bishop of Myra. He was released only after Constantine ascends the throne and establishes Christianity as a legal religion of the empire.
This same work gives a nice account of Nicholas' work in the wider world.
Nicholas was also the guardian of his people in temporal affairs. The governor had been bribed to condemn three innocent men to death. On the day fixed for their execution Nicholas stayed the hand of the executioner and released them. Then he turned tot he governor and reproved him so sternly that he repented. There happened to be present that day three imperial officers, Nepotian, Ursus, and Herpylion, on their way to duty in Phrygia. Later, after their return, they were imprisoned on false charges of treason by the prefect and an order was procured from the Emperor Constantine for their death. In their extremity, they remembered the bishop of Myra's passion for justice and prayed to God for his intercession. That night Nicholas appeared to Constantine in dream, ordering him to release the three innocent officers. The prefect had the same dream, and in the morning the two men compared their dreams, then questioned the accused officers. On learning that they had prayed for the intervention of Nicholas, Constantine freed them and sent them to the bishop with a letter asking him to pray for the peace of the world.In this time where merchants are begging for our money, and airwaves are filled with vapid Christmas specials that speak about the "spirit of Christmas" in terms of universal values like peace, and giving, and family, and the like, we have the stalwart Nicholas. One of the things we must remember about universals is that they really only mean something when immersed in the concrete reality of the particular. How the particular carries the universal makes all the difference. In the Christmas specials, the universals are left open for each to carry however he or she chooses.Lives of Saints, ed. by Fr. Joseph Vann O.F.M., 1953, p. 39
Nicholas' life points to the universals played out in a particular worldview. His encounter with Arias at the Council of Nicea earned him the title of Confessor. He defended orthodoxy because he understood that all of these universal values obtain their maximum value from Jesus Christ. What does "peace" mean apart from the peace offered in Jesus, true God and true human. If Arias was right, that notion of peace would mean something else. Giving and charity are rooted first in who Jesus is, as the one who is sent from the Father.
Saint Nicholas would be most surprised at what his image has become. His particular life has been turned into something else. This is a day to remember what his actual life meant. If you have kids, break out the Veggie Tales' DVD about Saint Nicholas. It is a good introduction for kids about St. Nick. And pray for the peace of Christ in all the world, giving thanks for Nicholas' example.