- A Meditation for the Feast of St. Nicholas, December 6 -
Born at the end of the third century, in about 280, St. Nicholas, whose feast we today celebrate, was a very devout young man who, still quite young, became a Bishop and then the Archbishop of the then great city of Myra, which is in the province of Lycia in Asia Minor (Turkey). There he was renowned for his charitable deeds. There he set up orphanages, hospitals, hostels for the mentally ill, fed the starving in famine, and set up a drainage system so that his people would not die from the diseases incurred by poor hygiene. There he freed captives unjustly imprisoned, saved sailors in stormy seas, redeemed young girls who were bound for child prostitution. In everything he did, he wanted to show that our destiny is not to live as animals, but as the children of God.
In 325 A.D., the Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, the very first ecumenical council of the Church. More than 300 bishops came from all over the Christian world to discuss the nature of the Holy Trinity, and particularly the question, "Who is Jesus Christ?" There were some delegates led by a Bishop named Arius who insisted that Jesus was just a man—not God in human flesh. They were willing to agree that Jesus was the best man who had ever lived. They agreed that Jesus was sent in a very special way from God. They even agreed that Jesus could be called the "son of God" in the sense that God was so pleased with Jesus' life that he made him his son by adoption. But they insisted that Jesus was not God—that he was of another substance than God (homoi ousia).
Other Bishops, led by St. Athanasius, insisted that Jesus in is fact God Incarnate. Jesus is not God’s son by adoption. Those who are baptized become the adopted children of God but Jesus Christ is the Son of God by His very nature. Jesus is God. At Nicea, this is what the Catholic Bishops taught. Alongside St. Athanasius was another holy Bishop, St. Nicholas of Myra. Today is his feast day.
St. Athanasius and St. Nicholas and all the Catholic bishops of Nicea stood firm for the truth as it had clearly been revealed in the Sacred Scriptures and constantly taught by the Fathers of the Church. As Arius vigorously continued with his blasphemous denials of Christ’s divinity, St. Nicholas became more and more agitated. Finally, he could no longer bear the blasphemy. The outraged St. Nicholas got up, crossed the room, and struck Arius in the face! Dialogue over. The Bishops were shocked.
It was unbelievable that a Bishop could behave like this in such a solemn assembly. They brought St. Nicholas to the Emperor Constantine. Constantine said even though it was illegal for anyone to strike another in his royal presence, in this case, the Bishops themselves should determine the punishment. The Bishops stripped Nicholas of his episcopal garments, chained him, and threw him into jail. They thought this would keep St. Nicholas away from the meeting. A final decision on St. Nicholas would have to wait until the conclusion of the Council.
St. Nicholas was ashamed of his behavior. (Indeed, we should not resort to violence). He prayed for forgiveness, though he did not waver in his belief that Jesus was consubstantial with the Father. During the night, Jesus and Mary the Mother of God, appeared, asking, "Why are you in jail?" "Because of my love for you," St. Nicholas replied. Jesus then gave the Book of the Gospels to Nicholas. The Virgin Mary gave him his Bishop’s stole, so Nicholas would again be dressed as a Bishop. Now at peace, St. Nicholas studied the Holy Scriptures for the rest of the night. When the jailer came in the morning, he found the chains loose on the floor and St. Nicholas dressed in Bishop's robes, quietly reading the Scriptures.
When Constantine was told of this, the emperor asked that St. Nicholas be freed and then the goodly Bishop was then fully reinstated as the Bishop of Myra. In the end, the Council of Nicaea boldly proclaimed the perennial Catholic understanding that Jesus is true God and true man. Once again the enemies of the Church were supplanted.
During Advent, the Gospel of St. Mark sets before us St. John the Baptist -- that “voice crying in the wilderness”—this is our reminder to be bold witnesses of Jesus Christ. At Nicea, St. Nicholas became that voice of truth. St. Nicholas would be the one preparing the way of the Lord. His zeal for the divinity of Christ could not tolerate the lies of Arius. Today we need men and women in the Church, in our society, in our workplaces who will stand up for Truth. Remember truth is not a thing. Truth is a person. Did not our Lord say, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
Like St. John the Baptist we need to lead people to Christ who is Truth. The Baptist pointed to Christ and said, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who take away the sins of the world.” When John the Baptist pointed out the adultery of Herod it cost him his head. But he did it anyway. When St. Nicholas pointed out the heresy of Arius it looked as it would cost him the office of Bishop.
Today, my friends in Christ, take fresh courage from the saints, men like St. Nicholas and St. John the Baptist, who loved Christ, defended what was right, stood up for Truth and who were willing to suffer for the honor of Christ and His Church. When Christ or His Church is under attack, God grant that we be bold in the face of fear and speak the truth, whether convenient or inconvenient.
Some years ago, I recall a news report telling us that ISIS militants gave four Iraqi Christian children (all under the age of 15) the choice of converting to Islam or the choice of death by beheading. These little lambs, these Christian children, chose to follow Jesus the good Shepherd. “Islamic State turned up and said to the children, you say the words that you will follow Mohammed. The children, all under 15, four of them, said ‘No, we love Yesua (Jesus), we have always loved Yesua, we have always followed Yesua, Yesua has always been with us.’”
Then once again, the ISIS militants tried to force the children to convert. Again they refused. The terrorists decapitated all four children. This boys and girls had love of Jesus and the courage of the saints. God grant us perfect love of God and hearts zealously committed to Jesus Christ.