Over one thousand seven hundred years ago, a frail old man stepped out of the Roman dungeons of Asia Minor and squinted in the brightness of the natural sunlight of which he had been deprived for the past eight years. Despite the torture he had endured, his bones broken, set, healed, and broken again and again over the years, he had never wavered in his faith; even though the authorities repeatedly promised him that he would be released if only he would recognize the divinity of the Emperor and sacrifice incense to his name.
Many had given up hope of ever seeing or hearing from him again, but as the Emperor Diocletian's terrible reign came to an end, the old man slowly made his way out into the free, open air on that early May morning in the year 305. The news traveled fast and a cry went up in his home town… Nicholas is alive!
This frail man, beloved by his people but aged beyond his years by the brutal treatment he suffered, soon returned to pastor his church in Myra, modern day Turkey where his gentleness and kindness with children was only matched by his humble generosity. He had been born to a rich merchant family of Greek Christians many years before, and as a young man, heeded Christ’s call to go sell everything he had, give the proceeds to the poor and follow Him.
And as the bishop of Myra he cared deeply for those in the city who struggled to make ends meet. In one famous episode, a destitute Father had three daughters who were approaching the age at which most Roman girls got married, but he was unable to scrape together enough to provide a dowry for them. In an age when women had few prospects for employment and a father had the power of life or death over his children, it seemed their only future would be to resort to prostitution or be sold into slavery to settle their father’s debt. In a culture which cared little about the worth of women in society, Nicholas was deeply moved to help these women who were precious in God’s sight.
So, to spare the father the embarrassment of receiving charity and to avoid praise himself, Nicholas went under cover of darkness and threw a bag of gold in the window opening of their house to provide a dowry for the eldest daughter to get married. After she married, and when it came time for the second daughter to be married, he did it again. And when the third daughter came of age, he threw another bag of gold in the window. This time being caught by the father of the three daughters, he swore the man to secrecy regarding what he had done (which obviously didn’t work because his fame soon spread, even in his own lifetime).
On another occasion three innocent men had been condemned to death on the orders of the crooked governor Eustathius. Standing between the executioner’s sword and the men about to die, he publicly challenged the jurors who had taken bribes to find the men guilty and the governor himself. The governor seethed with rage and wanted Nicholas’ head, but the crowds stood up for their beloved bishop and Eustathius was afraid to touch him.
Towards the end of a life marked by a simple desire to reflect Christ’s holy love in the lives around him, Nicholas was summoned for one last service. A priest named Arius had begun teaching that Jesus wasn’t who he claimed, that he was neither fully God nor fully human but something in between, a created being like us. The new Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 and invited all the bishops of the world to gather and hash it out. Many, like Nicholas, had suffered under the terrible persecutions of Emperor Diocletian for their faith and no power on Earth was going to dissuade them from staying true to the ancient faith as they had received it.
A staunch defender of the doctrine of the Trinity, a rumor has persisted through the centuries that Nicholas lost his temper and punched Arius in the face at the Council and spent a night cooling off in jail for it. This may or may not be true, but what we do know is that this tough-as-nails bishop was willing to die for what he believed to be true. He pastored his flock with love and care, he defended the innocent, and had compassion on the most destitute. And most of all it’s his humble generosity and kindness which has inspired millions to be a little kinder, a little more gracious to one another for 17 centuries.
He’s remembered each Christmas as Santa Claus, a commercialized, jolly old elf with an unhealthy addiction to milk and cookies. But as a man devoted to Christ, he would want us to remember what this season is all about: that God loved this world and everyone in it so much that He took on flesh, walked among us, taught us to love as He loves, died for us, and conquered death through His bodily resurrection so that we may be freed from sin and death ourselves.
So as we celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day on Dec. 06 at the beginning of this Christmas season, take a little bit of time to honor the real St. Nick by sharing a little bit of the same gracious, humble, generous love that he tried to embody and remember Who it was that was ultimately the source of his enduring strength and grace.
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|"St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents From Death," by Ilya Repin (1888)|