The Feast of St. Nicholas is tomorrow, December 6. Because it falls on a Sunday this year, we will not be celebrating his feast day at Mass. Nevertheless, since St. Nicholas is a fascinating character, so I thought it a good opportunity to share a few thoughts about him with you in this space.
St. Nicholas was born in a port city in southwestern Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) in the 3rd century, AD. As a bishop, he attended the Council of Nicaea in 325. This Council was convened to address the controversy that had exploded over the teachings of a priest named Arius. Arius was trying to reconcile the question of the identity of Jesus with the monotheism of Christianity. When he considered the relationship of the Father and the Son, Arius argued that the Son, as great as He is, could not be God in the same way the Father is God. If He were, that would mean there were more than one God. To preserve the uniqueness of God the Father, Arius concluded that the Son must be neither equal to the divinity of the Father, nor eternal like the Father. The Son, Arius concluded, must be part of the Father’s creation; in short, there must have been a time when the Son did not exist. St. Nicholas, like the other opponents of what came to be known as “Arianism,” saw the error that Arius was making and its terrible consequences. If Jesus, the Son, is not equal in His divinity to God the Father, then we cannot truly say that God became man. In Arius’ vision, therefore, God remains infinitely distant from us. If Arius was right, then the Incarnation loses its power. It is said that this heresy was so obnoxious to Nicholas, that when he heard Arius make his case, he left his seat in the Council hall and punched Arius in the nose. This got St. Nicholas into some hot water with the Emperor Constantine, who had convened the Council and who punished Nicholas for his intemperate act. But his passion for true teaching about Christ has contributed to his popularity among Christians in the East and the West, Orthodox and Catholic alike.
He is also popular because he is the namesake of Santa Claus. The latter is a commercialized version of the Christian saint, but the real St. Nicholas was also a gift-giver. There is an ancient story about how St. Nicholas became aware of a man who had three daughters. Circumstances had left the man impoverished and without resources to provide dowries for his daughters. Without dowries, the women would not be able to get married. This made the young women extremely vulnerable to exploitation. In order to survive, women who did not have the protection of husbands and the support network of extended families often ended up in prostitution. St. Nicholas helped them by discretely dropping three bags of money down the family’s chimney at night, which allowed the father to arrange marriages for the three young women.
Although he is distinct from the common depiction of Santa Claus, St. Nicholas is a great saint to celebrate this time of year. His defense of the orthodox teaching about the Incarnation – that the co-equal divinity of the Son and the Father means that God truly became man – gives us the reason we celebrate the great Solemnity of Christmas, the day on which the world first beheld the human face of God and God first gazed upon His creation with human eyes. St. Nicholas’ generous concern for the poor is a good example to us, for we should be attentive to the needs of others, as the Lord concerns Himself with the needs of humanity. Indeed, this is the reason for the holy celebration of Christmas, which reveals to us that God is not distant from us, but close.