06 December 2021

Praying in Advent 2021:
9, Saint Nicholas of Myra

Saint Nicholas in a stained-glass window in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This is the second week of Advent and this looks like a busy week, with a school assembly this morning, school board meetings, a community project meeting in Rathkeale, and a meeting of the Diocesan Council later this week.

Before a busy day begins, I am taking some time early this morning (6 December 2021) for prayer, reflection and reading.

Each morning in the Advent, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during Advent;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

An icon of Saint Nicholas in a church in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Nicholas of Myra, the ‘Real Santa Claus,’ is celebrated today (6 December), and not on Christmas Eve, and not on Christmas Day either. Nor is he celebrated or commemorated in the calendar of the Church of Ireland, which is surprising considering he was such a popular saint in mediaeval Ireland.

Saint Nicholas, whose name means ‘Victory of the People,’ was born in Myra in Lycia, now known as Demre, near Antalya in present-day Turkey. He had a reputation as a secret giver of gifts, such as putting coins in the shoes of poor children, and because of this, perhaps, he was transformed into our present-day Santa Claus.

In Exciting Holiness, it is recalled that Saint Nicholas was a fourth century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, now southern Turkey. His reputation as a worker of wonders was enhanced by a ninth century author of his hagiography or his biography as a saint, and it is through these stories that he became best known.

Many of these stories concern his love and his care for children, how he fed the hungry, healed the sick and cared for the oppressed. He saved three girls from a life of prostitution by providing them with dowries – and so developed the tradition of bearing gifts to children on his feast day, a practice that we have since moved to the Christmas celebrations.

Another story about Saint Nicholas is set in the year 325, when the Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council of the Church. More than 300 bishops throughout the Christian world attended and debated the nature of the Holy Trinity. It was one of the most intense theological questions for the early Church.

Arius, a priest from Alexandria in Egypt, was teaching that Jesus was the Son of God, but not God incarnate and not equal in divinity to God the Father, similar to God, but not the same as God. Arius forcefully argued his position at length, and the bishops listened respectfully.

But, as Arius pushed his contentious views, Saint Nicholas, who was present as Bishop of Myra, became more and more agitated. Obviously, Arius was on his naughty list rather than his nice list.

Finally, Nicholas could no longer stand it that what he believed was essential to the faith was being attacked.

The enraged Nicholas stood up, crossed the room, and slapped Arius across the face! The mediaeval accounts have Nicholas slapping – not punching – the heretic. The stories use the word ράπισμα for a medicinal slap or a rebuke, an attempt to ‘slap him back to his senses’ rather than an expression of contempt or wilful intention to harm.

The bishops were shocked and could not believe a bishop could be so hot-headed to lose control in such a solemn assembly. In other words, they were more enraged by the behaviour of Nicholas than by the heresy of Arius.

They brought Bishop Nicholas before the Emperor Constantine. They then stripped Nicholas of his bishop’s garments, chained him, and threw him in prison. That would keep Nicholas away from the meeting. When the Council ended, a final decision would be made about his future.

Bishop Nicholas prayed for forgiveness, but did not waver in his belief. In the night, Christ appeared with the Virgin Mary to Nicholas in his cell and asked him, ‘Why are you here?’

‘Because I love you, my Lord and my God,’ Nicholas replied.

Christ then gave the Book of the Gospels to Nicholas, and the Virgin Mary gave him a new robe so that he could dress as a bishop once again. Nicholas, now at peace, stayed awake in his prison cell, studying the Bible for the rest of the night.

When the jailer came in the morning, he found the chains loose on the floor and Nicholas robed as bishop, quietly reading the Gospel. When Constantine was told of this, the emperor asked that Nicholas be freed, and Nicholas was then fully reinstated as the Bishop of Myra.

He returned to his place at the Council of Nicaea, and there the bishops agreed with Nicholas’s views, deciding the question against Arius.

The work of the Council produced the Nicene Creed, which to this day we stand and declare before we celebrate the Eucharist together.

The Council of Nicaea decided our theological understanding of the Holy Trinity and of the Incarnation. Had Arius won the day, we might be marking today as just the birth of another Biblical prophet. Thanks to Saint Nicholas, the original Santa Claus, the Church celebrates Christmas Day, the day on which God took flesh, when Christ was born, truly God and truly human.

The Church of Saint Nicholas, near the bus station in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Luke 5: 17-26 (NRSVA):

17 One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting nearby (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. 18 Just then some men came, carrying a paralysed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; 19 but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. 20 When he saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven you.’ 21 Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, ‘Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ 22 When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven you”, or to say, “Stand up and walk”? 24 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ – he said to the one who was paralysed – ‘I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home.’ 25 Immediately he stood up before them, took what he had been lying on, and went to his home, glorifying God. 26 Amazement seized all of them, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‘We have seen strange things today.’

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (6 December 2021) invites us to pray:

We pray for the Church of Ceylon, comprised of the Dioceses of Colombo and Kurunegala.

Yesterday: Clement of Alexandria

Tomorrow: Saint Columba

Saint Nicholas defended doctrine that is central to the Incarnation and that make Christmas worth celebrating … the word homoousios (ὁμοούσιος) means ‘same substance,’ while the word homoiousios (ὁμοιούσιος) means ‘similar substance’; the Council of Nicaea affirmed the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are of the same substance, rather than of a similar substance

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

No comments: