Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Nicholas - Giver of Gifts or Slapper of Heretics?

My previous historical personalities have been real people. I want to deal this time with someone who may not be real or, if he is, little of what has been said about him may be true. I am talking about Nickolas, bishop of Myra, the original of Santa Claus. The problem, of course, is that everything that is said about him was written long after the fact.

There are a number of anecdotes about his kindness, and it is hard afterwards to evaluate which ones are true. There is the familiar story of his providing money for three daughters of a poor man to use for dowries by throwing three bags of money secretly in their window. There is the tale of his rushing to the aid of three falsely accused soldiers to prevent their execution. It is told how he miraculously obtained reduced taxes and grain in time of famine. Even if the miracles are discounted, Nicholas still could have somehow obtained these. Though the specific incidents are dubious, they may still reflect a generous heart of the real man toward the poor and those in need.

He is also pictured as being imprisoned for his faith in the final Christian persecution under Diocletian. Later, when Christianity was an accepted  belief, he worked to tear down the pagan temples. At the council of Nicaea when Arius was explaining his views, Nicholas is said to have lost his temper and to have slapped Arius in the face. It is said that when Arianism later became the official belief, Myra, based on the teaching of Nicholas, was one of the few places that remained firm in its belief in the deity of Christ.

There are questions about whether Nicholas was ever at Nicaea. But this is something that I would not expect to be included if it were not true. Also, we have to ask how Nicholas became so famous. There were many imprisoned for their faith in the final persecution and many who helped dismantle paganism and were generous to the poor. But the slap in the face is the thing that seems to set Nicholas apart. While I am far from dogmatic about this, if it is true there is a certain irony here. That Santa Claus became Santa Claus by slapping someone in the face is very serendipitous.

Here is a man who held strongly to his faith, even through imprisonment. But slapping people in the face is not the way to deal with doctrinal disagreement. He appears to be a generally generous man, strong in his convictions, who at a certain point went overboard and lost his temper. Now there are some folks who are just consistently mean, and it is hard to defend that. But perhaps there is a place for grace for those who are over-dogmatic. After all, we are all people in process, and none of us have arrived yet. But in the end, all this is nothing but a good story that may or may not be true.

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