Thursday, December 06, 2007

St. Nicholas, December 6

Devotion to St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, arose so quickly and universally in Christendom, that we are bound to see it as testimony to the man's indomitable courage and faith. Even in the fourth century itself, after his death in a.d. 343, veneration of this saint became common in the East and the West.

The fact that everyone in the world knows about St. Nick, at least in the legendary form in which his memory comes to most people, is testimony to the great character of this saint.

There are many more legends and stories surrounding him than simply the most common, that he gave gifts (dowries, actually) to children (three maidens who might otherwise have been forced into prostitution). To mention only some, legend has it that as an infant he fasted from his mother's milk on Wednesdays and Fridays. He is reputed even to have miraculously reconstituted and brought back to life three young men who had been butchered and thrown in a brine vat. Another story has him appearing posthumously to a kidnapped boy and returning him to his parents.

One thing that can be said about all these stories, whether or not they are true, is that they testify to the universal acclaim accorded this saint. He is said to have used his inheritance to feed the sick, the poor, and the needy. And above all, he is known to have been a man of great faith.

He was imprisoned during the reign of Diocletian, in a prison where, we are told, there were so many bishops, priests, and deacons, that there was no room for the real criminals.

He is known to have been present at the first ecumenical council, of Nicaea, in a.d. 325, where he contended mightily against Arius for the full divinity of Jesus Christ. The Creed we say today is to some degree the result of the labors of St. Nicholas.

It is wonderful, I think, that St. Nicholas is revered by all, even if most today have no understanding of who this man really was, or whether, for that matter, they know that he really existed.

I'm still moved by the famous 1897 New York Sun editorial reply to that little girl who wanted to know the truth about Santa Claus, but I might have been inclined to add this: "And Virginia, here's another thing: there was also a St. Nicholas, a very real and mighty fourth century Christian Holy Man whose faith and life you will do well to imitate and remember, especially on the sixth of December!"

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