I read a recent post on a Catholic website that really made me think. The post was entitled ‘St Nicholas – a bishop who went to jail for the truth’.
Most people know St Nicholas as the 4th century saint who is the origin of the Santa Claus or Father Christmas figure. He was a bishop known for his great acts of charity. One of these acts occurred when he heard of a man whose wife had died and who could not afford to look after his three daughters. The desperate man could see no way out other than to sell his daughters as slaves into the sex industry. St Nicholas was moved to act and went at night and reached in through the window of the house and put gold coins in the stockings of the three girls that were hanging up to dry – hence the origin of the Christmas stocking.
This picture of a kindly, generous, charitable man fits very well with our image of Father Christmas. However some of the lesser known stories about St Nicholas reveal a different man.
- According to St Methodius, during the Diocletian persecutions in 304 A.D. St Nicholas was tortured, chained up and thrown into prison for publicly preaching the Christian faith.
- A medieval life of St Nicholas records him as having attended the Nicene Council in 325 A.D. This council gathered together many bishops who came to discuss the teaching of Arius, a teaching that was finally declared heresy as it denied the divinity of Christ. At this council St Nicholas was reported as being so enraged by the heretical teaching of one of those defending the Arian heresy that he walked across the room and punched him in the face. Unsurprisingly his fellow bishops felt this kind of behaviour was unacceptable and presented to the Emperor Constantine who had called the council. Constantine condemned his behaviour as unbecoming the office of bishop and stripped him of his bishop’s robes and had him thrown into jail. St Nicholas was only reinstated after a subsequent miracle which was interpreted as divine approval. This explains why some icons of St Nicholas show him without the bishop’s mitre.
These two incidents give us a slightly different picture of the man. Perhaps the best we can say of St Nicholas is that he was a man of principle and passion. His principles set the course of his life and he was unswerving whatever the danger or personal cost. His passion led him to take action, some of which was courageous, some of which was costly, and some of which was ill advised.
The article went on to draw the following conclusion about St Nicholas:
The saint who is revered almost globally for his kindness and generosity was really someone who knew how to draw a hard line in the sand and to take a principled stand when it really counted. He would not compromise on his faith in the face of torture and death, nor would he stand by idly when those who should know better spoke falsely about the faith. Nicholas was a man of steadfast principle who made it clear that his “yes” meant “yes” and his “no” meant “no.”
The author also stated:
In our times of doctrinal confusion where leading prelates in the Catholic Church seem willing to compromise the truths of the Catholic faith in the name of false notions of “diversity,” “inclusivity,” “dialogue,” “mercy,” “pastoral accompaniment,” and the “internal forum” — even to the point of allowing unrepentant adulterers to receive Holy Communion, of winking at unnatural and immoral sexual practices as if they could be the basis upon which to form a “family,” and of permitting “individual conscience” to be the final arbiter of moral decisions, especially in the area of sexuality — the example of Bishop Nicholas bears a closer look.
This really made me think. I can agree with the first statement, I’m less in agreement with the second. I started reflecting on why I am less comfortable with that?
I think the author makes a mistake in ignoring the ‘hierarchy of truths’ – the reality that some truths of the Christian faith are more important than others.
St Nicholas’ defence of the divinity of Christ and his refusal to worship anyone but God were both acts that defend the very heart of the Christian faith.
If Christ was not God incarnate then the central pillar of the Christian faith – that his death opened up the way of salvation for humankind – has no basis. If Christ was only a man, then his death cannot have universal significance.
But are the other issues that the author then refers to – the issues of teaching about divorce and sexual mores – of the same level?
Another factor is that truths need to be agreed in order to be defended.
In relation to divorce we have to be more nuanced in our reading of Jesus’ teaching on the subject. What Jesus was addressing was not divorce per se, but the abuse of divorce by first century Jewish men as a means of abandoning wives that no longer pleased them. In the context of a society where men held most of the power and where divorce was rarely something low status women would ever want, some of the conclusions we have traditionally made regarding Jesus’ teaching on divorce start to become a little less obvious and less universal.
With regard to sexual mores we see many instances in the New Testament where sexual immorality is challenged within the Church. The young Christian communities were commanded by the apostolic writers to have counter-cultural sexual ethics.
It is important to note that this is in the context of the first century Roman world which was one where all kinds of sexual activity was part and parcel of everyday life. And yet the Christian churches were continually called to stand in radical opposition to this way of living. In some instances they were even called to exclude from their fellowship those who refused to bring this area of their lives into line (1 Cor 5:1-2).
Returning to the article about St Nicholas, part of me agrees with the writer that we need to similarly stand as a counter cultural witness against the sexual licence that is prevalent in our own society and not to flinch from that.
But another part of me want to recognise that I too fall far short of the standard of holiness to which Christ calls me in many areas of my life; as a man dependent upon God’s mercy and forgiveness for my daily failures to live as Christ commands me to:
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’
This is the first and greatest commandment.
And the second is like it:
‘Love your neighbour as yourself.
So how do I reconcile the fact that the only people who have any right to be in a Christian church are those who know themselves to be failures – sinners who stand in vital and daily need of God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness – and the fact that Christian communities are called to exemplify a different standard of morality and to challenge all behaviour within the community – sexual and otherwise – which fails to meet the ideal?
One of the mantras of recent thinking has been ‘belonging, believing, behaving’; this phrase encapsulates the idea that Christian communities need to be place of welcome where all find acceptance and a home – a place to belong.
Those who find a home within the Christian community are then to be accompanied in a journey that helps them come to understand the Christian message and to personally accept that message – to believe.
The final stage in the journey to authentic Christian faith is the process of helping these new followers of Jesus to bring the different areas of their life into line with the teaching of Jesus that they have accepted – to behave.
I think this is a helpful approach but it also has its challenges. At what point does the radical challenge ‘to put your life in order come in?’ How do churches cope with the reality of having a community where some of its members are living lives that openly flout the teaching of Jesus? When is the Christ-like and loving response not accepting someone in their sin but challenging that sin as behaviour that, if unchecked, will bring spiritual death?
I remember the story of when a woman was brought by an angry mob to Jesus. They wanted to stone the woman as she had been caught in the act of adultery. The mob called upon Jesus to pronounce her guilty and legitimise their intended action. But Jesus refused to condemn the woman and instead challenged the mob;
‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’
At this challenge the crowd melted away. But once alone with the woman Jesus’ final words to her were not; ‘Go, your sin does not matter’, but;
‘Go now and leave your life of sin’.
In Jesus treatment of this woman we see grace, mercy and forgiveness but also the challenge to change her ways.
How do we as Christian communities express both of these?
I am conscious that for most of us accepting is easier than challenging and that ‘rubbing along’ with societal values is easier than standing counter-culturally against them. It is for this reason that I found the article on St Nicholas so thought-provoking.
As Christian communities we have to be places of welcome, places where God’s inclusive love is experienced, but we also have to be places of challenge, we need to support each other on the rocky road to transformation; transformation of our thinking, speaking, and living. This is the road to radical holiness, anything less is an inauthentic and incomplete response to Jesus.
 Petrus de Natalibus, Catalogus sanctorum et gestorum eorum ex diversis voluminibus collectus, Lugduni 1508, Fol. VII. The English title appears to be ‘Legends of the Saints’. Petrus became bishop of Equilio (Jesolo) near Venice in 1370 and died around 1400.
 See I Corinthians chapters 6 and 10, Ephesians 5 :5, Hebrews 13:4, Jude 1:7, Revelation 21:8
 Matthew 22 :37-39 NIV
 See Revelation 21 :8
 John 8 :7 NIV
 John 8 :11 NIV