Tuesday, December 6, 2011

St. Nicholas of Myra: Punching Heretics in the Face

Today is the Feast Day of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. Among many noteworthy aspects of his life, I note the following from the now defunct Lesser Feasts and Fasts: "As a bearer of gifts to children, his name was brought to America by Dutch colonists in New York, from whom he is popularly known as Santa Claus."

St. Nicholas is, of course, quite a different person from the Santa Claus who has become the patron saint of Western consumerism. And for Christians who find the very idea of "heresy" unsavory, and for whom taking the idea of heresy seriously may be the last remaining heresy, St. Nicholas should be deeply problematic. I note the following from an article entitled, "The Historical St. Nick: Santa Claus Punched Me in the Face":

St. Nicholas, hardened by his imprisonment under Diocletian, knew how to handle himself in a fight. Modern forensic facial reconstruction of the relic-skull of St. Nicholas, now in Bari, Italy, reveal a stout man with a bent nose, the result of several breaks. Being the genuine man of his roots, St. Nicholas didn't leave his common ways behind when attending to Church matters.

Constantine convened the Council at Nicaea in 325 to settle the Arian controversy. During a heated debate with Arius, Nicholas, indignant at Arius' unyielding obstinacy, punched him in the face. Though secretly thankful, the emperor had no choice but to strip Nicholas of his bishopric. ...

Generous to a fault, the real St. Nicholas spent his life in service to his community. He defended his faith even if it meant a punch in the face. If you get boxing gloves for Christmas, the giver knows the history of the broken-nosed Bishop of Myra.

While I admire St. Nicholas' willingness to defend the truths of the Christian faith as though something vital and precious is at stake, I do not condone the use of violence against persons because they espouse heretical views. Other saints have also been willing to defend the faith, but without the use of violence. So perhaps both those who don't like the idea of heresy as well as those who think it's important to distinguish heresy from orthodoxy can agree: in our commemoration of St. Nicholas, we do well to note that not everything about the man can be commended as worthy.

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