The modern images of Saint Nicholas are more fantastical than factual.
That was part of the message of Rev Ben Randall, pastor of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, in his historical review of Nicholas at The Rotary Club of McMinnville on Thursday.
The genuine St. Nicholas was born in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in 280 AD and, as a devout Christian and evangelist, rose to become a bishop in his church’s region. Like the overwhelming majority of third century Christians, he had no doubt Jesus was truly God, the Supreme Being made flesh.
But a tiny minority of Christian preachers, most notably a man named Arius, disputed the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. Arius and his followers would not allow that anyone, or anything, could be as great as God. So Jesus, the Messiah, was a great and powerful representative of God, but not equal to Him, and certainly not of the same eternal, uncreated nature.
Enter Nicholas. Literally, he entered a pivotal conference of the leaders of the church who were called to debate and settle on issues disturbing the faith and cohesion of Christians in the early fourth century. The event was the First Council of Nicaea, convened in 325. Arius was there as the major disturber.
“In fact, jolly ol’ Nick became so agitated by how Arius was distorting the witness of Scripture that he approached him on the debating floor and struck him in the face with his fist,” Randall said.
That act of righteous indignation, Randall conceded, was “an unseemly violation of the dignified etiquette deemed appropriate for a sacred gathering. Nicholas was provoked to physical action because “he was passionate about his savior.”
Nicholas faithfully followed the example of Jesus in ministering to the poor, the outcasts, oppressed, and sinners. And this is where his fame as a benefactor — a generous giver of gifts without expectation of earthly reward — gathered strength, Randall told the Rotarians.
“On one memorable occasion he was visiting a village near his city and heard the plight of a bankrupt merchant. This unlucky individual had lost everything in some unforeseen calamity, and had sold all his remaining assets to keep his family from starving, but that miserable fate now seemed inevitable,” the Rotary speaker said.
In desperation, the merchant considered his only escape from the starvation death of his family would be to sell his three young daughters into prostitution. On hearing of this ultimate disgrace, Nicholas secretly tossed bags of gold coins into the chimney of the merchant’s dilapidated home, thereby averting financial and moral catastrophe.
So how do we picture St. Nicholas today?
The real saint probably wore the priestly garments of his time, perhaps a monk’s simple habit with the regalia of a bishop’s office. There is little to compare with the modern image of a rotund, laughing, red-suited Santa Claus created by an advertising agency in 1931 to boost sales of Coca-Cola.
Randall expands on his account of St. Nicholas when he appears this week in WCPI’s weekly “Focus” series. The 40-minute conversation airs on FM 91.3 at 5 p.m. Tuesday with repeats at 5:05 a.m. Wednesday, 1 p.m. Thursday, and 1:05 a.m. Friday.