I have always loved hagiography. Often people hear the word, and they think of a sanitized account where the sainted person can do no wrong. People think of politicians who are deified by their followers. Real hagiography is different. When we look at the lives of those who are remembered as saints, we see depressed people, angry people, and frightened people. Christian saints are all people who are deep in a faith that God offers salvation for our sin. Christian saints are people who confessed that they are sinners in need of salvation.
Today is St. Nicholas day. Out of all the stories that are told of St. Nicholas, my favorite is how he was kicked out of the council of Nicaea. At this time, the bishop Nicholas of Myra would have been about 55. When Nicholas started serving the church, the church was persecuted. Under the emperor Diocletian, Nicholas was arrested, imprisoned and beaten, but his faith remained. When many people died, Nicholas survived and was faithful. Now that years passed, the Church was no longer persecuted, but in a favored position. The emperor himself made this council possible. Bishops from all over the world came together to talk about God, and most importantly answer the question: “What do we mean when we speak of the deity of Christ?”
Arius was a well spoken African priest who explained how Jesus was God’s creation, and how the deity of Christ was subordinate to the deity of the Father. There were great metaphors, songs that people could sing, and obviously ways that this understanding of the Jesus story spoke to people in the area. While Arius was explaining his position, St. Nicholas walked up to him and punched him in the face.
While there had never been a universal church council before, everybody there knew that a punch in the face was not an appropriate rebuttal. Even before the church became respectable, bishops didn’t punch priests. Nicholas would have overstepped his authority if he even reprimanded Arius because Arius was not his responsibility. Nicholas acted badly; he acted in a way that didn’t help anybody; he acted in a way that discredited anything he might say at the council.
The story continues that Nicholas had everything marking him as clergy taken away from him. He was locked up for the duration of the council as punishment for his unprofessional behavior. Nicholas was restored when the council ended, but his misbehavior took away his opportunity to be part of defining what the church would be now that it was no longer persecuted.
When I think about this, I wonder what must have been going through his mind. I imagine Nicholas remembering what life was like 30 years earlier, suffering with others during the persecution under the emperor Diocletian. I imagine Nicholas remembering dear friends who were killed by Roman soldiers.
One of the advantages of Arianism was that it was agreeable to the Empire. Arius could be understood in a way that supported imperial power, both Jesus and the emperor are Godlike. Both have a tangible divinity to them even though this divinity is not the same thing as being God. It is most likely that Constantine favored Arius but, he asked the church to decide for itself.
Nicholas experienced the empire and soldiers as enemies. Soldiers tried to beat his faith right out of him. For Nicholas, any advantage to the empire would be no advantage at all. I imagine the anger that boiled up in him. I imagine the man thinking “if this is true, if Jesus was not really God, I took a beating for nothing. All those deaths are for nothing.” Whatever he was thinking, it was personal. Nicholas acted with passion but without wisdom.
I love these stories because these are the stories that make the saints real to me. I see St. Nicholas as somebody for whom faith was his life. The passion Nicholas felt when he punched Arius was lived out when he saw prisoners treated unjustly and when he saw the needs of the poor and of those who traveled. The generosity of Nicholas is legendary but I believe the stories of an unreasonably generous man because I know he was unreasonable enough to punch the guy he disagreed with in a business meeting.