St Nicholas vs Santa Claus

I am not, by and large, anti-Santa. But this morning, I’ve been re-thinking him a bit (and not my thesis that Santa Claus is Jesus) and have decided to now pit him against St Nicholas of Myra (saint of the week here), whose feast day was a week ago.

My inspiration for this comes from a few things in my Facebook feed this morning. First, a great piece called ‘Why My Family Says “No” to the Santa Claus Myth‘ over at Sojourners, which gives spiritual and economic reasons to reject raising your children with a belief in Santa Claus. In the article, Tara C. Samples explains that, while the myth of a jolly elf bringing children presents may have served a purpose in Christianity’s past (although I doubt it, and get the sense she does too), today it only serves to reinforce economic disparity, consumerism, and commercialism.

In fact, Santa Claus has so become the focus of this, the most popular (though not the chief) feast of the Christian year, that two, admittedly awesome, brothers who have had their photo taken with Santa every Christmas for 34 years are Viral Nova’s Christmas heroes. I mean, it’s a cool tradition, and I like the idea of doing geeky, ‘kid’ stuff well beyond the acceptable age limit. But, really — Christmas heroes?

So then I watched an allegedly ‘heart-warming’ video of Westjet employees staging a Santa to buy gifts for people flying from Toronto to Hamilton.* [CORRECTION: They were flying from Toronto & Hamilton to Calgary.] It probably would have been have somewhat heartwarming if Sojourners hadn’t already warmed my heart in a different way. Instead, all I saw was consumerism being celebrated in the modern-day feast of stuff. People were crying over cameras. A kid who looked around 10-12 got an Android tablet (which strikes me as irresponsible on Westjet’s part; the parents may have already got him one OR have had a good, non-economic reason not to). One family got a ginormous TV and were weeping. Lots of people who have watched this video seem to have cried over it.

The only gift I thought was really great was the gift of plane tickets home for one lady. That’s better than just more crap to fill your house with.

And I get it. A fairly sizeable corporation spent its advertising money on making people happy instead of yet another billboard. People got what they wanted. Mind you, these are all people who seem to fly between Toronto and Hamilton,* [CORRECTION: They were flying from Toronto & Hamilton to Calgary.] so — unless family sprang for their tickets (as lovely, generous families do) — they are unlikely to be especially destitute.

So, 400 words in, here we go. Santa Claus has taken over Christmas.

And, with him, the cult of buying, of shopping, of consuming, of stuff, stuff, stuff. I want a choo-choo train. I want socks and underwear. I want a big screen TV. I want a new camera. I want, want, want. Me, me, me.

I still believe in gift-giving. I think it a lovely, happy tradition when friends, family, and loved ones choose to bless one another in the form of thoughtful gifts that reflect on that relationship. You know, wives who buy their husbands underwear the Lenten shade of purple. Or parents who pay for tickets for their children to go to live musicals which otherwise they would miss. Or friends who buy you that book you were dying to have  but couldn’t justify purchasing. Or you find that oddity that perfect for that one friend.

Gift-giving is an expression of love and caring.

But the cult of consumerism has gone too far when people in atheist countries go Christmas shopping and commit suicide over it all. And this is where Santa Claus drives us, because when he becomes the focus of Christmas, the gifts become the focus of Christmas, and thus the shopping and the conspicuous consumption, and the reinforcement of the unjust economic systems that we are all part of and none of us does anything about.

St Nicholas is far better.

St Nicholas of Myra is a bit of a tough character to untangle historically. As John Anthony McGuckin explains in his fantastic lecture on the saint (which I can no longer find), at some point all the Nicholases were put on the same date in the Byzantine calendar. As a result, their stories sort of blended into one another and he became a legendary figure of superholy proportions.

Here’s what we can say about St Nicholas the Wonderworker as an example for us, whether legend or fact:

  • He was on the Nicene side of the Arian-Nicene debate. St Nicholas upholds orthodoxy.
  • He was born wealthy but gave it all up (like so many Byzantine saints) to become a monk. He gave his wealth to the poor.
  • He was called out of monasticism to become Bishop of Myra (southern Turkey today). He was selfless and served his community as his spiritual discipline, not retreating from the world.
  • He gave dowries to young women to save them from being sold into sex-slavery, thus combatting an unjust socio-economic system (even if he could not change it at large, he changed it for them).
  • He saved young people from drowning — once again, selfless sacrifice serving others.

Whom would you rather take as your inspiration this holiday season? An elf who reinforces our greed, instilling it in our children when very young, or a saintly bishop who gave up his wealth to dedicate his life to God and the service of the poor?

And then, let us ask ourselves: Are we seeking to live in the example of Christ, our king and leader, and his saints through the ages?

*Who flies from Toronto to Hamilton? Maybe Toronto was their layover. I hope so. Seriously, people. Take the GO Train. [CORRECTION: They were flying from Toronto & Hamilton to Calgary.]

Saint of the Week: St. Nicholas of Myra

A Version of a Post from 2007

Happy St. Nicholas’ Day!

That’s right, my friends, today is the feast day of jolly old Saint Nicholas–or, as the Eastern Orthodox call him, “Our Father Among the Saints, Nicholas the Wonderworker.” People these days seem to doubt that he ever existed, but considering that his bones were buried in Myra itself before being stolen by some Italian merchants and taken to Bari, I cast a vote in favour of his being real. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that all we can be certain of is that he was Bishop of Myra in the fourth century.

The reason I think most people doubt his existence is the fact that, like St. George, he is most famous for the sort of thing modernists aren’t in favour of believing. In poor St. George’s case, it was because he had the terrible misfortune of slaying a dragon, the sort of thing that one really ought to leave up to mythological heroes, so people doubt he existed, even though the bulk of his story deals with his torture and martyrdom.

St. Nicholas is most famous for two things:

i. Being Santa Claus.

ii. Giving money to three daughters of a man who couldn’t afford dowries. The legend says something or other involving chimneys and stockings. According to abbamoses.com, he threw the money through the window because he was trying to give it in secret.

We don’t really know much about St. Nicholas. He is very famous in the East for his miracles (the sort of thing modernists don’t believe — for a highly intellectual and brain-stretching discussion of miracles, read C. S. Lewis’ book by the same name), and I have no reason to doubt whether or not they happened outside of the documentation, none of which I have access to. He didn’t much want to be a bishop but originally wanted to be a monk. I have a feeling he’s the sort of saint who lived by St. Seraphim of Sarov’s words, “Keep your heart in peace and a multitude around you will be saved.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia doubts he was at Nicaea in AD 325, whereas abbamoses says he was. I think he was but have no scholarly reason why.* The Orthodox tradition says that he approached Arius in the council and slapped him on the face for saying such blasphemies regarding Christ (Arius denied the divinity of Christ). The other bishops, while the agreed with St. Nicholas’ sentiment, felt that this was not entirely the way to go about things at the council, so they put him in prison overnight as punishment. As the story goes, he had a dream that night of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Blessed Virgin gave him the bishop’s stole and Christ gave him a copy of the Gospels, the symbols of a bishop’s authority. When they came to let him out the next day, they found him with these objects in reality. The miracle confirmed St. Nicholas’ righteousness and the truth of Christian orthodoxy.

Who knows if it’s true or not. But if St. Nicholas of Myra was in Nicaea in 325, he is in part responsible for something much bigger and better than hopping on a sleigh with 8 or 9 flying reindeer and bringing baubles and toys for the greedy children of the world. He would have helped craft this, which was later revised as this.

*His name does not appear on any of the earliest lists of bishops at the council. Therefore, there is no historiographical reason to assume his presence. However, it is difficult to know who exactly was present at Nicaea, because we have no actual Acta as we do for later councils such as Chalcedon (451).

Eustathios

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

Eustathios (in the middle of the left cluster) raised his eyebrows in surprise. He hoped he did not audibly gasp. He and Makarios had been disappointed in Eusebios of Kaisareia’s support of Arios, but now Eusebios was advocating a formula of belief that called Jesus “God of God” and “begotten of the Father before all the ages.”

Eusebios concluded the formulary of Kaisareia, “. . . who was made flesh for our salvation and lived among men, and suffered, and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the Father, and shall come again in glory to judge the living and dead; we believe also in one Holy Spirit.”

“Well,” said Makarios quietly from his right, “the Lord still performs marvels.”

“Or Eusebios still plays at politics,” responded Eustathios.

“Let us be charitable, brother,” chided Makarios gently, a smile playing on his lips.

“We need something stronger. Shall I recommend the formula of Antiokheia or Aelia?”

“Whichever you like, Eustathios.”

Eustathios stood. Assembled were many, many overseers. The council was drawing to a close. The proposed formula would set a standard for the Assembly; if one disagreed, then one was not following the true and right teaching handed down from the apostles. Nikolaos, Spyridon, Alexandros of Alexandreia, Aurelianos, Vitos and Vikentios the legates from Roma, Hosios of Cordoba, an elderly woman who always caught his eye, someone who looked suspiciously like Metrophanes of Byzantion (Eustathios had heard that Metrophanes was too ill to travel, like Father Silvester), Arios himself, and Konstantinos all looked at him. Konstantinos nodded.

“I feel that the word-twisting logic games of the Arian philosophers would find a way around Kaisareia’s formula. I would like to recommend one that Makarios, Overseer of Aelia Capitolina,” Makarios raised his right hand in a little wave, “and I have put together. It is based largely on that of Antiokheia, but with additions from Aelia and our own prayerfully considered thoughts. It is as follows:

“I believe in one only true God, the Father almighty, creator of all creatures visible and invisible; and in our Lord Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son and first-begotten of all creation, born from Him before all ages and not made, true God from true God, of one substance with the Father, through Whom also the ages were framed and all things were made, Who because of us came and was born from the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was buried, and one the third day rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended to heaven, and will come again to judge living and dead; and in one Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, Who spoke in the prophets, and in one baptism of repentance to the remission of sins, and in one holy Catholic church, and in the resurrection of the flesh, and in the life everlasting.**

“Thank you,” Eustathios sat back down. The Metrophanes-like man was clapping quietly in the corner.

“Let us go with that of Overseer Eustathios,” stated Spyridon.

Alexandros of Alexandreia stood, “I feel that Kaisareia’s is more elegant, but that the one proposed by Brother Eustathios has important phrases we need to combat the dark teachings of Arios.”

“We must use the powerful words of Antiokheia,” proclaimed Nikolaos. “To say that Jesus was not made is an important statement; this holy mystery of God’s Incarnation and the knowledge of Jesus as the uncreated light of the world are what set us apart!”

“I would like to recommend,” said Konstantinos, glimmering from his throne, “that we keep Eusebios’ baptismal formula as the basis for the statement to be produced here. However, I agree with Alexandros that certain phrases are important in settling this dispute and establishing peace throughout the Anointed’s Assembly. Let us be sure, therefore, to count Jesus as of one substance with the Father, as well as what Nikolaos says about him being begotten, not made.”

The debate moved on, phrases being added here and there, and then, at the instigation of men such as Nikolaos and Spyridon, anathemas added to the end, dealing specifically with Arios. After some thirty days of gathering for prayer and discussion, the largest gathering of overseers the world had ever seen produced the following:

We believe in one God the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, things in heaven and things on the earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and became man, suffered, and rose on the third day, ascended into the heavens, is coming to judge living and dead.

And in the Holy Spirit.

And those that say, “There was when he was not,” and “Before he was begotten he was not,” and that, “He came into being from what-is-not,” or those that allege, that the son of God is “Of another substance or essence” or “created” or “changeable” or “alterable,” these the Universal and Apostolic Assembly anathematizes.

Some stayed in Nikaia for Konstantinos’ twentieth anniversary celebrations. The more monkish went home immediately. Many thought it was over, that Arios and falsehood had been cleansed from the Assembly. It was only just beginning.

*Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963, pp. 24-25.

**J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, 2nd ed. London: Longmans, 1960, pp. 184-185. The creed is the creed of Antioch as quoted by John Cassian up to “living and dead.” After that, it is the creed of Jerusalem. Kelly notes that Cassian’s creed, quoted in 430/31, has had Nicene phraseology added to it (185). The creed of Jerusalem, however, is “of fairly early date” (183). All three creeds are ancient baptismal formulas, just like the West’s “Apostle’s Creed.” That Sts. Macarius and Eustathius were working together in creedal formulation behind the scenes, see The Catholic Encyclopedia.

Nikolaos, Part II

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

That night Nikolaos drifted to sleep in his prison cell to the sounds of the night life of Nikaia. He was awakened after what seemed to be a most refreshing — but brief — nap by a Light flooding the chamber. He opened his eyes, and the yellow sandstone seemed to glitter as gold. A sourceless radiance was filling the room. His mortal eyes had trouble adjusting, but he thought he saw a figure. No, two figures.

In an instant, Nikolaos was prostrate on the ground. He had indeed seen a Figure, a most glorious Figure, dazzling in brilliant raiment. Konstantinos paled by comparison. All earthly things, all creation, paled in comparison of the One Who Himself was Light.

“Woe to me!” he cried aloud at this Vision of the Magnificence. “For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell amongst a people of unclean lips! And I have seen the Lord Himself!”

And then the Figure laughed. Not a patronising laugh. Not a laugh of mockery. The laugh of an old Friend, glad to see His comrade. “Nikolaos, faithful servant, you may look upon me.”

Nikolaos, living by faith alone, dared to look upon the glory of the Anointed. He seemed to be the Source of the Light, although not as light radiates from a flame. Nikolaos could never properly put it into words in the years to come, and whenever friends would say him, “Father Nikolaos, tell us about the time you saw Jesus and His Mother,” he would decline comment. But His face was kind, His eyes ageless, brown and timeless like a slice from the heart of an ancient oak tree. He was smiling down upon Nikolaos, his very teeth radiant and pale like the moon.

“Nikolaos,” said a feminine voice to the left of the Anointed, “you may rise.”

Nikolaos stood, and only glanced briefly at the Mother of his Lord. She smiled at him with kind eyes. But was impossible not to look at the One she accompanied. And this was how the Virgin would have it.

“Your zeal for My Name and My honour is like Elijah’s, Nikolaos. If all overseers of My Assembly had such zeal and respect, then you would not all be here in Nikaia arguing about Me!” The Anointed smiled a sad smile.

“My Son and I have brought you gifts,” Holy Mary said. “Here is the stola of an overseer, for we confirm you as an overseer in the Assembly.”

Nikolaos took his eyes off the Anointed Jesus only long enough to receive the gift. “Thank you,” he uttered.

“And here is the book of the Good News, telling the story of my dwelling upon earth. For as overseer, you have done well in the task of bringing this Good News to the people; you have upheld the virtue of your office, and shall continue to do so,” the Glorious One handed Nikolaos a golden Book.

When the guards came to wake Nikolaos in the morning, he was found clutching these two objects to his breast as he slept; his office as overseer and his understanding of the Anointed confirmed, he was allowed to rejoin the gathering.

Nikolaos sighed a little, for he knew that, between the vision of the Majesty and that miracle involving the money for the poor girls, he would become a celebrity in no time. His name would live forever, and all he really wanted was for the Name of Jesus, the Divine, Eternal Word to live forever. He chuckled to himself, thinking they might even slap the word holy in front of his name.

Nikolaos, Part I

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

Nikolaos (the one in the middle of the cluster to the right of Konstantinos) sat in the yellow sandstone cell. While his monastic lifestyle had accustomed him to harsh living conditions, he had normally sought them of his own will; being in prison was not the same as being a monk. He breathed in and out, trying to focus his thoughts, praying the name “Jesus” with each movement of his lungs.

“Jesus,” he breathed slowly in, focussing on the wall across from him. “Jesus,” he breathed out again. He had heard of some contemplatives who had made the prayer longer, larger, fuller, a declaration: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Nikolaos had found that simply calling out the Name of the Anointed Jesus was all he needed, that by so doing the risen, ascended Lord of Creation came near to him and indwelt his being, making him full. It helped quiet his thoughts and bring him to a place where the praise of God could truly be always on his lips. “Jesus,” he uttered once more.

But now — now his thoughts were having trouble calming down. He had been shocked to hear of the declarations of Elder Arios of Alexandreia, who declared, “There was when he was not.” How could that be true? The Anointed Jesus is Lord, so all the Assembly of God, so all the New Jerusalem scattered across the world declared. And there is only one Lord, and he is God himself. For Nikolaos, it was simple — Jesus the Anointed was God enfleshed; he was the . . . the God-Man! God had taken flesh up into himself; by this action, all humanity was able to be redeemed. If the Anointed Jesus were not God, then we are not saved. Nikolaos would be doomed; so also would be Arios. As the letters, messengers, and travellers passed through Myra, Nikolaos, as overseer, had learned of Arios and of the condemnation of his teachings in Antiokheia.

When the summons to Nikaia came, Nikolaos could not stay away from Bithynia. He set out to this gathering of all the overseers of the world. He was, as anyone would be, impressed by the grandeur of Konstantinos, his palace, and the houses he had built for the Lord in the city. But, as a monk, he saw that no matter how much gold was poured out, no matter how many gems were embroidered in garments, no matter how many beautiful images were painted, the hearts of men are still corrupted and corruptible. Indeed, amidst the 300 overseers, he was surprised that there was less virtue and discipline than he had anticipated — almost as though the brief years of what some called the Triumph had already corroded the very fabric of the Assembly.

The meetings troubled Nikolaos still further. Arios was not the only one who held that the Anointed was a created being, that the Word was begotten and created! This was heresy; Jesus was begotten, not made. Arios’ supporters explained that at the base of everything in the universe lay one uncreated, unbegotten Being who had no beginning and who was free from the vicissitudes of change. This Being had one substance and one divine nature. This Being was the Being to whom the Anointed Jesus referred as Father. There could be but one divine nature, they argued, since there could be a single divine substance; if Jesus has a divine nature as well, he must share it with the Father. Either this produces two gods or it reproduces the teachings of Sabellios, which confuse the persons of the Son and the Father. Surely, they argued, none of the overseers present was a heretical Sabellian, or so uncultured as to say that somehow there could be two divine natures and somehow a single substance! This would go against the clearly demonstrable rules of philosophy!

“We are not here,” declared Nikolaos when they had continued on long enough about Platon and Aristoteles, “to discuss philosophy. Philosophy is created by man, by pagans; it is flawed. What has Athenai to do with Jerusalem? We are here to discuss the infallible truths of the Book and the Traditions of the Holy Ones! What do these tell us? Did not Holy Johannes, companion of our Lord, write, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’? How could the Word both be God and not God at once? Does not your Aristoteles warn against contradiction in his teachings on philosophy?”

An Arian had stood and said, “According to the Book of Proverbs, the Son of God was created before time and everything was created through him in his guise as the Wisdom of God; he is pre-eminent before the rest of creation; he goes by the names God, Word, Wisdom, and Strength due to the grace of God, not due to his very nature.” [1]

Nikolaos interrupted, “But does Holy Paulos not write in his letter to Philippi that he was in very nature God?”

“Yes,” came the Arian response, “but Holy Paulos continues and declares that the Anointed did not consider equality with God something to be grasped. But the Anointed had his will perfect with the Father for all time, despite his changeability; thus, the Father granted him glory before all worlds. He is subordinate in terms of rank, authority, and glory. The Son is alien and dissimilar in every way to the essence and selfhood of the Father. He is a creature.”

“I am a creature; you are a creature; this very building we overseers stand is a creature.”

“And so is the Anointed.”

“A creature? Like me? How in Hades could a creature save a fallen creature?! This is sheer self-contradictory madness!” Nikolaos turned his blazing monastic eyes to Arios amidst the elders and holy servants. As he did so, he stepped from among the overseers and mindlessly walked across the gathered council. “I had no idea your idiocy ran so deep, Arios! If you are not excommunicated by the end of this for your deep blasphemy and hatred of the truth, I shall turn in my holy orders as overseer in the Anointed’s Holy Assembly! For there is nothing holy about an assembly in which such destructive evils as your teachings can abide! You are a scoundrel and an anti-Christ, heretic!”

And then the peace-loving ascetic overseer from Myra, a man who believed only in doing good works for the Anointed and his people, did the unthinkable. Using his right hand, the old man struck Arios with a back-handed blow. Elder Arios stumbled backwards, Nikolaos’ ring of office leaving a mark on his face.

Thus Nikolaos found himself in turmoil in his cell, trying his utmost to pray the Jesus Prayer, seeking the place of rest, of inner peace, where he could abide with his Maker and calm his thoughts. As the cell grew dark, he lay down on the straw pallet and drifted into sleep in a strange city, suffering the harsh justice of the Revered Konstantinos.

* * *

[1] All discussions of Arian theology are based on Hubertus Drobner, The Fathers of the Church, A Comprehensive Introduction, trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007, pp. 235-237.

Saint of the Week?

Over at Matthew’s Random Ramblings, I had a tendency to post a poem each week (they can be seen here), something I took up again yesterday.  I decided that over here at the pocket scroll, we could have a saint each week.

Part of the thrust of classic Christianity as described in the pages on the sidebar is to draw us back into the Great Tradition that has carried forth the Word of Life through the ages and to us.  I want us to draw back to those who have gone before and tap into their devotional practices, their ways of reading Scripture, their teachings, their poems, their examples of life.  Classic Christianity is more than just a bunch of books; it is men and women, flesh and blood, body and spirit.  Lives have been lived in the service of Christ, deaths have been died in the same.  By turning to this Great Cloud of Witnesses, to this Communion of Saints, we are tying ourselves into something much bigger than the concerns of today and this year.

Questions inevitably arise when a Prot does something of this sort, most notably: who counts as a saint? (Usually said meaning, “I’m a saint too, aren’t I?”)  A saint is, literally/etymologically, a “holy one.”  I take all Christians no longer with us as fair game as saints.  Since I’m Anglican, any who appear outside of the Early or Mediaeval/Byzantine Church are probably going to be from that tradition, but I’m also unafraid of post-Reformation Catholic or Orthodox saints.  I may post about St. Seraphim of Sarov and St. John of the Cross someday, their lives here on this blog alongside Richard Hooker and Thomas Cranmer.

My hope is that we will be drawn nearer to God by their examples, that we will be inspired by the works He has wrought in those who have gone before us, that our faith in His ability to pierce the veil between Earth and Heaven will be bolstered.

I hope also to herein explore ways of honouring the saints suitable to a Protestant Anglican who believes that it was with good reason the Reformers gave us this Article of Religion:

XXII. Of Purgatory.
The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

Nonetheless, if you are Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox and seek the intercession of the saints and venerate their icons and holy days, I hope that these musings here will be of some help and possibly draw us to seek out new and creative ways to engage with those who precede us.

I have written about one saint here already, St. Columba.

At Matthew’s Random Ramblings, I have already written about these saints:

The Blessed Virgin Mary

St. Clare of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi here and here

St. Thomas Becket

St. Nicholas of Myra

St. Hilda

Ramon Llull here and here