Friday, November 28, 2014

Celebrating St. Nicholas: When Santa Went to Jail

The Nativity Fast has begun and Christmas is just around the corner. Trees are soon to be decorated. Children around the world will make lists, check them twice and anxiously await the arrival of Santa Claus. However, parents beware! Jolly old St. Nick served time in prison. I’m not kidding! The man who slides down your chimney with a bag full of presents went to jail for assault. Should parents be concerned? Should we run a background check on Santa before letting him into our homes this year? Before we rush to fit Santa with a bright orange jumpsuit, a look back into history is needed. The man the world knows as Santa Claus is actually the embodiment of one of the great spiritual figures of ancient times. His name is Nicholas of Myra. Nicholas is not simply another Christmas legend among many – for Christians, he is honored as a saint and wonderworker. St. Nicholas of Myra was born during the third century in what is modern-day Turkey. The son of wealthy parents who died during an outbreak of disease, St. Nicholas chose to use his inheritance to serve the poor -especially children. One story tells of a man with three daughters who were to be sold into slavery because their family had no money. Amazingly, three bags of gold appeared in their home, providing the needed money for the family. The bags of gold, tossed by St. Nicholas through an open window, are said to have landed in shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings.
So how did St. Nicholas end up in jail? St. Nicholas’ service to the poor led him to become a bishop in the city of Myra. As part of his duties, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The Council of Nicaea was a meeting of leaders who came together to understand the fundamentals of the Christian Faith. At this meeting, a skilled orator named Arius argued against the beliefs we know as Christianity today. Nicholas, hearing these arguments, became enraged and struck Arius in front of the Roman Emperor Constantine. The Council was horrified, and St. Nicholas was stripped of his leadership position, put in chains, and thrown into jail for his crime. St. Nicholas was wrong to strike Arius and knew that violence in the name of faith can never be justified. He prayed for forgiveness while remaining steadfast in his defense of the Christian Faith. Ancient Tradition then has it that God, seeing his faith and humility, visited St. Nicholas in his prison cell one night, removed his chains, and returned to him his garments and staff. The next morning, the prison guards found him in his jail cell dressed as a bishop silently reading and praying. The Emperor received word of these mysterious events and quickly ordered him released, realizing that God had sent him a message. Nicholas then rejoined the Council of Nicaea and helped put into words what we know as Christianity today.
So yes, Santa Claus went to jail and in doing so taught that forgiveness is better than revenge and that humility is a quality that makes us uniquely human. Today, the works of St. Nicholas of Myra inspire people around the world, and many say that even now he walks among us, making the impossible possible. At a time when the holidays are defined by Black Friday and family stress, what better way to return to our roots then to pause on December 6th and celebrate a man who reminds us that our lives have meaning when we practice forgiveness and serve others? This year, remember the time Santa Claus went to jail and the life of St. Nicholas of Myra -the saint who knows how to not only throw a mighty punch but more importantly works wonders even today.

Verses for Vespers:

O holy Nicholas, Bishop of Christ, you lived your life with people of Myra. But since your spirit was anointed, your fragrance of sanctity was known by all. Now you anoint the faithful who show their love for you. O Father, deliver us from all distress and sorrow as you pray to the Lord for us.

O holy Nicholas, true servant of Christ, you are truly a protector of your faithful flock; and whenever you were asked for help, you gladly assisted those who sought your aid. Now you are also ready by day or by night to deliver us from all distress and sorrow.

When you appeared in a dream to Constantine the King, you gave him this warning: Release at once from prison those you have unjustly confined, for they are innocent; no murder did they commit as you claim. O King, listen to me, or else I shall call upon the Lord.

O holy Nicholas, holy preacher of Christ, always ready to help all on land or at sea. Whether they be near or far, you have compassion for all. You are a precious helper; therefore, we who gather here ask you to pray to the Lord that we be delivered from all distress and sorrow.

What crowns of praise shall we confer upon the saintly Nicholas? Once present in the flesh in Myra, he is present in spirit to all who love him purely. He is the leader and defender of everyone, a comforter in distress and a haven of all in danger, a pillar of piety and conqueror for believers. For his sake, Christ overcame enemies and shows us great mercy.

 With what songs of praise shall we extol the saintly Nicholas? He is the foe of wickedness. He is an outstanding leader,
a great defender and teacher of the Church. He confounds all who show dishonor. He is the refuter of Arius and his companions. Because of him, Christ put down their raging and showed great mercy.

With what hymns of prophecy shall we extol the saintly Nicholas? Living in the present, he saw far into the future. He spoke truly about faraway things as though they were near. He oversees the whole world and delivers the afflicted. He appeared in a dream to the God-wise king. He delivered prisoners who were unjustly accused of murder. Today he grants us the mercy of Christ.

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