Theologian Thursday: St. Nicholas of Myra (270-343)

Since today is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, and his name is often invoked this time of year, I thought it would be appropriate to dedicate today's post to him.

As you might imagine, the larger-than-life legendary quality of Saint Nicholas far exceeds his actual story.

I mean, he was certainly a generous man, a pious bishop, and holy enough to become a saint. But honestly, how a modest and charitable person can become the well-known (yet not really known at all), commercialized caricature that we think of Saint Nicholas astounds me.

Anyway, the best known story of Saint Nicholas is that he caught wind of a man who had three daughters whom he could not marry off because he had not enough money for a dowry, so he was going to send them off to be prostitutes. Saint Nicholas, being well-off due to the inheritance of his parents, wanted to help. And so, under cover of darkness (for he was a humble man), he tossed bags of money through the windows of the man's home, resulting in the oldest daughter's marriage. He did the same for the other two daughters in subsequent years.

That's it, people. That's why Santa Claus delivers presents at night. And it's completely possible that this story is made up.

The funnier thing about this story is that it's the reason that, in paintings, Saint Nicholas is often portrayed with three moneybags, which somewhere along the line someone thought were the heads of three children. Thus leading to a legend about his resurrection and healing of three children who had been beheaded AND PICKLED by an evil innkeeper. For real. Who comes up with this stuff?

Saint Nicholas's main miracle was that he appeared in a dream to the emperor Constantine and his aide, telling them to release three innocent prisoners, who had prayed in Nicholas's name to be saved. The next morning, Constantine let them go free, instructing them to go to Bishop Nicholas and tell him to stay out of his dreams.

Nicholas may or may not have been present at the Council of Nicaea in 325, but one account that says he was indeed there includes that he slapped Arius across the face. Which I'm sure most people there wish they could have done.

A 2005 forensic investigation of Saint Nicholas's bones, which were quite well-preserved in his crypt in Bari, Italy, revealed that he was only about five feet tall. Which gives new meaning to the song "Little Saint Nick."