As demonstrated by the number of stories surrounding St. Nicholas of Myra, as well as the traditions surrounding Santa Claus, Nicholas certainly had an impact on people, and his memory—though clouded by myth and commercialism—is alive and well. One of my favorite St. Nicholas stories doesn’t necessarily fit in well with the image of
“Jolly old St. Nick” but it is, interestingly enough, befitting the reputation of keeping a list of who’s naughty and nice.
In the fourth century, you couldn’t get much more naughty—theologically speaking—in the minds of orthodox Christian leaders than Arius of Alexandria. As Archbishop Rowan Williams has argued, Arius (who was a priest of the Alexandrian Church) was actually a theological conservative. He didn’t like the idea of Jesus being seen as God’s equal, and so, he argued that the Word of God (the Logos) was not co-eternal with the Father and that Jesus was not divine. Instead, the Word was the first among God’s creations—therefore, having a beginning and being somehow less than fully God. In contrast, the position that became enshrined in the Nicene Creed was that the Word/Son is co-eternal and of one substance with the Father, and that Jesus Christ is divine. The Bishops and priests at the Council of Nicea debated this issue hotly.
During the debate Nicholas became particularly frustrated with a proponent of Arianism (some claim Arius himself) and, being “overcome with Apostolic zeal,” smacked him. Nicholas is on several reconstructed lists—including the best—of those Bishops who were present at Nicea and who agreed to the orthodox formula, but he is not on all. While some maintain that this means he was not actually present, the more likely scenario is that later copyists wanted to limit knowledge of what was seen as an embarrassing outburst.
It is said that Nicholas was censured for his action, and deprived of the honor of wearing the ornaments of a Bishop—which is why Nicholas is usually depicted without a mitre in Eastern Orthodox Iconography.
This event is enshrined in a fresco depicting the Council of Nicea at Soumela Monastery in Turkey. Notice the lower left of the scene:
Here it is in more detail:
There’s no doubt that St. Nicholas was a generous and holy man. Just remember the part about him making a list and checking it twice.