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20 December 2010

Nicholas of Myra

"Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you." (James 1:27, NLT)

In 270 AD a wealthy husband and wife had a baby boy, whom they named Nicholas. Sadly, while he was still a young boy, Nicholas' parents died as a result of an epidemic, and his uncle, a bishop (also named Nicholas), took him in and raised him. The elder brought the younger Nicholas up with a love of reading and a love for the church.

One of the things Nicholas is most remembered for was the fact that he used his inherited fortune to help those who were in need. He did this secretly (though he may not have been too efficient at keeping it a secret, seeing as how everyone knows about it now), never expecting anything in return.

Incidentally, here's what Jesus said about giving:

"Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you." (Matthew 6:1-4, NLT)

During Nicholas' life, Rome came under the rule of one of the most oppressive of its anti-Christian emperors, Diocletian. Nero is more widely known, but under Diocletian, Christians were hunted in caves and forests, they were burned, thrown to wild animals, and tortured and put to death in horrible ways. It is said that under Diocletian, so many Christians were imprisoned that there was hardly enough room in prisons for actual criminals. Nicholas was imprisoned along with many other believers.

One of the evidences of how brutally Christians were treated under Diocletian may have been uncovered in forensic examinations of Nicholas' bones in 1950. His nose was badly broken. Here is a link to a computer-generated forensic reconstruction of Nicholas' face (wish I could post the photo, but haven't obtained permission). The CG work was done in 2004, based on 2D images of his skull from the 1950 examination.

In 325 AD, Constantine became emperor and Nicholas was released from prison along with other Christians. (It was at this point that Christianity became the national religion and the church was not only no longer persecuted, but began to enjoy preferential treatment and benefits like tax exemption. Under Constantine it became popular to identify oneself with Christianity, since many saw it as a way to power and influence. Rather than continuing efforts to stamp Christianity out, Satan began to corrupt it from within. And that's a whole different story.)

Over the years Nicholas' reputation has obviously grown into fable (miracles have been attributed to him, both during his life and after his death). The basis we have for Santa Claus is a weird mixture of truth and fiction. It seems ironic to me that so much has been built up around this figure who made efforts to avoid putting himself in the spotlight.

(By the way, I don't have time to write about his official "sainthood" status being granted about 100 years after his death. That status is not for anyone other than God to grant, and the title belongs to all living true believers.)

Merry Christmas!


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