St Nicholas: He Who Punches Heretics in the Face (and Gives Gifts to Children)

{Emphasis and {commentary} in red type by Abyssum}

When President Teddy Roosevelt was a college student, he taught a Sunday School class for elementary school children. During this time, Roosevelt awarded a dollar to a boy in his Sunday School class for beating a bully who tormented little girls.

“You did exactly right,” said Roosevelt with pride. However, the congregation disagreed. They immediately dismissed Roosevelt for teaching the “un-Christian” principle of laying the smack down on those who have it coming to them.

The painting above depicts St Nicholas
punching the heretic Arius at the Council of Nicea


Well, if tradition is true, that little boy was also richly rewarded by Jolly Old Saint Nicholas since the good Saint Nick allegedly “h-slapped” (“heretic slapped”) the heresiarch Arius. You see, Arius wrongly taught that Christ was not fully divine. Rather, Arius taught that Christ had been created by God the Father.

During the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea (AD 325), Arius was called upon to defend his position on the inferiority of Christ. Saint Nicholas just couldn’t listen to all of Arius’ nonsense and so he stood up and laid in to Arius with his fist.

The Emperor Constantine and the bishops present at the Council were alarmed by Nicholas’ act of violence against Arius {it was considered a crime against the Emperor to engage in violent behavior in the presence of the Emperor}. They immediately stripped Nicholas of his office as a bishop by confiscating the two items that marked out a man as a Christian bishop: Nicholas’ personal copy of the Gospels and his pallium (the vestment worn by all bishops in the East).

Now if that were the end of the story, we probably wouldn’t know about Saint Nicholas, and our children wouldn’t be asking him for presents. However, after Nicholas was deposed, the Lord Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary visited Nicholas who was being held in a prison cell for his fist-fight with the heretic.

Our Lord Jesus Christ asked Saint Nicholas, “Why are you here?” Nicholas responded, “Because I love you, my Lord and my God.”

Christ then presented Nicholas with his copy of the Gospels. Next, the Blessed Virgin vested Nicholas with his episcopal pallium, thus restoring him to his rank as a bishop.

Traditional icons of Saint Nicholas depict this miracle. as below:

Icon:  Christ (left) holding out the book of the Gospels,
and Mary (right) holding out the episcopal pallium,
Nicholas (center) holding the Gospels and wearing the pallium

When the Emperor Constantine heard of this miracle, he immediately ordered that Nicholas be reinstated as a bishop in good standing for the Council of Nicea. Today we recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday so we know how the controversy played out. The bishops at Nicea sided with Saint Nicholas and Saint Athanasius and they condemned Arius as a heretic. To this very day, we still recite in the Creed that Christ is “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, one in being with the Father.”

Here is a painting of Saint Nicholas punching Arius:

Nicholas is on the left holding up his fist, Arius is on the ground with his hands up. The guy on the throne is Constantine.

Saint Nicholas, pray for us.

A Pure Distillation of 1970s Catholicism

I vividly remember my graduate studies at Yale, in the heady and tumultuous days immediately following the Second Vatican Council. A number of young Catholics, priests, religious, and lay people embarked upon doctoral studies in theology in a non-Catholic university – one of the countless post-Conciliar innovations.

One of my professors, a committed Lutheran, with great respect for the Catholic tradition, issued a friendly caution. He said (in words to this effect): “I pray that the Catholic Church is not destined to repeat in twenty years the same mistakes it took us Protestants 200 years to make.” He was referring, of course, to Liberal Protestantism, whose nadir was masterfully summed up by {Lutheran pastor and scholar} H. Richard Niebuhr, for three decades a Yale professor: “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

A recent article in The National Catholic Reporter brought these memories flooding back. The author, Jim Purcell, was ordained in 1965, the year the Council ended, and resigned from ordained ministry in 1972. He went on to work in Catholic Charities and as a vice president at Santa Clara University. He’s currently a member of NCR’s board.

Purcell calls for “a redistribution of power and authority” in the Catholic Church – “power” and “authority” seemingly indistinguishable, despite the scene of Jesus before Pilate, where Pilate’s power is ultimately futile before the truth of Jesus’ authority. (Jn. 19:11)

Aside from the predictable call for the ordination of women, Purcell aims at a deeper “revolution.” This would entail disconnecting the roles of priest and pastor, so that one, either woman or man, could be the canonical pastor of a parish without being a priest, thus striking “clericalism” (that dread foe!) a mortal blow.

Purcell then discloses the desired theological consequences of this revolution: “it would have the potential to shift the emphasis of pastoral leadership from the celebration of the Eucharist back to the preaching of the kingdom.” Echoing that well-worn mantra of the seventies, Purcell solemnly assures us that “Jesus preached the coming of the kingdom of God, not himself.”

Julian the Apostate burns the relics of John the Baptist (Legend of the Relics of St. John the Baptist) by Geertgen Tot sint Jans, c. 1490 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]
Emperor Julian the Apostate burns the relics of John the Baptist (Legend of the Relics of St. John the Baptist) by Geertgen Tot sint Jans, c. 1490 [Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna]

He then contrasts this perspective with the (presumably baneful) “emphasis on the consecration of the bread and wine and [Jesus’] ‘real presence’ – that developed over time.” In a stunning leap of logic (not to say theo-logic) we are informed that “Jesus taught his disciples the ‘Our Father,’” not how to “preside at the Eucharist” or “say Mass.”The mandatory, if ritualized, reference to “faith journey” follows, accompanied by the author’s confession that, though “the Eucharist is a very special food for my journey. . .the journey is primary not the food.” So much for “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you!” (Jn 6:53)

What is striking and symptomatic about such essays is their Christological minimalism, so sadly reminiscent of liberal Protestantism, now embedded, wittingly or unwittingly, in some institutions that persist in brandishing their “Catholic” pedigree.

One sorely misses that robust proclamation of the absolute primacy of Jesus Christ that lies at the heart of the New Testament and the apostolic tradition. One hears no hint, for example, of Jesus’ declaration “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Jn 14:6) Or Peter’s avowal: “Jesus Christ is the stone rejected by you the builders, which has become the cornerstone. There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” (Acts 4:11-12)

One searches in vain for the stupendous claim at the close of that hymn in Philippians that “Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:11) The rampant and truncated Christology passes over – in embarrassed silence – “all things were created through Jesus and for Jesus” and that “in him all things hold together.” (Col 1:16-17) And there is little sense that God’s entire salvific intent for the universe is to “recapitulate all things in Christ” (Eph 1:10) – a vision that inspired countless generations of martyrs and teachers of the faith.

Instead, we get a bloodless Jesus, made to our measure, rather than our being challenged by the living Lord to grow into that “mature manhood, measured by the full stature of Christ.” (Eph 4:13)

No wonder that, despite papal exhortations from Paul VI to Francis for a “new evangelization,” missionary zeal appears enervated, while the “nones” in our midst continue to proliferate. For if Jesus is just another voice, hawking his wares in the secular wilderness, who will set the fire of faith ablaze?

Now it happens that, just as the Council was opening, the Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray, delivered a series of lectures at Yale, later published as The Problem of God. Murray included a fine chapter on the development of doctrine in the early Church.

He defended, in his usual polished prose, the legitimacy of such development, in particular the dogma of the Council of Nicaea that the Lord Jesus Christ is “homoousios: consubstantial with the Father.” He did so in part to counter the great liberal Protestant historian, Adolf von Harnack who criticized the alleged “hellenization” by the early Church of the simple Gospel. Indeed, Murray went so far as to claim that the key question facing the nascent ecumenical movement was: “What think ye of homoousion?” Does Nicaea authoritatively convey and safeguard the authentic sense of Scripture?

In those halcyon and hopeful days, Murray could put the question within ecumenical discussion. Today, integrity demands it be also put to those who continue to identify ourselves as Catholics: “What think we of homoousion?”

Is Jesus Christ the preacher of the Kingdom, one in a line of the prophets, perhaps even the last and greatest? Or is he the only begotten Son, consubstantial with the Father, the eternal Word, the Light of the Nations, the universal Savior?

{I am surprised that Father Imbelli does not point out that the heterodoxy of Jim Purcell and The National Catholic Reporter is a reincarnation of the heresy of Arius.  In the Fourth Century Arius preached that Jesus Christ was a man chosen by God to proclaim the Gospel but that Jesus Christ was not God; he denied the Trinity of Persons in God.  Today, the de facto disrespect shown to our Eucharistic Lord is tantamount to manifesting a rejection of homoousion, a rejection of the divinity of Jesus Christ with tragic consequences for individuals and for many Catholics.}

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. Bishop Gracida:

    Just as I received your email, I was reading St. Ambrose’s On the Holy Spirit and reading these lines:

    “He Who rejoices in the love of the Church is stoned by the impiety of the Arians.” [tamen Arianorum impietate lapidatur, qui Ecclesiae pietate laetatur]. (III, 16, 122)



    Andrew M. Greenwell


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