In the twentieth year of his reign 325 AD, Constantine, the Emperor whose conversion to Christianity ended Roman persecution of what had evolved from a small Hebrew sect into a faith and creed patronized by devotees of nearly every ethnicity, race and culture from within and without the empire, convoked the First Council of Nicaea to deal primarily with the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth was “consubstantial” … of the same substance as God. By then church debate over the issue had devolved to such polemics, that it threatened disunion on the scale Martin Luther begat some twelve centuries hence.
Arguments against the notion Jesus was consubstantial originated chiefly with the Gnostics, and later found their way into the Church through “Arianism.” Arius was a presbyter (priest) in Alexandria who cited John 14:28 “the father is greater than I,” and Colossians 1:15 “the firstborn of all creation,” as evidence the two were different entities–which some say may have been controversial but not off the wall, and others have argued flew in the face of orthodoxy. Constantine sought a concordance at Nicaea that would bring about ecumenical harmony and order throughout his empire. Another item on the agenda, which may strike the reader as ironic–and iconic–later .. when to commemorate the Resurrection, which after Nicaea will be celebrated as one of two major holy days in Christianity.
Upon arrival in what is present day Iznik in northwestern Turkey, some 300 bishops summoned from all over the known world–including regions outside of Constantine’s purview such as Persia … debated the Nazerene’s essence for weeks and months on end until dissent waned to only a few. By that time the vast majority of the convoked had been won over to what would become the “Nicene Creed,” which reaffirmed the Trinitarian tradition, “one deity/three persons,” of the Apostolic Churches.
As is not uncommon in theological arguments however, resolution proved coy, if not unwilling. Arius was a highly disciplined ascetic who lived very austerely in abstaining from virtually all worldly pleasures so as to be completely wedded to the church and his own spirituality. It’s been said he had not only the confidence of his convictions, but often impressed men with an aura of intellectual superiority. He was pretty obviously what we would call hardcore, or “a true believer,” in today’s vernacular. Arius was certainly not a man to back down, confronted merely by overwhelming opposition. Indeed, one source records that the presbyter from Alexandria was so unapologetically contrarian for so long after the writing appeared on the wall–or I suppose we could say the scrolls, since canons were constituted that govern the church to this day–that another cleric, who like many of his colleagues had become exasperated and exhausted, finally took matters into his own hands … or shall we say, hand.
After listening to Arius’ heresy as long as his patience would abide, the Bishop of Myra, a town located in the southwest of Turkey on the Mediterranean coast, approached the incorrigible iconoclast and slapped him in the face! The assailant, born to wealthy Christian parents who died of The Plague while he was still young, had already made a name for himself through his generosity. Among his acts of benevolence, upon learning a disconsolate neighbor was planning to sell his oldest daughter into prostitution because he could not afford a dowry, the future bishop is said to have provided one for her, and later the same for both of the man’s other daughters. One bit of hagiography has him bestowing the gifts under the veil of darkness so as not to be discovered. The bishop stealthily ferrets out access points through which to deliver bags of gold coin into the home without disturbing the occupants. He tosses the first two through open windows on the same date, in successive years, to coincide with the two older girls reaching maturity. The third he delivers more surreptitiously in awareness or anticipation of the discerning father laying in wait … or presumably having found the windows locked.
Another anecdote has the bishop performing a miracle; which isn’t surprising if you know that as a precocious infant, the lad nursed only after sundown on Wednesdays and Fridays, fast days in Catholicism. According to the story three students walking to school were set upon, murdered and dismembered by an innkeeper who then packed their remains into pickle barrels. The bishop thereupon appears immediately and commands the children to rise piece by piece from the barrels, reassembling them incarnate. For this and other acts, the man from Myra will be canonized.
In 2005, photographs taken in the 1950’s of the bones believed to be those of the cleric located in a crypt in Bari, Italy, were forensically analyzed. It turns out the man with a heart as big as a Patron Saint’s, was all of 5 feet in stature.
Oh and that third gold bag .. dropped down the chimney where it landed in the stocking hung to dry over the fireplace embers by the youngest maiden.
Merry Christmas everyone.
Copyright Jim Lloyd 2010