Who was St. Nicholas? by Kevin DeYoung

The is so much to discover about the real Christian man, from the distant past, who became the impetus for the modern character of St Nick. I found this fine bit of research and writing at the blog of Kevin Deyoung. I hope you enjoy it! ~pdb

The unsatisfying answer to the title of this post is that nobody knows for sure. To quote one Nicholas scholar “We can grant a bishop of that name who had a great impact on his homeland. We can also accept December 6 as the day of his death and burial. These are all the facts we can hold to. Further we cannot go.” (Gustav Anrich quoted by Charles W. Jones in Saint Nicholas of Bari, Myra, and Manhattan).

St Nicholas Icon
St Nicholas Icon

According to the best estimates, Nicholas, was born around 280 AD in Patara, in Asia Minor. He later became bishop of Myra in modern day Turkey. Nicholas, it seems, died about 343 on or near December 6. That is the date of his Feast Day in the Catholic church.

There is no record of his existence attested in any document until the 6th century. By that time Nicholas, whoever he had been, was already famous. The emperor Justinian dedicated a church to him in Constantinople. Initially, Nicholas was most well known in the East. But by 900, a Greek wrote “The West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him. Wherever there are people, his name is revered and churches are built in his honor. All Christians reverence his memory and call upon his protection.” In 1087, Italian sailors stole his supposed relics and took them from Myra to Bari, Italy. This greatly increased his popularity in Europe and made Bari one of the most crowded pilgrimage sites. It is said that Nicholas was represented by medieval artists more than any other saint except Mary.

The Man and the Myth

Why was Nicholas so famous? Well, it’s impossible to tell fact from fiction, but this is some of the legend of St. Nicholas:

He was reputed to be a wonder-worker who brought children back to life, destroyed pagan temples, saved sailors from death at sea, and as an infant nursed only two days a week and fasted the other five days.

Moving from probable legend to possible history, Nicholas was honored for enduring persecution. It is said that he was imprisoned during the Empire wide persecution under Diocletian and Maximian. Upon his release and return, the people flocked around him “Nicholas! Confessor! Saint Nicholas has come home!”

Nicholas was also hailed as a defender of orthodoxy. Later sources claim he was in attendance at the council of Nicea. According to tradition, he was a staunch opponent of Arianism. Writing five centuries after his death, one biographer wrote “Thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas, the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as a death-dealing poison.” Stories of his courage abound, one claiming that Nicholas traveled to Nicea and, upon arrival, promptly slapped Arius in the face. As the story goes, the rest of the council was shocked and appalled, so much so that they were going to remove Nicholas from his bishopric, that is until Jesus and Mary appeared to defend him. According to the same legend, this apparition changed the minds of the delegates who quickly recanted of their outrage.

As you might have guessed, Nicholas was also revered for being a generous gift giver. Born into a wealth family, he inherited the fortune when his parents died. Apparently he gave his vast fortune away. The most famous story involved three girls who were so destitute that they were going to be forced into a life of prostitution. But Nicholas threw three bags of gold through the window as dowries for the young woman.

Over time, Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of nations like Russia and Greece, cities like Fribourg and Moscow, and of children, sailors, unmarried girls, merchants, and pawnbrokers (the three gold balls hung outside pawn shops are symbolic of the three bags of gold).

Christmas and St. Nicholas

In honor of St. Nicholas the gift giver, Christians began to celebrate December 6 (his feast day) by giving presents. The tradition developed over time. For good boys and girls, St. Nicholas would come in his red Bishop’s robe and fill boots with gifts on the night of December 5. For bad boys and girls St. Nicholas was to be feared. In highly catholic parts of Europe, St. Nicholas became a deterrent to erring young children. In Germany, he was often accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht (farmhand Rupert) who threatened to eat misbehaving children. In Switzerland, St. Nicholas threatened to put wicked children in a sack and bring them back to the Black Forest. In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas’ helper would tie them in a sack and bring them back to Spain. In parts of Austria, the priest, dressed up in Christmas garb, would visit the homes of naughty children and threaten them with rod-beatings. At least nowadays, he only checks his list!

Not surprisingly, the Reformers were less than friendly towards the traditions that had been built up around the saints. Luther rejected the saints’ days, believing they were built upon legends and superstitions (and a virulent strain of moralism we might add). In Germany, Luther replaced Saint Nicholas’ Day with a different holiday, Christ Child, or Christkindl. Ironically, Kriss Kringle which derived from Luther’s Christ Child holiday, has become just another name for St. Nicholas.

From St. Nicholas to Santa Claus

The cult of St. Nicholas virtually disappeared in Protestant Europe, with the exception of one country: the Netherlands. If you love Christmas with all the trappings of Santa Claus and stockings and presents, thank the Dutch. If you despise all that, try to ignore my last name for the time being. The Puritans had done away with St. Nicholas and banned Christmas altogether. But the Dutch held on to their tradition and brought it with them to the New World. In the Netherlands Sint Nicolaas was contracted to Sinterklaas. According to Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas rides a horse and is accompanied by Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. Many people figure black Pete was derived from black slaves, although others counter and say that he is black because he goes down the chimney and gets a face full of soot.

At any rate, it is easy to see how Sinterklaas evolved in America to Santa Claus. Santa Claus became the Santa we know in the United States only after the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was written in 1823. Possibly the best known verses ever written by an American, the poem has greatly influenced the tradition of Santa in the English speaking world and beyond.

Jolly Old St. Nick and Jesus

How should Christians relate to the traditions of Santa Claus? C.S. Lewis embraced them and so included Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Other Christians, fearing syncretism, stay clear of Santa, reindeer, and a tree full of presents. I’ll leave it to you and your family to form you opinions on observing the Christmas holiday (see Rom. 14:1, 5-6). Personally, we try to walk in the middle of the road on this one: we don’t teach our kids about Santa, but we are happy to enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life, a couple Christmas trees, and a little Bing Crosby. And if the kids, picking up bits and pieces from other places, end of listening for flying reindeer landing on the roof, we’re not going to introduce the laws of physics to crush their anticipation. Most of all, of course, we try to press home that Christmas is about Christ.

But if you have a lot of Santa Claus around, why not use him to your benefit and talk about the real St. Nicholas. We don’t know a lot about him, but we know he lived and was revered. According to legend-one of those stories that probably isn’t true, but should be–when Nicholas was little boy he would get up early in the morning to go to church and pray. One morning, the aging priest had a vision that the first one to enter the church in the morning should be the new bishop of Myra. When Nicholas was the first to enter, the old priest, obeying the vision, made the young boy bishop right on the spot. But before he consecrated Nicholas a bishop, the priest asked him a question. “Who are you, my son?” According to tradition, the child whose legend would one day become Santa Claus replied, “Nicholas the sinner.” Not bad for a little boy.

With what little we know about St. Nicholas, it is safe to say he would not be pleased to know he had eclipsed Christ in the hearts of many as the central figure of Christmas. For the Bishop of Myra no doubt knew the angel’s words to Joseph: “Mary will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” So this Christmas, give gifts if you like. We will in our family. Receive them all with thanksgiving. But do not forget what we need most–salvation through substitution. This is one gift the real St. Nicholas would not have overlooked.

By Kevin DeYoung, bogging at DeYoung, Restless and Reformed.

Tony Reinke

Slow is bad in the modern vernacular, but around this time of the year the slow celebration of Advent serves as a reminder of just how right and precious slow is the plan of God. Take the lesson from Octavius Winslow and the words he penned in his book The Glory of the Redeemer (1844):

The entire theocracy of the Israelites was interwoven with a system of symbols and types of the most significant and instructive character. It was thus the wisdom and the will of God that the revelation of Jesus to the Church should assume a consecutive and progressive form. Not a sudden but a gradual descent to the world, marked the advent of our adorable Redeemer.

The same principle of progressiveness is frequently seen in a saving discovery of Christ to the soul. Not by an immediate and instantaneous revelation, not by a single glance of the…

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Must we believe the Virgin Birth?

While most everyone is excited about celebrating Christmas, I fear that very fewer actually believe in the Virgin Birth of the Son of God the Son as proclaimed in the Bible. It was the prophet Isaiah predicted this, and the Gospel of Matthew made clear the connection to Jesus – who was conceived in Mary before she was wed to Joseph (Mt. 1:18) — 

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isa. 7:14)

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). (Mt. 1:23)

Luke reported in his Gospel that Mary was a virgin, and recorded her own testimony to that fact (Luke 1:27, 34). New Testament doctrine goes on to explain how Jesus is the divine Son of God (not the son of human man), as well as a sinless Savior (without the sin inherited from Adam). The Virgin Birth is not merely part of the Christmas story — it is a vital doctrine woven into the very fabric of biblical truth about our Savior.

Dr Al Mohler, in a recent article on the Virgin Birth, engages NYT writer, Nicholas Kristof, and others who challenge the credibility of the Virgin Birth. Some key paragraphs — 

Even if the Virgin Birth was taught by only one biblical passage, that would be sufficient to obligate all Christians to the belief. We have no right to weigh the relative truthfulness of biblical teachings by their repetition in Scripture. We cannot claim to believe that the Bible is the Word of God and then turn around and cast suspicion on its teaching.

Millard Erickson states this well: “If we do not hold to the virgin birth despite the fact that the Bible asserts it, then we have compromised the authority of the Bible and there is in principle no reason why we should hold to its other teachings. Thus, rejecting the virgin birth has implications reaching far beyond the doctrine itself.”

Implications, indeed. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, who was His father? There is no answer that will leave the Gospel intact. The Virgin Birth explains how Christ could be both God and man, how He was without sin, and that the entire work of salvation is God’s gracious act. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, He had a human father. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, the Bible teaches a lie.

Carl F. H. Henry, the dean of evangelical theologians, argues that the Virgin Birth is the “essential, historical indication of the Incarnation, bearing not only an analogy to the divine and human natures of the Incarnate, but also bringing out the nature, purpose, and bearing of this work of God to salvation.” Well said, and well believed.

READ THE WHOLE MOHLER ARTICLE HERE.

May we all be steadfast with the truth, and share Mohler’s conclusion:

This much we know: All those who find salvation will be saved by the atoning work of Jesus the Christ — the virgin-born Savior. Anything less than this is just not Christianity, whatever it may call itself. A true Christian will not deny the Virgin Birth.

Powerful, post-Christmas pondering

I hope you have 3 minutes to read something profound — which perfectly fits this present post-Christmas “downtime”…

Hopeful Post-Christmas Melancholy
(Author: Jon Bloom, at DesiringGod.org blog)

Each year Christmas night finds members of my family feeling some melancholy. After weeks of anticipation, the Christmas celebrations have flashed by us and are suddenly gone. And we’re left standing, watching the Christmas taillights and music fade into the night.

But it’s possible that this moment of melancholy may be the best teaching moment of the whole season. Because as long as the beautiful gifts remain unopened around the tree and the events are still ahead of us, they can appear to be the hope we are waiting for. But when the tree is empty and events are past, we realize we are longing for a lasting hope.

So last night, as Pam and I tucked our kids into bed, we talked about a few things with them:

Gifts and events can’t fill the soul. God gives us such things to enjoy. They are expressions of his generosity as well as ours, but gifts and celebrations themselves are not designed to satisfy. They’re designed to point us to the Giver. Gifts are like sunbeams. We are not meant to love sunbeams but the Sun.

Putting our hope in gifts will leave us empty. Many people live their lives looking for the right sunbeam to make them happy. But if we depend on anything in the world to satisfy our soul’s deepest desire, it will eventually leave us with that post-Christmas soul-ache. We will ask, “Is that all?” because we know deep down that’s not all there is. We are designed to treasure a Person, not his things.

It is more blessed to give than receive. What kind of happiness this Christmas felt richer, getting the presents that you wanted or making someone else happy with something that you gave to them? Receiving is a blessing, but Jesus is right—giving is a greater blessing. A greedy soul lives in a small, lonely world. A generous soul lives in a wide world of love.

It’s just like God to let the glitter and flash of the celebrations (even in his honor) to pass and then to come to us in the quiet, even melancholic void they leave. Because often that’s when we are most likely to understand the hope he intends for us to have at Christmas.

Amen. pdb

Christ came, full of grace & truth

JOHN 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

This speaks of the incarnation (“God taking on human flesh”) of Jesus Christ. It is the climax of the prologue to John’s Gospel. It ends with the phrase “full of grace and truth.” What does this mean? While some think it refers to the moral character of the Lord Jesus Christ (which was/is gracious and truthful), others see it as describing the spiritual riches He brought into the world of men as Savior.

So thinks J. C. Ryle, who writes:

“He came full of the gospel of grace in contradistinction to the burdensome requirements of the ceremonial law. He came full of truth, of real, true, solid comfort, in contradistinction to the types and figures and shadows of the law of Moses. In short the full grace of God, and the full truth about the way of acceptance, were never so clearly seen until the Word became flesh, dwelt among us on earth, opened the treasure-house , and revealed grace and truth in His own person.”

Praise God for the coming of Jesus Christ!
pdb

Thou Who Wast Rich….

My favorite song of the season this year….

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour,
All for love’s sake becomes poor.

Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man;
Stooping so low, but sinners raising
Heavenwards by thine eternal plan.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man.

Thou who art good beyond all measure,
All for love’s sake became sin;
Setting aside thine own good pleasure,
Died to make us live again.
Thou who art good beyond all measure,
All for love’s sake became sin.

Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.
Emmanuel, within us dwelling,
Make us what thou wouldst have us be.
Thou who art love beyond all telling,
Saviour and King, we worship thee.

— Frank Houghton (1894-1972)
— based upon 2 Corinthians 8:9

I definitely like SARAH BROWN’s version of this, on my favorite Christmas album. (Her album notes here)

Chip Stam writes: “This hymn was written at a particularly difficult time in the history of the missions to China. Missionaries had been captured by the communist Red Army and released in poor health after over a year of suffering. Others had been captured never to be heard from again. In 1934 the young missionaries John and Betty Stam (my great aunt and uncle) were captured in Anhwei and beheaded . The news of these sorrows had reached the mission’s headquarters in Shanghai. Though this was a very dangerous time for both the Chinese Christians and the foreign missionaries, Frank Houghton decided he needed to begin a tour through the country to visit various missionary outposts. While traveling over the mountains of Szechwan, the powerful and comforting words of 2 Corinthians 8:9, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor,” were transformed into this beautiful Christmas hymn.”

Jesus is the reason for this?

In the midst of our culture’s materialistic fervor during the “holiday season” does it help for believers to chine in, “Jesus is the reason for the season”? I think Warren Cole Smith — (writing in WORLD Magazine) draws a helpful line for us….

I consider myself a “fellow warrior” with some of these folk. By that I mean that we agree on many things, and I would normally join them in their “culture war” fights. But on this one, please allow me to offer a dissenting view to the prevailing “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” mentality.

First of all, Jesus is most certainly not the reason for the orgiastic spending spree modern Christmas has become. I certainly think anyone should be able to say “Merry Christmas” if he wants to. But given what this holiday has become, there’s a part of me – a big part of me — that wants to keep the Jesus I worship as far away from this commercial debauchery as possible.

Of course the incarnation of Jesus, the Son of God, is the reason Christians celebrate Christmas — including the giving of gifts to one another. But this celebration of the incarnation is not an excuse for such Christless-commercialism and materialism (seeking happiness in possessions).

Remember the Word of Him who took on flesh and dwelt among us (Hebrews 13:5), “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’

— pdb