Icon of St Nicholas with our Lord, Jesus Christ, and his Mother, the Virgin Mary. This icon is available for purchase from Holy Transfiguration Monastery
Have you heard the story of St Nicholas punching the heretic Arius in the face? Do you know what happened next? In a Google image search for icons of St Nicholas icons, about a third of the icons show this very tale, but almost none of them have Arius or a punch. How is this possible? If you have only heard about the punch, you have been done a grave disservice. If you know the rest of the story, but you only tell people about the punch, you fail them. And if you have never heard the story at all, I have a tale to tell!
Let me put this story in some perspective. Let us suppose, for a moment, that there is an impeachment trial underway in the U.S. Senate. Suddenly, while the defendant pleads his case with the assembly, one Senator jumps up, rushes to the speaker’s desk and punches him in the face! Not only does this sound highly unlikely on its face (though Senators have scuffled on the Senate floor), you are probably asking several questions right now: Would the Senator even be able to get to the speaker without anyone stopping him? Even if he were to get a punch in, what would happen next? Surely Secret Service would be on him like flies on honey. He would be arrested; perhaps his own impeachment would be imminent.
The context in the previous paragraph mirrors closely (almost exactly) the setting of the Nicene Council in which our story begins, wherein St Nicholas punches the heretic Arius. That disbelief and those questions are the point of the saintly punch: Set up the narrative tension. The punch is not the end of the story; it is only the beginning!
So, for those who have not heard the story: Arius was a priest who preached a particularly insidious opinion that turned out to be completely contrary to the orthodox and catholic faith of the church. What the heresy is turns out to be quite irrelevant to the story. Arius is the archetypal villain of church theology; this is all that matters to our tale. His teachings rocked the church so badly, it was almost split in two. The Roman emperor, Constantine, thought this reflected fairly badly on his newly found faith, so he convened a council of all the church’s bishops to figure this whole thing out. While Arius was explaining his teachings, a little known bishop from Asia Minor (that’s Turkey today) suddenly jumped up and ran to the dais and punched Arius in the face.
Imperial Roman soldiers descended quickly on the unruly bishop and detained him. The emperor was furious! “I am the emperor of the whole world!” he cried. “How dare you interrupt this council I am presiding over? What is your name?” The bishop replied, “Nicholas, my lord. I apologize, but I could not bear to hear this man say such things about our savior.”
The emperor did not know the story of Nicholas who provided money to save young women from slavery. The other bishops did not know the story of Nicholas who stood between a Roman soldier’s sword and an unjustly accused man. They only knew that this bishop did not know his place. The council immediately deposed Nicholas and removed from him the gospel book and bishop’s stole — the symbols of his authority. Then, the emperor flung him into prison.
That night, Nicholas could not sleep. No longer a bishop, chained to the wall in a dungeon, he knew how enemies of the emperor usually fared. If he was not killed in a few days, he would be left to rot there forever! “O Lord,” he cried, tears streaming down his face, “I stood up for you! Is that not what a bishop does? Mother of God, help me!” Finally, he fell into a fitful sleep.
In his dreams, he was visited by our Lord, Jesus Christ, and his mother, the Virgin Mary. The Mother of God placed on his neck the stole of a bishop, and our Lord placed in his hands the book of the gospels. “Fear not,” the Lord said. “You are still a bishop in my book.” When he awoke, he still held in his hand the gospels, and the stole still hung around his neck. The guards were shocked. They took Nicholas before the emperor and the council to explain himself. Nicholas told them about the dream, and how he awoke finding the gospel book in his hands and the stole around his neck.
This council was in chaos! The bishops quickly realized their mistake: God himself had overruled their deposition! Nicholas was truly a bishop. The council moved to depose Arius, who died soon afterwards in a very rude fashion. But that is a tale for another day, because the story today is not about the heretic.
This tale does not appear in the acts of the Nicene Council, at which the Arius known to historians was convicted of heresy and deposed. What does this tell us? It tells us we need to look deeper into the story and see that it is not, as I said, really about Arius but about St Nicholas.
The hymn that Orthodox Christians sing to Nicholas, the troparion, a song which establishes the theme for his feast day, says, “You are a model of kindness and rule of faith.” This hymn, in fact, is the model for most bishop saints, just like Nicholas is. This tale of St Nicholas receiving his episcopal authority directly from our Lord and his Mother shows bishops that they must imitate St Nicholas. He gives them a model to follow — the quintessential bishop: The bishop who protects his people from injustice, who intervenes on behalf of the poor, who stands up to heresy. St Nicholas is all of these and an icon of what a true bishop really is and an icon for us all.
- It’s Arianism, of course. – However, Arius becomes the archetype and quintessential heretic. Later heretics often get associated with Arius so they can be clearly perceived as heretics, even if their teachings are almost completely unrelated. ↩