A Visit from (the Real) St. Nicholas

By Elizabeth Sunshine Published on December 23, 2015

In 325, Emperor Constantine summoned church leaders from across the empire to the city of Nicaea for a council that would attempt to resolve theological questions that were dividing the church and thus threatening the peace of the empire. While several questions were discussed at the council, the most significant was the spread of Arianism, an idea proposed by Arius of Alexandria, which claimed that Jesus was a created being, and thus not divine. The council condemned Arianism as heresy and introduced the new theological term homoousios, which is Greek for “of one substance” to explain that Jesus is equal to God the Father in his being and his divinity. It also produced an early form of the Nicene Creed that is still recited in many churches today.

According to legend, St. Nicholas was at the council of Nicaea and became so incensed during the debate that he slapped Arius. In light of this story, some more recent descriptions of St. Nicholas may need a bit of revision.

 

‘Twas the night of the council, and all through Nicaea
They argued about an important idea.
The emperor nestled and dozed on his chair
While words of theology danced through the air.

“Is Jesus divine?” was the question at stake.
They had all settled down for a heated debate.
For Arius said, “If there’s only one God,
Can Christ be God also? That seems rather odd.”

And Arius stated that there was a time
When Jesus was not. Now this was a crime
In the eyes of St. Nicholas because he knew Jesus
And God the Father were homoousios.

The same in their substance, both without beginning.
To say otherwise, St. Nick would call sinning.
But Arius stubbornly wouldn’t give way,
No matter what orthodox bishops might say.

Then up from his seat, Nick sprang with a start,
And he said to Arius, “You’re not so smart.”
His eyes how they twinkled with fires of passion.
He strode through the room in a most fearsome fashion.
He moved like an arrow shot out of a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

Then there in the hall there arose such a slap
That even the emp’ror awoke from his nap.

The bishops all gasped, and Arius whined,
And Nick was arrested, but he didn’t mind.
For the council’s conclusion expressed in the creed
Was what he’d defended in word and in deed.

Soon the council was over; he had to go back,
And look for more heretics that he could smack.
And they heard him exclaim as he rode out of sight,
“Say the Christ isn’t God, and you’re in for a fight!”

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