If the floods of memes that I’ve observed on social media in the period from his feast day to Christmas for the last few years are any indication, Catholics in certain circles of social media have all but entirely replaced the traditional Santa Claus image of St. Nicholas of Myra with that of the Fist of Orthodoxy: the jolly old elf is now the bane of Arius’s nose.
There is indeed something strangely endearing about St. Nicholas’s spontaneous and zealous defense of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and it is gratifying to find so deep in Christian history someone in whom a compassionate concern for the poor and a profound zeal for doctrinal rectitude meet. As is typical of the medium, though, the memes themselves function more as entertainment than evangelization: They don’t come close to doing justice to why Nicholas should be considered a saint or what about him is worthy of emulation. There is hardly even a hint that the use of violence by a member of the clergy, particularly in the context of a theological debate, is scandalous in the original sense of the term—it gives the impression that a sinful act might be acceptable. Nicholas of Myra is a saint despite, not because of, his violent outburst.
And yet the same irrepressible enthusiasm that put St. Nicholas in trouble at Nicaea was also what made him noteworthy in the first place. At Nicaea, this zeal manifested itself in a less than saintly way, but elsewhere in his life, it manifested itself in magnificently generous acts of charity: He met Arius with a closed fist, but the poor with open hand and heart.
Nicholas committed his single most notable act of charity in his youth: He provided dowries anonymously and out of his own inheritance for three young women who would otherwise have had no way to support themselves over the long term other than slavery or prostitution. By providing dowries, Nicholas made it possible for these young women to avoid the worst indignities of desperation. He had no desire to scold the young women or their father for their circumstances or for the terrible choices that they were contemplating. He gave them—without question, condition, or lecture— a way out of their desperate circumstances, and, when he was caught and confronted, he explained simply that he wanted the credit to be given to God.
St. Nicholas’s desire for anonymity had nothing whatsoever to do with deceit or misdirection: In his mind, concealing his own identity was simply a way of illuminating the identity of the one truly responsible for that gift, namely, God. St. Nicholas, doubtless, would say with St. Paul that “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” God’s love worked in and through him, and so it was God and not Nicholas who truly deserved the credit. (Whether he would similarly attribute his interaction with Arius to divine inspiration is less certain).
With these points in mind, we can begin to see what charity in the spirit of St. Nicholas looks like: In the State of Utah’s decision to simply provide housing to homeless people, in crisis pregnancy centers that offer women the resources they need to bear and raise their child, in the circles of Catholics who donate money to pay off the student loan debt of those entering religious life, and most of all in those who respond generously and unhesitatingly when they see a neighbor in trouble.
We might also see something of Nicholas in the anonymous gifts of toys to poor children, but the all-too-clichéd parental game of attributing their children’s presents to a red-suited man at the North Pole seems to miss the point almost entirely. St. Nicholas did not try to preserve his anonymity just to see how clever he could be, but to elevate the recipient without drawing attention to himself. Furthermore, he aimed not simply to provide the recipients of his gifts with a few hours of relaxation or enjoyment of earthly pleasures, but with a clear and easy path out of the poverty in which they found themselves.
Here we encounter the clearest image of divine charity— that divine love that reached out to humanity with an extravagant gift by which God hoped to rescue us at last from our poverty, sin, and desperation. This gift, contra Arius, was not a created being that would therefore be naturally subordinate to God, but was God’s very self.
And so we have arrived back where we started: The Incarnation. It is ultimately fitting, despite all of the distortions in popular culture, that St. Nicholas should be so closely associated with Christmas, the liturgical season in which we focus on the mystery of the Incarnation. And yet the fact that St. Nicholas’s magnificent acts of charity were inspired by the Incarnation points not only toward the Incarnation, but also toward the deep connection between theology and action: Theology has the capacity to radically change the way we see and behave in the world—if we allow it to.