In myth and in legend there are those who rise from the dead. Most of these entities are forsaken monsters and vampires who dwell in darkness and unending hunger. This past Halloween, we visited some of these undead creatures (namely lamiae, draugar, and hopping vampires). However, not all of the undead are ghouls or fiends: a few of the entities that shook off the prison of mortality are transcendent beings—saints, saviors, benefactors, & gods.
In the third century AD, Nikolaos of Myra was born in the city of Patara, which is now Turkey but was, at the time, a long-standing part of the Eastern Roman empire. His parents were wealthy Greeks who died of a plague when he was a small child. Little Nikolaos had no brothers or sisters, but his uncle was the bishop of Patara, and the bishop took in the orphan. Nikolaos proved to be a devout and ardent Christian. Under his uncle’s tutelage, he quickly rose through the church ranks, first being tonsured as a reader, then ordained as a priest, and finally consecrated as bishop of Myra, a port town in Asia Minor (in fact, some sources claim he was elected as bishop before being raised to the priesthood–a very rare career leap).
In 325 AD Emperor Constantine the great, “the thirteenth apostle”, convened all members of the episcopacy from across Christendom to attend the Council of Nicaea. The Christian church in the early fourth century was being torn apart by competing ideas about the fundamental nature of divinity. Followers of the theologian Athanasius believed that the son was begotten by the Heavenly Father from His own divine essence. Followers of the popular presbyter Arius believed that Jesus was created from nothing—as were animals, spirits, and humans. The church aristocracy convened to decide which of these opinions was dogma and which was heresy (and to settle certain other central affairs and credos of the universal Christian church).
Bishop Nikolaos was not one for learned theological argument. Early in the counsel he stormed up to Arius and slapped (or maybe “punched”) him in the face—and Nikolaos was promptly expelled from the proceedings. After weeks and weeks of harrowing canonical debate, the church fathers decided exactly the same thing as Nikolaos. Arius was excommunicated and his ideas were found to be heretical. The Arians either changed their opinions or went into exile. Nikolaos became a folk hero for his rash actions which seemed to take on the quality of foresight considering how the counsel ended.
Nikolaos returned to Myra as a famous figure, but he was troubled by the great temple to Artemis which was there. Myra was sacred to Artemis and her temple in the town was reputed to be the most stunningly beautiful and magnificent construction in the entire part of the world. Nikolaos used his newfound influence to have the structure destroyed and to forcibly convert the remaining pantheists into belief in his one stern god.
He died as a revered figure in 343 AD. Symeon the Metaphrast movingly describes the death of Nikolaos in the following florid manner:
Now after he had long lived in this manner, renowned for his virtuous conduct, he asperged the metropolis of Myra with sweet and lovely unction distilled from the blossoms of divine Grace. When he came to the very advance age, full of days both heavenly and earthly, he need must comply with the common law of nature, as is man’s lot. He was ill but a short time. In the grip of that illness, while rendering those lauds and thanksgivings to God which are said in death, he happily yielded up his spirit [for while he desired to remain in the flesh, Nicholas equally desired to be unyoked from it]. He left this brief and transitory life to cross over to that blessed everlasting life where he rejoices with the angels while more clearly and openly contemplating the light of Truth. But his previous body, borne by the holy hands of bishops and all the clergy with torches and with lights, was rested in the crypt which is at Myra.
Such is the story of the life of Nikolaos of Myra, orphan, acolyte, then orthodox churchman. But for Nikolaos, life was only the beginning. After death Nikolaos, or “Nicholas” to use the Anglicization of his Greek name came back stranger and stronger. His shadowy figure appeared throughout the land and stories began to circulate of miracles and transfigurations performed by the Saint. His post-life supernatural journey would take him across thousands of years and see him transformed from being a (dead) ascetic bishop in the Levant into one of the most beloved religious figures in all of the world. Tune in tomorrow for part two of the strange odyssey of Saint Nicholas, the symbol of generosity, compassion, and Christmastime.