St. Nicholas: a bishop who went to jail for the truth
December 5, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) -- Behind the image of a fat old man dressed in a jolly red suit who drinks Coca-cola with polar bears lies the singular story of a heroic bishop who would rather face horrendous torture and death than defy his Christian faith.
A reporter traveling back in time about 1,700 years to Myra (present-day Turkey) might have written the following account, based on historical records, of what happened to Bishop Nicholas during his arrest:
The Greek bishop of Myra was seized by government officials from his home late last night whereupon he was dragged out to the street and violently beaten until almost unrecognizable. The bishop was then bound in heavy chains and thrown into prison where he is expected to be quickly put to death for defying state-approved religious practices.
“As he was the chief priest of the Christians of this town and preached the truths of faith with a holy liberty, the divine Nicholas was seized by the magistrates, tortured, then chained and thrown into prison with many other Christians,” stated St. Methodius, a holy man who wrote an account of what happened.
The bishop’s arrest follows upon the arrests of countless other Christians who face open persecution including torture and death from the Roman emperor Diocletian for the crime of professing faith in Jesus Christ, a Jew whose followers claim was crucified and rose from the dead almost three hundred years ago.
The Emperor issued an edict last year (303 A.D.) that stripped legal rights from anyone who professed Jesus Christ to be Lord and Savior, triggering an uprising against Christians that resulted in their apprehension, imprisonment, and death. It became state policy that anyone who refused to offer sacrifice to state-approved deities was immediately put to death.
A bloodlust against Christians followed, resulting in their houses and even villages being destroyed by fire. Entire Christian families have perished after being locked in their homes which were set on fire. Groups of Christians have had stones tied around their necks and have been flung into the sea from ships. Countless Christians have been dispatched through various instruments of torture and death, including racks, scourges, swords, crosses, poisons, being fed to wild animals, and starvation. Christians have been the sport of deadly games at various government-run arenas.
An eyewitness account from Eusebius of Caesarea describes in detail the heinous tortures inflicted on the Christians.
“Others yet more cruelly, [are] being nailed to the cross with their heads downward, and [are] being kept alive until they perished on the cross with hunger,” he said.
New ways of torture have been invented to destroy Christians in painful ways.
Writes Eusebius: “Others being bound to the branches and trunks of trees perished. For they drew the stoutest branches together with machines, and bound the limbs of the martyrs to them; and then, allowing the branches to assume their natural position, they tore asunder instantly the limbs of those for whom they contrived this.”
Despite being tortured and threatened with death, Bishop Nicholas refused to deny his faith in Jesus, but instead made a “glorious confession” while in prison of the merits of the Christian faith.
In our times of doctrinal confusion where leading prelates in the Catholic Church seem willing to compromise the truths of the Catholic faith in the name of false notions of “diversity,” “inclusivity,” “dialogue,” “mercy,” “pastoral accompaniment,” and the “internal forum” — even to the point of allowing unrepentant adulterers to receive Holy Communion, of winking at unnatural and immoral sexual practices as if they could be the basis upon which to form a “family,” and of permitting “individual conscience” to be the final arbiter of moral decisions, especially in the area of sexuality — the example of Bishop Nicholas bears a closer look. Here was a high-ranking prelate who could easily have denied the faith to save himself, but chose to be faithful and suffer what might come. According to some accounts, he suffered five years in prison before he was liberated by a decree of the new emperor Constantine.
Bishop Nicholas is said to have participated in the famous Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. where he became so enraged by the arguments of the heretic Arius — who held that Jesus was not truly God since he said he was created by and is therefore subordinate to the Father — that he walked across the room and struck the man in the face (though it is disputed whether he attended the council and if the Arius incident ever happened). Nicholas was allegedly chastised for his actions by his fellow bishops, who stripped him of his episcopal garment and threw him into prison. According to one account, he was freed from prison the following day after the bishops received a report that Nicholas’ chains had been miraculously removed and his bishop’s robe had been restored as a result of a heavenly visit from Jesus and Mary.
The saint who is revered almost globally for his kindness and generosity was really someone who knew how to draw a hard line in the sand and to take a principled stand when it really counted. He would not compromise on his faith in the face of torture and death, nor would he stand by idly when those who should know better spoke falsely about the faith. Nicholas was a man of steadfast principle who made it clear that his “yes” meant “yes” and his “no” meant “no.”
The 2nd-century Church father Tertullian, reflecting on the persecutions that Christians like Bishop Nicholas and thousands of others like him went through, once wrote: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Bishop Nicholas would certainly agree, adding that it is only by living according to the true faith that Christians within the Church will receive the promise of the Christ who said: “I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10).
Let us pray that Bishop St. Nicholas be an inspiration to all bishops who find themselves surrounded by the Diocletians and Ariuses of today who demand that Christians follow the way of man, not the way of God. May Bishop St. Nicholas intercede for all of us before the throne of Our Lord Jesus Christ who is the “way, the truth, and the life.”
Pete Baklinski has a B.A. in Liberal Arts and a Masters in Theology with a Specialization on Marriage and the Family (STM). He is married to Erin. Together they have seven children.