The reign of Constantine proved to be a turning point in history. The Edict of Milan helped transform Christianity from a persecuted religion into a popular faith. Christianity spread faster than ever before. Jesus’s message offered comfort in a world full of peril and suffering. His call to love God and neighbor gave meaning to hard lives.
Constantine’s own enthusiasm for Christianity helped promote it through all classes of society. The emperor bestowed presents and property upon Christian congregations. He funded the construction of churches and basilicas, including St. Peter’s in Rome. He declared Sunday a day of rest, placed Christian symbols on his coins, and paid for new copies of the Bible.
When Constantine decided to move his capital from Rome to the eastern part of the empire, he settled on the ancient Greek city of Byzantium. There on the banks of the Bosporus, the narrow waterway dividing Europe and Asia, he erected a glorious new city boasting palaces, gardens, public squares, and theaters. He adorned his capital with magnificent churches, testaments to the new strength of the Christian faith. Constantinople, as Byzantium was eventually renamed, became one of the world’s finest cities and a center of Christianity.
Hundreds of miles away, in Myra, Nicholas shouldered the task of pulling his flock back together. There were deep wounds that needed time to heal. Mothers, fathers, children had been lost in the Great Persecution. Livelihoods had been destroyed. Some Christians, enraged by years of oppression, took brutal revenge against their persecutors. Those who had remained steadfast in their faith often looked with deep bitterness on those who had renounced Christianity or fled to the hills when threatened. Nicholas reminded them all of the words of Jesus: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34 RSV).
The years in prison had left Nicholas with an inward strength. Others recognized that strength, were drawn to it. People who needed hope, courage, and compassion sought him out. “All the day long he spent in labor proper to his office, listening to the requests and needs of those who came to him,” we are told. “The doors of his house were open to all.”
Not long after Nicholas was released from prison, famine struck Lycia. The rains failed, rivers shrank, crops in the fields withered and died. The granaries at Myra were emptied, and people began to go hungry. As the famine spread, so did disease. The agorai filled with beggars, and every street heard the cries of those mourning the death of loved ones.
One day Nicholas got word that some grain ships en route from Alexandria to Constantinople had stopped off at Myra. He hurried down to Andriake, Myra’s port, to see if the ships’ captains could offer help for his starving people. By the time he got down to the harbor, an anxious crowd had gathered. He pushed his way to the front, spoke to the sailors standing guard on the wharves, and managed to arrange a conference with the captains. Nicholas wasted no time in asking for some of the grain.
“We can’t do it,” they answered. “The cargo was measured in Alexandria. If we arrive in Constantinople with any less, we must answer for it.”
“I’m not asking you to give it away,” Nicholas said. “We have good money to pay. We need grain. Come with me.”
The reluctant captains followed him through the streets, where they saw for themselves the results of the famine.
“Trust in God,” Nicholas told them. “Look into your hearts, and do what you know to be right.”
The captains talked it over at length, and in the end they agreed to unload a portion of their grain. It was enough to help Myra make it through the worst of the crisis, and it provided seed with which to plant new crops.
Many years later, a legend arose. It told how when the grain ships reached Constantinople and the captains unloaded them, they were dumbfounded to find that they had just as much grain in their holds as when they had left Alexandria.
One of the oldest stories about Nicholas depicts him as a champion of justice and protector of the innocent. According to the story, the Bishop of Myra was living proof that “the righteous are bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1 RSV).
The Emperor Constantine, faced with a revolt in the region of Phrygia, dispatched troops under three trusted generals to quiet the unrest. Rough seas forced the troop ships to stop off at Andriake for a while. The three generals, named Ursos, Nepotianos, and Herpylion, granted their men shore leave while the ships waited to get underway again.
Before long, a brawl erupted between some of the soldiers and locals. Looting and destruction of property followed. When Nicholas heard of the trouble, he hurried down to the port.
“Where are you from, and why are you here?” he asked the three generals.They explained that they were simply passing through.“Well, if your mission is to promote the peace,” Nicholas told them, “you’re not doing a very good job, because your troops are causing trouble in my town.”
The embarrassed generals quickly ordered their officers to restore order and repair any damage. Once things had quieted down, Nicholas patched things up by inviting Ursos, Nepotianos, and Herpylion to come dine with him.
As they climbed the road to Myra, they heard shouts and saw a group of citizens rushing down the hill in search of the bishop. It took Nicholas a moment to untangle the report they brought him. The local magistrate, a thoroughly corrupt man by the name of Eustathios, had taken a bribe to sentence three innocent men to death. The victims were only moments away from execution.
Nicholas rushed to the center of town, followed by the three generals. The crowd there made way for him when they saw him coming. The three men knelt on the ground with hands bound behind their backs. The executioner stood behind them, sword raised, ready to carry out the sentence.The bishop strode up to the executioner and grabbed the sword from his hand. He quickly untied the three bound men and set them free. The executioner made no objection.
News of what had happened raced through the streets of Myra as people streamed in and out of the town center. Hearing the excited reports, Eustathios hurried to the place of execution. When Nicholas saw him coming, he made straight for the magistrate.
“Evil man!” he cried. “You can be sure that I’ll send word to Emperor Constantine just what sort of man you are, and what sort of justice you administer.”
When Eustathios saw the three generals standing at Nicholas’s side, fear seized him. In a matter of seconds, the truth came out. Two city leaders, looking to get rid of some old enemies, had bribed Eustathios to condemn the men on a false charge.
At first Eustathios tried to avoid blame.
“It wasn’t my doing,” he insisted. “It was the wish of Eudoxius and Simonides.”
“Eudoxius and Simonides are not the cause of your evil,” Nicholas retorted.
“It is your own greed for silver and gold.”
Confronted with the facts, Eustathios confessed his sin and begged forgiveness. Nicholas demanded that the charges against the three innocent men be cleared, and he advised the magistrate to mend his ways quickly.
In the year 325, Emperor Constantine called on the bishops of the Christian Church to gather in the city of Nicaea, in northwest Asia Minor, to mend some cracks in the Church’s foundation — divisions that, if left untended, might lead to a collapse. The main problem came from the teachings of a priest from Alexandria named Arius, who held that Jesus Christ was not as divine as God. Arius argued that since God created Jesus as his son, then Jesus must not have existed throughout all of time, as God had, and that therefore Jesus could not be God’s equal. A bitter theological dispute spread through the Church, at times even causing bloodshed.
Constantine was counting on the Christian Church to help unify his empire. A schism in the Church was a threat to his realm. The emperor decided that he would take no chances, and that he would personally preside over the Council of Nicaea.
About three hundred bishops gathered in Constantine’s palace in Nicaea. The emperor, sitting on an elevated throne covered with gold leaf, opened the conference by urging unity to preserve the peace. Then the heated theological disputes began.
Tradition says that Nicholas was one of the bishops attending the great council. As he sat listening to Arius proclaim views that seemed to him blasphemous, his anger mounted. He must have asked himself: Did I suffer through all those years in prison to listen to this man betray our beliefs? His anger got the best of him. He left his seat, walked up to Arius, faced him squarely, and slapped his face.
The bishops were stunned. Arius appealed to the emperor himself.“Should anyone who has the temerity to strike me in your presence go unpunished?” he demanded.
“Indeed, it is unlawful for anyone to lift his hand in violence before the emperor,” Constantine replied. “But I will leave it to this assembly to decide whether to punish this act.”
The bishops decided to strip their colleague from Myra of his clerical garments and place him under guard for the rest of the meeting. Nicholas found himself under lock and key in another wing of the palace.
But in the end, the Bishop of Myra got the result he wanted. When the arguments were done, the council rebuked Arius for his beliefs. The bishops drew up a statement that came to be known as the Nicene Creed, which affirms faith in the Holy Trinity and declares that Jesus is “of one substance with the Father.”
Perhaps Constantine secretly enjoyed watching someone put Arius put in his place. Perhaps some of the bishops admired Nicholas for standing up forcefully, if overzealously, for his beliefs. Nicholas must have had friends and supporters in high places, because when the Council of Nicaea concluded, he was set free and his clerical robes were restored.
Nicholas lived the rest of his years in Myra, serving his people and spreading his faith. There was so much work to be done. He spent his days praying, preaching, and laboring. Everywhere the people of Myra looked, Nicholas seemed to be there. The good bishop sat beside sickbeds, collected donations for the needy, counseled those in trouble, befriended the lonely. He baptized converts, ordained priests, married young couples, buried the dead.
As he worked, he no doubt turned often to the words of Paul in his Letter to the Romans for a reminder of the character of true service: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord” (Romans 12:9–11 RSV).
When he grew quite old, and his beard was full white, he found that often his greatest joy came in the presence of children. He sat with them in church or in an agora, teaching them about God’s love and listening to their innocent hearts. Then he knew the truth of Jesus’s words:
“Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14 NASB).
Sometime around the year 340, Nicholas of Myra fell ill, and his end drew near. According to The Golden Legend, a late medieval account, “when it pleased our Lord to have him depart out this world, he prayed our Lord that he would send him his angels; and inclining his head he saw the angels come to him, whereby he knew well that he should depart . . . and so saying, ‘Lord, into thine hands I commend my spirit,’ he rendered up his soul and died.” Tradition says that Nicholas died on December 6, the date now observed as his feast day.
The people of Myra, saddened by their loss, prepared a tomb of marble in the city’s cathedral. They carried Nicholas’s body in a torchlight procession through the town and into the church. They laid him in the crypt and said their last goodbyes.
But the memories of Nicholas and his generous spirit were not done with this earth.
This is an excerpt from The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas and is reprinted with permission. William J. Bennett’s latest book is The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood.