Friday, December 6, 2013

Seeking to rescue St. Nicholas of Myra

It seems that for many Catholics today, 6 December, the day the Church honors St. Nicholas of Myra (270-343), has become mostly an opportunity to play the comedian and persistently joke, according to the logic, "if it's funny once, it's funny 1,000 times," that we observe "Punch a Heretic Day." Why punch a heretic today in honor of St. Nicholas? It seems that while participating in the Council of Nicea in 325, during an intervention of Arius, also a bishop, but one who taught a heresy that became known as Arianism, which held that the Son, at some point prior to the creation of the physical universe, was "created," that is, "made by" and not "begotten of" the Father, that Nicholas became so enraged that he stood, crossed the room, and slapped Arius in the face.

What gets left out of this weird attempt at being funny (in my opinion, this "meme" jumped the shark awhile back) is what happened afterwards: Nicholas was punished with imprisonment and banned by his fellow bishops from further participating in the Council. Most importantly, Nicholas came to feel guilty for and then to repent of the sin of slapping his brother bishop (even a heretical one- read a fuller version here).

While I realize that it is mostly meant tongue-in-cheek, it seems to me (personal opinion alert) that over the course of the past few years this regrettable incident in the life of St. Nicholas has kind of perverted this wonderful day. Saints are redeemed sinners, true. This means they had sins from which they needed to repent and for which they needed to be forgiven. They only achieved sanctity by the grace of God. Nonetheless, we don't celebrate their sins, we celebrate their sanctity, their overcoming of sin through Christ Jesus. To jokingly suggest that we observe "Punch a Heretic" day in honor of St. Nicholas makes as much sense to me as joking about celebrating "Call Someone Who Does Not Venerate the Blessed Virgin a 'Hooked Nosed Bastard'" day on 30 September, when the Church honors St. Jerome. Why keep it tame? Let's ramp it up (reductio ad absurdum alert) and start joking around about observing "Sleep With a Random Stranger" day on 3 April, the Memorial of St. Mary of Egypt.

In light of the many wonderful traditions handed on to us that we can use to celebrate this lovely Advent feast, it seems to me that we can do better than abject and persistent silliness. The communio sanctorum is holy and, therefore, should be treated, not with Puritanical strictness (i.e., made no fun), but celebrated with a sense of awe that inspires us to walk our own path towards holiness with more trust and to call upon the saints, imploring God, through Jesus Christ, to apply their merits to us and to the souls in Purgatory.

If nothing else, take pity. Poor St. Nicholas has already suffered the indignity of being made into the highly secularized Santa Claus!

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