Saint Nicholas Slaps a Heretic! A Reflection Appropriate for Palm Sunday

The extensive Gospel reading for Palm Sunday relates the Scriptural and historical truth that Jesus  triumphantly entered Jerusalem, yet, five days later He was arrested, put on trial, tortured, and executed.

As you know, the religious and secular leaders of Israel did not accept Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. They were adamant about the fact that Jesus was just a man and that His claims, teachings, and healings were all fraudulent.  Their disbelief took place during the first century, yet, two hundred years later there were Christians saying the same thing.

The questions came down to, “Who is Jesus Christ? Is He a man? Is He God? Is He both?”

These were the same questions that the people of Jerusalem, some of them waving palm branches, and their leaders were asking each other.

In the year 325 scholars and clerics were still grappling with those questions, too.

Many deacons, priests, and bishops of the Church had settled the question in their own mind, yet, all of Christendom was not in agreement. Emperor Constantine was worried; as a military man he knew trouble when he saw it. Religious disagreements could easily spread into civil war. Something had to be done.

Stories have come down to us through the centuries that St. Nicholas of Myra, a faith-filled bishop, decided to defend Sacred Tradition and the Scriptural interpretation of the reality of Jesus as the Son of God the Father. The story relates that he not only vigorously defended Sacred Tradition but became so worked up that during one of the debates he slapped the author of this heresy which was called Arianism.

But, was it a verbal or physical slap?

Let’s take a brief look at some of the details:

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Partial icon of the “incident” at the 1st Council of Nicaea. Immortalized in an early icon. The Early Church was well aware of the importance of this Council in debating and agreeing to the specific dogmas of the Church that would be ultimately proclaimed in the Nicene Creed. All catechumens that enter the Church at the Easter Vigil Mass proclaim their belief in the great Sacred Mysteries and historical truths of the Nicene Creed.

Who: Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bishop, (Myra, an Ancient Greek city on the coast of present day Turkey),  vs.  Arius, priest from the diocese of Alexandria, (Alexandria, a city on Egypt’s Mediterranean coastline). Emperor Constantine, Roman Empire, centered in the new city named in his honor: Constantinople (present day Istanbul, Turkey). Constantine convenes an ecumenical council of bishops from the five major patriarchies of Christendom (Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Rome).

What: Supposed incident of Bishop Nicholas “slapping” the priest Arius, at the first ecumenical Council of Bishops: the Council of Nicaea. This was the first Council since the Council of Jerusalem (held in the first century and was attended by luminaries such as St. Peter and St. James).

When: Late Spring and early Summer of the year 325.

Why: The incident concerned the critical issue of who is Jesus Christ, and whether Jesus Christ is “the same in being and the same in essence” as God the Father. Arius was promoting the heresy that Jesus Christ was “just a creature” of God and not a divine Person of the Holy Trinity.

Where: Nicaea, an ancient city in Asia Minor; it is the present day city of Iznik, Turkey.

As it applies to sacred art, the Council of Nicaea provided a specific creed: a set of theological proclamations that impacted  sacred artists from the 4th century to the present day. It is stated clearly in this Creed that God the Father has communicated His love, mercy, and laws to humanity through His revealed word in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. This action culminated in the ministry, passion, death, and resurrection of His incarnated Word, His Son Jesus Christ.

The Nicene Creed definitively proclaimed that Jesus Christ is the same in essence, and the same in being, as God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. So we have the great Mystery of the Incarnation, the nature of Jesus Christ: He is both human and divine – the Son of God – One Person with two natures – human and divine.

orthodox_icon_of_our_jesus_pantocrator_of_sinai._large
The above is a 6th century sacred icon of Jesus as Pantocrator. Pantocrator is a Greek word describing the all knowing, all powerful Son of God: Jesus Christ. The Council of Nicaea declared that Christ, as God, is consubstantial: Jesus is the same in essence (substance) and in being as the Father and the Holy Spirit. Also, Jesus possesses two natures: human and divine. This is truly a great Mystery of the Church. The sacred artist of the above icon, probably a monk, used hot pigmented wax (the encaustic method) to render this likeness. This sacred icon is currently located in St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt. The face has a striking resemblance to the face on the Holy Shroud of Turin.

The day-to-day proceedings and debate notes of the Council have been lost to history, so we will never know if St. Nicholas gave Arius a physical or just a verbal “slap.” Regardless, St. Nicholas made his point and contributed to giving us the gift of the Nicene Creed.

In AD 381, the Nicene Creed was edited and amended at the First Council of Constantinople (thus, the Creed is called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. Try to say that phrase fast, three times!😃).

Thanks for visiting with me. May you have a prayer-filled Holy Week.

Sources for the above post are found in my bibliography post, entitled Early Church Fathers – A Short bibliography of February 8, 2019. I relied primarily on Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s works, also Aquilina and D’Ambrosio’s volumes.

Copyright © 2011- 2019, Deacon Paul O. Iacono – All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you.

 

 

 

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