As part of my ministry as Parochial Vicar of St. Agnes Parish, I try to visit each of the grade school classes at least once each month. Sometimes I can do so, and sometimes I cannot.
This afternoon, I had the pleasure of visiting with one of the third grade classes who asked me to talk to them about Saint Nicholas, today being his feast day.
I began, of course, with the biographical basics, that he was Bishop of Myra and how he gave generously to women so they could have dowries. I then told them about Saint Nicholas' presence at the Council of Nicea, which the St. Nicholas Center describes as follows:
Arius, from Egypt, was teaching that Jesus the Son was not equal to God the Father. Arius forcefully argued his position at length. The bishops listened respectfully.
As Arius vigorously continued, Nicholas became more and more agitated. Finally, he could no longer bear what he believed was essential being attacked. The outraged Nicholas got up, crossed the room, and slapped Arius across the face! The bishops were shocked. It was unbelievable that a bishop would lose control and be so hotheaded in such a solemn assembly. They brought Nicholas to Constantine. Constantine said even though it was illegal for anyone to strike another in his presence, in this case, the bishops themselves must determine the punishment.
The bishops stripped Nicholas of his bishop's garments, chained him, and threw him into jail. That would keep Nicholas away from the meeting. When the Council ended a final decision would be made about his future.
Nicholas was ashamed and prayed for forgiveness, though he did not waver in his belief. During the night, Jesus and Mary his Mother, appeared,* asking, "Why are you in jail?" "Because of my love for you," Nicholas replied. Jesus then gave the Book of the Gospels to Nicholas. Mary gave him an omophorion, so Nicholas would again be dressed as a bishop. Now at peace, Nicholas studied the Scriptures for the rest of the night.
When the jailer came in the morning, he found the chains loose on the floor and Nicholas dressed in bishop's robes, quietly reading the Scriptures. When Constantine was told of this, the emperor asked that Nicholas be freed. Nicholas was then fully reinstated as the Bishop of Myra.
The children, of course, were surprised when I told them that Nicholas hit Arius in the face, but they seemed more surprised at what Arius taught.
Arius famously spread his heresy with something of a jingle that sang, "There was a time when he [Jesus] was not." The surprise - and even shock - of the children at this line surprised me.
I asked them why Arius' words bothered them so much and they told me it meant that Jesus could not be with us all of the time. When I pressed them a bit further, they told me that if what Arius said was true, it meant that Jesus is not the Son of God. These third-graders are right, of course, and have greater theological sense than most adults today. Perhaps this is also why Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children, among others.