St Nicholas of Myra
Roughly once a year I’m lucky enough to travel as a cruise ship lecturer. We’ve been as far as Vietnam and China, but always prefer the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, these days, cruise companies fear terrorism and are reluctant to go to North Africa, Egypt, Israel, Istanbul and other parts of Turkey, and of course into the Black Sea because of the Russian occupation of Crimea. So there’s not a lot of the Mediterranean left and some are resorting to sailing round the British Isles. But a couple of years ago we called in at Patara, the southernmost tip of Turkey, where the ancient town has a wonderful, long columned main street. It’s mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. Luke (who wrote Acts) was travelling with Paul and he writes: ‘…the next day (we sailed) to Rhodes, and from there to Patara. When we found a ship bound for Phoenicia, we went on board and set sail. We came in sight of Cyprus; and leaving it on our left, we sailed to Syria and landed at Tyre.’
Well, our patron saint, St Nicholas, was born in Patara and later became bishop of Myra about 56 miles east down the coast. We usually think of him as a kindly saint who was nice to children, but he was also present in his capacity as a bishop at probably the most important church meeting ever to have taken place. He attended the Council of Nicaea in 325. Nicaea is halfway between Myra and Constantinople, the modern Istanbul. Why was this council so important? First a bit of background: the Emperor Constantine wanted to unify the Roman Empire, which had been divided into four administrative regions, each under a tetrarch. And when he fought the Tetrarch Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge he had a vision of the cross of Christ which he thought brought him victory and, it is said, persuaded him to look kindly on his mother’s religion, Christianity. This of course was a very good thing for Christians who had suffered dreadful persecution and cruelty in the previous Christian centuries. He then went on to conquer Lucinius who was in charge of the Eastern Empire and when he decided to relocate the capital of the Empire from Rome, having opened up the East, he was able to settle on Byzantium on the Bosphorus, which he renamed Constantinople.
So unification was one of his political goals. He was what we would call ‘a one nation conservative’ and when he found Christian bishops at loggerheads about what they really believed about the theological significance of Jesus of Nazareth, he pressed them to come together in Nicaea to hammer out their differences. Nicaea is of course where we get the term Nicene Creed from – the creed we still say today in the communion service. And Nicholas was there. What was at stake? What was the debate about? It was about whether Jesus was equal with God. According to the synpotic gospels Jesus himself never claimed to be God. But you remember the beginning of John’s Gospel, ‘in the beginning was the Word and the word was with God and the word was God…through him all things were made’ etc. Sixty years after the crucifixion John’s idea is that Jesus was the eternal word of God who had been part of God from the beginning of time. But at Nicaea there was opposition. A very influential group called Arians, after their protagonist, Arius, believed that Jesus was created by God as the ‘Son of God’ and therefore subordinate to the Father. Their watchword was, ‘there was when he (Jesus Christ) was not.’ So on the one hand you’d got Trinitarians saying that in true Christianity Father, Son and Holy Spirit were each equal parts of the godhead, and on the other you’d got Arians saying, no, God the Father is the greatest and Jesus is secondary to him and less important than etc.
Because of the success of the Nicene Creed we always assume that the Trinitarians won there and then. But it wasn’t as black and white as that. The Arians weren’t to be easily defeated and Arianism carried on in the church for another three centuries. In the wall mosaics in the sixth century church of St Apollinaris in Ravenna you can still see depictions of a Christ who is subordinate to the Father.
St Nicholas was so cross with Arius, it is said, that he punched him on the nose, giving our Patron Saint something in common with John Prescott.
So what kind of Church would we have had if the Arians had won? No island called Trinidad for a start. I can think of one local example. The Churches together in Central Oxford have one vociferous member who is only allowed to be present as an observer, not because he is so vociferous, but because he’s a Unitarian. He believes God is God and there’s no dividing into Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Only Trinitarians are allowed to be voting members – and those who made the rule did so, I might say, with a disdainful show of theological arrogance. Well, that would be reversed for a start.
The question of who Jesus was was first asked in his lifetime: who is this that can forgive sins; who is this that the winds and the waves obey him; he even asks the question himself before the transfiguration – who do people say that I am and they answered, ‘John the Baptist; but others (say) Elijah; and still others, that one of the ancient prophets has arisen.’ The nature of Jesus Christ is actually a question that people still think about today. If we had a survey of what each of you believes I bet we’d get thirty different answers. And that’s fair enough and not surprising as far as I’m concerned. I often wish the Church would be more relaxed in accepting this, rather than the General Synod thinking we’ve all got to believe exactly the same thing whether it’s about the nature of God or the rights and wrongs of sexual ethics.
When Lucy asked me whether I’d prefer the readings for St Nicholas or the Second Sunday of Advent, I opted for Advent. Because there’s a link between the seriousness of thinking about Christian doctrine and the seriousness of thinking about getting your ethical values sorted out in a penitential season. The problem with Christian doctrine is that it sometimes seems all about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But it’s got to be so much more straightforward than that. And I think it starts with the moral question, how shall I be, rather than, what shall I believe. This is such a live issue for us this Advent: the destruction of Aleppo, the immigration crisis, free or protected markets, the gap between rich and poor in this country, the generosity or meanness of relationships in our over populated and over competitive world.
Being a clergyman I’m often asked to explain the Christian view of this or that. There isn’t always a uniquely Christian slant on social and moral questions, but there’s usually a broad background Christian moral vision to draw on. As you know, Christianity is one of the so-called religions of the Book. In other words one of its primary building blocks and sources of authority is the text of the Bible - and the New Testament in particular. In Matthew’s gospel chapters five to seven there’s a collection of Jesus’ ethical sayings called The Sermon on the Mount and this contains some really radical ethics, so radical that some have described it as ‘an impossible ideal’. Typical are the injunctions, to love your enemy, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile; plus the claim that anger is morally as reprehensible as murder and lust as adultery. There’s the saying that you cannot serve God and Mammon, which summarises Jesus’ radical teaching in other parts of the Gospels about money – it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God and anyone wishing to follow Jesus’ path should sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Then there’s the fact that Jesus was exceptionally inclusive in his social outlook, literally embracing the ‘untouchable’ lepers, eating and drinking with tax collectors, drawing women into his inner circle, and citing foreigners (Samaritans in particular) as exemplars of compassion and gratitude.
More than this, my theology is shaped by the fact Christian teaching majors on community, relationship, mutuality and inter-dependence. St Paul is fond of the metaphor that Christians are the body of Christ, in which arms and legs and hands and ears must all work together in a coordinated way, and if one member malfunctions the whole body is disadvantaged. This applies to international relationships too.
So what do I do with this? Where do I take it from here? In one important sense addresses like this are open ended, small think pieces, where the only conclusions are those you might draw for yourself.
However, let’s say this is a shout out for freedom of belief and not being shy about expressing our questions, even, about the historic creeds. Let’s remember that the big question of Luke’s gospel is not, ‘What must I believe to inherit eternal life?’ but, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Lawyer/Good Samaritan)
And secondly I want to recognise Advent not only as a time of hope and expectation in a social environment where Christmas seems to start now (we got our Christmas tree yesterday – in aid of Dr South’s School) and end on the 25 December, but of judgement. The traditional themes of Advent are death, judgement, heaven and hell - a pretty potent brew by the sound of it. But in modern terms it means I think taking stock. Seeing through the seasonal kitsch to a seriousness of Christian value forged not to the canned accompaniment of Silent Night, but in the harsh conditions of Roman occupation by a holy teacher who expected the end of history at any time, and whose life of agape, of self-giving love, ended in the kind of torture which sends a shockwave of horror down our spines when we hear of ISIS using the same methods in 2016 - beheading or crucifying their victims.