December 6 is the feast of Saint Nicholas of Myra, later of Bari. Though known more commonly in modern times for his connection with “Santa Claus”, Saint Nicholas was considered a great saint in his day and numerous anecdotes relating to his acts of holiness, courage and generosity have come down to us from antiquity.
Here is an excerpt from an anonymous history from the 4th century AD entitled, Praxis de Stratelatis (Act of the Generals). In it, we see Saint Nicholas doing what he does best: using his authority as bishop to rescue the innocent and speak the truth to the secular authority.
…Nicholas urged the soldiers to climb with him to the bishop’s palace. Just then some people came from the city to that most holy man, saying: “Lord, if you had been in the city, three innocents would not have been handed over to death as they were, because Judge Datianus, taking those three men into custody, has ordered them beheaded. The whole city is in a turmoil because Your Sanctity was not to be found there.”
On hearing this, the most holy bishop became downcast. After speaking with the soldiers, he took their leaders and crossed the city. Coming to a plaza named Leonti, he asked those who were coming away from those who had received sentence whether they were still alive. They told him that the men still lived and were directly ahead at a place known as Dioscorus, which they would find at the martyrium of the brother confessors Crescentius and Dioscorus. As they were talking, Nicholas said that the victims ought by now to be coming out. When they got to the gate, some told him that they were in a place called Byrra: that was to be place of the beheading.
Saint Nicholas, now running, found a great crowd of people before the executioner, who was holding his sword up, anticipating the coming of the holy man. When Nicholas came up to the place of the confessors of Christ, he found the three men with their faces covered with linen cloths. They had been placed in position, with their hands tied behind them. They were bending their knees and bowing their heads, expecting death.
At that moment Saint Nicholas, according as it is written, “The righteous are bold as a lion” (Proverbs xxviii, 1), fearlessly grabbed the sword from the executioner and cast it to the ground. Loosening the men from their chains, he took them with him to the city.
Walking down to the Pretorium, he thrust open the door and entered the presence of Eustathius the Praeses. The Praeses, hearing from a guard what had been done, now walked up to honor the holy man.
But the servant of God, Nicholas, turned away from him saying: “Sacrilegious blood shedder! How dare you confront me, apprehended in so many and such evil acts! I will not spare or forgive you, but will let the mighty emperor Constantine know about you—how many and how serious are the sins which you have been discovered in, and in what fashion you administer your princely prefecture.”
Then Eustathius the Praeses fell to his knees and begged him: “Be not wrathful with thy servant, lord, but speak the truth, that I am not the guilty one, but the heads of state, Eudoxius and Simonides.”
Nonetheless the holy man answered: “It is not Eudoxius and Simonides who did this, but silver and gold.” For the holy man had learned that the Praeses was to receive more than two hundred pounds of silver to execute the citizens for crime. Yet the most holy man, after the officers of the army had earnestly spoken in behalf of the Praeses, granted him pardon, once the charges which the Praeses had leveled against the three men were cleared....The story then proceeds to Constantinople where the holy bishop, via an appearance in the dreams of Constantine and the Praetorian Prefect of the East, Ablabius, manages to save from execution three army officers who had been present at the above events in Myra. To read the full account of these events from Praxis de Stratelatis, visit this website sponsored by The Saint Nicholas Center.
This translation was originally done by Charles W. Jones and appeared in his book, Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan.
The painting featured above is entitled: "Saint Nicholas of Myra saves three innocents from death" by Russian artist, Ilja Repin (1888).
I was privileged to be able to visit the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari back in 2000. As a result of that visit, we named our second son, Nicholas, so I have a particular devotion to this saint.