Updated: Feb 18, 2019
There’s a long Irish tradition of never letting the truth get in the way of a good story. In that spirit, here’s one of my favorite Yuletide yarns and a holiday lesson for leaders.
In the year 325 AD, the emperor Constantine called the ecumenical council of Nicaea. It was the first of its kind. After several centuries of Christianity, things were starting to get a little theologically squirrelly. A little variation in tradition here and there was one thing, but some teachers and bishops were beginning to promote wholly divergent ideas of their own that didn’t seem to have any basis in the teachings passed down by the apostles.
The goal of the council was to gather church leaders from around the world and hash things out face-to-face with some semblance of Roman order. Constantine presided, but did not vote.
The gathering brought bishops together from around the Mediterranean, Middle East, Africa, and the far away boonies of the Roman Empire such as Britain. At the center of this particular brouhaha was a guy named Arius.
Without going into the arcane details of the argument, Arius was basically teaching that Jesus Christ was not equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit; the other two “persons” of the Holy Trinity in Christian theology. To modern ears, this might sound like a minor argument. However, this “Arian Controversy” as it came to be known was tearing Christian communities apart; brother against brother and bishop against bishop.
Everyone had an opportunity to speak. For his part, Arius certainly seemed sincere. He argued forcefully, and apparently, at length.
As Arius’ speech drove on, another bishop in the crowd decided he just couldn’t take it anymore. His name was Bishop Nicholas of Myra; later St. Nicholas (aka Santa Claus).
As the story goes, jolly ole St. Nick strode over to Arius stared at him with a steely gaze… and decked him. Santa wins by knockout in the fourth round!
You might think that the other bishops would have cheered. Not quite. They were shocked and horrified. It seems that skill in fisticuffs was not part of the general resume of a bishop. Also, it was a serious crime to strike someone in the presence of the emperor; especially at a meeting called by him personally.
I can imagine some of the bishops whispering to one another, “Way to go Constantine… Let’s put all these hotheads in the same room. I knew this would be a disaster.”
For his trouble, St. Nick was stripped of his status as bishop. They took his cool hat and shepherd’s crook away and threw him in jail.
You might think he’d be remembered for his historic felonious assault, but instead it’s what happened next that turned a troubled bishop into the world’s most famous saint.
Santa was deeply ashamed of his behavior. While in the pokey, he prayed unceasingly for forgiveness. In fact, he was so contrite and full of repentance that (through supernatural intervention as the story goes) the jailers found him in morning with his chains lying on the ground around his feet.
After, hearing of Santa’s sincere contrition, Constantine sentenced Nicholas to time-served, restored his status as bishop, and released him to his own recognizance.
After losing his cool and punching a heretic, Santa did his time in the joint like a champ, repented, mended his ways and spent the next thousand-or-so years delivering toys and happiness to children around the world.
What’s the lesson for leaders?
Santa could have been remembered for his one big screw-up; that guy who punched a guy at some big meeting a long time ago. Instead, because of his willingness to face what he did and admit his fault and weaknesses, he became an icon of good will and generosity.
It wasn’t the mistake that defined him; it was how he handled it. That’s how saints (and leaders) are made.
St. Nicholas is widely considered the patron saint of boxers. As any experienced fighter will tell you, it’s not punching power that defines a real champ. Instead, it’s the ability to get back up when you’ve been knocked down.
And that is why Santa is a badass.
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