Nicholas was born in the village of Patara, on the southern coast of present-day Turkey, towards the end of the third century. When he was a young man, his wealthy parents died in an epidemic, leaving him with a considerable inheritance which he used to care for those in need.
One story tells of how he helped a man with three daughters who couldn’t afford their dowries. Without the money, these young women would most likely be sold into slavery. But on three different occasions a bag of gold appeared in their home, secretly tossed through an open window by Nicholas, and landing in a stocking or shoe left by the fireplace.
Eventually Nicholas made his way to Myra, where he was consecrated bishop. Under Diocletian, the Roman emperor who persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered exile and imprisonment. His witness inspired countless Christians who remained faithful, despite their trials, until Constantine released them.
According to tradition, Bishop Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in 325. It was there that he confronted Arius, who was teaching that Jesus was not divine. Arius and his followers believed that Jesus was created by the Father, and was neither coeternal nor consubstantial with the Father.
In his zeal, Bishop Nicholas got carried away and assaulted Arius. The council fathers had him stripped of his vestments and put him in prison. But that evening, Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him in a vision and returned his garments, also presenting him with a Book of the Gospels, which he spent the rest of the night reading. The next morning the miracle was discovered and Nicholas was freed. The council soon condemned Arianism as a heresy.
Bishop Nicholas died in Myra in 343, and was buried in the cathedral. Within a century of his death, Nicholas’ tomb became a popular place of pilgrimage. When Myra fell into the hands of the Saracens, concerned Christians rallied to move the tomb. In 1087, sailors from Italy managed to sneak Nicholas’ remains out of the cathedral, bringing them to Bari, where they are now enshrined.
Although Saint Nicholas lived long before the Order of Preachers was founded, he is an example of what all Dominicans strive to be. He gave up all that he had to follow the Lord. He preached against heresy and proclaimed the truth. He studied the Word of God, and like the Blessed Mother, pondered it in his heart.
Saint Nicholas’ feast, celebrated on December 6, is a perfect reminder of what the season of Advent is all about. It’s a time to get ready for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. During these next four weeks, we should practice works of mercy, and spend time reading Sacred Scripture. Only then can we truly make room for Christ in our homes and in our world.