A punch in the nose

A young priest of my acquaintance tells a delightful story from his own ordination. He has several brothers, and during a reception after the event, one of them had to listen to some painfully cheap anti-clerical blather from some irreligious grinch, helping himself to the cupcakes. This brother had probably been selected for his patient and peaceable demeanour. He is known as a soft target for bores. But the wrong day had been selected. Mister Charitable suddenly punched the guy in the nose. Laid him out nicely.

What a joyous thing. It made me think of Saint Nicholas — the fourth-century Catholic and Orthodox original for the Protestant and shopping centre Santa Claus. By a jolly tradition, this Saint did the same at the First Council of Nicaea to some tedious Arian, perhaps Arius himself. Having tired of listening to the man spout heresies, he dropped him with a crisp right hook. For this, the good Bishop of Myra was stripped of his mitre and pallium, and escorted to a prison cell. But Our Lord and Our Lady came to visit in the night, thanked Nicholas for defending their honour, and dressed him up again: now as an Archbishop.

Sceptical scholars call this story fanciful. Let none of them near me.

They doubt all Saint Nicholas’s miracles, too, which included the raising from the dead of the three children from the tub of brine. They take a pass on the legends of his copious gift-giving to the poor and sick; the gold dowries that saved the penniless young maidens from lives of prostitution; the unending list of his heavenly intercessions through the centuries after his earthly death. Naturally, they have doubted that his relics, translated to Bari in Puglia in 1087, could possibly be genuine. That is the function of the sceptics: to preserve deniability for all the works of God.

It is the Feast of Saint Nicholas, today, in the West. He’s been gone these last 1,674 years. Shrines to his memory remain, however, scattered around the world.

The relics in the Basilica di San Nicola at Bari — substantial bone fragments — have just been radiocarbon tested by the labcoats of the Oxford Relics Cluster in England. Sure enough, they date decisively to the fourth century. More fragments from the Chiesa di San Nicolo al Lido in Venice, already known to fit with those in Bari, will now be tested for a DNA match.

This comes a few days after the news that tests under the Edicule of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem have confirmed dates for the tomb of Our Risen Lord. They tie in exactly with the historical records, of continuous veneration by Christians from the earliest times. The story is much the same for Saint Nicholas: everything lines up.

It is a little cosmic joke, that at a time when technology worship has replaced religious faith in so many hearts and minds, the most advanced technology now compels belief in what generations of sceptics dismissed as foolishness. Poor things; it must come to them like a punch in the nose.