St. Nicholas of Myra was born in about 280 AD in the town of Patara within the Province of Lycia, Asia Minor. His life was later embroidered with many legends, yet there are detailed stories about him which seem firmly historical.
One of these shows how, while Nicholas was visiting a distant part of his diocese, several citizens from Myra came to him with urgent news: the ruler of the city, Eustathius, had damned three innocent men to death. Nicholas set out immediately for home. Reaching the outskirts of the city, he asked those he met on the road if they had news of the prisoners. Informed that their penalty was to be carried out that morning, he hurried to the executioner’s field. Here he found a large crowd of people and the three men kneeling with their arms bound, awaiting the fatal blow. Nicholas passed through the crowd, took the sword from the executioner’s hands and threw it to the ground, then ordered that the damned men be freed from their bonds. His authority was such that the executioner left his sword where it fell. Later Eustathius confessed his sin and sought the saint’s forgiveness. Nicholas absolved him, but only after the ruler had undergone a period of repentance.
In the late 19th century, when Russians were embroiled in controversy regarding capital punishment, the artist Ilya Repin made his comment with the painting reproduced. Having studied ancient icons in which St. Nicholas is shown grasping the sword with his bare hand, Repin reproduced the image, but in a realistic modern style in which each face reveals various attitudes relating the bishop’s brave intervention—the shocked astonishment of the executioner, the pious resignation of the prisoner on his knees who is not yet aware his life has been saved, and the appeal of a red-cloaked flunky showing the governor, no doubt pointing out that Nicholas would do well not to disturb.
In the June issue of In Communion, many authors reflect on aspects of the death penalty, still, a punishment in many parts of the USA, as it is in China, most Middle Eastern countries, regions of Africa in which Islam is dominant, and parts of Southeast Asia.
Nevertheless to say, unlike the prisoners for whom St. Nicholas intervened, many on death row are guilty of murder. Yet acknowledging the disciplines of the early Church, one can safely assume Nicholas would have intervened for the guilty no less than the falsely accused. For what good is done by their killing? How is the God of mercy honored by bloodshed?
In the early Church, those that are ready for baptism had to make affirmations regarding their future conduct. One of these was not to kill. These promises were needed even of magistrates and soldiers. It is a criterion long ago forsaken and almost forgotten so that no one in our world is surprised when Christians take the lives of others or order others to shed blood. What a shame that we who claim to be followers of Christ give such a flawed witness to the kingdom of God.