by Jim Forest
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 several stories about him which seem solidly historical.
One of these relates how, while Nicholas was visiting a remote part of his diocese, several citizens from Myra came to him with urgent news: the ruler of the city, Eustathius, had condemned 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 execution 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 condemned 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 on the cover. 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 altitudes regarding 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 representing the governor, no doubt pointing out that Nicholas would do well not to interfere.
In this issue of In Communion, several 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.
Needless to say, unlike the prisoners for whom St. Nicholas intervened, many on death row are guilty of murder. Yet knowing 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 served by their killing? How is the God of mercy honored by bloodshed?
In the early Church those being prepared for baptism had to make promises regarding their future conduct. One of these was to not kill. This vow was required even of magistrates and soldiers. It is a requirement long ago abandoned and nearly 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 pity that we who claim to be followers of Christ give such a flawed witness to the kingdom of God.
May we live to see the death penalty abandoned. May our own efforts help speed that day.
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from the Summer 2007 issue of In Communion / IC 46
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