The Feast of St. Thomas of Canterbury – 29 December, 2013

Hebrews 5:1 – 6
St. John 10:11 – 16

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Merry Christmass!! Yes, the Feast of Christmass continues, despite the fact that the post-Christmass sales are in full swing, and many, probably most have “moved on.” They are looking to the big secular holiday, New Years Day, with Bowl Games, the Rose Parade, and the dropping of the great ball in Times Square, NYC. But, it is still Christmasstide, even if many don’t know it and others deny it.

For those still aware of Christmass, in the Christmass spirit, as it is commonly phrased, the common images are (1) the birth in the manger, with Mary, Joseph, and the Babe, along with the oxen, donkeys, etc., (2) angels announcing over the hills of Judea that the Christ is born, (3) Christmass dinner, with far too much food for a week, (4) candy canes, snowmen, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and other similar thoughts.

But then, remember the words of Jesus Christ, Matthew 10:34   Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. No sugar plums and gingerbread men there!

Let us look again at the Kalendar for Christmasstide:
December 25, the Feast of the Nativity, the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ;
December 26, the Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and first Martyr of the Church;
December 27, the Feast of St. John, Evangelist, writer of the Gospel and Letters of John;
December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the infant boys slain by King Herod;
December 29, the Feast of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Bishop and Martyr;
December 30, Christmass Feria;
December 31, Christmass Feria;
January 1, Circumcision of Christ;
January 2, Christmass Feria;
January 3, Christmass Feria;
January 4, Christmass Feria;
January 5, Christmass Feria;
January 6, The Feast of the Epiphany, the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.
Of course, somewhere in there the First and Second Sundays after Christmass come, but the listing above is the general scheme.

Now look again at the list above: We have martyrs celebrated on the 26th, the 28th, and the 29th of December, three of the first four days following the Feast of the Nativity itself. Why?

That is a difficult question to answer definitively, but consider what St. Thomas Becket himself had to say about the matter.  He first observes that at the Mass on Christmass Day, we remember both the birth of Christ – an occasion of Joy, and the sacrifice of Christ – an occasion of shame, regret, and sadness. He then continues,
Consider one thing of which you have probably never thought. Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord’s Birth and Death, but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of His first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the date of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and morn at once in the Birth and Passion of Our Lord, so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and morn in the death of martyrs. We morn for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven for the for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.

    Beloved, we do not think of a martyr simply as a good Christian who has been killed because he is a Christian: for that would be solely to mourn. We do not think of him simply as a good Christian who has been elevated to the company of the Saints: for that would be simply to rejoice: and neither our mourning nor our rejoicing is as the world’s is. A Christian martyrdom is no accident. Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man’s will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. Ambition fortifies the will of man to become ruler over other men: it operates with deception, cajolery, and violence; it is the action of impurity upon impurity. Not so in Heaven. A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom. So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once, in a fashion that the world cannot understand; so in Heaven the Saints are most high, having made themselves most low, seeing themselves not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.

    I have spoken to you today, dear children of God, of the martyrs of the past, asking you to remember especially our martyr of Canterbury, the blessed Archbishop Elphege; because it is fitting, on Christ’s birth day, to remember what is that Peace which He brought; and because, dear children, I do not think I shall ever preach to you again; and because it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last. I would have you keep in your hearts these words that I say, and think of them at another time. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The boldfaced words seem to indicate that St. Thomas of Canterbury was anticipating his own martyrdom. Why was this? Of what was he afraid?

Let us look at history here. Thomas was in a hot dispute with King Henry II of England. Earlier in his life, Thomas had served the King, and was his friend and confidant. Theobald, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, had named Becket to be Archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154 (although I cannot determine if he had been previously ordained Deacon, or not). In that position, he had served the King as Chancellor of England and had enforced the King’s traditional sources of income, taxes extracted from one and all, including churches and bishoprics. On the death of Theobald, in April, 1162, Becket was selected to become Archbishop of Canterbury and was made Priest on 2 June, 1162, and consecrated Bishop on 3 June, 1162 – a speedy rise, to say the least! But, after he was elevated to Archbishop of Canterbury, he resigned as Chancellor and began to oppose the King in various matters, recovering and extending the rights and privileges of the Church.

In 1164, the King called a council that promulgated an agreement known as the Constitutions of Clarendon. Becket first opposed the Constitutions, but eventually agreed not to object while personally refusing to sign them. The King called Becket to appear before the Great Council on 8 November to answer charges of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Chancellor’s Office. Becket was convicted, but stormed out of the session and left immediately for the Continent where he stayed for a number of years under the protection of the King of France and various monastic houses. Becket wanted to fight Henry — he was still Archbishop of Canterbury, even in exile – threatening to excommunicate the King and place the entire nation under interdict. The Pope refused to back him in this, and in 1170 sent Papal Legates to arbitrate and force a settlement. Henry offered a compromise that would enable Becket to return to England.

In June 1170, the Archbishop of York, and the Bishops of London and Salisbury, had jointly crowned the heir apparent at York. This was a major violation of the traditional privilege and status of Canterbury as the only place for a coronation. In November of that year, Becket excommunicated all three of them. The three excommunicated bishops went to the King, then in Normandy, for redress. This was the occasion for the famous exclamation by Henry (variously reported as): “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?” (this as reported by Edward Grim, a witness to the events). There are, of course, other variations, such as “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”, etc. Whatever were the exact words of Henry II, they were understood by four knights as license to confront the Archbishop.

It is reported that they first went, unarmed, into the cathedral where they confronted the Archbishop, insisting that he go again before the King. When he refused, they retrieved their weapons, and went back to find him and murder him. Here are the words of Edward Grim, witness to the events:

The wicked knight leapt upon him, cutting off the top of the crown which the unction of sacred chrism had dedicated to God. Next he received a second blow on the head, but still stood firm and immovable. At the third blow, he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, “For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.” But the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay prostrate. By this stroke, the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood,  white with the brain, and the brain no less red with the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral. The same clerk who had entered with the knights placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements, crying to the others, “Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more.

One of the most currently popular presentations of the story of St. Thomas of Canterbury is that of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. While it is not entirely accurate from a historical perspective, it does present the main points of the story in a very compelling manner.  It was written and first performed on stage in 1935, and has been repeated many times.

There is a very interesting line of parallel events that we can associate with Jesus Christ, St. Thomas Becket, Murder in the Cathedral, and our present day. Consider –

Jesus Christ (d. 33 AD) was born into the world to suffer and die for the redemption of mankind. His Passion is the prototype for all the martyrs to follow Him. He came to save man from a tyranny, not the Roman Empire, but the tyranny of sin; sin reaching into every human life and enslaving man to the devil.

Thomas Becket (1118 or 1120 – 1170 AD) was martyred for opposing a greedy, aggressive and grasping King who had no respect for Christ’s Church. While many today do not agree with the positions taken by Thomas Becket, there can be no doubt that he was pursuing what he saw as service to Christ and His Church.

Murder in the Cathedral (1935 AD) was written, at a time when the Bolsheviks had already deposed the Czar (1917) and Hitler was rapidly rising to power in Germany. Both of these were powerful secular forces that opposed the Church and sought the oppression of many millions of men.

Today (2013 AD) We stand today when the forces of world government in various forms (communism, socialism, fascism, etc.) seek to oppose the Christian faith and to enslave all of humanity under its yoke. Right here in the United States of America, we see this happening at a frightening rate, something most of us thought would never be possible.

These events are certainly not all identical by any means. The coming of Jesus Christ, His birth, His Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension, out weigh the others by far. But, that said, there is a certain parallel. The other three events show a more clear parallel, and the time for martyrdom for some is near at hand. Where do we stand? Are we with Jesus Christ and His Church, or will we crumble and run? Think now, while there is still some time, about what you will do. Will you join the endless line of Saints and Martyrs serving Christ and going on to eternal glory, or will you serve self and the world?

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About Father D

I am a priest of the Continuing Anglican Church, the continuation of orthodox Anglicanism into the present 21st century. My theology is definitely that of a Reformed Catholic point of view, neither Roman nor Calvinist.
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