Whoever hates his life in this world keeps it safe for life everlasting.
On the fifth day of the Christmas Octave, the Church commemorates one of the most revered saints of the Middle Ages, Thomas Becket. The heroic Archbishop of Canterbury was martyred on this day in 1170 by henchmen of the English king, Henry II. The circumstances surrounding Thomas’s martyrdom—a tragic fruit of his troubled friendship with Henry—have been dramatized in our own day in T. S. Eliot’s 1938 play Murder in the Cathedral, and in Peter Glenville’s 1964 film Becket. Both are worth your time. Becket’s biography displays for us in full color how one life, transformed by grace, can become a force that shapes history.
When Christ said that he came not to bring peace but the sword (Mt 10:34), he highlighted for his disciples the resistance their preaching and witness would encounter, especially from unconverted friends and relatives. As the experience of the early martyrs soon revealed, more turbulent could be those Christian lives in which conversion occurs in a disciple’s later years. These noble souls learned that drastic changes in conviction are not well received in families and friendships marked by complacency and comfort. When such change occurs, life for the old group becomes disturbed, and challenge is given to accepted ways of living and acting. The reaction against this disruption can be fierce, even violent. For the converted, therefore, the sword tends to hover more often than the olive branch over old relationships. It is fitting that we ponder this effect of grace just days after Christmas.
The depth of Thomas’s rather late conversion can been seen in the ways that he, as archbishop, opposed the political maneuvers of his old friend, Henry. Against Henry’s attempts to control certain aspects of the Church’s inner life, Thomas became a staunch defender of the rights of the bishops and the clergy. Thomas read the resulting tensions between cathedra and crown through the lens of the Church’s spiritual tradition, wherein struggle and difficulty are seen as necessary for one’s growth in holiness. Becket reflected on this truth in one of his letters, which we examine in today’s Office of Readings:
If we who are called bishops desire to understand the meaning of our calling and to be worthy of it, we must strive to keep our eyes on him whom God appointed hight priest for ever, and to follow in his footsteps. For our sake he offered himself to the Father upon the altar of the cross. He now looks down from heaven on our actions and secret thoughts, and one day he will give each of us the reward his deeds deserve.
As successors of the apostles, we hold the highest rank in our churches; we have accepted the responsibility of acting as Christ’s representatives on earth; we receive the honor belonging to that office, and enjoy the temporal benefits of our spiritual labors. It must therefore be our endeavor to destroy the reign of sin and death, and by nurturing faith and uprightness of life, to build up the Church of Christ into a holy temple in the Lord.
Remember then how our fathers worked out their salvation; remember the sufferings through which the Church has grown, and the storms the ship of Peter has weathered because it has Christ on board. Remember how the crown was attained by those whose sufferings gave new radiance to their faith. The whole company of saints bears witness to the unfailing truth that without real effort no one wins the crown.
Struck down by the cowardly decree of an earthly crown, St. Thomas won for himself the heavenly crown of everlasting life.
For more on St. Thomas’s life and death, click here and here.
you granted the martyr Thomas
the grace to give his life for the cause of justice.
By his prayers
make us willing to renounce for Christ
our life in this world
so that we may find it in heaven.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.
2 Comments »