One of the especially attractive features of the Christmas octave is the series of saints whom we are blessed to celebrate during this week - Saint Stephen, the first martyr, Saint John, the beloved disciple, the Holy Innocents, and now today Saint Thomas Becket (1118-1170), Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the great martyrs for the freedom and mission of the Church in the world. Until 1960, the Breviary's second nocturn recounted the famous story of the Archbishop's martyrdom in Canterbury's cathedral. It told how, when the priests tried to protect their Archbishop by barring the cathedral's door, Thomas opened it himself, saying, "The house of God may not be defended like a fortress. I gladly face death for the Church of God."
Twenty-three years ago, I celebrated this feast at Canterbury Cathedral, where, after solemn Evensong, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself led us in procession to the site of Becket's death (photo), where the original account of the saint's martyrdom was read aloud. It was a very beautiful and edifying ceremony - as one would expect from the Church of England. But I remember thinking what an irony this all was. There we were celebrating the feast of the great defender of the Church's mission in the world, while the celebrant of the feast was himself Becket's successor but in an office and church polity completely transformed less than four centuries after Becket's death. Henry VIII's reformation rightly recognized the incompatibility between the Church that Becket died for and the Church "by law established" that the Reformation replaced it with. No wonder the Reformation removed Becket's feast from the calendar and destroyed his sumptuous shrine!
According to our modern way of thinking, Becket fought and died for the freedom of the Church within civil society. But Becket actually fought and died for the identification of civil society with the Church. It was the King Henry II rather who fought for freedom - the freedom of the State to rule the Church, of politics free from the restraints of religion. Henry II failed, but his later namesake Henry VIII succeeded, and the rest (as the saying goes) is history.
Today's society seeks even more complete emancipation from religious restraints, and states continue to seek control over the Church in order to guarantee their total autonomy. Becket's challenge to today's Church is not to abandon the public square in order to carve out privileged exceptions for religious entities, to bar the church doors as if the Church were a fortress to be defended. Becket's challenge to today's Church is rather to open its doors to proclaim its continued presence in the public square - to preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching (2 Timothy 4:2).