Friday, December 27, 2013

The Saints Speak at Christmas

All but one of the six intermediate days between Christmas and New Year's are associated with specific saints. In fact, in the old calendar, even Christmas Day included a "commemoration" at the Second ("Dawn") Christmas Mass - of Saint Anastasia, martyred during the persecution of Diocletian. So, until recently, six of the first seven days of Christmas commemorated saints - Anastasia, Stephen the Protomartyr, John the Apostle and Evangelist, the Holy Innocents, Thomas Becket (1120-1170), and Sylvester I (Pope 314-335). It is noteworthy that, apart from John and Sylvester, all are martyrs, which surely suggests something about the centrality of martyrdom in Christian life and in the Church's history. Note also how, apart from the Holy Innocents, none have any particular connection with Christmas. Saints Anastasia, Thomas, and Sylvester all just happened to have died on December 25, 29, and 31 respectively. Even so, all of them by their lives - and in the case of the martyrs by their deaths - gave eloquent witness to the consequence of Christmas, to the impact of the Incarnation, of the Word becoming flesh in our human world. And, of all these saints, only one of them, Thomas Becket, ever actually celebrated Christmas.

The new calendar de-emphasizes Becket and this year (when December 29 will occur on a Sunday) ignores him completely. But he remains one of my great favorites. The commemoration of his martyrdom on the 5th Day of Christmas is a serious reminder – amid all the cheery sentimentality of this season – that the world into which God chose to become human is a dangerous and challenging world, one in which (as I have been known to say in homilies) saying “Yes” to Christ inevitably means saying “No” to (at least some) other options.
It was on the occasion of my first visit to Britain during Christmas Week 1992 – a London-based holiday with an old friend from high school - that I attended Evensong at Canterbury Cathedral on the actual feast of St. Thomas Becket, thus marking not only the date but the very hour of his martyrdom. Becket’s Anglican successor led the celebration, the highlight of which came at the end of the service when the Archbishop led the congregation down to the exact site of St. Thomas’s murder, where we listened to a contemporary medieval account of the infamous event.

Quickly canonized within three years of his death, Becket rose to become one of the Church’s great heroes in the perennial conflict against the ambition of secular power. Famously, his shrine at Canterbury also became one of medieval Europe’s popular pilgrimage sites. Then in 1538 a new pharaoh, Henry VIII - much more ambitious to control the Church (and everything else) than Henry II probably could ever even have imagined being – destroyed the shrine. (A candle now burns on the bare floor marking the site of the former shrine, and a modern altar adorns the location of his martyrdom). 

On the specific issues which precipitated the conflict between Becket and Henry II, the modern state has long-since staked its claim and won. The underlying principle, however, that the Church represents a superior claim on people’s consciences than that of any human loyalty still stands as a perpetual challenge to the worldly ambitions of states, societies, and cultures - certainly no less so today than in ancient and medieval times.
On Christmas Day 1170, Thomas, only recently returned from exile, celebrated Pontifical Mass in a packed Canterbury Cathedral. He based his sermon on Luke 2:14 - the song of the angels to the shepherds. But the peace he spoke of was definitely not a worldly one. During his sermon, he is said to have alerted his audience to the imminent possibility of his own martyrdom, invoking one of his famous Anglo-Saxon predecessors, Saint Alphege, who had been abducted by Viking raiders in 1011 and then martyred on April 19, 1012. He would again invoke Saint Alphege, commending both himself and the Church's cause, four days later just before the first sword struck his head, .

In an "Interlude" in his famous play, Murder in the Cathedral, T.S. Elliot recreated Becket's Christmas sermon. Elliott's Becket devotes about half of his sermon to the meaning of martyrdom. "A martyrdom," Elliot's Becket says, "is always the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. It 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, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr. 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, and are seen, not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being." Subtly resonating with the words of the ancient Christmas Preface, Becket's sermon identifies martyrdom with an analogous self-emptying to what we celebrate in the Incarnation.

In Elliot's sermon, Becket goes on to invite his congregation to remember his sainted predecessor Saint Elphege - "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."


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