Sermon for Sung Mass – Christmas 1 Sunday 29 December 2019
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
If today were not a Sunday, it would be celebrated in this country as the Feast of St Thomas Becket.
Becket is easily the most romantic figure of Anglican martyrdom: of course we count him as Anglican, as his cathedral is the mother church of our Communion, but because he was martyred in 1170 he is in fact a saint shared by all the great Christian traditions. Martyred today, this most human of saints is also not a bad subject for reflection in the shadow of Christmas, and in the light of today’s gospel story of King Herod and the massacre of the Innocents.
We know Thomas’s story, dramatized by T S Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral: the tale of a man whose friendship with a young prince led to high office in state and church. As Chancellor of England under Henry II, Thomas complied with the will of his royal friend and was rewarded with the Archbishopric of Canterbury. As archbishop, however, Thomas proved less amenable to Henry’s requirements of him, and when the tension between them, over matters of jurisdiction, church property and taxation, reached boiling point, Thomas fled to France to escape punishment.
Exile only increased Thomas’s popularity. He returned as a public figure and the object of rivalry with the king himself. In a moment of passionate rage, Henry voiced a heartfelt desire to be rid of his friend who had so betrayed him. Four of the king’s knights who heard him, eager to please their monarch and win their own place in his affections, rushed to assassinate Thomas, murdering him in his cathedral on the afternoon of this day 29th December 1170. His death unleashed an outpouring of popular veneration of Thomas and anger directed at the king.
But Henry was surely justified in his frustration with Thomas: prior to his appointment as Archbishop he had offered little evidence of piety or integrity. He had been a convincing friend to the king and had certainly given Henry every reason to trust his loyalty. Even if his religious convictions were sincere, he had for too long shared the king’s intimate friendship to make his conversion seem anything but stubborn opportunism. Once ordained, Thomas used the power of his office to strike at Henry, even threatening to place the realm under interdict: the equivalent of excommunicating an entire nation, an action which would have threatened Henry’s sovereignty. Both were stubborn and wilful men, and both were powerful, playing out a drama with significant implications for the people of England.
Much of the story of Henry and Thomas, if stripped of its pageantry and romance, is about human pride. Our faith tells us that every area of our lives is touched by imperfection in a creation that has fallen short of God’s intention for it; our best intentions go astray and land us in places of profound pain. And given untrammelled power, few of us avoid the trap of pride: ‘because you’re worth it’ was a successful slogan for a cosmetic company for a reason.
The friendship of Henry and Thomas, like everything about them, was on the grand scale. Their anger, their contention and the end of their argument were all played out on an equally large stage. And so was their forgetfulness: each seems to have paid insufficient heed to the power of sin, and their own susceptibility to its corrosive power.
An American commentator writing about contemporary abuses of power and the mutation of heroism into the basest brutality, which we see again and again the exploits of so many nations in recent history, writes this:
Belief in one’s own exceptionalism may be a cultural cliché, but it is also the manual for tragedy.
We readily blame the United States’ historic belief in their exceptionalism for many ills in the world, but if we’re truthful the history of all nations and empires, including our own, reveals the same tragic flaw.
The story of Thomas and Henry is recalled not that we might worship or revere either of them: each was culpable. But the recollection should help us to discern their tragic flaw in ourselves and learn to be saints too.
Today, which is widely observed as the feast of the Holy Family, it may be good to consider that we don’t honour even Jesus, Mary and Joseph at this season as a perfect family; we should not beat ourselves up too much about the shortcomings we discover in our own familial context, which as Christians means church community as well as blood relatives. We might, though, conjecture that Joseph’s contribution to Jesus’ human flourishing was to offer a model of fatherhood that Jesus could relate to God himself: of law trumped by grace, of enacted compassion as the new law of righteousness. From the little we know of Joseph that rings true.
No doubt the Holy Family had its moments: Jesus, Mary and Joseph certainly had their share of human fear and suffering. But the truth for us to grasp is that in this season we celebrate a true exceptionalism: the unique son of God, and a one-off family in which, as Hebrews has just reminded us, we are brothers ans sisters together, in which no one is to express that uniqueness in self-importance or the assertion of power. Here too we see how to be saints.