Wednesday, December 29, 2010

St Thomas Becket, Bishop and Martyr

Hebrews 5:1-6 / John 10:11-16

We are committed in Christmastide to the idea of radical moral transformation. Whether we prefer the works of Dickens or of Seuss, we believe, or at least we tell ourselves we believe, that something about this holy season can melt even the coldest of spirits, can enlarge a diminished heart, can replace humbug with good cheer. We are also committed, or we seem to be committed, to the belief that such transformation can be radical, can take place literally overnight, or even from the hearing of one song, earnestly and sincerely sung. It is not, that is, merely a reward of our personal merit. Neither doth any man take the honour to himself, but he that is called by God.

On the other hand, when the tinsel is packed away, the ornaments have gone back in their boxes, the toys have been safely taken up to the children's rooms, and the fruitcake has finally been consumed, our Christmastide certainties appear to us far from certain. The colleague who irritates us, the spouse who nags, the brother who scandalizes, or the daughter who disappoints — what would we do if they told us that they had, by the power of Christmas, been transformed utterly? How willing would we be to believe that, here and now, in the world in which we live, and not the delightful fictions in which we revel over the holidays, the Scrooges and Grinches are actually capable of radical transformation, of living out of charity poured into them from above?

When King Henry II appointed Thomas Becket, his longtime friend, to be Archbishop of Canterbury, he had no reason to believe that his very earthly, practical, not altogether morally uncompromised companion would be any different with his mitre than without. At first he could not believe, and then he would not, that his good friend Thomas, whose character he knew all too well, had altered so dramatically, that he had come to care, and care deeply, for the poor, the sheep entrusted to him as Primate of England. The king did not see that God had allowed Thomas his earlier brokenness not so as to bar him from being recreated in the Gospel, but so that he could have compassion on them that are ignorant and that err; because he himself also is compassed with infirmity. When by the rashness of his cursing Henry set in motion the murder of Thomas within the cathedral, the shedding of his own blood as a gift and sacrifice acceptable to God, the king could not forsee that even this dark moment would be transformed to the happy intercession of a saintly martyr, not only for the poor of Canterbury, but for the faithful across Europe for centuries to come.

God's promises of new life in the Gospel are true. As we believe them, indeed trust in them to be so, we must also be committed to rejoicing in that transformation even, perhaps especially, when it occurs in persons in whom we had long given up hope. Will we let our neighbors, even our intimate friends, become more like Christ, even should that transformation serve as an accusation of our own hardness of heart? Will we let ourselves be so transformed, even at the cost of losing the friendship of those who long for us to be not only in the world, not of it?

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