In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
My Brethren in Christ Jesus, blessings, and peace, on this Feast of St. Thomas à Becket. We are celebrating today our Wednesday Low Mass at the High Altar principally because the holy relic of this Saint is buried inside there. Most of the relics that properly belong to our parish are now gone from us. They were taken by thieves who no doubt justified their thievery on the basis of the factional strife that tore this parish apart at one point. Man has an almost limitless capacity for justifying his own knavery. His higher intellect is as debased as it is full of grace, and so he is forever perverting his own moral compass as much as he is pulling the wool over the eyes of his neighbor. We are very right to point out the sin of those who stole an integral part of our parish legacy, and yet we must always temper that with an acknowledgment of our own sin. In politics as in warfare two sides to a conflict can imagine themselves wholly righteous, while castigating the ones on the other side of No Man’s Land as wholly depraved; but that mindset must not be allowed to prevail in the Church. In these hallowed walls, we must admit to ourselves and to all others that we all fall short of the glory of God. Acknowledging that fact is every man’s first step toward Christ Jesus; and God intends for us to walk in no other direction. As much as we should be honest about our own depravity, we should also be mindful of God’s many blessings unto us; and so with that in mind we should be thankful that the thieves did not manage to walk off with the High Altar itself. The holy relic of St. Thomas à Becket remains in this space where it belongs as a reminder of our legacy in historic English Christianity and of our eternal communion with a Heavenly Host of Patrons and Protectors. Of all of the Saints Thomas à Becket is among the best examples of remaining faithful to what is eternal and true, notwithstanding how that made him an all too easy target for those much more interested in provoking factional strife and in scoring political points. As such, he is a living icon for our own steadfast faithfulness in preserving what we still retain and in pushing out to the world what is eternal and true no matter the pushback.
Thomas à Becket stands tall among the heroes of Medieval Christendom precisely because with everything at his disposal he struggled to keep the Church free from the sordid machinations of medieval politics. Once a favorite of King Henry II, Thomas lost the King’s good graces when, as Archbishop of Canterbury, he set out to preserve all of the institutional rights and privileges of the English Church from the government. His interaction with the King foreshadowed by a few hundred years the conflict between King Henry VIII and the monasteries. Though they may be able to couch what they are doing with high rhetoric, the Kings are always motivated by what happens to be the politics of the moment, while the Saints are willing to die if necessary to be the defenders of what is timeless. The Kings prevaricate; the Saints speak and act with clarity, boldness, and charity. The Kings see the world around them through the prism of endless war and faction driven elbow thrusts; the Saints see the world around them as properly belonging to the Architect of Peace. Given the skewed morality of our fallen world, the conflict between King and Saint throughout the ages seems inevitable, and the consequence for the losing side dire. It is always easier to conform. It is always more tactical to relent. If we are really living for eternity, though, then conforming or relenting to this fallen world is never in the cards. To be lax, to prevaricate for the King, to make the Church an instrument of his political will, are all as problematic as outright heresy. Latitudinarian indifference to the unique objective of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church may not shake the senses as much as a novel theological position, but over time the political hacks donning ornate Miters and Croziers will root out the Holy Spirit and leave behind the hollow shell of the Church. They will willfully confuse the Holy Spirit for the Spirit of the Times, and whatever short-term advantage they may get from doing this will turn out to be a devil’s bargain. Thomas à Becket saw this eventuality, and he had the grace filled courage to say no before more of the Church could be squandered to the whims of a shortsighted King. He inspires us to do the same, even if that means we shall be despised and persecuted by those heeding the call of this fallen world over the call of eternity. He teaches us to be steadfast in the faith, notwithstanding the factional strife we endured in the past and the troublemakers who no doubt will try to lead us astray in the future. For though Thomas died in his cathedral at the hands of the King’s assassins, his legacy lived on and proved over time to be much more powerful. What is eternal and true wins out in the end; and, therefore, we too may be fully comforted so long as we remain steadfast to the political independence and theological integrity of the Church God Himself bestowed upon the Apostles.
The account of Thomas’s martyrdom is horrific. Although it is unclear if the King gave anyone a direct order to kill the Archbishop whom he referred to as a “turbulent Priest,” we do know that four assassins set out to do what they conceived at least to be the King’s bidding. They travelled to Canterbury, and attacked the Archbishop inside his cathedral, while he was praying. Edward Grim, a monk who was with Thomas that fateful evening, and was also injured trying to fend off the attackers, wrote: “the impious knight set upon him, and shaved off the summit of his crown which the sacred chrism had consecrated to God. With yet a third blow to his head, the stricken martyr bent his knees and elbows, offering himself as a living sacrifice, saying in low voice, ‘For the Name of Jesus and for the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.’ With yet another blow, his crown separated from his head so that the blood shed turned white from the brain, yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood. A cleric who had entered with the four knights placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and so scattered the brains with the blood across the floor, exclaiming to the rest, ‘We can leave this place, knights, for he will not get up again.” Indeed, Thomas’s flesh did not get up again from the floor; but his example of steadfastness in sanctity and independence from politics ascended to a far greater height in virtue of God’s grace bringing that man’s sacrifice into Christ Jesus. The very fact that we are here together in this parish is one part of that legacy that God wrought from Thomas’s martyrdom. We keep his holy relic in order to honor him, but even more so in order to call to mind that legacy we have received in virtue of that ultimate sacrifice he made. As inheritors of that legacy we are obligated to do our part to pass on the same; to be as faithful as Thomas in all matters eternal and true; and to be an example of steadfast fidelity to God in the face of sin.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.