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Posts Tagged ‘Saint Thomas Becket’

imageWhat Price Friendship?

One casualty of the post-Christmas frenzy is the string of liturgical feasts that follow the big day itself.  On the 26th comes the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, celebrated in the lyrics of the popular carol with these words:  “Good King Wenceslaus went out, on the feast of Stephen.”  Stephen was a deacon in the New Testament Jerusalem community, and he was the first to give up his life for the Christian faith.  He surrendered his life while Saul, the future Saint Paul, looked on with approval.  Stephen certainly deserves a little more respect than he gets, but it’s tough to compete with post-Christmas gift returns and sales.  People will stampede to the cathedrals of commerce on the 26th, but they’re not so inclined to crowd the churches to honor this great deacon.

imageOn the 27th is the feast of Saint John the Evangelist.  By tradition we revere him as the author of the gospel that bears his name, as well as of the Book of Revelation.  But we also celebrate his deep friendship with Jesus.  According to the gospel, he was “the one whom Jesus loved,” which is indicative of the high esteem that the ancient world placed on friendship.  He alone of the disciples stood loyally at the foot of the cross, and there he became the surrogate for all believers when Jesus entrusted his mother to him, and him to her.  Unique among the apostles, he lived to an old age; and alone among them he did not wear the martyr’s crown.

On the 28th is the feast of the Holy Innocents, followed this year by the feast of the Holy Family.  The first recalls Herod’s order to execute all young boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem, in hopes of wiping out potential rivals to his kingship.  Ever since the gospels first recounted this story, it has gripped the imaginations of readers and preachers and artists alike.  It never quite loses its power to shock.

imageAs if all of this were not enough, we also remember Saint Thomas Becket, who was assassinated inside Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170.  Born into modest circumstances, Becket eventually rubbed elbows with the great and powerful of England, and Henry II chose him to be both friend and chancellor.  Henry, who likely fancied himself to be a master tactician, conceived the brilliant idea of adding to Becket’s titles that of archbishop of Canterbury.  In one fell swoop Henry would have his friend be lord of both the secular and the religious.  Through this pliant and loyal friend Henry’s power would be seamless, complete, and unchallenged.

Of course those plans didn’t materialize in quite the way that Henry had hoped, and his ambitions were thwarted when Thomas put duty over friendship.  As Richard Burton portrays him in the stirring movie Becket, the archbishop chose to be God’s servant first and the king’s second.  In this he provided a model for the 16th-century sequel, when another Chancellor Thomas (More) preferred God to yet another Henry, this time number VIII.

imageBecket’s murder shocked Europe for a lot of reasons, and not just because it was a conflict between royal and ecclesial rights.  For one thing, the murder violated a sacred space, since it took place on holy ground inside Canterbury Cathedral.  It also violated a sacred time, since it occurred within the octave of Christmas, as the archbishop-monk prepared for vespers.  Third, heavily armed knights had brought weapons into a sacred space and had hacked to death an un-armed non-combatant.  And lastly, they had killed a man of God.  For two centuries peace-makers had worked to bridle indiscriminate violence, and in one celebrated act these knights had violated not only the laws of human decency, but also a budding code of chivalry.  Still, though only a few knights had done the deed, it was Henry II who got the credit, and for it he paid dearly.

imageOn major feast days at Saint John’s we add a second reading to the scripture passage at morning prayer.  This time of year, as expected, lots of days get that special treatment simply because so many feasts crowd the calendar.  But on the feast of Stephen we heard a reading that was brilliant both for its prose as well as for its ability to tie all the days together.  It was a passage from T. S. Elliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, and it was the sermon that Thomas Becket preached in Canterbury Cathedral on the feast of Saint Stephen.  In his reflection on Stephen, Becket foresees his own impending martyrdom.  Like the Innocents, he will be a lamb led to slaughter; but in the spirit of Saint Stephen Becket will accept his fate with full consciousness.  He will put duty and faith above all else — including friendship with the king.

What struck me as I listened was the proximity to the feast of John the Evangelist and a theme that is common to both.  Running through the stories of Becket and John is an emphasis on the importance of friendship.  John was friend to Jesus, and that had been a decisive and life-changing reality for him.  Becket was a friend to Henry II, and their friendship was an equally decisive motif in his life,  until of course he had to choose between commitment to God or commitment to king.  There’s no reason that there should have been an ethical dilemma here, but there was.  And Becket had to choose.  For his choice he paid the ultimate price.

imageAll this drama follows on the feast of Christmas, and it is a poignant reminder that Christmas is not just some sweet story about an innocent child in a manger.  For all who would follow the  teaching of the adult Jesus, there are choices that have to be made.  Sometimes those choices are easy and joyful; sometimes they are difficult and painful.  But choose we must.  And I’ve always thought that if we choose well, the results will be wonderful, whatever they may be.  Such choices transform our lives because through them we become sons and daughters of God.  That, I think, is the price and the reward of our friendship with Jesus.  To my mind that is a gift we would scarcely want to return on December 26th.

Notes

image+On Christmas Eve some 900 people braved both the cold as well as snowy roads to join us for Mass.  At the end of the liturgy many seemed to be in no great hurry to leave, and it was nice that so many could join us for coffee and cookies in the Great Hall.  However, one person apparently was in a great rush to get home; but how you leave a shoe behind is beyond me.  He or she must have been talking on a cell phone at the time.

+Like the shepherds of old, our manger scene has migrated to various spots around the church.  This year it was relocated to the baptistry, with a fine orientation toward the altar.  Designed by a French artist, who gave the figures a North African accent, they received new clothing a few years ago when a candle accidentally burned off their clothes.  There were no candles this year, due in part to the hay that gave the scene the feel and aroma of an authentic stable.  The bales came via the generosity of one of our neighbors, who asked asked that they be returned when the Holy Family moved on.  Hay is not cheap this year.

image+One of my favorite portraits of the Holy Family is a wood relief carved by our now-deceased Brother Placid Stuckenschneider.  It hangs in the Mary chapel of the parish center, which is located across the lake from campus.

+Last year the admissions department of the University staged several photos that highlight the natural beauty of the campus.  “Raft U” was the overall theme, and enclosed is their Christmas greeting.  Needless to say, this is not an accurate photo of the lake, at least as of 30 December.

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