Commemorating Saint Thomas Becket

“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” – with these words, Saint Thomas Becket was condemned by King Henry II and martyred.

Canterbury Cathedral - stained glass of the murder of Saint Thomas à Becket
Murder of Saint Thomas, stained glass at the Cathedral of Canterbury (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Prior to this, Saint Thomas had butted heads with the king by refusing to approve the his Constitutions of Clarendon, which would have removed the rights of clerics to be tried by the Church and appeal to Rome. Apparently, Saint Thomas was open to some kind of compromise as the king was, ostensibly, trying to address a real problem of corruption among clergy (conveniently grabbing power at the same time), but ultimately rejected the constitutions. This sent him into exile, fleeing to France for several years. Some time after he returned to England, he refused to lift censures he had placed on bishops that the king particularly favored – prompting the famous words above.

There is some doubt as to whether or not the king actually intended that his angry utterance to be a call for execution – both King Henry and Saint Thomas Becket were known for their fiery temperament, and willingness to express themselves freely. Despite the clashes between them in their positions of authority, they had had a friendship that had started many years prior – with the two of them even serving in war together. Nonetheless, four knights, upon hearing their king’s words, went to Canterbury and killed Saint Thomas Becket in the cathedral.

Today’s commemoration is the last of the martyrs celebrated during this octave of Christmas. Brother Cassian Derbes, O.P. at Word on Fire has a thoughtful reflection on the school of martyrdom. While we hope to never be enrolled such that we must suffer as the martyrs did, may we yet follow the martyrs example of faithfulness and commitment to Christ.

My friend Thom Ryng, having a particular love for Saint Thomas Becket, has taken a neat dive into the liturgical oddity of today’s commemoration (and has links to his reflections on the saint from prior years). I highly recommend his writing on Saint Thomas – and in general!

A wealth of Christmas feasts

Merry Christmas! I pray that these days of the nativity of the Lord are joyful, refreshing, and relaxing. After the four weeks of Advent preparation, it is wonderful to finally (!) celebrate the birthday of Christ and the beginning of His work of salvation in the world.

Like most – if not all! – of my brother priests, I spend the days immediately after Christmas recuperating from the holiday rush and visiting with family. It is a sad reflection of our current crisis of priestly vocations in the Church that this means many of our parishes simply shut down during this time. While this is understandable (priests are human too!), the vision of each parish having two, three, or even four priests is far from being realized.

Before continuing on, lets take a moment together to pray for priestly vocations and the young men who are being called to hear & answer the Lord’s invitation.

The Stoning of Saint Stephen, altarpiece of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice
Stoning of St Stephen, altarpiece of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

As a result of the shortage of priests, most parishioners will not have daily Masses this week. And this is a real shame, because the first three days after Christmas are big celebrations! December 26th is the feast of Saint Stephen the Martyr, December 27th is the feast of Saint John the Apostle, and December 28th is the feast of the Holy Innocents.

Each in their own way, according to their own call, were close to the heart of Jesus. Saint Stephen is the first Christian martyr, which is to say, the first to have been killed in the name of Christ after His death & resurrection – professing His name and Gospel even as he was stoned alive for doing so. The second reading from the Office of Readings for this day, a sermon by Saint Fulgentius of Ruspe – is an extraordinary reflection on the relationship between Jesus, Saint Stephen, and his persecutors – especially Saint Paul.

Jesus & Saint John, the art Bible (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Saint John the Evangelist – the ‘beloved disciple’ – holds special distinction for his closeness to the heart of Jesus. Alone among the Apostles in not suffering martyrdom, he is set apart in Scripture as being especially close to the Lord. This is most poignantly illustrated in the accounts of the Last Supper, where he reclines against Jesus chest – a closeness to which we are all invited.

The Virgin and Child Surrounded by the Holy Innocents, Peter Paul Rubens
The Virgin and Child Surrounded by the Holy Innocents, Peter Paul Rubens (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Though last in the order of celebrations, the Holy Innocents were the first to share in the suffering & sorrow of Christ – without knowing His name, they nonetheless died for Him and are the first martyrs of the Church. Their feast day calls to mind the many souls whose lives have been similarly cut short by the evil of abortion. They, too, suffer without knowing the cause – though they join the Holy Innocents in being received lovingly into the arms of our heavenly Father.

There are sorrows and consolations alike to be found in each of these celebrations. All now share in the Father’s joy, together with all the saints and angels. Each entered into the suffering of Christ, albeit in different ways according to the vocation given to them by God. While they may not have chosen the suffering they endured – indeed, so many were not given that choice! – the Lord ensured that their suffering was not in vain. And through Him, they suffer no more, instead enjoying His presence forever and interceding on our behalf.

As we continue through this Christmas season, may we ask their prayers on our behalf and on behalf of all the world. May we each embrace our vocation, with all its accompanying sorrows and joys, so that we by sharing in His life, death, and resurrection, we might win eternal life for both ourselves and others.