St. Thomas Becket - 5th Day of Christmas
St. Thomas Becket, by Meister Francke, 1424

St. Thomas Becket, Christmas Martyr

Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, met a violent end on this date in the year 1170. Knights loyal to Becket’s former patron and friend, Henry II of England, burst into his cathedral. There they murdered the archbishop as he was celebrating Vespers. And so the 5th Day of Christmas (oh yes, Merry Christmas!) is also the feast of St. Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr.

          It’s striking how many martyrs’ feast days we observe during the Christmas season: St. Stephen on the 2nd Day of Christmas, The Holy Innocents yesterday; on Christmas Day itself the Church used to celebrate a second mass, not for the Nativity, but for the martyr St. Anastasia.  Today’s martyr has attracted the attention of numerous authors over the years. The pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for instance, are journeying to his shrine. Jean Anouilh wrote a play about him, Becket, which became a successful film starring Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. Becket’s martyrdom is the focus of T.S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, and the saint has appeared in not a few novels.

Peter O’Toole as King Henry II (l) and Richard Burton as Thomas Becket (r) in the 1964 film Becket

Joy and Sorrow

    In Eliot’s play the soon-to-be-martyred archbishop delivers a Christmas homily in which he discusses this (seemingly) odd juxtaposition between the joy of the Nativity and the mourning of martyrdom:

Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once our Lord’s Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of his first martyr, the blessed Stephen.  Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means.  Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and the Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs . . .

So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once, in a fashion that the world cannot understand; so in Heaven the Saints are most high, having made themselves most low, and are seen, not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.

The Wisdom of This World

     Eliot’s Becket here is echoing St. Paul, who tells the Corinthians that “the wisdom of this world is folly before God” (1 Corinthians 3:19).  Becket himself enjoyed quite a bit of success, in the eyes of the world, prior to becoming archbishop. First of all, he was a close companion to King Henry II, and the king’s Chancellor.  Henry nominated Thomas to be Archbishop of Canterbury in the hopes that he would subordinate the Church in England to the interests of the Crown.  Instead, Becket threw away all the advantages that his friendship with the king brought him and became a champion of the independence of the Church from the Crown.

He also seemed to embrace the spiritual life wholeheartedly, surrendering many of the comforts he could legitimately claim as archbishop and giving lavishly to the poor. Some people, at the time and since, have doubted the sincerity of his conversion. Others, on the other hand, accepted it as genuine. It’s certainly undeniable that Becket had numerous opportunities to compromise with the king, and so save his life, if he had chosen to do so.  His conversion gained greater credibility when the monks who prepared his body discovered that he had been secretly wearing a penitential hair shirt under his episcopal vestments.

The Penance of King Henry II at the Tomb of Thomas Beckett, by Samuel Seeberger 1898-1899

The Powers of This World

    In recent years, as government and other powerful social institutions have encroached more and more menacingly on the Church, Christians have been turning increasingly to St. Thomas Becket (as well as St. Thomas More, another Thomas martyred by another King Henry three and a half centuries later) as inspiration and intercessor. We do well to remember that both Thomases lost their worldly battles against their respective Henries.

And while it is true that Henry II did public penance for the murder of St. Thomas Becket just three years after the fact, Henry VIII never looked back after the execution of St. Thomas More. He never showed any remorse for the seizure or destruction of all the Catholic Church’s properties in England. His transgressions include the very intentional destruction of both the shrine to St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury and of the saint’s human remains housed there as relics. Henry shed no tears at the eradication of the Catholic Church itself in his kingdom, and the British Monarch is still the head of the Church of England to this day.

     The point is not that we shouldn’t fight to defend the Faith and the Church: we should fight with all our strength, calling upon the intercession of St. Thomas Becket and all the saints to help us.  We cannot, however, pin our hopes on achieving victory over the temporal powers of this world.  Thomas Becket is not a Saint because he defeated Henry II, but because he overcame the enormous temptations of power and comfort in this world and remained faithful to Christ, even in the face of certain death. 

Christmas and Martyrdom

Jesus on Trial Before the Sanhedrin, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-1311.

     Which brings us back to where we started – the intimate connection between Christmas and martyrdom.  In the Feast of the Nativity we celebrate the birth of Our Savior, who was born expressly to die on The Cross, defeated (apparently) by the temporal powers of the day. Whether or not we win our battles against the Henries, Herods, and Pilates of this world (the wisdom of this world, remember, is folly), the battles that really matter in the long run are not “against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

We celebrate the birth of Christ not because he has conquered Caiaphas or Tiberius Caesar (both of whom, after all, death destroyed centuries ago) but because he has “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).  

  So, again, Merry Christmas! Gaudete, Christus natus est! St. Thomas Becket, pray for us!

Music for Christmas

One of our most well-known Christmas hymns is “Adeste Fideles,” in English “O Come All Ye Faithful.”  Despite the fact that it was originally composed in Latin, it is not ancient.  It was first published in 1751 by English Catholic John Francis Wade.  We don’t know whether Wade composed the hymn himself, or was simply circulating the work of another composer which he had discovered in a library (which he is known to have done with other pieces).  The most familiar English version was translated from Latin by the English Catholic priest Frederick Oakely in 1852.

I’m sorry to say that I can’t tell you who performs the beautiful rendition of “Adeste Fideles” in the clip below.  it was posted to Vimeo by Piccole Note 6 years ago.

Adeste fideles læti triumphantes,
Venite, venite in Bethlehem.
Natum videte
Regem angelorum:
Venite adoremus (3×)

Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine
Gestant puellæ viscera
Deum verum, genitum non factum.
Venite adoremus (3×)

Cantet nunc io, chorus angelorum;
Cantet nunc aula cælestium,
Gloria, gloria in excelsis Deo,
Venite adoremus (3×)

Ergo qui natus die hodierna.
Jesu, tibi sit gloria,
Patris æterni Verbum caro factum.
Venite adoremus (3×)
O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him
Born the King of Angels:
O come, let us adore Him, (3×)
Christ the Lord.

God of God, light of light,
Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb;
Very God, begotten, not created:
O come, let us adore Him, (3×)
Christ the Lord.

Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation,
Sing, all ye citizens of Heaven above!
Glory to God, glory in the highest:
O come, let us adore Him, (3×)
Christ the Lord.

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory given!
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!
O come, let us adore Him, (3×)
Christ the Lord.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *