Wednesday, December 30, 2009

St. Thomas of Canterbury

Yesterday, the western church throughout the world commemorated St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury (1118-1170), who was martyred on December 29 by the king's henchmen while singing Vespers at one of the altars of Canterbury Cathedral (in England).

Thomas had been pushed and advanced as primate of all England by his friend King Henry II, though Thomas was not even a priest (he was a deacon at the time, was ordained a priest, and consecrated bishop the next day). Thomas's blatant political elevation (leapfrogging over other qualified churchmen) angered the other English bishops, as Henry was shamelessly using his friend (who was simultaneously chancellor of England) to control the church.

But the Holy Spirit had other plans, and Archbishop Thomas had a conversion of sorts.

He gave much of the church's treasury to the poor. He took his vows most seriously. He bucked the king's authority when Henry tried to illegally control the church. He also surrendered his position as chancellor and embraced his vocation as primate, bishop, and pastor of the English Christians. This resistance to his authority and foiling of his plans to control the church led Henry to blurt out: "Will no-one rid me of this pestilent priest!" Considering this a tacit order to assassinate the archbishop, four knights brazenly entered the cathedral and hacked the archbishop to death. Even with swords raised above his head, Bishop Thomas courageously refused to flee, and calmly went about his prayer office. Churchman Edward Grim was an eyewitness of the murder, and wrote an account about it.

Europe was outraged and shocked at this act of naked aggression against the church. Abp. Thomas was quickly hailed as a martyr and canonized. King Henry II did public penance for his part in St. Thomas's death.

Though it does take liberties with the historical record, I highly recommend the 1964 movie Becket, which stars Richard Burton as Thomas and Peter O'Toole as Henry. It is a beautiful film and the acting is powerful. It does capture the tension between church and state, as well as St. Thomas's conversion and faithful devotion to the Lord Jesus and to the church into which he was placed into orders.

A hat tip and a thanks to Br. Latif for this post and reminder of this feast day of the Church. I agree that it is sad that St. Thomas did not make it into the LSB list of commemorations - especially given our heritage as English speaking Christians. Thomas is especially an encouragement to pastors to resolve to serve the Lord no matter what threats or difficulties come our way, and is a reminder that there are those who would do violence to the church, even various governmental agencies around the world who are working to stifle the Gospel.

May we all, clergy and laity alike, stand ready, like St. Thomas, to remain faithful to our Lord and our various callings, even in the throes of death, as Edward Grim testifies:

"At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, 'For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.'"

"For the name of Jesus."

Thanks be to God for the life and ministry of St. Thomas, bishop, martyr, and servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.


Rev. David M. Juhl said...

Peter O'Toole, not Richard Harris, played King Henry II. Richard Harris played that scalawag Oliver Cromwell in "Cromwell".

I can't laud the movie "Becket" enough! I first saw the movie in 12th grade and fell in love with it. I bought it on DVD a couple years ago.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear David:

Yes! Thanks for the correction. Peter O'Toole's Richard was spellbinding. I will correct this in my post!