Eucharist Sermon - 3 January 2021

The Second Sunday of Christmas
Ephesians 1:3–14; John 1:6–18
The Revd Canon Sarah Foot, Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History

+ He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. (John 1:11)

It already feels a long time since Christmas Day. And not only because time always passes so oddly at this time of year, even when we are not enduring the rigours of lockdown or worrying about the variant version of the virus. The Church’s calendar includes a surprising number of feasts in the period between Christmas and Epiphany, starting on the days after Christmas with a sequence of martyr saints: Stephen, the church’s first martyr; John, a martyr through exile and the attempts made on his life; and the Holy Innocents. Since medieval times this group of three consecutive feasts has been known as those of the Companions of Christ. They are followed on the fifth day of Christmas, 29 December, by the commemoration of the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket. This year that feast had particular resonance, because 2020 marked the 850th anniversary of Thomas’s martyrdom in the year 1170.

Thomas Becket, the son of a London merchant who became first chancellor of England and then archbishop of Canterbury, was a controversial figure with a large (and difficult) personality. In youth stormy and arrogant, fast-living and a close personal friend of King Henry II, he became austerely ascetic after his elevation to Canterbury in 1161 and clashed violently with the king over the extent of clerical privilege and the liberties of the church against those he described as lay tyrants. After an extended period in exile, Thomas returned to Canterbury in December 1170 and proceeded to discipline those he believed to have done wrong during his absence. On Christmas Day, he excommunicated all violators of the rights of his church and the fomenters of discord in general. Meanwhile the king, who was keeping the Christmas feast near Bayeux, having heard what his archbishop had been doing at home, was rash enough in his exasperation to utter the fateful words, ‘What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!’

Four of Henry’s knights took this as an invitation to go to Canterbury and confront the wilful archbishop. An encounter in the archiepiscopal palace went badly, so his clergy urged the reluctant prelate to take refuge in his Cathedral church, where the monks were just saying the office of Vespers. Thomas stood alone by a pillar in the centre of the opening of the north transept as the daylight faded, placing his trust in God, in the sanctity of the place, and in his priestly orders. There the four knights confronted him.

Before the attack began, Becket commended his soul ‘to God, the blessed Virgin, and the holy patrons of this church’. After the first attacker struck him between the shoulder blades (but did not fell him), Thomas called again upon God, and the holy martyr-archbishops, blessed Denis and St Ælfheah; a cut to his head caused him to fall beside the altar of St Benedict. After three further blows, he died. As one of his hagiographers wrote, ‘just as he was perceived not to resist death in his spirit, neither did he resist it by the opposition or dejection of his body, since he received a voluntary death from a longing for God, rather than a violent one from the swords of the soldiers.’

Despite his relatively humble origins, Becket had become a familiar figure in the courts of Europe, known personally to Pope Alexander III and the papal curia, to Louis, the French king and to many leading prelates. He and Henry II had conducted their dispute in public by letter, ambassador, and papal legate. His murder in sacred space, in front of the horrified eyes of a large congregation, attracted immediate widespread international attention. A cult, associated with the belief in the curative power of Becket’s blood, started spontaneously at Canterbury, and soon spread widely. He was canonised in 1173, his brutal, politically-motivated murder recast as a death accepted voluntarily for Christ, modelled on Christ’s own sacrificial death on the cross. So many English churches were dedicated in his name and so popular was the pilgrim route to Canterbury that ‘the holy blisful martir’ as Chaucer called him, became, in effect, England’s patron saint.

In any year, this might seem an odd topic on which to preach on the second Sunday after Christmas. As we begin this new year concerned about the new strain of the virus, uncertain about the beginning of school and university term and with the prospect of further lockdowns, it might seem differently abstracted from our current concerns.

Yet we celebrated Christmas, not to escape those concerns, but to express our faith that Christ who was God with us in Bethlehem remains God with us now. Christ who came to be with us in Bethlehem is the same Christ who bore humanity with him to the cross of Easter. The pain and suffering that Christ would endure were always immanent even at his birth.

In Christ we have redemption, St Paul reminded us; but that redemption comes ‘through his blood’ (Eph. 1:7). As we heard in our gospel reading: ‘The true light was in the world, which came into being through him, yet the world did not accept him. He came to what was his own, and his own people’ (his own family of fellow human beings) ‘did not accept him.’ It is hard to read hope behind the tragedy of those verses, not to turn our minds already to betrayal and darkness. John the Baptist came to be a witness – the Greek word is martyria– to the light, so that all might come to believe in him. Yet John, too, would encounter disbelief and rejection. He, too, would suffer and be cruelly put to death.

TS Eliot’s play about Thomas Becket, Murder in the Cathedral, took martyrdom as its theme. It set the death of Becket in the context of the feasts of the martyrs on the days before his own death. In an interlude between the two acts of the play, Becket preaches a sermon for Christmas morning in his cathedral, reflecting on the ‘deep meaning and mystery of the masses of Christmas Day’. He dwelt on the fact that, in the context of a Christmas Eucharist, we both rejoice at the coming of the Christ child, and mourn our Lord’s passion and death on the Cross. How, he asked, can we hear the song of the angels with its promise of ‘on earth peace to men of good will’, when ceaselessly the world has been stricken with war and the fear of war. Were the angelic voices mistaken? Was that promise a disappointment and a cheat?

No, Thomas responds. The peace that the angels promised, the peace that Our Lord himself left with his disciples, was not peace as the world gives. For, Thomas reminded his hearers: ‘his disciples went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment. And to suffer death by martyrdom.’ Just as ‘we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and in the Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven.’

Eliot’s musings on martyrdom help us to focus our responses to the tensions of this season and its proliferation of martyr feasts. We do not mourn these figures as good Christians who died for their faith, nor do we rejoice in them because they have been elevated to the company of the saints. For Christian martyrdom is never an accident, nor does it ever occur as a result of an individual’s desire to become a saint. As Becket declared:

A martyrdom is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. It is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr.

Thomas Becket, like the protomartyr Stephen before him, accepted that he had to give himself up willingly to the martyrdom for which God had pre-ordained him. He offered his life as witness to the love of God, the love that is stronger than death. Each martyr, in dying for Christ, becomes a figure of Christ; each one’s death fulfils the divine plan. At the critical, present moment of their deaths, the decisive event occurred that served to reveal God’s intentions. Let us pray that in whatever God calls us to do and be we, too, may be ready to hear his call and respond as willing witnesses to his divine purpose.

On that December evening in 1170, as soon as Thomas’s mutilated body had been lifted from the site of his murder, the people of Canterbury started to dip strips of cloth into the blood that was pooled on the Cathedral pavement. Later that same night, some of that blood, mixed with water, would effect the first of the many miracles attributed to the saint. We prepare ourselves to receive the sacrament in this eucharist – whether we receive the bread in person (remembering that where there is Christ’s body, there his blood is also), or encountering the presence of Christ in spiritual communion (remembering that Christ promises to meet all those who come to him in faith). As we do, let us reflect on the ways in which the blood of martyrs and saints, shed for Christ’s sake, has enriched the earth and created holy places, and not solely in cathedrals and churches. To quote the chorus at the end of Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral

For wherever a saint has dwelt, wherever a martyr has
     given his blood for the blood of Christ,
There is holy ground, and sanctity shall not depart from it,
Though armies trample over it, though sightseers come
      with guidebooks looking over it.

The pavement of this Cathedral may never have run with the blood of a martyr such as Thomas Becket, but this, too, is holy ground; may we walk on it reverently whether in body or in spirit, even if – in these difficult weeks to come – we may walk here only in our mind’s eye.