Summary: St. Thomas of Canterbury lived a life in service to God, a service in love and defense of His Church and people.
St. Thomas of Canterbury Mass (December 29)
Thirteen Days of Christmas
There is no doubt what happened on December 29, 1170, but what one thinks of it depends very much on a connection to the people and places of twelfth century England. On that day, four English knights of Norman descent came from France and demanded of the Archbishop of Canterbury the absolution of two renegade bishops. The knights were adherents of the English king, Henry II. Thomas Becket refused. Later, at Vespers, the knights returned with some armed men. They asked “where is the traitor?” The archbishop answered, "Here I am, no traitor, but archbishop and priest of God.” The assassins attempted to drag him out of the church, but were unable to do so, and so murdered him right in the church, in front of his assembled clerics. Within three years the pope declared him a saint of the Church, and his tomb, site of many miracles, became the most venerated place of pilgrimage in England. You can read Canterbury Tales, set in the context of such a pilgrimage.
From the perspective of the British kings, Thomas was a thorn in their side. He had been a clerk in service of Theobald, the previous archbishop, who ordained him a deacon in 1154. Henry, upon taking the royal crown, made him his chancellor. He probably thought he was making an astute political decision when he insisted on Thomas becoming Archbishop of Canterbury and primate of England. But Thomas, after declining the offer, accepted it enthusiastically and proved himself to be a champion of the Church, her ministers and her people in many disputes with Henry. When Thomas was martyred, the people of England lamented his death and demanded justice. Henry was swept up in the accusations against his knights, and was humiliated by having to do public penance. This historical moment rankled subsequent kings. When Henry VIII suppressed the English monasteries and seized their lands and property, he also destroyed the various Catholic shrines, and plundered them. None would have been more satisfying than the ransacking of the shrine of Canterbury.
From the perspective of the Church hierarchy, especially in Britain, the murder of Thomas Becket was a critical event that helped to clarify the independence of the Church from the taxes and oversight of the throne. Remember that kings in Europe believed they ruled by divine right. We recall the outrages committed by another Henry, so-called Holy Roman Emperor, and resistance by Pope St Gregory VII in the previous century. The emperors were secular rulers, and thought that they could do as they pleased with the Church as a human institution. But Gregory and his successors, and Thomas Becket with them, insisted that the Church was foremost a divine institution in the service of God and His people. That tension persisted but the Church did not give in. This independence, and religious freedom, is encoded in our Bill of Rights and in Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
But the most important perspective on this day as every day is the perspective of the Blessed Trinity, in whose service Thomas of Canterbury lived and died. John writes today: “He who says ‘I know [God]’ but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in [Christ]: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”
This is the criterion of the saint, a state after death that we all aspire to. We must walk in the same way that Jesus Christ walked. That is, we must love God above all things, and our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus, the embodiment of God’s love for us, his self-sacrificing love, did good always. He witnessed to the Truth always, for He is Truth. In a rough-and-tumble twelfth century, Thomas of Canterbury did that. So should we today. Whether it is in caring for the poor, protecting the rights of prisoners, or standing up against a ruthless government that demands actions of us that violate our consciences, we must imitate Thomas. We must never become self-serving government stooges. And as we imitate Thomas, so we become in our day and time and place other Christs, living and dying in love.