“Dismiss your servant in peace” (Luke 2:30).
Thomas Becket (1118-1170), martyred archbishop of Canterbury, is an ideal patron saint for the complex relationship between church and state. He first served as chancellor under King Henry II, then was ordained and appointed archbishop by the pope. He fell out of favor with Henry for defending the rights of the church to try clergy in ecclesiastical courts. Thomas fled England for seven years under pressure from the barons and other bishops who acceded to the king. When he returned, Thomas was murdered in the cathedral at Canterbury. History blurs into hagiography, but Thomas Becket emerged as one of the great Catholic saints of England. His decision to return to England and martyrdom was dramatized in TS Eliot’s 1935 play, “Murder in the Cathedral" and in the 1964 film “Becket," with Richard Burton playing the role of Thomas to Peter O’Toole’s King Henry.
Today’s feast is the third commemoration of martyrs in the post-Christmas calendar, preceded by St Stephen (Dec 26) and the Holy Innocents (Dec 28). The entry of God into history in the Incarnation makes holy our flesh and blood, especially when it is offered sacramentally, as it was by Thomas, murdered at the altar. Like St. Oscar Romero, another good shepherd who laid down his life for his flock, Thomas reminds us that the greatest power on earth is obedience to God above all else at whatever the cost.
Like Simeon, who waited his whole life in the temple to see the Messiah promised by God, Thomas also saw and believed when he held the body of Jesus at Mass, and he knew that his purpose had been fulfilled. For us in this season of Christmas, every lesser goal and ambition falls away before this ultimate revelation. We pray for eyes that see the mystery that lies hidden in our very body and blood.