Sunday, January 3, 2016

Christmas 2 and St. Thomas Beckett - 3 January 2016

St. John’s Convent, January 3, 2016
Sr. Constance Joanna

 Readings for Christmas 2:
I can hardly start this homily without stating the obvious: that 25 years ago today I made my life profession of vows in this community. The 6 1/2 years that led up to that date, and the 25 years since, have brought untold blessings to me and perhaps the greatest blessing of all has been to learn the ambiguity of darkness and light – that what seems most dark, fearful, and foreboding in life may hold the germ of the brightest light, and that that what seems easy and enjoyable and satisfying may bring with it the darkness of stuckness and lack of growth.

Seeds germinate in darkness, and too much light too fast or too early can kill tender young shoots. Too little light can stunt growth. I think of that line from Psalm 139: “darkness and light to you are both alike.” God uses both darkness and light to nudge us out of complacency and self-satisfaction toward the self-giving that we long for but are afraid of. And God uses both light and darkness to bring us to a healthy self-love and confidence as well.

Another way of saying this is that as Christians we give ourselves to the paschal mystery in which life leads to death and death leads to rebirth. That cycle is what the Incarnation really is about. God gave up divine life to take on human flesh, lived among us, was executed as a traitor, and rose again to give us new life. The Nativity is not synonymous with the Incarnation – it’s just the beginning. And my journey to Life Profession and since has been an adventure in learning the truth of this.

The reading this morning from the Prologue to the Gospel of John, is read multiple times during the Christmas season, and each time it carries deeper meaning. Reading it today, on the second Sunday of Christmas, and on the third of January, I can’t help but see its relevance to the life of Thomas Beckett, whose martyrdom we observe today.

John says of the Word made Flesh: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The darkness can never overcome the light, finally, although Thomas Becket had to struggle with the ambiguity of dark and light. In T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, that profound play about the martyrdom of Becket, three tempters come to Becket to try to compromise his absolute obedience to God, mirroring the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness

And then comes an unexpected fourth tempter, who represents the real struggle for Becket – the temptation to martyrdom. Becket knows that Jesus’ death on the cross was not the result of a desire for martyrdom but rather the inevitable outcome of his obedience to God. But he struggles with discerning whether his refusal to give in to the King’s demands is obedience to God that may lead to martyrdom, or an unholy desire to be a martyr? To put it in Thomas’ words in the play, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” That is perhaps the central discernment for us all – and maybe that is one reason I’m so fond of Thomas. He gives me the courage to live with ambiguity, but to know that ultimately darkness will yield to light.

January 3, 1991 was not a feast day – it was a feria on the church calendar. But then I was given an unexpected gift. A few months after my Life Profession, in April, we had a Community Day and made some changes to our calendar of saints. There used to be a group of special days we observed in the week of Christmas – the feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and first Martyr of the church, was on December 26. St. John of course was on December 27. December 28 was the feast of the Holy Innocents – who might actually be called the first martyrs even before Stephen. And December 29 was the Feast of St. Thomas Becket. We decided at that Community Day to follow the lead of the Canadian church’s new calendar, which moved all those feast days out of Christmas week to make way for the special readings related to Christmas. And so I inherited Thomas Becket on January 3.

But I wish we still kept those martyrs’ feast days in Christmas week because they remind us that the Incarnation is more than Christmas Day, that we are called to follow Jesus in dark and light, life and death.

And I will let Thomas Becket’s own words in his Christmas sermon make this point better than I can. That is, his sermon as T.S. Eliot conceives it, which is said to be based on the actual sermon Beckett preached on Christmas Day in the year 1170. I have shortened it a bit at the end.

Dear children of God, my sermon this morning will be a very short one. I wish only that you should ponder and meditate the deep meaning and mystery of our masses of Christmas Day. For whenever Mass is said, we re-enact the Passion and Death of Our Lord; and on this Christmas Day we do this in celebration of His Birth. So that at the same moment we rejoice in His coming for the salvation of men, and offer again to God His Body and Blood in sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. It was in this same night that has just passed, that a multitude of the heavenly host appeared before the shepherds at Bethlehem, saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men'; at this same time of all the year that we celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross.

Beloved, as the World sees, this is to behave in a strange fashion. For who in the World will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason? For either joy will be overborne by mourning, or mourning will be cast out by joy; so it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason. 'But think for a while on the meaning of this word 'peace.' Does it seem strange to you that the angels should have announced Peace, when ceaselessly the world has been stricken with War and the fear of War? Does it seem to you that the angelic voices were mistaken, and that the promise was a disappointment and a cheat?

Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples 'My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.' Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbours, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember then that He said also, 'Not as the world gives, give I unto you.' So then, He gave to His disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.

Consider also one thing of which you have probably never thought. 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 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, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.

Beloved, we do not think of a martyr simply as a good Christian who has been killed because he is a Christian: for that would be solely to mourn. We do not think of him simply as a good Christian who has been elevated to the company of the Saints: for that would be simply to rejoice: and neither our mourning nor our rejoicing is as the world's is. A Christian martyrdom is no accident. Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man's will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. Ambition fortifies the will of man to become ruler over other men: it operates with deception, cajolery, and violence, it is the action of impurity upon impurity. Not so in Heaven. A martyr, a saint, 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. A martyrdom 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, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom. 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, seeing themselves not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.