DECEMBER 29, 2008: SAINT THOMAS BECKET - JOHN 10:11-16

 

I AM THE GOOD SHEPHERD . . . FOR THESE SHEEP I WILL GIVE MY LIFE. We are still celebrating the birth of Jesus, our Savior during these eight days of Christmas. On three of the days within this octave we are confronted with the seemingly conflicting theme of violent death. Saint Stephen was stoned to death, the Holy Innocents were put to the sword, and Thomas Becket whom we commemorate today, was forced into exile by persecution and died in a foreign land, faithful to the end. The Liturgy is intent upon confronting us with the end of mortal life even as we celebrate the new beginning that is Jesus’ birth. There is a healthy realism in this association of two such obviously conflicting realities as new life and violent death. The birth of an infant evokes gladness and spontaneous tenderness in the healthy human spirit; violent death of the innocent and just is a source of strong aversion, even of disgust at such inhumanity.

 

However, it is not with aversion or sadness that we recall the life and death of Stephen and of Becket, but rather we celebrate their lives in the spirit of joyous victory, as fruit of the birth of the infant who is God with us. Death itself takes on a new meaning by virtue of the birth in the flesh of this infant who is truly and literally God-with-us. Forty days after his birth, again in a joyous spirit, Simeon brought together these two realities that frame human existence when the child is presented in the temple. He declared that THIS CHILD IS DESTINED FOR THE RUIN AND THE RESURRECTION OF MANY IN ISRAEL AND A SIGN OF CONTRADICTION. The prophetic words of Simeon were pronounced in a moment of inspiration by the Spirit of God. This pronouncement completes in a somewhat more specific manner the message that the angel Gabriel had conveyed to Mary at the time of the annunciation to the effect that this child “will be great and he will be called Son of the Most High.” Simeon’s words foresee the conflict that Jesus would stir up as he undertook his mission. The greatness that was to be his would not be achieved without painful struggle that would lead through death, only to end with a birth into new, eternal life. The opposition that the child was to encounter in his adult years would prove to be a source of suffering to Mary that penetrated her soul like a sharp sword.

 

We recall this prophecy of Simeon today while we continue the joyous celebration of the birth of Jesus, our Savior to remind us that the joy that accompanies his birth must prepare us to take up the suffering that will follow upon our accepting the message he was commissioned by the Father to proclaim in his ministry to Israel. Mary herself was made keenly aware that her son from the earliest infancy was being prepared for a life of struggle, opposition, and suffering. This awareness colored the whole of her life with him and had a profound influence on the way she interacted with him, already as an infant. How much more intensely, with what greater measure of sympathy she experienced in all her dealings with her son knowing as she did that suffering and sacrifice was to be his lot as well as great achievement. The joy of her intimate association with her divine son was tempered with awareness of his mission to suffer for the sake of his people. The  Incarnation and Birth of Jesus is the mystery of the victory of true life through suffering and death.

 

 Thomas Becket witnessed to his faith that this child who is born of Mary is the person of the eternal Word of God. By his willingness to accept exile in order to pass on the true faith of the Catholic Church to his people and those who were to come after them, he witnessed to the truth ofFlight into Egypt the Gospel that reveals the full meaning of the birth of the Son of God in the flesh. Christ comes among us to begin about the transformation of mortal men and women into children of God destined for that true life which is eternal union with the Father of lights.&     

                     

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger