Saturday, December 29, 2018

The death of Thomas Becket

The martyrdom of S. Thomas Becket

Today is when the Church commemorates Saint Thomas Becket, who was martyred on 29th December, 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral. Go HERE for an outline of his story.

I share with you here some words from T.S. Eliot’s play, “Murder in the Cathedral,” which is all about Becket’s death. They are applicable to all martyrs, and indeed, all Christians, for they are T.S. Eliot’s meditation on the intertwining of sorrow and joy in the Christian life.

The Archbishop preaches 
in Canterbury Cathedral 
on Christmas morning, 1170:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” The fourteenth verse of the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Dear children of God, my sermon this morning will be a very short one. I wish only that you should ponder and meditate on 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 overcome by mourning or mourning will be cast out by joy; so that 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 neighbors, 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 that He said also, “Not as the world giveth, 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 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.

I have spoken to you today, dear children of God, of the martyrs of the past, asking you to remember especially our martyr of Canterbury, the blessed Archbishop Elphege; because it is fitting, on Christ’s birthday, to remember what is that peace which he brought; and because, dear children, I do not think that I shall ever preach to you again; and because it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last. I would have you keep in your hearts these words that I say, and think of them at another time. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

(Click within the border of the above to enlarge it)

Saint Thomas Becket's Shrine 
on the place of his martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral

Friday, December 28, 2018

Those bloody days after Christmas

The Massacre of the Innocents, by Leon Cogniet (1794-1880)

Priests who celebrate Mass every day experience the Octave of Christmas as a chilling reality, for, while many of the people are enjoying a well deserved holiday break with their families, we and a handful of stalwarts are back at the altar immersed in a gruesomely bloody week.

On the day after Christmas Day we honour Saint Stephen, the first Christian Martyr. One of the first  deacons, full of the Holy Spirit and full of love for the people, he was stoned to death for his witness to Jesus. (And, of course, on “Boxing Day” the popular carol makes it impossible for us to forget the 10th century Duke Wenceslaus who went out “on the feast of Stephen,” and was martyred by his own brother.)

Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, those little boys two years of age and under, who were slaughtered by the deranged King Herod in his desperation to kill Jesus. I, personally, find it hard to stand at the altar on Holy Innocents’ Day and not hear the wails of the mothers, or see the blood running in the back streets of Bethlehem.

Then tomorrow we will celebrate Saint Thomas Becket, the tough-nosed 12th century ecclesiastical bureaucrat who became Archbishop of Canterbury, had a real conversion to the Lord, and was subsequently martyred in his Cathedral.

All that suffering, anguish and pain! The one thing we mustn’t do is to think of it as something that contrasts with the essence of Christmas or interrupts it. For it is the REAL world that God is saving, redeeming and transforming. It is REAL people like you and me - sinful, selfish, flawed in character, full of complexes and contradictions - he wants to heal and restore. He loves us, sinful as we are, with all of our problems and our propensity to hurt one another. 

This baby, God in human flesh, came to reveal the love with which we have been loved for all eternity. That love cost him everything. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9). 

From one end of the Bible to the other, the tapestry of God’s revelation is held together by a bloodied thread. Let’s never forget that. Jesus came to this world, ultimately to die, and – in the words of the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar - not just to die, but to experience the hell of God-forsakenness, before being resurrected from the abyss and exalted to the right hand of the Father WITH and FOR us, transforming all things – you and me included - with his suffering love. This is the mystery at the heart of our salvation; this is the mystery at the heart of the Church. This is the mystery that can make such a difference to families, communities and even nations if only we will stop pushing God away.

The blood of this strange week flows down through the Christian centuries.

Even in our day, the most astonishing signs of the presence of Jesus are in the midst of extreme suffering, where, in places like Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, Syria, parts of Nigeria, North Korea and China, our brothers and sisters in Christ routinely face vicious persecution and sometimes martyrdom. They are living out the experience of which Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

“We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” (2 Corinthians 6:8-10)   

During this week, our emotions are stretched between the joy of the manger, the crib, the angels singing, memories of past Christmas celebrations going back to our childhood, family celebrations, when our own children were little . . . and on the other hand the sobbing, tears and pain, not just of the martyrs, but of their loved ones, and all who suffer illness, loneliness, forsakenness and even despair. As we look forward to a new year, may all church communities – and each of us in our daily lives – allow the Lord to use us to touch and bless the bloodied world into which he came that first Christmas. May we become better at proclaiming and living the Gospel in our day.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Father Stanton - an Advent sermon

Father Arthur Stanton was a leader of the Catholic Revival in the Church of England, an evangelical catholic preacher who drew large crowds, and for 50 years he was a curate at St Alban's Holborn, London. He died at the age of 74 in 1913. Go HERE for his life's story. This is a sermon he preached at the start of Advent 1910, at St Alban's.

Now it is high time to awake out of sleep." - Rom. xiii. 11. 

These are S. Paul's words to the Romans, but is there any exhortation at this time more needed than that? I beseech you, one and all, "Owe no man anything." Pay all your debts. Be just. The man who owes money and has not paid commits an injustice. I wish the parsons in the West End would preach about this. A good many shops in the West End are being ruined simply because the people never pay their debts, and owe thousands. Here is practical Christianity: "Owe no man anything," S. Paul says - but there is one debt - "Love one another."

And again I say, isn't that exactly what we want? All round about in the world of politics everybody is abusing the opposite party, setting one political party against the other. You read the newspapers on both sides, and see. "Owe no man anything, but to love one another." O Christian men and women in the middle of all this strife and turmoil, here is your motto for this December, "Owe no man anything, but to love one another." Could there be a better Advent message to us all than this?

Being Advent, we are bound to look into the state of our spiritual life. We are bound to judge ourselves lest we be judged of God. Do you, dear brethren, all of you take stock of what your spiritual life is, and ask yourselves, Have I discharged all my debts? How can I give Christmas presents to anybody if I owe money? Take stock of yourselves about love. How can you pay that debt? Oh, it is a beautiful text! " Owe no man anything, but to love one another." Have you discharged your debt of love? Now is the time. There is plenty of opportunity. When other men are going about heaping on one another political abuse and poison, you go about with Evangelical grace.

Then the Apostle goes on to say, "It is high time to awake out of sleep." Now is the time - at this moment - for the practical Christianity of today. There are some people who tell us they want to go back to the immaculate Early Church. That is rather nonsense. You would not be a man in swaddling clothes? - Why, then, do you want the Church today to be in the clothes of its infancy? I know there are many difficulties in the Church today, and so there were then. Many then denied the Lord who bought them, and counted the Blood of the Covenant wherewith they were sprinkled, unholy. There are troubles in the Church of England, I know. We have our troubles - but we live in the twentieth century. I love Mediaevalism - I think it is beautiful, but we could not go back to that. Where there is life there is progress, development. We never can be mediaeval again. No, let us be true Christians now, in the century in which we live. Now, let us awake.

Some of us, dear brethren, are sound asleep. We have no sense of any spiritual awakening. Perhaps we have received our religion from others, and taken it for granted, but we cannot feel within ourselves that we are wedded to Christ and lhs Cross. We have no "experiences." I remember a clergyman who was older than myself saying to me once, "Stanton, Stanton! What on earth do these people mean by talking of the spiritual life?" And that was thirty years ago.

There are some of us so fast asleep that we do not know what is meant by the spiritual awakening. There is no vision of that which is beyond. There is no looking forward to the hereafter. We go through our religion in a way, but what is it to us? We are sound asleep. And today I say: "Awake! Awake! Begin." "O quicken Thou me according to Thy word." (Ps. cxix. 25). For goodness' sake, don't be asleep. "It is high time to awake out of sleep."

Then, again, there are some of us who are falling off fast. We know it. We feel it within us. We are dropping off to sleep spiritually; that is, there was a time when we prayed, but now we say prayers as a matter of course, but never pray. We come and sing hymns. We like the music of the hymns, but there is no melody in our soul. Then, again, we go to Communion - we have received the Sacrament on the tongue, but the presence of the Saviour is not realised in the soul. There was a time when we used to creep to church, put our hands before our face and think of our sins, and tell the Master, and it may have been that some tears came into our eyes and trickled through our fingers. It does not happen now. I know some of us still go to Confession. We used to feel that we kissed the wounded Feet. But now it has become a sort of form; and we ask ourselves, "Well, what good does it do us?" We might as well ask ourselves, "What good does Holy Communion do us?"  "What good do our prayers do us?" We are falling off.

And the worst of it is, dear brethren, as you know perfectly well, other people, when we are so sleepy, stumble over us. We lie in the way, and they stumble and fall over us. The unbeliever says, "I told you so. It was all nonsense, and you never found it out." The worldly man says, "My dear fellow, I told you it would never pay. It cannot work." And the cynic says, "Of course, now you have got older and wiser, my friend, you won't believe it." They stumble over us. Sloth is a deadly sin. It is a sin within the sanctuary. Oh, sloth is the canker of the sanctuary. Do not let us forget the truth that the only people who can crucify the Lord afresh, and put the dear Master to open shame are those who have known and have loved him, and have deserted him. Is it nothing to us to remember that Jesus Christ was deserted of all? Oh! Sloth and slumber in religion is a deadly sin. Awake! Come back! Awake!

Again, there is the third point, which is this: some of us are somnambulists. Have you ever seen a somnambulist? It is a curious state. They are alive, yet not alive. They seem to know things in a way, and they do not know them. They never have any remembrance in the morning of what they have done. Well, so it is with spiritual people - with some of us - we are somnambulists. We say our prayers, and we do not know what we say. You have come to church to night, and if asked "Why?" you might say, "Well, I really hardly know - but I thought I would." And if I ask: "Do you feel the movement of the service? Does your soul go out of you to something higher you would say: "What on earth is the fellow talking about?" We can go to our prayers, to our Communions, and come away, and hardly know we have been. Did you say your prayers this morning? And you answer, "I do not know - I am not sure." "When did you make your last Communion?" "Well, I think it must have been about a couple of months ago." Why, we are walking in our sleep - somnambulists in grace. We go through the form, but we are lost. The life and the music of the Gospel does not sound, and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ does not build up the soul. And yet, after all, you are what you would call a "good Churchman." Oh, how many feel this! I know, when I speak to you, there are many here who feel this deeply. We think and walk in our sleep, knowing it is high time to awake out of sleep. My brethren, I say the world is wide awake. Look at this political crisis, they call it. Why here, there, and everywhere, the political world is awake. I saw on the placards today, "Working men, awake and claim your rights"; "Women revert to war." And I say to us Christians, Awake! It is high time. We are citizens of heaven. Let us claim our right to eternal citizenship. We are citizens of the world to come. Awake, women! Revert to war - war against sin, the world, the flesh and the devil; war against the injustices and inequalities you see round about you. War against everything that is bad. Oh, ever since the Blessed Mary brought Christ into the world should women carry salvation in their arms. You and I, who were created by God, and redeemed by God, it is not for us to be asleep. It is high time to awake out of sleep.

Now, just a few reasons why it is high time to awake out of sleep. Because of the coming of the Lord. The Lord shall come with all his saints. We look forward to the coming of the Lord. Christians are ever like that; they stand waiting with their loins girt about, and their lamps burning. And do you say that the Lord delays his coming, and that a thousand years have past, and he has not come? Stand back and look out into eternity. Why do you talk like that, you who live under the Kingdom of God? What is a thousand years before the great range of eternity? It is but as a moment. It is as nothing. Just as this world is to an atom of space, so is a thousand years before the eternal years. Oh, he will come. On the Mount of Transfiguration, the Disciples fell asleep; when they awoke they saw, Jesus in all his glory. Awake! It is high time to awake, to see the Master in all His glory, "As seeing Him who is invisible" (Heb. xi. 27). If you are awake, you shall see the glory transcending all else. "Surely, I come quickly," he says, and he will. To every one of us the Master comes.

So I am watching quietly       
Every day,
Whenever the sun shines brightly
I rise and say, 
Surely it is the shining of his face,'
And look unto the gates of his high place
Beyond the sea, 
For I know He is coming shortly
To summon me. 
And when a shadow falls across the window
Of my room,

Where I am working my appointed task, 
I lift my head to watch the door, and ask
if he is come; 
And the Angel answers sweetly
In my home,
"Only a few more shadows, 
And he will come."

We who are Christians stand waiting for the coming of the Master. That is our Advent position. Awake out of sleep. Stand up, man - gird your loins, let the lamp be burning in the sanctuary of the soul, and wait for the coming of the Lord.

Then let us awake and be ready because our opportunities are passing away one by one. "As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith " (Gal. vi. 10).  Now is your opportunity. You know the old motto " I shall pass through this world but once, any good thing therefore I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now, let me not defer it, or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again."

Many of you may die before next Advent. Let me say to myself what I would have you say, "While I have the chance now, as long as I have the chance - let me do all the good I can." The sands are running out. I shall not have many more opportunities, let me be as kind as I can, as helpful as I can, and worship God as well as I can." Time, is going, going! Awake! Awake!

Not many lives, but only one have we 
Frail, fleeting man! 
How sacred should that one life ever be
That narrow span! 
Day after day filled up with blessed toil; 
Hour after hour still bringing in new spoil! 
(From Ezekiel and other Poems, by B. M.  Bonar.)

Don't let the candle splutter out till the sanctuary lamp is lit. Because the sands are running out, and the time is getting shorter and shorter, it is high time that we awake out of sleep.

And last of all, dear brethren, "For now is our salvation nearer than when we believed." For our salvation is the destiny which God has prepared for us. If you ask yourselves, "What is the reason of my creation and redemption?" The answer is - it must be - God needs my flesh - God never created the soul without it, and the soul shall pass on into perfection.

". . . him that is able to keep you from falling," says St. Jude, " and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy." The end of existence of God's creature must be the perfection of his creation. For this Christ died, for this the Holy Spirit of God was put into your hearts, to worship, to serve him - this is the end, even the salvation of your souls, the perfection of your life. Why did God create us? S. Augustine says, " God created man for himself." There is no other explanation. Read the 121st Psalm, "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh even from the Lord, who hath made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: and he that keepeth thee will not sleep." There is a religion for you!

Well, then, knowing the time, "That now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer," so I call upon you this Advent, and I say, "Awake! Awake! Awake! knowing the time. Awake! All the world is awake, and we Christians for whom Christ died, are we to fall asleep? Awake!"