Saint Thomas Becket, Bishop, Martyr

Colossians 1:24-29; Psalm 22(23); Luke 22:24-30

A strong man who wavered for a moment, but then learned one cannot come to terms with evil, and so became a strong churchman, a martyr, and a saint—that was Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in his cathedral on December 29, 1170.

His career had been a stormy one. While archdeacon of Canterbury, he was made chancellor of England at the age of 36 by his friend King Henry II. When Henry felt it advantageous to make his chancellor the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas gave him fair warning: he might not accept all of Henry’s intrusions into Church affairs. Nevertheless, in 1162 he was made archbishop, resigned his chancellorship, and reformed his whole way of life!

Troubles began. Henry insisted upon usurping Church rights. At one time, supposing some conciliatory action possible, Thomas came close to compromise. He momentarily approved the Constitutions of Clarendon, which would have denied the clergy the right of trial by a Church court and prevented them from making direct appeal to Rome. But Thomas rejected the Constitutions, fled to France for safety, and remained in exile for seven years. When he returned to England he suspected it would mean certain death. Because Thomas refused to remit censures he had placed upon bishops favored by the king, Henry cried out in a rage, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest!” Four knights, taking his words as his wish, slew Thomas in the Canterbury cathedral.

Thomas Becket remains a hero-saint down to our own times.

The Holy Innocents – Feast

1 John 1:5-2:2; Psalm 123(124):2-5,7-8; Matthew 2:13-18

The two pictures show two aspects of the massacre of holy innocents - and perhaps help us to pray today for all those who die in conflict in our world as children:

The first is an icon of Herod giving his fateful order, note it also shows the Holy Family escaping to Egypt, and Elisabeth hiding in the hills with John who would grow up to be John the Baptist.

The second, shows Jesus welcoming all the holy innocents - in their multitude - into heaven. For one it is so difficult to give thanks, but it is inextricably linked to the other - for which we must give thanks. Together they demand the virtues of Hope and Trust.

Saint John, Apostle, Evangelist

1 John 1:1-4; Psalm 96(97):1-2,5-6,11-12; John 20:2-8

Why this sudden jump from Christmas to Easter? What has the empty tomb to do with the cattle-shed in Bethlehem? The Beloved Disciple, here identified with John the Evangelist, is the symbol of love, the love of God demonstrated by the babe at Bethlehem.
The Beloved Disciple runs first, ahead of Peter, to the tomb and comes to belief, though Peter did not understand. This ‘Beloved Disciple’ is deliberately never named. This is a normal convention in ancient and even mediaeval literature, but that is a beneficial convention for us, because it lets the Beloved Disciple stand for any disciple whom the Lord loves. Each of us is a disciple - each of us has at least one moment of realising that we believe. He sits next to Jesus at the Last Supper, sharing the Eucharist - we do so each Sunday, when we share the Eucharist. He is committed to Mary at the foot of the Cross, so shares the Passion and suffering of Christ, and with Mary composes the first family of the Church. We also need to - and we can especially at Easter, symbolised as we venerate the cross on good Friday. He is put forward in John 21.24 as the prime witness to the tradition of the Church. We also should be witnesses to those around us - it is a commission we all share through our baptism.
In this instance, the beloved disciple is St John the Evangelist: There is a  legend which has it that in extreme old age he was still brought into the assembly, and all he would say was ‘My children, love one another’.

St Stephen

Acts 6:8-10,7:54-59; Psalm 30(31):3-4,6,8,16-17; Matthew 10:17-22

While the Jews were stoning him, Stephen, the servant of God, saw the heavens opened; he saw and entered in: blessed is the man to whom the heavens were thrown open.
Even while he was being done to death by a hail of clattering stones, the splendour of God shone upon him in the inmost recesses of the court of heaven: blessed is the man to whom the heavens were thrown open.
Yesterday we celebrated the birth in time of our eternal King. Today we celebrate the triumphant suffering of his soldier.
Yesterday our king, clothed in his robe of flesh, left his place in the virgin’s womb and graciously visited the world. Today his soldier leaves the tabernacle of his body and goes triumphantly to heaven.
Todays feast sums up the whole purpose of Christs entry into our lives - that we might serve. Very few of us are called to witness to this by martyrdom. But do not for a moment think that martyrdom was a feature of the past - in may parts of the world Christians are dying specifically because of their faith, and many more are suffering for it. This week, Christians have died in Gaza, while working for a hospital provided but he Anglican Church, and in Pakistan, Christians have been given a parole for Christmas, but will return to prison today, because they are charged with 'conversion' - enticing others into christianity with gifts which are of course, charitable works helping the poorest.
St Stephen, one of the first Deacons, called to serve the growing christian community died witnessing to his faith and Evan as the stones fell upon him, he prayed for those involved. St Stephen, pray for us.

O Emmanuel (23rd December)

Malachi 3.1-4,23-24; Psalm 24; Luke 1.57-66

“Emmanuel, our king and lawgiver, come and save us, Lord our God.”  The new Jerusalem with its restored Temple is filled with God’s glory because God has chosen to live there, to make his home there. [Apocalypse 21.1-3] That new, indestructible city [Hebrews 13.14] is the Church, animated and enlivened by the presence and power of God within it.  

For the prophet Isaiah [7.14] Emmanuel is the name of the faithfulness and reliability of Almighty God, a reproach to the pretensions and presumptions of earthly kings.  “Devise a plan, it is thwarted; put forward an argument, there is no substance in it, for God is with us” [8.10] the prophet asserted to the mighty Assyrian empire, threatening to invade and conquer Israel. As the Psalmist [45(46).3] put it, “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

Yet the presence of God is a judgement on all that is ungodly and unjust.  “Who shall abide the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” [Malachi 3.2] “His winnowing-fan is in his hand to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out.” [Luke 3.17] “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth” Jesus himself warns: “it is not peace I have come to bring, but a sword.”[Matthew 10.34]

So, on the cusp of our Christmas celebration, we are confronted with the paradox of Advent: that the God of our longing is the God we have again and again disdained. [John 1.11] “Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today” we pray as we let down the barriers in our hearts and lives to allow him entrance.  “O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

O Rex Gentium (22nd December)

I Samuel 1.24-28; I Samuel 2; Luke 1.46-56

“King of all peoples and cornerstone of the Church, come and save humanity, which you made from the dust of the earth.”  A monarch literally “rules alone.”  The solitary potentate unites those under him by their common allegiance to him, their common reliance on him.  The Israelite monarchy, first under Saul and then under David and after him Solomon, drew the disparate twelve tribes into one nation.  Our Lord Jesus Christ is King of the Universe because when he sits on his throne “all the nations will be gathered before him.” [Matthew 25.32]

Isaiah [19.13] describes the tribal chieftains of Egypt as cornerstones; this analogy of a human leader who holds people together to the architectural function of the cornerstone to provide cohesion and stability to a building leads the prophet to declare that in Jerusalem the Lord himself will establish a new ruler, the cornerstone of a new building, who will rule with justice and integrity. [28.16-17] For the New Testament writers this new building is the Church, formed of dissimilar and incongruent stones (“congruent” geometric figures are those that coincide exactly when superimposed) whose variety is itself testimony to the bountiful beneficence of the Spirit of God. [I Corinthians 12.4,18-19] Like fragile human beings,
[Genesis 3.19; cf Isaiah 40.6] stones can crumble and edifices built of them can fall. [Mark 13.2] The promise of God is that with Christ as cornerstone the Church will cohere and endure. [Ephesians 2.20-22; Apocalypse 3.11-12] Christ the Desire of all nations [Haggai 2.7] will draw all the world’s peoples into one Holy Temple, filled with the glory of God. 

O Oriens (21st December)

Zephaniah 3.14-18; Psalm 32; Luke 1.39-45

“O Morning star, radiance of eternal light, sun of justice, come and enlighten those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death.”  The antiphons of Advent move in a theologically precise sequence, from the Wisdom present in the creation of the world; through the Master, the Law-giver, who draws creation into relationship with him by teaching Torah, that is, the pathway to freedom [cf Psalm 118(119).45]; through the Monarchy, given by God to his people to unite them and their energies [Judges 21.25], and the hope for the monarchy’s restoration after the Babylonian invasion ended it; and finally the hopes of the prophetic writings for Messiah, the Anointed One, who is God himself alive and active in the midst of his people. [cf Apocalypse 21.3]

The Morning Star is the astronomical name for the planet Venus when it appears in the east before sunrise.  In the hymnody of Eastern Orthodoxy St John Baptist is called by this name, for he appears as forerunner and harbinger of Christ. [Luke 1.76]; in the Litany of Loretto, the title is given to Our Lady, the “Holy Light on earth’s horizon” of Fr Edward Caswall’s hymn.

But though we give thanks for those predecessors [II Peter 1.19] who made possible the coming into the world of the Light that shines through the darkness [John 1.5], the Morning Star, in the end, must be Our Lord himself.  [Apocalypse 22.16] We look to the east to see his coming [Baruch 5.5], a coming that will bring light to our beclouded eyes [John 9.39] and renew us in his love.

O Radix Jesse

Judges 13.2-7,24-25; Psalm 70; Luke 1.5-25

O Radix Jesse we pray this day to the coming King.  Jesse was the father of King David
[I Samuel 16.1-13], David the youngest of his sons.   But under David’s grandson Rehoboam, the united kingdom David had brought together was sundered, ten northern tribes declaring “What have we to do with the son of Jesse?” [I Kings 12.16] A few hundred years later, the last descendant of David was forced into exile by Babylonian invaders. [II Kings 24.1-7] Never again would a King govern the chosen people Israel.

Yet people retained hope for a new David to come to the throne [Isaiah 11.1], a fresh branch to grow out of the felled tree of Jesse. [Amos 9.11-12] For us who believe in him, that expectation reached its fulfilment in the appearance on earth of Great David’s greater Son. [Matthew 22.41-46] A blind beggar addressed Jesus as “Son of David” and thereby invoked his power to heal and save. [Luke 18.35-43] With him and all other disciples of the Son of David we pray, “Root of Jesse, set up as a sign to the peoples, come to save us, and delay no more.”