Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Fifth Day Of Christmas

Thomas Becket : Archbishop of Canterbury : Martyr

Christmas is for saintly sinners.

As Lord Chancellor, Thomas Becket helped King Henry II to extend his powers over against the power of the Church in England.  But after he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket changed direction – literally, repented – and opposed moves by the king to further his power at the expense of the church.  It was a turning that was to cost Becket a close friendship with the king; and, after his return from exile on the continent, ultimately his life.  When the king expressed frustration that his court showed the Archbishop more respect than they did their king, four of his knights confronted Becket in Canterbury Cathedral and struck him down with their swords.  It is said that when the monks came to remove his body, they discovered that he wore a hair-shirt – an outward sign of inward repentance – under his robes of office.

Becket had turned his back on a reputation for sensual indulgence and embraced abstemious self-denial.  Repentance did not, however, turn him into an anaemic saint: though long noted for his skills of diplomacy, Becket was not averse to taking a sledge-hammer to crack a walnut, being especially fond of excommunication as consequence for those who challenged his position.

Venerated by the people, the route of Becket’s last journey – from Southwark to Canterbury – became a pilgrim route almost immediately; and just three years after his death he was canonised by the Pope.  It is questionable whether this complex character would have been made a saint had he not been murdered, but nonetheless he was: brilliant, and belligerent; warm, and steely-cold; inspiring, and conspiring; saint, and sinner, and all.

Christmas is for saintly sinners: those convinced of their own righteousness need not apply.

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