By Fr. George Welzbacher
December 23, 2012
With the Christmas Eve Vigil Mass (here at St. John's scheduled for Monday afternoon at 4:15 p.m.) we will begin our celebration of the Birth of the Eternal Son of God, Christ Our Lord, as one of us, as Man, bringing peace and love from God to a human race restored. He is indeed, as Isaiah foretold, the Prince of Peace, though the peace that He brings is peace of such quality as the world neither comprehends nor is able to provide. Peace being "the tranquility of ORDER" as St. Augustine will have it, the order whose ultimate foundation is GOD, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all things, it follows that there can be no genuine peace, because there is no genuine order, for those who through sin have severed themselves from God. It was to end mankind's alienation from God, to restore to the souls of men the friendship with God that had once been theirs but that had been lost through Adam's pride - it was for this that God's Only-begotten Son, wrapped in swaddling clothes, was laid in a manger, it was for this that on the cross He would pour out His blood in an agony of pain to make boundless atonement for Adam's revolt and for the sins of all of mankind. And it was His Blood that won for us the new life and light that He pours into the souls of those who hear His words and keep faith with Him, the new life and light of the soul that is sanctifying GRACE, by virtue of which alone we will be able to see God one day "face to face" (I Corinthians 13:12), to "see Him as He is" and thus to "become like Him" (I John 3:2).
With God's grace in our souls we can weather any storm. Thus the first to pour out his life's blood for Christ, St. Stephen, whose martyrdom we venerate on the day after Christmas, could rejoice even as he was being stoned to death. And he was able serenely to ask God's pardon for those who were doing the stoning . So, too, more than a millennium later, St. Thomas Becket (ca. 1120-1170) whose feast day also falls within the octave of Christmas (on December 29th), could face his own murderers with forgiveness and tranquillity.
Thomas Becket, archdeacon of the Church and close friend of England's King Henry II, served as Chancellor of England for seven years (1155-1162) and was then importuned by the King to receive the next two levels of the Sacrament of Holy Orders so that he might hold, as Archbishop of Canterbury, the primatial see of England. It was only with great reluctance that he acceded to the King's request, foreseeing that Henry's intent to dominate not only England's restive barons but its bishops as well would lead inevitably to conflict, at least with those bishops who would prove true to their duty, refusing to surrender to Caesar that which belongs to God. With serious misgivings Thomas allowed himself to be ordained a priest and then to be consecrated as bishop. For his subsequent refusal to compromise the liberty of the English Church Thomas was forced to flee within two years to France, where he would spend six bitter years of exile. Allowed at last to return, he landed on England's southeastern coast on the last day of November, 1170. Barely a month later, on December 29th, he was murdered in his own cathedral by four of the King's henchmen, four knights of the realm. Within three years he was canonized by Pope Alexander III, who had supported his cause during the years of his exile. As miracles wrought in response to prayer to St. Thomas multiplied with astonishing speed, his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral became a lodestone for pilgrims from far and wide (which pilgrimage is of course the setting for the first great masterpiece of English literature, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales).
In the 1930's, the greatest poet of the twentieth century, T.S. (for Thomas Steams) Eliot, wrote a play commemorating St. Thomas' conflict with King Henry. Fittingly enough the play's title is Murder in the Cathedral. In the interlude between Acts One and Two Mr. Eliot has St. Thomas deliver a Christmas Day sermon, his last sermon. As composed by Mr. Eliot, it illustrates remarkably the Christian paradox of "peace within, war without" at one and the same time. Today, as tensions are rapidly building between Church and State over the issues of abortion, the extension of full marital status to homosexual unions, and the federal government's trampling upon the First Amendment, the sermon that Mr. Eliot puts into the mouth of Archbishop Thomas has a special resonance for us. May I share this sermon with you (see below).
* * * * *From: Murder in the Cathedral
I wish you all a blessed Christmas with the peace of soul that is uniquely the Christ Child's gift.
* * * * *
By: T.S. Eliot
The Archbishop preaches in the 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 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 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 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 over other men. Ambition fortifies the will of man to become a ruler of 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 birth day, to remember what is that Peace which he brought; and because, dear children, I do not think 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.
* * * * *