St Thomas Becket Lapford
Martyrs: Making a Stand
December 29th, 1991
People are surprised to discover that the four days immediately after Christmas are designated in the Christian calendar to remind the world of something very different from the birth of its Saviour. And if, like the present Archbishop of Canterbury, you feel it necessary to inveigh against what he calls the "Disneyland aspect of Christmas", it's only necessary to follow the next few days through with St Stephen, the first martyr, St John the evangelist, exiled on a small island in the Aegean Sea, the Holy Innocents killed in their cradles and Thomas Becket murdered in his cathedral.
These four witnesses (for that is what Martyr means) should provide more than enough antidote to too much Disneyland.
Now a witness must be a witness "to Something" or someone" at its simplest it means having been somewhere when something happened. "I witnessed at the fire in Jones's department store" means no more than a "I was there at the time and saw what happened".
But all too often "being a Witness" involves "Bearing Witness or testifying and that is where difficulties begin. Many people find it dreadfully difficult to remember what they saw or heard – more difficult still to put it into words; and if doing so is going to lead to public cross-examination of their testimony or, worse still, to intimidation or suffering at the hands of those against whom that reliable witness is directed, it's no surprise, is it, that witnesses in places like Northern Ireland for instance should be so difficult to come by. Worldly wisdom suggests that it's better to keep once trap shut! If you don't want to be knee-capped or something worse.
Henry of Newburgh writing about your patron saint Thomas shortly after his death in Canterbury Cathedral on this very day in 1170 said "Thomas Becket was burning with zeal for justice, but whether altogether according to wisdom, God knows".
Well if by wisdom you mean "earthly wisdom"then it's obvious he wasn't motivated by that. If you want to get on in this world, if you want to stay out of trouble them one thing you don't do is to "take on the Establishment" whether the Establishment means the King, the Government, the leaders of the Church or state or nothing greater than the local Council. In fact experience suggests that the less important and significant the Established body is with whom you cross swords more unpleasant they are likely to be about it.
But for the servant of Jesus Christ earthly Wisdom is not the best guide to how we should respond to earthly situations. We are after all, strangers and pilgrims in this world; our true citizenship lies elsewhere. Through much of our pilgrimage there may be little unavoidable conflict, but sooner or later we shall find ourselves called upon to produce our passports, to declare a true citizenship and face the consequences. And this will be the case when the rulers of this world claim for themselves the authority to change or ignore the rules laid down for us by our Heavenly King.
It's not always easy to know when the moment has come to "stand up and be counted". There will always be plausible arguments to hand which will suggest that now is not quite the moment, this or that is not quite the right issue. And even if we do decide that the moment has come there will be those who suggest that our motive for making a stand is largely inspired by the desire to feel important - at least that was what they said about it St Thomas Becket.
I'm afraid there's often no completely certain way of knowing that the moment to witness has really come. There will be plausible arguments on both sides in favour and against making a stand. Here I can only suggest a few rules of thumb to go by.
Firstly, does the matter in question conflict with scripture? If so then it is almost certainly wrong and to be rejected totally.
Secondly, does it conflict with what has been believed by all Christians, always and everywhere? If so it should likewise be rejected.
Thirdly, does it bear any obvious resemblance to other currently popular ideas which are doing the rounds but which have no proper Christian pedigree or ancestry? If so it should be treated with great caution.
Finally, does it in any way detract from the uniqueness of God's revelation of himself in Jesus Christ? If it does then it is undoubtedly a line, coming from the Father of Lies and to be rejected out of hand.
Well I'm afraid that applying these four rules doesn't make for having a quiet life, especially as there will be a great many of our fellow-Christians who say they "can't see what all the fuss is about".
That was what they said about St Stephen, St John and St Thomas of Canterbury.
But Stephen, and John and Thomas became Saints because they bore witness to the truth: and I suggest that is something which the critics are most unlikely to become!
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