Thomas was born in London in 1118, of a family of merchants. After a good education he served as clerk to another burgess then entered the service of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury. Thomas proved himself an excellent administrator and skilled diplomat. In 1155 he was appointed chancellor by King Henry II. For several years king and chancellor worked harmoniously together in mutual admiration and personal friendship. As a result, the king nominated Thomas as Archbishop of Canterbury to succeed Theobald in 1161. From the start there was friction, with Thomas insisting on every privilege of the Church. The conflict worsened until 1164 when Thomas fled to France. Encouraged by the Pope he pursued his arguments from exile, sending letters and pronouncing excommunications. Three efforts at mediation failed before an apparent reconciliation brought him back triumphant to Canterbury in 1170. But the nobility still opposed him, and words of anger at court led four knights to journey to Canterbury where they finally chased Thomas into the cathedral, and murdered him on the steps of the altar on this day in 1170. Thomas was undoubtedly a proud and stubborn man, for all his gifts, and his personal austerities as archbishop were probably an attempt at self- discipline after years of ostentatious luxury. His conflict with King Henry stemmed from their equal personal ambitions, exacerbated by the increasingly international claims of the papacy, played out in the inevitable tension between Church and State.
O Lord, open our lips
and our mouth shall proclaim your praise.
who gave grace to your servant Thomas Becket
to put aside all earthly fear
and be faithful even to death:
grant that we, disregarding worldly esteem,
may fight all wrong, uphold your rule,
and serve you to our life’s end;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Save me, O God, by your name;
and vindicate me by your power.
Hear my prayer, O God;
give heed to the words of my mouth.
For strangers have risen up against me,
and the ruthless seek after my life;
they have not set God before them.
Behold, God is my helper;
it is the Lord who upholds my life.
May evil rebound on those who lie in wait for me;
destroy them in your faithfulness.
An offering of a free heart will I give you
and praise your name, O Lord, for it is gracious.
For he has delivered me out of all my trouble,
and my eye has seen the downfall of my enemies.
Glory to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning, is now
and shall be for ever. Amen.
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted.’
In these modern, sophisticated times we rarely speak of the devil. We might speak of evil, exploitation, injustice and prejudice, but we would rarely hear those ‘evils’ being described as the work of the devil. And, if someone did describe them in that way, we would probably back away, shaking our heads and speaking of religious fanaticism.
In today’s reading Jesus speaks of the devil in a clear way. Jesus speaks of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell. While he does not mention the devil, or Satan, or whatever name you wish to give him, explicitly, that is clearly the one of whom he is speaking.
In these days that immediately follow our remembrance and celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Church presents us with the challenge of reflecting upon the lives of those who were martyred for their faith: Stephen, the first martyr, the Holy Innocents and, today, St Thomas of Canterbury. Stephen and Thomas stood firm in their faith in the certain knowledge that, despite the death of their bodies, their souls would not be destroyed. The Holy Innocents were just that, rendered holy and protected by God, because they were too young and innocent to have strayed from the righteous path … they had not been presented with the choice of turning their backs on God.
In the service of Holy Baptism parents and godparents are asked: Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God? Their considered response is: I reject them. This is a commitment being made on behalf of the one being baptized, but is expressed in the first person, I reject them. Each parent and godparent is being asked to renew their own commitment, as well as declaring that decision on behalf of the ones who cannot yet answer for themselves.
All who are baptized have taken the decision to reject the devil and all rebellion against God. But, how good are we at honouring that commitment? The devil lurks around every corner. Everything that tempts us away from honouring, praising and worshipping God is the work of the devil, the work of rebelling against God. Every time we set aside the words and deeds that we should be using to honour and proclaim our faith in Jesus Christ, is a moment when we are stepping away from this fundamental baptismal promise. Every time we are arrogant, cruel or selfish we are rejecting God, and not the devil.
The temptation to stray from the path God has laid for us is great. Let us pray for the strength to remain steadfast in our commitment to living the true life of faith. Let us pray that we might always be ready to turn away from the path which leads us to the works of the devil, even if it is that path which will ensure our safety and our success in this world. Let us pray that we might honour the memory of God’s holy martyrs in a way that proves that their sacrifice was not in vain.
Prayers of intercession
Let us pray to the Father whose Son suffered betrayal and death for the salvation of the world.
Cleanse the Church from temptation to worldly ambition and false triumphalism. In childlike simplicity, may your people follow you without fear, in loving one another.
Bring peace to the troubled places of the world, where war destroys both human life and the beauty of your creation. Make peaceful the minds of those who contend for power, that they may know the freedom of your service.
We pray for the children in our families, for all the children in our community and those who teach them and care for them. Protect them from harm and lead them into the future that is your will for each of them.
Have mercy on the victims of jealous power and all who are persecuted for the sake of the gospel. Grant those who have been driven from their homes a place of refuge to rebuild their lives.
We pray for those who have died in war or through human violence. Grant mercy to those who died unprepared and impenitent, by the love of Christ who served others even to death. Grant them the peace that they were denied in their last hour.
As servants of Christ, we humbly offer our prayers in his name.
Prayer for Christmas
Holy Child of Bethlehem,
born in a stable, laid in a manger,
no place is too low or mean for you to enter.
Come to us this Christmas time,
dwell in our hearts and homes,
and fill them with your love,
now and always.
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and the love of God,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,
be with us all evermore. Amen.