Beatitudes in Sharp Focus
Fr. Tony’s Midweek Message
December 30, 2020
Today is the sixth of the twelve days of Christmas, the day supposedly where the counting carol says our true love gives to us “six geese a’ laying.” The three days following Christmas (not counting Sunday, which takes precedence and bumps the other commemorations to a day later) have been the “martyrs to Jesus” days that follow the Feast of the Incarnation. Boxing Day, the “Feast of Stephen” when Good King Wenceslaus sets for us the example of giving alms to the poor, commemorates St. Stephen the Deacon and proto-martyr (a martyr in will and in deed). The next day is the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, who died at a ripe old age after decades of persecution (a martyr in will but not deed.) Then comes the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the babies killed by wicked King Herod in Matthew 2 (martyrs in deed but not will—the fact that these Jewish children are honored as sainted martyrs due to the circumstances of their deaths undermines the claim by evangelicals that only those who confess Jesus as Lord in their hearts and on their lips can be welcomed to the realms of the Blessed. Next, on December 29, is the feast of St. Thomas Becket, murdered at the altar in the cathedral of Canterbury by henchmen of Henry II for his valiant defense of the Church’s independence of the state, (a martyr in deed and in will.) The anniversary of the Massacre at Wounded Knee also falls on December 29.
Why celebrate martyrs during the heart of Christmas?
Christmas is about the turning over of things: God made man, growing winter darkness turning to growing light, the poor of the earth welcoming a king who appears not to be a king. Its stories underline the fact that the so-called great of the earth are not all that great. Shepherds hear the angel choir, not King Herod or Emperor Tiberius, or their courts. Jesus’ conception is questionable; his mother’s honor in doubt to some. The stories of martyrs—intentional or no, Christian or no—are stories of the relatively powerless suffering at the hands of the so-called mighty.
And in that, they summarize in a focused way the point of the beatitudes: blessed are the starving, those who are thirsting to death, the dirt poor, those broken with grief and mourning, those persecuted for trying to do what’s right. God’s grace and presence is shown most clearly in the moments when you least expect to see God.
President Trump issued a statement yesterday extolling Thomas Becket as a hero of defending the church from interference from the state. The point is well taken, though the dispute between Thomas and Henry was not that of someone desiring religious freedom: Thomas wanted clerical superiority to the state, amnesty from all the demands of secular law. Henry rightly saw that such privilege destroyed the rule of law in a land. Thomas defended the Church and died for it; we honor him for that. We do not thereby argue that priests, deacons, and bishops should be exempt from criminal law. The fact that the outgoing president used Becket as a way of highlighting his own enraging appeals to his base marks it as an abuse of religion, the very thing Becket opposed. This is all the more noticeable when you realize that he did not talk about the holy innocents: perhaps that would raise too many questions about whose policies resonate with the violence of Herod and Tiberius. Hundreds of children remain separated from their parents as a result of the “zero tolerance” border policy of 2017-18.
As gentle as the image of baby Jesus in the crèche is, it does not try to soft-pedal the clear implications of the incarnation: St. Francis, who first made a crèche as a Christmas devotion, knew that all the gentleness demanded a willingness to embrace poverty, suffering, and woe—yes, kiss lepers!—to show God’s love. In his great hymn to the creatures of God (Brother Sun, Sister Moon), he praises even sister Death as the joyful end of suffering. That is because Francis knew that the way of the cross is the way of light and life, and that God is most present where we least expect him.
Grace and Peace.