Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Saint Thomas of Canterbury

The Fifth Day of Christmas, 29 December, is the feast of Saint Thomas, the great twelfth century archbishop of Canterbury. It was on this day, as the Divine Office was being celebrated at Vespers, in the year 1170, that Thomas was approached at the altar by the king's men, and murdered. For this reason, today is celebrated in the Church's liturgy as his birthday.

And here is as good a moment as any to explicate one of the Church's more unusual practices, that of referring to a saint's death day as his birthday. We see this in martyrologies and homilies that go back centuries upon centuries. It is also rooted in the Biblical concepts of birth to new life, and related to similar concepts of awakening. Note, for example, how Saint Luke describes the death of Saint Stephen:

Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

Just consider the contrast. On the one hand there is what even the world sees, namely, that a preacher of the Church is violently stoned to death in a horrific act of murder, the sort of thing the wires today might report as yet another sad incident of "sectarian violence." And on the other hand we have the Church's view, in the pen of Luke, no slouch of a writer, who describes this death as a falling asleep, a mere dormition. Luke is no Platonist. He is a realist. For he knows all too well that the face of a holy man was brutally bashed in by evil men. He also knows, and conveys with theological precision and brilliance, that Stephen, whose life and doctrine reflected the face of Christ, met with a death that also reflected that of Christ, Who was standing at the right hand of God for him, and Who stands there for us. That is, when a saint's life come to an end, he is born to his fully realized and eternal life with his Lord and Redeemer. A saint's death, as real as it is, is but a slumber, after which he awakes to a life so pure and glorious and full that we can only grope for language to describe it. The difference between life in this dark world and the life we will realize in heavenly bliss is like the difference between the dark world that a child knows in his mother's womb and the bright new life that awaits him on the other side of the birth canal. It is his birthday.

The children of the Church, by means of her liturgical tradition, are thus trained to look at the death of their brethren as bona mors, a happy death, quite different indeed than the utterly hopeless way in which the world would have its children view death.

This day, then, like with almost all of the Church's traditional saints' feasts, is the birthday of a saint. In this case, Thomas, bishop of Canterbury, is remembered for the witness, or martyrdom, he gave by turning his life completely over to his vocation in Christ, to the very end.

I confess that I don't understand why the Missouri Synod would choose to put on its list of lesser feasts, or commemorations, King David for this day instead of Saint Thomas. Admittedly, David is mentioned in the traditional Roman Martyrology for this day. But he is listed with a number of other saints as well. Furthermore, one's inclusion in the martyrology does not mean he gets his own day in the liturgical year. And anyway, why does he replace Thomas, one of the church's most celebrated saints, and feasts?

I am happy that the Synod is following the old Roman Martyrology. I only hope it is not starting to go Rome. It is just a pity that it follows it in such an incomplete, and backwards manner.

Here, to assist your devotion, is the traditional martyrology for this day.

At Canterbury in England, the birthday of St. Thomas, bishop and martyr, who, for the defence of justice and ecclesiastical immunity, was struck with the sword in his own basilica by a faction of wicked men, and thus went to Christ as martyr.

At Jerusalem, holy David, king and prophet.

At Arles in France, the birthday of St. Trophimus, mentioned by St. Paul in his Epistle to Timothy. Being ordained bishop by that apostle, he was the first sent to preach the gospel of Christ in that city. From his preaching, as from a fountain, according to the expression of Pope St. Zosimus, all France received the waters of salvation.

At Rome, the holy martyrs Callistus, Felix, and Boniface.

In Africa, the passion of the holy martyrs Dominic, Victor, Primian, Lybosus, Saturninus, Crescentius, Secundus, and Honoratus.

At Constantinople, St. Marcellus, abbot.

In the country of Hiesmes in France, St. Ebrulf, abbot and confessor, in the time of King Childebert.

At Vienne in France, the commemoration of St. Crescens, bishop and martyr. He was a disciple of St. Paul the Apostle and was the first bishop of that city. His birthday is mentioned on the 27th of June.

And elsewhere in divers places, many other holy martyrs, confessors, and holy virgins.
R. Thanks be to God.

And now, so that you can practice your Latin:

Cantuáriæ, in Anglia, natális sancti Thomæ, Epíscopi et Mártyris, qui, ob defensiónem justítiæ et ecclesiásticæ immunitátis, in Basílica sua, ab impiórum hóminum factióne percússus gládio, Martyr migrávit ad Christum.

Hierosólymis sancti David, Regis et Prophétæ.

Areláte, in Gállia, natális sancti Tróphimi, cujus méminit sanctus Paulus ad Timótheum scribens. Ipse autem Tróphimus, ab eódem Apóstolo Epíscopus ordinátus, præfátæ urbi primus ad Christi Evangélium prædicándum diréctus est; ex cujus prædicatiónis fonte (ut sanctus Zósimus Papa scribit) tota Gállia rívulos fídei recépit.

Romæ sanctórum Mártyrum Callísti, Felícis et Bonifátii.

In Africa pássio sanctórum Mártyrum Domínici, Victóris, Primiáni, Lybósi, Saturníni, Crescéntii, Secúndi et Honoráti.

Constantinópoli sancti Marcélli Abbátis.

In pago Oxyménsi, in Gállia, sancti Ebrúlphi, Abbátis et Confessóris, témpore Childebérti Regis.

Viénnæ, in Gállia, Commemorátio sancti Crescéntis, Epíscopi et Mártyris, qui fuit discípulus beáti Pauli Apóstoli ac primus ejúsdem civitátis Epíscopus, et cujus dies natális quinto Kaléndas Júlii celebrátur.

Et álibi aliórum plurimórum sanctórum Mártyrum et Confessórum, atque sanctárum Vírginum.
R. Deo grátias.


Tim said...

Practice my Latin?

You're going to have to install a Rosetta Stone on your website- that way, it can say the Latin, and I can repeat ;)

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