john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK



    Thomas the Martyr and the Magnificat in reverse

    St Thomas a Becket, Northlew, Patronal Festival,
    9/7/2011


    Luke 1:46-55 (The Magnificat)


    They say that Thomas was on his way to Vespers when he was killed. Now if, like me for many years, you were under the impression that Vespas are a kind of scooter, you might not get what this means. Vespers is another word for Evening Prayers; Thomas was murdered outside the room where his fellow-religious were chanting the words we have just heard, the Magnificat, the words of Mary the young mother of Jesus, words which seem so very strange in the circumstances, expressing the very opposite of what was happening:
    And Mary said, 'My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
    for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.'
    And this, while King Henry was chiding his household, "[for letting] their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric".

    As Thomas approached the door of the quire we imagine him hearing the monks chanting,
    'Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
    for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
    His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.'
    And this while somewhere in his royal palace, Henry was asking, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?"
    'He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
    He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly...'
    What happened to Thomas that day was like the Magnificat in reverse. As the monks sang devoutly about the power of God overcoming the strength of earthly kings, four knights of King Henry set upon Thomas and in a few fatal moves, killed him and left him for dead.

    The Magnificat in reverse. No sign of God's merciful kindness on the cold stone floor of Canterbury Cathedral that day. What are we to make of it all, we people of faith? Doesn't the same sort of thing happen in our world every day? When the words of our hymns and prayers ring hollow in the face of the terrors of the world, how can we make sense of it all?

    Well somehow, we are making sense of it all. Somehow in our faith, in our hearts, in the vibrant life of our village community, we have found a way of turning the terrible murder of an ancient archbishop into a celebration, a 'sit down' tea, stalls, maypole dancing, games, tombola, and so on.

    This is how we can do it; this is the sense of the Christian faith, this is the greatest reversal of all. We see the murder of Thomas as the death of an innocent man. And that reminds us of the death of Jesus, whose innocence was beyond dispute. Every time an innocent person dies it reminds us of the death of Jesus. And every time we think of the death of Jesus we also remember his resurrection.

    Jesus the innocent victim overcame death, and when he returned to life he didn't come demanding vengeance, he came offering forgiveness. Jesus the innocent victim overcame death and returned inviting everyone to join in the celebration which he calls eternal life. It's like every murder ever committed, in reverse; it's like the death of Thomas, in reverse; it reverses the reverse Magnificat: for it is true, after all, to say with Mary, 'His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.'

    Because Thomas believed in Jesus the innocent victim whose resurrection reverses the logic of death, he went to his death with words of faith in his mouth and the hope of eternal life in his heart. This made such an impression on the King who had had Thomas killed, that four years after the event Henry humbled himself with public penance at Thomas's tomb and at the church of St. Dunstan's, which was set to become one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in England. Life after death. Complete forgiveness. The great reversal. An eternal celebration.

    This is how we can make sense of the death and destruction in our world today: whenever we bring Jesus in, we know that he can and will turn things around, eternally. As Thomas says at the close of Murder in the Cathedral,

    For all things exist only as seen by Thee, only as known by Thee, all things exist Only in Thy light, and Thy glory is declared even in that which denies Thee; the darkness declares the glory of light.

    So as we celebrate today we celebrate the great reversal; which Mary saw and sang about; which gave Thomas hope at the moment of his death; which led King Henry to repent; and which can and will transform our world today: Jesus the source of all life whose resurrection is his gift to us, whose loving, gracious, forgiveness means eternal life for us: means death in reverse. Halleluia. Amen?