On this feast of Saint Thomas à Becket, a martyr for religious liberty, we note martyrdom’s liturgical prominence during the Christmas Octave. Of special importance to pro-lifers is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, celebrated yesterday.
The mystery of martyrdom is another name for the mystery of the Incarnation. Martyrdom is giving bodily witness to the reality of truth and love, in a world in which power and success alone seem real. The mystery of the Incarnation is the mystery of the becoming-flesh of infinite truth and infinite love, along with the correlative fact that every time a new human body comes into existence, there begins a new visibility of the invisible God.
But there is more to the identity of martyrdom and Incarnation: God becomes flesh to accomplish the purposes of love, the purposes of a love that is infinitely “passionate” (as the Cross reveals) and that is thoroughly characterized by solidarity: “For by His Incarnation, the Son of God in some way has united Himself with every man” (Gaudium et spes 22). God becomes flesh to identify, in actual fact, with each of us in our godforsaken condition of having chosen power over truth and love, and to liberate us from that condition.
Like water, God seeks the lowest level. Where there is pain, Jesus flows in. Where there is weakness, Jesus flows there.
Thus begins the visible growth of a Kingdom of Love.
Bare human life shows us the invisible God most clearly. Where there is a life that is divested by the powers of this world, unprotected by the advantages of social status, as on this feast of Saint Thomas à Becket, we see “unaccommodated man…a poor, bare, forked animal”: and that’s just to see God hanging between heaven and earth.
But, above all, when we see the weakest human flesh, the flesh that literally cannot survive without love, we see the flesh most intensely iconic. We see God in love.
The great English mystic Caryll Houselander understood this: “Herod ordered the children to be killed because he was afraid that any one of them might be Christ. Any child might be Christ! The fear of Herod is the fear of every tyrant, the hope of every Christian, and the most significant fact in the modern world.”
To see today’s slaughter of the innocents requires having the eyes of passionate and solidary love, eyes unclouded by the fears that inevitably attend the securing and wielding of power. To have such a countercultural vision requires having hearts grown young again, hearts innocent with the boundless wonder and reckless love of Christ, hearts free of the fear that insists we must scrape and scrabble to maintain our sad place in the status hierarchy. Only where there is such fear could we fail to see the star that shines over every little child.
“To overcome the world we must become children. To become children we must fold our consciousness upon the Divine Infant Who is the center of our being; Who is our being itself; and all that we are must be absorbed in Him; whatever remains of self must be the cradle in which He lies. This is the answer to Herod in all times, the answer of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux in our time: ‘the little way of Spiritual Childhood,’ which is the oneing of the soul with God, in the passion of the Infant Christ.”
As we grow young again in how we know and love, the powers of the world are stripped of their power to harm. We begin to see in the material world the play of an infinite knowing and loving. To suffer and to act become inseparable within the divine dimension of grace, for as we surrender calculation, the plan of God the Father takes hold, and all things become well.
As T. S. Eliot has Becket say in Murder in the Cathedral:
They know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer.
They know and do not know, that acting is suffering
And suffering is action. Neither does the actor suffer
Nor the patient act. But both are fixed
In an eternal action, an eternal patience
To which all must consent that it may be willed
And which all must suffer that they may will it,
That the pattern may subsist, for the pattern is the action
And the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still
Be forever still.
Christmas means that an infinite Love has come in this flesh, and all shall we well.