Skip Content

Rescuing martyrdom - reflections for the Feast of St Thomas Becket

Monday 29th December 2014

The martyr is 'light itself' who 'opens the heavens' says the Archbishop of Canterbury in this homily preached at Canterbury Cathedral this morning.

Archbishop Justin was preaching at the Altar of the Sword-Point in Canterbury Cathedral. The altar is built on the spot where St Thomas Becket was martyred on 29 December 1170.

It has only one service a year - an early morning Communion on the anniversary of St Thomas's death, celebrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury.


Reflections on the Feast of St Thomas Becket
Archbishop Justin Welby | 29 Dec 2014, Canterbury Cathedral  

Martyrdom is a concept that needs rescuing. It is to bear witness to the light of Christ at the moment of greatest darkness; when the sword falls, the gun fires, the flames rise, flames of darkness visible – the flames of hell that seek the destruction of all testimony to the goodness of God in Christ.

It has nothing to do with killing others, with crusade or violent campaign. The martyr is light itself, who in one brief moment opens the heavens to those who hear the testimony of death, and changes our sense of time.

In martyrdom time is breached: our perspective that perceives only dark at the end of life is suddenly lit by the martyr's lightning so that we see a long road ahead, not for ever stony and hard, but broad, by a stream accompanied by angels of mercy and sustenance.

At that moment we are all lifted by the reality of the future – as weary travellers on a rain-beaten, windswept trek, exhausted and frozen, suddenly feel hope rise when the lightning shows that the path is coming to a road, and in the distance is warmth, a bath, a drink, good company and rest.

Of course, standing here, we know the complexity of Thomas. Full of struggle, guilt and fear. Swaying between this and that impulse, God alone knew what. Yet in love for the church, the body of Christ, he bore witness. So must we.

Of course, standing here we know that the lightning burns as well as lights. This martyrdom was of alcohol-stinking breath, of grunts of effort, of splashing blood and brain, of groans and cries, of emptying bowels and bladder, of all the crudity and intense indignity of violent death.

But while we must let our hearts be moved for him – as for, even more, the martyrs of today around the world, unknown, un-canonised, un-pilgrimed – so also we must not let that be all. What of our own martyrdom, our witness to the light?

Here above all, in this place, the Spirit asks for the risk-taking, light-shining, heart-lifting beauty that is completed in true discipleship. We are to witness as those who know the path, trust the way, and anticipate the joy.

Read more
Archbishop of Canterbury's Christmas sermon 


Back · Back to top