Mass for the Feast of the Translation of the Relics of St Thomas Becket, Canterbury Cathedral – 7 July 2021

Dear Friends

In common usage the word ‘translation’ describes the process of communicating something; something said or written in one language, communicating it into another, a different language. It may not always be an exact, word for word, rendering; but we translate text and meaning to create a shared understanding between people who speak different languages. 

Of course, translation isn’t a precise science. For example, the Chinese word for refrigerator translates as ‘snow cupboard.’ It’s quite clever really. The Portuguese word for toes translates as ‘foot fingers.’ The Dutch word for a vacuum cleaner translates as a ‘dust sucker.’ And the Italian word – strozzapreti – for a type of pasta, translates as ‘priest strangler.’ In case you’re worried, it’s said the name comes from two greedy rather priests who ate their pasta so quickly it choked them.

If those translations sound ridiculous, then let’s turn to another translation, one which we commemorate tonight, one which can, rightly, be described as sublime.

The translation of St Thomas’ body retains the original sense of the word translatus: a carrying over of something, a bringing over of someone. Following his death, on 29 December 1170, it is 801 years since his holy remains, his relics, were translated, carried and brought over, from the crypt of this magnificent Cathedral to the newly created Shrine in the Trinity Chapel. It’s a significant anniversary, one we keep a year later than planned because of the Covid pandemic; but we keep it with genuine, heartfelt thanksgiving.

The life of St Thomas Becket is familiar to us, especially if you live locally. It’s well documented. A gifted administrator, Thomas rose to high office through ecclesiastical patronage. On the recommendation of Archbishop Theobold of Bec, he was appointed Lord Chancellor by King Henry II. Thomas was the King’s enforcer. But events brought about an unforeseen change.

Nominated as Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas underwent more than a change of role. He had a profound change of heart, a conversion deep within his being. The King’s enforcer became the Church’s protector, defending religious rights against those of the Crown. The tensions, at the time, between Church and State resulted in martyrdom for this turbulent Archbishop, with murder in the Cathedral. Very soon, devotion to him spread quickly throughout Europe, with canonisation in 1173, and throngs of pilgrims seeking his heavenly intercession.

Before his death, and the translation of his relics, that more radical translation gave St Thomas a new of seeing and a new of speaking. The man who once spoke the language of wealth began to speak the language of faith. The transformation of grace converted St Thomas’ heart away from the things of earth towards the truths of heaven. Without question, he remained fully in the world, and engaged with world; but with a new perspective, a new intentionality, rising from a deepened love for Christ and the mission of his holy Church.

Dear brothers and sisters, what does this all mean for us, eight hundred or so years on?

I’d like to suggest that each of us needs an ongoing translation in our discipleship, so as to be carried over more clearly into the life of God’s kingdom, to learn evermore fluently the language of love that comes from personal relationship with Christ.

The Lord Jesus sent out ambassadors ahead of his own ministry. Their message, their language, was peace, fellowship, and healing; in essence, the very proclamation of the kingdom. They carried what was essential, not externally, but interiorly in their hearts. They were evangelists just as we, by virtue of our baptism, are evangelists.

Like the seventy-two, and like St Paul, we are sent out to speak the language of God’s love. In Christ, and in him crucified, we are carried over from old ways to new life. Baptised into his death and resurrection we are a new creation by water and the Holy Spirit. We really are. We boast in the cross because it’s God’s message of love and mercy for the world. In Christ we are reconciled to the Father, and to one another, in the peace that flows from his wounds. How, then, do we speak the language of reconciliation in our families, in our work, and in our society, not just as pie in the sky, but as truth in our hearts, truth on our lips. How are you and I reconcilers, healers, lovers, in and through Christ?

Sadly, there are still Christians in our world today who face persecution for their faith in Christ, including torture and death. They demand our prayers, they need our prayers. They need our spiritual and material solidarity.  Thank God, our situation is different. But this should not make us complacent.

St Thomas spoke out. St Thomas stood up to be counted to protect the concerns of the Church, the concerns of the Gospel, in his day. We must do the same today, always with the language of compassionate love. But our voice must be raised for the voiceless, not least for the voiceless: in defence of human life, of justice and dignity for every person, of support for families and those suffering, and in favour of refugees torn from their homeland. We must hear the cry of the earth, and the cry of the poor. We must take action and respond. We cannot be indifferent to what our faith teaches and asks, always desiring Christ’s peace to flow from us and to rest on others.

In familiar words, perhaps to some here, the poet José María Valverde draws both a parallel and a contrast between the martyrdoms of Archbishop Thomas Becket and of Archbishop Oscar Romero, both of whom he compares with Christ. He writes:

Dark centuries ago,
it is told, a bishop died
by order of a king
spattering the chalice with his blood
to defend the freedom of the church
from the secular might.
Well enough, surely. But

Since when has it been told
that a bishop fell at the altar
not for freedom of the church,

but simply because

he took sides with the poor –

because he was the mouth of their thirst for justice

crying to heaven?

When has such a thing been told?

Perhaps not since the beginning,

when Someone died
the death of a subversive
and a slave.

Dear friends, together we must translate Christ to our world, most likely in the small things, the little martyrdoms of generosity, humility, hospitality, and self-sacrifice. We must be carried over by Christ from hatred and anger, to speaking the language of love that endures, which looks, not primarily, to the needs of the Church, but of her people, in fact, of all God’s people, especially the weakest and the poorest. In my little life, and in your little life, we make a difference when we speak with love.

Thank you, St Thomas Becket, for your example of faithfulness and self-giving. Pray for us, pray for the Church, pray for our country, that peace, flowing like a river, might irrigate our hearts with hope and joy.