Genesis 12:1-9; Matthew 7:1-5
In the story The Emperor’s New Clothes, author Hans Christian Anderson cleverly lays bare not only the emperor but also the human tendency to go along with the crowd. This becomes most obvious near the end of the story, when a child proclaims the truth that all can see but none are willing to admit: “He hasn’t got anything on!”
In the England of the 16th century, King Henry VIII was emperor and his new clothes were the pretension that he alone held supreme authority over the Church in England. For reasons related to his marriage annulment from Catherine of Aragon it was convenient for him to believe this, and history is clear that those who surrounded the king were like the crowd in Anderson’s story; they knew it was fantasy but called it reality anyway.
Jesus had a word for them, and he used it in the reading from Matthew: hypocrites. The meaning of the word hypocrite has changed over the centuries. Nowadays we think of a hypocrite as someone who says one thing and does another, but in those days a hypocrite was someone who pretended, like an actor; a person who got along by going along.
In the reading from Genesis, Abraham went along with God, but there was no pretense. Although to the naked eye he held a promise as invisible as the emperor’s new clothes or King Henry’s pretensions, Abraham was in reality clothed by God in a seven-fold blessing that made him the father of one nation and a blessing for every other nation on earth. Abraham would never live in the Promised Land but he would build an altar there to worship the one, true, and living God.
This is the vision of true faith; it is the eyes to see the truth and the courage to live out the destiny that beckons, come what may.
Born of the same faith, this was the same vision given to St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More. When King Henry VIII demanded not a denial of the faith but a redefinition of it, they looked past their earthly king to their heavenly one. Christ was their help and their shield, and it was love for him and his Church that emboldened them to expose the naked ambition of a king who would arrogate to himself the keys of the Kingdom of God. Of course, that kind of courage comes at a cost, but the same courage that compelled them to remain with Christ did not abandon them when their own journey led them up the platform at Tower Hill in London to be executed.
While we must remember the courage and faith with which these men died, we must never forget that this was same courage and the same faith by which they lived; it is the same faith and courage by which we too must live. In our own time we have heard politicians warn, “Religious beliefs must change.” Henry VIII might have said that. How little things have really changed.
Like Bishop John Fisher, Sir Thomas More and all holy martyrs, our conscience must choose. Will we be the hypocrite who marvels at the emperor’s new clothes or the child who sees the truth and calls it what it is? The witness of the saints testifies now and for all time that there is only one Emperor; he who shed his vestments at the foot of the cross yet was clothed in the glory to which we all aspire and who comes to us cloaked in a host. Ask him and he will remove the wooden beam from your eye that you may better behold the wooden beam that saved the world.
St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, pray for us.