Columnists > Soul Food

Journey to the stake

Martyr Thomas Cranmer hesitated on the way

Issue: "Beijing Marches On," March 15, 1997

Almighty and most merciful Father,
We have erred and strayed from
your ways like lost sheep;
We have done those things which we
ought not to have done, and
there is no health in us.
Have mercy upon us miserable offenders;
Spare those, O God, who confess their faults,
Restore those who are penitent ... Amen These words were written by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, and author of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. His prayers have a quality of literary beauty unsurpassed in English. When we read there is no health in us, we know it to be true. Our only hope is in Christ. Within a few years--on March 21, 1556--the truth of his own words would sear his soul and take his life. Archbishop Cranmer's ordeal began when Mary Tudor, (known as "Bloody Mary") became queen of England in 1553. She was Catholic, he was Protestant, and soon after Mary's coronation, Archbishop Cranmer was arrested. During three years of imprisonment, theologians debated him. Day after day, they argued and begged with him to give up his Protestant beliefs. In that day, if one recanted it was customary for execution to be stayed and freedom restored. At 67, Archbishop Cranmer was old. He longed only to walk in his garden and complete a book he was writing. Death, especially a painful death by fire, troubled him. At last he signed the papers recanting his Protestant faith, specifically standing against the "heresy of Luther." He didn't know that while they rejoiced over their success, they planned to execute him anyway. On his last day, Archbishop Cranmer was to appear in public to hear the sermon that was customarily preached before burning a heretic. Then he was to confirm aloud his return to the Catholic church. During his final hours, he must have realized that he wasn't to be spared after all. The church was packed as people came to watch the final proceedings. Many were moved by the grief on Archbishop Cranmer's face as he listened to the scathing sermon against him. During that hour he must have recalled his own words: We have offended Almighty God ... we have done that which we ought not to have done ... there is no health in us ... we are ashamed and sorry. When it was over, they turned in triumph to hear Archbishop Cranmer's final confession. Out of his sleeve, he pulled a prayer, and as he prayed, he wept: Oh, Father of Heaven.
Oh, Son of God, Redeemer of the World.
Oh, Holy Ghost, proceeding from Them both
and Master of the World.
Have mercy upon me most ... miserable sinner;
I, who have offended more grievously than any can express.
Whither should I flee for succour? ... I find no refuge ...
Oh God the Son,
Thou was not made Man for few nor small offenses ...
Although my sins be great, yet Thy Mercy is greater.
I crave nothing, oh, Lord, for mine own merits,
but for Thy Name's sake,
that it may be glorified thereby,
and for Thy Dear Son Jesus Christ's sake. Then to the amazement and horror of his accusers, he boldly proclaimed that in signing a recantation of his former beliefs; "my hand has offended in writing contrary to my heart. Therefore, my hand shall be first punished, for if I may come to the fire it shall be first burned." As the priests shouted to drown out his words, Archbishop Cranmer ran from the church to the stake where he was quickly chained and the fires lit. Those who watched say that he reached his right hand into the flames first. As the fire engulfed him, he did not flinch, but was heard to repeat: "This hand hath offended" and "Lord Jesus receive my spirit." Archbishop Cranmer, a great man, was broken by his need of the Cross even at the very end of his life. I often imagine martyrs as people who never hesitate, who from the first challenge cry out: "Kill me. I will never recant." Were I called upon to die, like Archbishop Cranmer, I fear I would look for a way out, stumbling and hesitating toward death, if I made it at all. Surely, Archbishop Cranmer stumbled on his journey to the stake, but he ran the final lap with the strength of Christ. Here is the mysterious power of Christian faith: That through our weakness the power of God is revealed and his glory shines through in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 4). Some day we will meet Archbishop Cranmer--free of the ashes and smoke, dressed as the bride of Christ in purity and beauty.

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