By Bishop Nicholas Hudson
Tyburn. When I think of Advent’s starting, I think of Tyburn. Because that is where I go in my heart, and often in person, every first week of Advent, to Tyburn, every 1st December. Why? To commemorate the martyrs who made the supreme sacrifice there more than 440 years ago.
Standing on the site of Tyburn tree, close by Marble Arch, I imagine I hear the voice of Fr Sherwin, as he smokes his last pipe on the scaffold, encouraging his Jesuit friend, ‘Ah, Mr Campion, we shall shortly be above yonder fellow’, as he points to the white disc of a sun. I imagine I hear the clop-clopping of horses’ hooves drawing our heroes that fateful 1st December 1579 on the back of hurdles, out of the Tower, up Eastcheap and Poultry, into Cheapside then along Holborn and the length of Oxford Street up to Tyburn where they beheld the gruesome V-shaped gallows which would be their Calvary.
They knew what they would next have to endure because the judge had told them: ‘Ye shall be drawn’, he had said, ‘through the open city of London upon hurdles to the place of execution, and there be hanged and let down alive and your entrails taken out and burnt in your sight; then your heads be cut off, and your bodies be divided into four parts to be disposed of at Her Majesty’s pleasure. And God have mercy on your souls.’
They had come a thousand miles together, from Rome, to meet their end: here at Tyburn. This had been their Advent, their coming into their own. Because Advent means coming. They came that perilous journey in order that He might come, that He might come to the Catholics of England in the Holy Communion denied them by Queen Elizabeth. They came in order that the people might receive the life denied to them, ‘life to the full’ (John 10:10). They came as He had come: destined to be a sign that was rejected; nevertheless vital.
It is on account of their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of countless other martyrs of that era, that the Catholic Faith survived in our land. ‘The blood of martyrs’, said Tertullian, ‘is the seed of the Church’. We reap the harvest of their love every time Jesus comes in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. And it is in this sense that their sacrifice explains that first Advent, two thousand years ago, when he came into the world for us. It was for this: ‘I came into the world for this’, says Jesus in his time of trial; and he is speaking of his Passion. It was for this He came into the world. Yes, in Advent we prepare to welcome His coming into the world in Bethlehem. But Tyburn recaptures for us the fullness of His coming: not just to be born among us, not just to live among us. No: he came to die with us; to offer his life for us.
That is why Tyburn and the arrival of Advent are for me inseparable. Commemorating every first week of Advent, on 1st December, the supreme sacrifice offered there by Saints Ralph Sherwin, Alexander Briant, Edmund Campion and the forty-one other martyrs of the Venerable English College makes the best and deepest start to Advent I could ever imagine.
Image credit: Mazur/CBCEW.org.uk