• Chris Higginson

An Old Man's Theology


The death of Thomas Cranmer at the stake, burnt for heresy


In the dying light of day, a torch waved back and forth before his squinting eyes, from it dropped embers of dry wood with drops of oil from the rag falling onto the sticks at his broken feet.

‘Oh, wicked blasphemer’ the torch holder called out, more for the benefit of the gathered crowd than the old man before him, ‘you have sinned before God, before the church, and before the King. Do you have anything to say before your vile soul is consigned to the depths of hell, where it belongs?’

The crowd shuffled in as close as they could. As far as most of them were aware, the figure on top of the pyre was a harmless old man who lived alone with his books on the outskirts of town and didn’t bother anyone. He paid his bills, went to church, and didn’t speak to other people more than was necessary. When the black-robed representatives of The Church had appeared one morning before daybreak, dragging him away, then a few days later, built a pyre in the square and put his broken and bloodied body on top of it, their reactions varied from confusion to derision to anger.

He was tied to the stake at the waist, but no longer able to easily support the weight of his head and shoulders, his upper body pitched forward, leaving his long hair free to obscure his bloodied face. Nonetheless, a clear voice called out from behind the tangled mess of hair.

‘As we all know’, it said ‘God sent his only son, Jesus, to us, so he could die and be resurrected, thus absolving humanity of sins and allowing us, if our deeds and hearts are pure, entry to heaven’.

There was a lot of quiet head-bobbing. Church attendance was mandatory (you could be fined if you didn’t go) but it was also in Latin, therefore, the majority of people's understanding didn’t pass beyond the stories depicted in the church’s stained-glass windows. However, the fact that Jesus’ death granted them entry to heaven was one of the few concepts that had vaulted the hurdles of theology and an ancient language and into the daily lives of the townspeople.

‘For approximately three years, our Lord Jesus traveled around the Holy Land proselytizing and performing miracles, he taught us of God’s love and converted the Jews and the heathens. He was betrayed by Judas with a kiss in the garden of Gethsemane and was crucified by the Romans. Without Jesus’ life and death, humanity would be unable to reach heaven and the embrace of The Lord.

‘Dante tells us that, for Judas’ betrayal of the Lord made flesh, he is lodged face-first in the mouth of Lucifer - to be chewed and consumed, forever, in the very depths of hell without ever dying, suffering unending for all eternity.

‘Without Judas’ kiss, Christ would not have been able to perform his sacrifice, and we would never be able to enter the gates of heaven. Jesus will spend eternity at God’s right hand but, truly, Judas’ action was as necessary for mankind’s redemption as was Jesus’, and for his offering Judas will spend eternity suffering in the deepest pits of hell.

‘It is the sacrifice of Judas we should be kneeling in gratitude for. Never before was such a price paid by any being, indeed, a higher price cannot be conceived of. Jesus was part of the trinity, granted the strength and fortitude of The Lord Made Flesh. Judas was merely human and weak, like you and I. Without Judas, we could not be saved. Compared to a saint who could look forward to eternity as one of God’s elect, he gave everything and could look forward to nothing but pain, derision, and torture for the rest of time. Surely it was the greatest act of generosity ever performed by any being in the universe. We are not worthy to kiss Judas’ feet. I pray I can imitate a thousandth of his strength today’.

The only sound was the crackling of the torch. Most people understood little enough of the story of Christ that they had been unable to follow the old man’s ranting, but the few who did escaped quietly, their heads down, hands covering lowered faces.

The executioner’s response was to thrust his torch deep into the stack of dry tinder and sticks, calling out loudly

‘May the Lord have mercy on your filthy soul’, before stepping back. Once the flames had begun to gather, he made the sign of the cross and whispered a prayer to cleanse his mind of the sinful things he had heard.

A burning flame consumes oxygen as it destroys, so victims at the pyre will suffocate whilst the fire is still at their charring feet, rather than having to wait to be utterly consumed. The last whisper to leave his dry lips, heard by no-one except himself and his maker was

‘I hope my attempt at teaching and self-immolation goes somewhere to approach the sacrifice of yourselves. Blessed be the names of Jesus and Judas’.

Johannes Bestigenn was burned at the stake on 7th June 1487