Fourth Day of Christmas: Murder in the Cathedral

A lot of killing going on after Christmas. On the 26th, St. Stephen, the first (adult) who gave witness to Jesus by giving his life; yesterday, the infant martyrs, Holy Innocents; and today St. Thomas Becket, the twelfth-century Archbishop of Canterbury, who was, in a sense, a martyr for religious freedom, at least freedom for the Church from state control. This is, of course, an issue that never has gone away, nor been fully resolved. Perhaps today we should pray for St. Thomas Becket’s intercession to guide us today in navigating these treacherous waters.

Thomas Becket has really fired the popular cultural imagination through the centuries. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales takes place on a pilgrimage from London to his shrine at the Canterbury Cathedral, where he was assassinated. He is featured in modern dramas and novels, including T.S. Eliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral, and Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. Wikipedia’s entry on him is fairly extensive and informative.

More birds today. The “True Loves” gift is “four calling birds.”  What are “calling birds”? The supposed catechetical religious symbolism identifies them with the Four Evangelists, proclaiming (calling out) the Good News of Jesus Christ. However, the song’s lyrics originally had “colly birds.” Colly is an old English word meaning black, having the same root as coal.  Most likely today gift is a quartet of ravens or crows.  Thanks, Love, but I think I’ll pass.

As with all the Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes, I suspect the song’s “gifts” contain more hidden references to political controversies of its day than to religious symbolism. That’s just a guess, based on absolutely no research whatever.

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Author: tomwelbers

I have been a Catholic priest for nearly fifty years, most of that time serving in parish and college campus ministry. I also have professional degrees in theology and liturgy, as well as institutional management, and continue avidly to explore pastoral theology, Scripture, liturgy, ecumenical and interfaith relations, and spiritual direction. I have a passion for sharing insight into our Christian heritage through teaching, writing, and leading pilgrimages, especially to Early Christian World sites in Turkey. Now actively retired from parish ministry, I live at Nazareth House in Los Angeles.

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