… Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in his Cathedral in Canterbury.” So writes eyewitness and chronicler, William FitzStephen. Yes, this date means more than the “five gold rings” of the song.
In my homily this morning, I reflected on Thomas’s Christmas sermon as imagined by T.S.Eliot in his play, Murder in the Cathedral.
Following Mass this morning, I watched the excellent 2005 BBC Documentary on St. Thomas Becket and the history of the Canterbury Cathedral. I learned a lot, and I highly recommend it — an hour well spent, especially compared to almost any other diversion you might be tempted to waste time with on TV.
Probing a bit, I found an English translation of FitzStephen’s Life of St. Thomas Becket. Actually, it’s in two parts, both available online. The first part, translated by Rev. Leo Gurde. OSB, recounts Thomas’s life up to his exile; the second part, translated by Sr. Mary Aelred Sinclair, SHCJ, recounts his exile and events leading up to his death. Unlike most historical figures, especially saints, Thomas’s life and death are unusually well documented. There are many contemporary biographical accounts, but the one by William FitzStephens, his personal secretary, is the most detailed for FitzStephens was an eyewitness to all the events he narrates.
The Christmas sermon, upon which Eliot elaborates, is found on page 73 of the second part. Here it is:
Before the high Mass which he himself sang on the feast day [Christmas 1170], he preached to the people a beautiful sermon, dwelling long on the text, “Peace on earth to men of good will.” And when he was speaking of the holy fathers of the Church of Canterbury, of those who had been confessors of the faith, he remarked that they had one martyr Archbishop, St. Elphege [martyred by the Danes in 1012], and it was possible that they might have another there in a short time.
The identification of the day of Thomas’s murder as the Fifth Day of Christmas, thus December 29, is on Page 76.
The sermon as expanded by T.S. Eliot is a beautiful meditation on the meaning of the Incarnation in view of the mystery of death and martyrdom, and the essential connection between the two. It is worth quoting in its entirety.
Dear children of God, my sermon this Christmas morning will be a very short one. I wish only that you should meditate in your hearts the deep meaning and mystery of our masses of Christmas Day. For whenever Mass is said, we re-enact the Passion and Death of Our Lord; and on this Christmas Day we do this in celebration of His Birth. So that at the same moment we rejoice in His coming for the salvation of men, and offer again to God His Body and Blood in sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. It was in this same night that has just passed, that a multitude of the heavenly host appeared before the shepherds at Bethlehem, saying ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will’; at this same time of all the year that we celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross. Beloved, as the World sees, this is to behave in a strange fashion. For who in the World will both mourn and rejoice at once and for the same reason? For either joy will be overborne by mourning, or mourning will be cast out by joy; so it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason. Now think for a moment about the meaning of this word ‘peace.’ Does it seem strange to you that the angels should have announced Peace, when ceaselessly the world has been stricken with War and the fear of War? Does it seem to you that the angelic voices were mistaken, and that the promise was a disappointment and a cheat?
Reflect now, how Our Lord Himself spoke of Peace. He said to His disciples, ‘My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.’ Did He mean peace as we think of it: the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbours, the barons at peace with the King, the householder counting over his peaceful gains, the swept hearth, his best wine for a friend at the table, his wife singing to the children? Those men His disciples knew no such things: they went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom. What then did He mean? If you ask that, remember then that He said also, ‘Not as the world gives, give I unto you.’ So then, He gave to His disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.
Consider also one thing of which you have probably never thought. Not only do we at the feast of Christmas celebrate at once Our Lord’s Birth and His Death: but on the next day we celebrate the martyrdom of His first martyr, the blessed Stephen. Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means. Just as we rejoice and mourn at once, in the Birth and in the Passion of Our Lord; so also, in a smaller figure, we both rejoice and mourn in the death of martyrs. We mourn, for the sins of the world that has martyred them; we rejoice, that another soul is numbered among the Saints in Heaven, for the glory of God and for the salvation of men.
Beloved, we do not think of a martyr simply as a good Christian who has been killed because he is a Christian: for that would be solely to mourn. We do not think of him simply as a good Christian who has been elevated to the company of the Saints: for that would be simply to rejoice: and neither our mourning nor our rejoicing is as the world’s is. A Christian martyrdom is never an accident, for Saints are not made by accident. Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man’s will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men. A martyrdom is always the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. It is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr. So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once, in a fashion that the world cannot understand; so in Heaven the Saints are most high, having made themselves most low, and are seen, not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.
I have spoken to you to-day, dear children of God, of the martyrs of the past, asking you to remember especially our martyr of Canterbury, the blessed Archbishop Elphege; because it is fitting, on Christ’s birth day, to remember what is that Peace which He brought; and because, dear children, I do not think I shall ever preach to you again; and because it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last. I would have you keep in your hearts these words that I say, and think of them at another time. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Eliot, T. S., Murder in the Cathedral (p. 47-50). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.