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, who was canonized only three years after his death, really fired up 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. How romantic!
Ravens, thanks to Edgar Allen Poe, have a spooky reputation. Crows, more familiar to most of us (there may or may not be a difference) are more annoying than spooky (or romantic, for that matter). Of course, there’s Old Crow, a cheap booze, actually named after Dr. James C. Crow, alleged inventor of the sour-mash fermentation process. Old Crow is also the name of a chain of smokehouse eateries in Chicago and Orange County.
Don’t underestimate the seemingly lowly crow, however. It’s one of the most intelligent species of birds, as documented in this PBS Nature episode, “A Murder of Crows.” (Yes, a flock of crows is traditionally called a “murder” or crows, but nobody ever says that except in trivia games. Ask why, and get an answer here. Great quote from the documentary: “Sometimes we don’t like animals that have the same qualities as us.” Hmm…)
As with many 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.
My homily today.