29 December 2022
Praying at Christmas through poems
and with USPG: 29 December 2022
Christmas is not a season of 12 days, despite the popular Christmas song. Christmas is a 40-day season that lasts from Christmas Day (25 December) to Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (2 February).
Today, 29 December, in the Calendar of the Church of England commemorates Saint Thomas Becket (1170), Archbishop of Canterbury and Martyr.
Throughout the 40 days of this Christmas Season, I am reflecting in these ways:
1, Reflecting on a seasonal or appropriate poem;
2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’
This year has marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Waste Land by TS Eliot in 2022. Christmas has a significance throughout Eliot’s work, not only in the Ariel poems, but in his verse play Murder in the Cathedral, where Thomas à Becket preaches his Christmas sermon.
Murder in the Cathedral was first staged in the Chapter House in Canterbury Cathedral over 87 years ago, on 15 June 1935. This verse drama is based on the events leading to the murder in Canterbury Cathedral of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, on 29 December 1170.
The play was written at the prompting of the Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, a friend of the martyred German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and later one of the key critics of the excesses of violence unleashed in World War II.
The dramatisation in this play of opposition to authority was prophetic at the time, for it was written as fascism was on the rise in Central Europe and Bishop Bell had chosen wisely when he suggested Eliot should write this play.
The play is set in the days leading up to the martyrdom of Thomas Becket at the behest of King Henry II, and the principal focus is on Becket’s internal struggles.
As he reflects on the inevitable martyrdom he faces, his tempters arrive, like characters in a Greek drama, or like Job’s comforters, and they question the archbishop about his plight, echoing in many ways Christ’s temptations in the wilderness when he has been fasting for 40 Days.
The first tempter offers Becket the prospect of physical safety:
The easy man lives to eat the best dinners.
Take a friend’s advice. Leave well alone,
Or your goose may be cooked and eaten to the bone.
The second tempter offers him power, riches and fame in serving the king so that he can disarm the powerful and help the poor:
To set down the great, protect the poor,
Beneath the throne of God can man do more?
The third tempter then suggests the archbishop should form an alliance with the barons and seize a chance to resist the king:
For us, Church favour would be an advantage,
Blessing of Pope powerful protection
In the fight for liberty. You, my Lord,
In being with us, would fight a good stroke
At once, for England and for Rome.
Finally, the fourth tempter urges Thomas to look to the glory of martyrdom:
You hold the keys of heaven and hell.
Power to bind and loose: bind, Thomas, bind,
King and bishop under your heel.
Becket responds to all his tempters and specifically addresses the immoral suggestions of the fourth tempter at the end of the first act:
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
In the saint’s mouth in the interlude in Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot puts Christmas peace in the context of the feast days on the days that follow of the martyrs, Saint Stephen and the Holy Innocents.
The Archbishop preaches in the Canterbury Cathedral on Christmas Morning 1170:
‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’
The fourteenth verse of the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Dear children of God, my sermon this morning will be a very short one. I wish only that you should ponder and meditate 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, good will toward men’; 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. ‘But think for a while on 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 no accident. 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. Ambition fortifies the will of man to become ruler over other men: it operates with deception, cajolery, and violence, it is the action of impurity upon impurity. Not so in Heaven. A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom 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, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom. 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, seeing themselves not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.
I have spoken to you today, 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.
Selskar Abbey, Wexford … Henry II is said to have spent Lent 1172 here in penance after the murder of Saint Thomas Becket (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
USPG Prayer Diary:
The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is the USPG Christmas Appeal: Journey to Freedom. The Journey to Freedom campaign supports the anti-human trafficking programme of the Diocese of Durgapur in North India.
The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:
Let us pray for human traffickers and all who exploit others for their own gain. May they be brought to justice, have a change of heart and find a righteous path.