'Murder in the Cathedral' is a meditation on the meaning of Christian martyrdom.
Imagine yourself sitting in a cathedral on Christmas Day, hearing your bishop speaking not only about the birth of Jesus but also about death. A lot about death. The dissonance is palpable. The Gospel reading is replete with joyful images: a newborn child, choirs of angels, excited shepherds running toward the scene of the blessed event, new hope for the world.
But your preacher seems to be obsessed with the other end of life as well. Granted, there is some hint in the Gospel’s Nativity narratives that the reason for this birth is for suffering and death—on a cross. One of the Wise Men brings the gift of myrrh “for his burial.” Your bishop takes up this theme, noting the paradox that Christmas is a day both of mourning and rejoicing.
Then, he drops a bombshell. In noting that the feast of the Nativity is followed right away by the memorial of the first saint to give his life as a witness for Christ, he himself tells the congregation that he may very well join the company of martyrs, very soon.
“It is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr,” he says.
That is, in fact, what happens in T. S. Eliot’s verse play Murder in the Cathedral. The play is about the assassination of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, on December 29, 1170. The action takes place over the course of December of that year, from Thomas’ return from exile until his death. But the highlight is a Christmas morning sermon he gives in the Canterbury cathedral. The play’s entire interlude is simply his sermon.
“Whenever Mass is said,” he instructs his people, “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.”
He also admits that it might strike some people as strange that just a day after Christmas, Christians recall the death of one of the first followers of Christ, St. 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 one, 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.”
The last part of the play sees the murder of the archbishop, who knew that he would soon have to give his life. We can imagine that as he faced his assassins and resisted his own priests’ call to protect himself, he was strengthened by his own meditation on the meaning of martyrdom on Christmas Day.