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Rejoice and Mourn

The women of Canterbury in Hoellering’s film adaptation of Murder in the Cathedral

The two acts of Murder in the Cathedral are separated by a prose “Interlude” in which Eliot reconstructs Thomas Becket’s last sermon, given on Christmas Day of 1170 at Canterbury Cathedral, only a few days before the archbishop’s assassination. Nowhere else does Eliot’s drama come as close to liturgy.

Glossing Luke 2.14 (“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will”), Becket’s sermon develops a curious line of argument. First, he emphasises that the Christmas mass celebrates Christ’s birth but, like any mass, it also mourns his Passion. This puzzling simultaneity is a paradox and a mystery: “so it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason”.

The preacher then urges his listeners to consider why the angels should have heralded “peace” – significantly, this is the first word spoken by Becket in Act I, on entering the cathedral. During the interwar period (the play was first produced in 1935), when the population was still suffering the consequences of a world war and fearing the outbreak of another, Becket’s words inevitably had a contemporary resonance: “ceaselessly the world has been stricken by War and the fear of War”.

The peace that “the heavenly host” anounced is the peace that Christ left with his disciples, who “went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom”. Thus is one of the sermon’s central themes introduced. Rejoicing does not preclude mourning, and peace also means martyrdom. Sinfully brought about but fulfilling God’s design, martyrdom can be mourned and celebrated. The sermon alludes to two martyrs: St Stephen, whose feast is on the second day of Christmas, and St Alphege, Becket’s Anglo-Saxon predecesor. The archbishop finishes foreshadowing his own death: “it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr”.

About twenty years after Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot’s “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” (1954), the last of his Ariel Poems, seemed to echo Becket’s sermon with a different emphasis. The perspective is that of a child who will understand, with age, that the joy of Christmas is disturbed not only by the premonition of the Passion, but also by the uncertainty of the Second Coming:

The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.