Today is the second of the twelve days of Christmas, the Feast of St. Stephen, one of only two persons in the entirety of the New Testament, described as “full of grace.”
In his nearly timeless play, “Murder in the Cathedral,” Anglo-American playwright T.S. Eliot offered an interlude of sorts, a Christmas homily. The interlude divides the two major acts of the play.
The first act deals with the return of the Archbishop from his voluntary exile abroad. With Archbishop Thomas away, politics and the cycles of nature and corruption ran undisturbed.
Now I fear disturbance of the quiet season:
Winter shall come bringing death from the sea,
Ruinous spring shall beat at our doors,
Root and shoot shall eat our eyes and our ears
Disastrous summer burn up the beds of our streams
And the poor shall wait for another decaying October.
Why should the summer bring consolation
For autumn fires and winter fogs?
What shall we do in the heat of summer
But wait in barren orchards for another October?
Some malady is coming upon us. We wait, we wait,
And the saints and martyrs wait, for those who shall be martyrs and saints.
Destiny waits in the hand of God, shaping the still unshapen:
I have seen these things in a shaft of sunlight.
Destiny waits in the hand of God, not in the hands of statesmen
Who do, some well, some ill, planning and guessing,
Having their aims which turn in their hands in the pattern of time.
Come, happy December, who shall observe you, who shall preserve you?
With his return, however, he has, symbolically at least, revealed that Grace and Grace alone can break the cycles of this world. In this way, Thomas serves as a reminder of Christmas and the Incarnation of the Logos. Once the Word becomes Flesh and enters into our time-bound reality, circumscribed by death, He makes Himself tangible to the world.
In the interlude, the Archbishop explains to his parish and diocese–indeed, he explains to all of England and all of Christendom, past, present, and future–the eternal truths of the Logos, of beauty, and of the Christian church. He explains that the Church can never enjoy beauty without also recognizing the necessity of martyrdom. Should we be surprised, he asks, that the Church in her wisdom, has placed the feast of the first martyr, the proto-martyr Stephen, on the day after Christmas? Never too comfortable should we become in this world of sorrows, the world fallen from Grace. No works on our part can earn us salvation. Grace and Grace Alone provide the keys to eternal life. Sola Gratia.
In act two, the king’s knights murder the Archbishop of Canterbury in his church, while Thomas’s secretary, John of Salisbury, observes from nearby. As the knights hack Thomas to bits, he reminds them of their oaths to protect the holy church. They fail to listen or comprehend his warnings.
The last hundred years have been the most murderous in Christian history. As one very good Italian scholar noted in 2003, sixty-five percent of all martyrs in the history of Christianity were executed in the 20th century.
So, on this second day of Christmas, let us never forget the utterly profound depths and beauty of the Incarnation. But, let us also remember that the Incarnation also points to the Hill of Skulls. There, at 3 in the afternoon, with a thief on either side, the world murdered God.