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Friday, February 24, 2012

Murder in the Cathedral, for Lent

One of my favorite plays is by T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, published in 1935. Eliot wrote in Britain, contemplating the tensions across Europe produced by the rise of Adolph Hitler to power in 1933, and the obvious foreshadowings of great evils to come, not least against the Christian Church. For those with eyes to see, the paralysis and complacency of both the other European states and of the German people was appalling. Eliot eloquently uses a historical story to draw attention to the awful situation developing in Europe in the 1930's.

The play goes back in history to the murder of Thomas a Becket, the Archbishop of England, in the year 1170 AD. In the quote that follows it is worth remembering that the Greek word marturios means "witness" and not "martyr" as we use the term today. The following can be applied to anyone who wants to lose his or her own life, in any sense, for the sake of Jesus Christ and his gospel.

I'm going to quote at some length from the interlude in the middle of the play, where Eliot has Thomas preaching a brief sermon. Here is part of it:

"A Christian martyrdom is never an accident, for 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. A martyrdom is always the design of God, for His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. It 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, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr. 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, and are seen, not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being."

Later in the play, after Thomas has been murdered by the agents of the king of England, the Chorus, made up of townspeople who saw Thomas' death coming but dared not speak out against it, speaks for us in marked contrast to Thomas' pure desire to be submissive to the will of God. The play ends with these words:

"Forgive us, O Lord, we acknowledge ourselves as a type of the common man,
Of the men and women who shut the door and sit by the fire;
Who fear the blessing of God, the loneliness of the night of God, the surrender required, the deprivation inflicted;
Who fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God;
Who fear the hand at the window, the fire in the thatch, the fist in the tavern, the push into the canal,
Less than we fear the love of God.
We acknowledge our trespass, our weakness, our fault;
we acknowledge
That the sin of the world is upon our heads; that the blood of the martyrs and the agony of the saints
Is upon our heads.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Blessed Thomas, pray for us."

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