Archbishop Becket preaches his Christmas morning sermon, taking as his text the traditional narrative of the announcement of Christs birth to the shepherds in Luke 2. Becket makes several points in his brief homily. He tells his listeners that, through the bloodless sacrifice of the Mass, the Christian community celebrates Jesus death at the same time as they celebrate his birth-thus, Christmas is an occasion in which mourning and rejoicing commingle. He defines true peace in spiritual rather than temporal terms. He connects Christmas with the liturgical feast that follows the next day, the feast of Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Becket reminds his listeners that martyrdoms are not mere happenstance, but the will of God, and events through which God works out the divine purpose. Becket closes by invoking the memory of his predecessor, Archbishop Elphege, and prophesying that Canterbury “in a short time may yet have another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last.”
Although its text is Eliots invention, Beckets sermon reflects a well-known tradition: “On Christmas day Saint Thomas made a sermon at Canterbury in his own church, and weeping, prayed the people to pray for him, for he knew well his time was nigh.” (The Golden Legend; http:www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/goldenlegend/GL-vol2-thomasbecket.html). (In connection with this legend about Beckets foreknowledge of his death, recall the Messengers comment in Part I: “no one considers it a happy prognostic” [p. 16]. As archbishop, it is no doubt certain that Becket preached on Christmas Day, 1170, and it is even highly probable that Becket did indeed take Luke 2:14 and the surrounding verses as his text; it has been, for centuries, the traditionally assigned reading for the celebration of Christmas. The themes of his sermon in this Interlude, however, serve Eliots dramatic aims, and should be understood as such.
First, Becket makes much of the fact that Christmas is a celebration not only of Jesus birth, but also his death: because of the theology underlying the Roman Catholic Mass (or Eucharist)-namely, that the priest offers a “bloodless sacrifice” to God, literally re-presenting the body and blood of Christ to God under the accidents (i.e., external attributes) of the consecrated bread and wine-Becket can conclude that “we celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross” (p. 47). Birth and death, then, coexist quite closely in the Mass of the Nativity. Becket states that, although “the World” (in the context of Eliots play, a shorthand way of referring to temporal structures and authorities) cannot comprehend such behavior, the Christian community “can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason” (p. 48). This emphasis on the proximity of birth and death serves to help interpret for the plays audience the fact of Beckets death during Christmastide: it is, again, that interrupting, apocalyptic event that will “for good or ill” set the “wheel” of history turning once more (cf. p. 18). It is Beckets death that will, paradoxically, give birth to a new existence for Canterbury and its people-and, by extension, for the world itself. Beckets death will enable the world to be born out of the barren limbo of “living and partly living” (the repeated refrain from Part I).
Second, Eliot uses Beckets sermon to return to an examination of the relationship-usually, one of conflict-between the temporal and the spiritual. He asks his congregation to think about how Jesus spoke of peace; this portion of the sermon not only references John 14:27 but also Beckets own initial greeting of peace upon his return to Canterbury in Part I. Becket denies that Jesus was giving temporal peace: “the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbours, the barons at peace with the King.” (p. 48). Rather, Jesus meant a spiritual peace. It is that non-temporal kind of peace which Beckets death will bring. His death, a consequence of his not being at temporal peace with King Henry, will nonetheless result in peace for the community and the world by fulfilling Gods “pattern,” by allowing the wheel of fate to once again turn.
Finally, Beckets sermon offers explicit definitions of martyrdom. Eliot has the archbishop comment on the fact that the two days after Christmas Day are, on the Western Christian liturgical calendar, the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr (see Acts 7). Becket reminds his listeners-and, thus, Eliot informs his audience-that “A Christian martyrdom is never an accident, for Saints are not made by accident” (p. 49). Furthermore, “a Christian martyrdom [is not] the effect of a mans will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men” (p. 49). Becket thus implicitly reiterates his rejection of the Fourth Tempters enticements in Part I, and also reinforces the intractable division between temporal and spiritual power. He affirms that the true martyr “has lost his will in the will of God, and. no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of becoming a martyr” (p. 49). He then discusses the educative and even salvific purposes of a martyrdom: “to warn [men] and to lead them, to bring them back to [Gods] ways” (p. 49).
For these three reasons, then, Beckets sermon offers several interpretive keys to the whole of Eliots drama. In keeping with Eliots presentation of Becket as a Christ-figure, it is notable that Becket asks his congregation to keep his words “in your hearts” and “think of them at another time” (p.50), for it was not until after Jesus Resurrection that his disciples remembered and understood his words about his own identity and role in Gods pattern (see, e.g., Luke 24:44-45; John 2:22).
Near the close of his sermon, Becket makes reference to “the blessed Archbishop Elphege” (p. 50). Elphege (sometimes spelled Alphege, and also known as Godwine) assumed the archbishopric of Canterbury in 1006. “At this period England was much harassed by the Danes, who, towards the end of September, 1011, having sacked and burned Canterbury, made Elphege a prisoner. On 19 April, 1012, at Greenwich, his captors, drunk with wine, and enraged at ransom being refused, pelted Elphege with bones of oxen and stones, till one Thurm dispatched him with an axe. He is sometimes represented with an axe cleaving his skull” (The Catholic Encyclopedia; http:www.newadvent.org/cathen/05394a.htm).