Sunday, December 26, 2010

Coventry Carol

Today's Gospel reading from the second chapter of Matthew recounts the Holy Family's flight from Bethlehem into Egypt. In the context of the liturgy itself, Joseph takes center stage in this Scripture as a paradigmatic father: a man protective of his family and unhesitatingly obedient to the will of God (Mt 2:13-15; 19-23). This focus on Joseph is fitting for the occasion, since the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Family on the first Sunday after Christmas. Conspicuously absent from this reading, however, is a description of the horrendous evil from which the Holy Family fled: the so-called Massacre of the Innocents. The omitted verses (Mt 2:16-18) read:

When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:
"A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more."
This portion of the reading is included on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, celebrated on December 28th, which commemorates the children which Herod slaughtered as the first martyrs.

Only a few days ago, I was listening to some Christmas music when I was disturbed by a rendition of the "Coventry Carol." It was a new version, performed by Annie Lennox (of Eurythmics fame), which begins in a way that I can only describe as menacing. I had never before listened closely to the lyrics of this Christmas "lullabye," but Lennox's haunting performance caused me to pay close attention. And it was at that point that I realized that this piece is a carol about the Massacre of the Innocents. It was supposed to disturb me. (The carol is embedded at the bottom of this post.)

The carol is the only extant song from a medieval Christmas pageant, performed in Coventry, England, in the 16th century. The pageant recounted the nativity story based on the second chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel. At one point, a carol was sung by a mother to her doomed child; a lullaby to a baby who would be slain by the despot Herod. Contextualized thus, this "Coventry Carol" becomes even more heart-wrenching and haunting, echoing the lamentations of an inconsolable Rachel from Jeremiah's prophecy:

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young to slay.
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
One of the most drastic side-effects of the Incarnation--of the beautiful, humble beginnings of God's life in this world--is that the advent of the bright Light of Christ makes the shadows of this world darker and more pronounced. Juxtaposed with the "newborn King" in Bethlehem who brought freedom and life, and the three "kings" who bowed humbly at the crib of the infant God, King Herod's arrogance and lust for power are black as pitch, and drove him to spread death and fear. Historically, we know that he killed his own sons to assure an unrivaled reign. There is no reason to think that the slaughter of a few dozen "peasant children" in Bethlehem would be beyond his obsessive desire for "absolute" power.

While the Coventry Carol can be viewed as a genuine lament in the Jewish tradition, faithfully bemoaning God's apparent absence or indifference, I think it is best interpreted as a lament over the depths of humanity's sinfulness. To what lengths will we go to not give our hearts to Christ? How long will we cling to our selfish plans, waging war against the Prince of Peace?

O holy Child of Bethlehem / Descend to us, we pray / Cast out our sin and enter in / Be born in us today.

UPDATE (12/28/10): Today, on the Feast of the Holy Innocents itself, Word on Fire Ministries has published a reflection that supplements this one nicely. You can find it, and another version of the Coventry Carol, here.

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