Having overheard someone questioning why Coventry Carol was included in our church's Lessons and Carols service earlier this month, I knew it was time to reprise our story of why this song of immeasurable grief belongs in this season of festive joy.

Coventry Carol is an ancient song that tells a story almost as old as Christmas. The events take place sometime after the birth of Christ—after the arrival of the Wise Men, from whom King Herod learns of the birth of a potential rival, and decides to do what kings were wont to do to rivals: kill him. Don't know which baby boy is the threat? No problem, just kill them all.

This song is a lament, a lullaby of the mothers of Bethlehem, whose baby boys would be killed in what came to be called the Massacre of the Innocents. (Jesus escaped, Joseph having been warned in a dream to get out of Dodge; the others are considered the first Christian martyrs—people whose association with Jesus led to their deaths.)

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters two, 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 young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and may,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay

Why sing such a gloomy song at Christmas?

Several reasons, maybe. Chief of which is that the Christian Christmas is not like the secular Christmas. It is, indeed, "tidings of great joy," but it is complicated, messy, profound, anything but simplistic and lighthearted. It breaks into the midst of a broken world, and even Jesus' escape from death here is only a short reprieve. There's more to Christmas than the joy of new birth, or even "peace on earth, good will to men." We have to tell the whole story.


Twenty years ago, as the world was beginning in earnest to "ring out the tidings of good cheer," our firstborn daughter gave birth to our first grandchild.

Isaac lived two days.

It was in that season of unspeakable grief that the haunting Coventry Carol touched me as none other could. Frankly, I could not handle all the happy songs about a newborn baby boy; with Coventry Carol I felt merged into an ancient and universal grief, the grief that made Christmas necessary

Until the Day when all is set right, there will be pain and grief that won't go away just because the calendar says it's December. The last few years, especially, have wounded us all and broken not a few. This reminder that the First Christmas was not a facile Peace on Earth and Joy to the World, and that the first Christian martyrs were Jewish children, is for all whose pain threatens to overwhelm them.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, December 23, 2022 at 8:30 am | Edit
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Comments

Well said. Certainly, I would never question Coventry Carol. I too find it an important part of the Christmas story.



Posted by Grace Kone on Friday, December 23, 2022 at 9:38 am

Amen



Posted by Kathy Lewis on Friday, December 23, 2022 at 12:45 pm

One of my long-beloved pieces. Since I know your family, so well, it is always with joy and pain I remember the journey of your first grandchild. I thought of him last night, as I looked over the faces of Christmas Eve and your grandchildren gleaming back, I thought of Isaac, too. I watched as Jon guided Jeremiah through each Carol, but Jeremiah knew every Carol and every verse. Grace peered out at the goings-on, so interested in everything, Noah and Faith made those handbells RING OUT with such joy. Your family is a Blessing, every single one, as they all helped to put the bells and tables away, following the service. Glory Hallelujah! Have a Merry Christmas!



Posted by Nancy Steen on Sunday, December 25, 2022 at 7:47 am

Thank you, Nancy!



Posted by SursumCorda on Sunday, December 25, 2022 at 2:34 pm
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