Coventry Carol, or, The Carol of Christmas Collateral Damage, or, I Guess They Will Write a Christmas Carol About Pretty Much Anyone These Days

“A cry was heard in Ramah—weeping and great mourning.  Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are dead.” –Matthew 2:18

There are Christmas songs for just about every little detail of the Christmas story.  I figured that the entire Christmas story was retold end to end somewhere between Come Thou Long Expected Jesus and We Three Kings.  At least, I figured that was the case until this Christmas season, when I learned a new carol (well, actually it’s about 500 years old, but it’s new to me) about the one part of the Christmas story we would all like to forget—Herod’s slaughter of the Bethlehem babies.

I can certainly understand why we don’t sing about this episode in church every year.  Nothing puts a damper on celebrating the birth of Jesus quite like the death of all the other little boys in town.  We breathe a sigh of relief when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus slip out of town as the soldiers approach from the other direction, and we readily leave with them, not sticking around to hear the weeping that follows.

However, for those who were really hoping to sing about the massacre this Christmas, there is a song, called the Coventry Carol, which tells this part of the story from the point of view of a mother wondering how to save her doomed child.  Perhaps you have heard it, because I have found all sorts of recent renditions of the song, but in case it is as new to you as it is to me, the video and lyrics are at the bottom of this post.

The music of the Coventry Carol is just as haunting as the words.  It has been stuck in my head all week, and as it echoed back and forth through my mind, I found myself asking some questions.

Who on earth would write a Christmas song about this scene?  That was the first question I asked, until the song prompted me to ask the more important question: who would order the massacre of so many innocents?  What kind of monster could give this kind of command and still sleep well at night?

weeping in ramah

Some might be tempted to read this story and conclude that innocent babies were killed because of Jesus.  If he hadn’t come right then and there, the boys might have lived.  But this can’t be the conclusion.  The children were killed because a tyrant went to horrific ends to ensure his rule, seeking to elude death by pushing forward the deaths of others.

These deaths were not caused by Jesus.  No, these deaths embody the reason Jesus came. Jesus’s coming signals the beginning of the end for the Herod’s of the world.  Jesus came to live a life and die a death that people like Herod can’t comprehend.  Jesus undermines their entire project.

Jesus came to establish a Kingdom, just as Herod feared.  But the Kingdom of Heaven would be one that would operate on entirely different basis than those of the tyrant-kings.  The Ruler of the Kingdom of Heaven prioritized self-giving rather than self-perpetuating.

Still today, tyrants who think that their right to rule trumps the rights of others to live are confronted by the Ruler of All who gave up his right to live in behalf of our privilege to rule in God’s Kingdom.  Tyrants today come in all shapes and sizes, whether they are abusive fathers, oppressive pastors, or military dictators.  The Kingdom of Heaven wages war against them all.

Jesus comes for the hurting, the abused, and the overlooked.  His coming Kingdom heralds the beginning of the end of war, of persecution, of mothers weeping and mourning over broken babies.

Come, thou long expected Jesus.  O come, O come Emmanuel.

In the end, Herod gets his wish for immortality.  History remembers him as a strong ruler and a paranoid tyrant.  Songs are still sung about him, though I doubt that he would be pleased that those songs remember him as the man who killed babies out of fear.

In the end, only one kingdom endures.

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 young children 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.

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2 responses to “Coventry Carol, or, The Carol of Christmas Collateral Damage, or, I Guess They Will Write a Christmas Carol About Pretty Much Anyone These Days

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