Coventry Carol

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The typical nativity scene includes Mary, Joseph, Jesus, shepherds, and Magi – not to mention a cow, a few sheep, and perhaps a humble-looking donkey.

One prominent character in the original Christmas accounts, however, never makes the cut. 

That would be King Herod.  Or as he liked to call himself, Herod the Great. 

The man who ruled Israel for almost 40 years, and who happened to be on the throne when Jesus came into the world, is the Dr. Evil of the Christmas narratives.   
 Herod was a monster.  He had 10 or 11 wives (apparently it’s possible to lose count), and in a suspicious rage ordered the execution of Mariamne, the only one he seems to have loved.  He also ordered the violent deaths of one of his mothers-in-law, two brothers-in-law, an uncle, and even his old barber, who had quietly spoken up on their behalf.  Herod demanded the executions of three of his sons, propelled by the fear that they were trying to grab the throne a bit prematurely.   

Caesar Augustus once said, with disgust:  “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”  Caesar figured that since Herod was half-Jewish, a pig was more likely to avoid slaughter than his own children.

Herod was grimly realistic about public perceptions.  His subjects despised him because of his deficient Jewish genealogy.  His Roman overlords despised him because he wasn’t sufficiently Gentile.  As his death approached, Herod arranged for the incarceration of 70 esteemed public leaders.  He ordered they be killed immediately after his demise.  That way, he concluded, at least a few people would shed tears on the day of his death.  At the last minute the reckless plan was subverted by a compassionate official.   

We know from the Gospel of Matthew that Herod was sufficiently paranoid about reports that a new “king of Israel” had been born in Bethlehem that he ordered the extermination of every male two years and younger in the vicinity.  Because Joseph was warned in a dream to flee with his family, Jesus narrowly escaped the sword.

But other children did not.  Historians guess that the “slaughter of the innocents” may have taken as many as a dozen young lives. 

All of this is background to one of the most poignant Christmas carols. 

The Coventry Carol, written sometime in the 1300s in England, is a lullaby sung by the mothers of the doomed children.  The oldest copy of the lyrics dates to 1534 – midway through the reign of Henry VIII.  The “bye-byes” of the mothers are heartbreaking:

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child, bye bye, lully, 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 sing, “Bye bye, lully, lullay”?

Herod the king, in his raging, chargèd 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.”

Here’s a prayerful rendition by Anuna, an Irish choral ensemble that strives to keep ancient and medieval music alive. 

Christmas is the only holy day that is also a secular holiday.  The culture at large is captivated by the joys of December 25.  Those who shrug off the spiritual implications of Jesus’ birth are often more than willing to borrow the angels’ promise of peace on earth, and to share in the market’s passion for gift-giving.  As a secular holiday, Christmas is supposed to bring smiles. 

But the Coventry Carol is a reminder that Jesus came into a world that can break our hearts. 

That struck home once again when the famous Coventry Cathedral, where the carol had been performed for centuries, was almost obliterated by Nazi bombers during World War II, as seen in the image above.

One day God will set everything right.  But that day has not yet come.  Until then, some of our songs will be in minor keys.

For Herod, think how things might have been different.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if carolers came to our front door every December singing about the king who was wise enough to yield his throne and his own heart to the true King, who was born in Bethlehem? 

Herod declined that opportunity.

But you and I can still say yes.

And we can add our voices to those who yearn to teach the world a new tune.