The Slaughter Of the Innocents
By Rick Marschall
Special to ASSIST News Service
SWARTZ CREEK MI (ANS) -- One of the most beautiful lullabies anyone has heard or sung is known as the Coventry Carol. A mother’s song to her child, its lyrics from the late Medieval era remind us of Olde English, when the presence of French still sweetened the tongue: “By by, lully, lullay,” its comforting choruses end.
It is soothing but eerily compelling, and even mysterious. Certainly, melancholia is a part of its appeal. Why? A lullaby (note the common roots with the comforting words of the chorus), identified with Christmas? Sad? Its tune, especially its oddly modern harmonies and dissonance, seems to transcend the ages.
In truth, no matter how re-purposed by contemporary performers or loving mothers at children’s bedtimes, the Coventry Carol is indeed melancholy: it was meant to solemnly memorialize an event full of sorrow, dread, and grief. The song imagines the lament of a mother protecting her child about to be slaughtered by soldiers of King Herod. As recorded in the Book of Matthew, the Roman-appointed ruler of Palestine was aware of the Wise Men’s prophecy that the King of the Jews would be born in Bethlehem… and that they had warned Joseph to hide the Child of Mary as a precaution against a cruel ruler’s deadly intentions. All this fulfilled Old Testament prophecies (Jesus’ parents fled with Him to Egypt).
In Herod’s bloodlust, and in fear that another king of the Jews would be his rival, he decreed that male babies under the age of one in Judea should be killed. Precise history or legend, this became known as the Slaughter of the Innocents or the Massacre, or Martyrdom, of the Holy Innocents.
In annual Christmas programs during the Middle Ages, Nativity plays akin to Passion plays of another time in the church calendar were performed in many chapels and towns. In Coventry, England, the Guild of Shearmen and Tailors between the late 1300s and the late 1500s traditionally staged Nativity plays. One Robert Croo is tentatively ascribed as the author; the tune’s origins are unknown. It became a day of observance, an event in the church calendar, of profound significance, a call to introspection -- and is similar to many other spiritually momentous holidays (holy days) that our contemporary world scarcely recognizes any more.
But here we are: the “Innocents’ Day,” sometimes called Childermass -- following Christmass -- was celebrated around this time. December 27 for many of the ancient churches in the Middle East, the ancient rites of the Syriacs, Chaldeans, Maronites, Syrians. December 28 is the traditional observance date of the Roman Catholic church, the Lutheran and Evangelic churches, and the Church of England. Eastern rites, most of the Orthodox churches, celebrate the day on December 29. In a German tradition of that time, youngsters exchanged roles with adult clergy and teachers on Childermass; sometimes students for the priesthood presided over worship services, with clergy in the pews.
My purpose today, however, is not to open our eyes to obscure or neglected history, despite its fascinating features or appealing music (please click the link, below, to a haunting performance). It is to have a look around us, not just back in time.
We are reminded that all the aspects of Christ’s Birth were not unalloyed joy. The birth pangs of Mary were prophesied in Scripture, even from the Garden... but the purport was not solely one mother’s labor. The Bible addressed the difficulties attendant to the coming Messiah’s birth... and, indeed, His life, ministry, rejection, betrayal, and death. Yes, the Resurrection was foretold, but His life would not be one without pain and suffering, clearly. The same is foretold of believers like you and me: a startling prediction, but also a challenging warning.
Jesus, centuries before His Birth, was identified as a Man of Sorrows.
And many of the sorrows occurred around Him, and because of Him -- such as the Slaughter of the Innocents -- are a sorrowful side of this King’s incarnation. This truth, infrequently recognized in today’s churches where clapping, hopping, smiling, and colorful banners predominate... is still truth. Joy is ours, and we rejoice at the reality of God-with-us, and the peace that is to come; but we need to remember that there is much that is serious about Christianity.
To be a Christ-follower -- to go where He leads today -- sometimes obliges us to be grim. Holy, but grim. The stakes are high. His church, our civilization, the heritage we share, our families and children, the well-being of fellow Christians around the world, are in serious jeopardy. I am not being pessimistic; I am being realistic. I read my Bible.
The Slaughter of the Innocents continues today -- the evil world’s gift that keeps on taking, to coin a phrase. Yes, we can look to adults who are being persecuted and martyred for their faith, and we can see them as Children of God, which they are. But let us here remember the children. We start (but sadly do not end) with the slaughter that is abortion. Some children can at least protest or cry out, but millions and millions of the innocent unborn are massacred in routine fashion.
The young girls in Nigeria who were kidnapped and violated because they were Christian… schoolchildren who were massacred by Muslims for not following Mohammed... the children in East Asia who are imprisoned or executed when they refuse to renounce Christ. I could detail places and dates, but you see the headlines. Please read the stories, not just the headlines; and pray. May God forgive us as a nation for not condemning our government -- our selves -- for condoning such atrocities.
Permit me to list a few more latter-day slaughters of innocents in our own land: youngsters reared in a society that virtually outlaws Christian expressions of belief and faith... children no longer allowed publicly to pray or have Bibles in schools... classrooms that discuss bizarre sex and secular scientific theories but ban Christian viewpoints... the bombardment of worldly, even deviant, lifestyles from every corner of the “entertainment” media... the apostasy and heresies of many churches themselves, who ought to be children’s first responders...
I could go on. We all know it. Our children’s minds and souls are threatened with hideous slaughter. And sometimes, for the cause of their consciences and the Kingdom of Christ, they also are physically massacred. In the Year of Our Lord 2014.
Can we sing with the mothers of the Coventry Carol: “Lully lullay, thou little tiny child, By by lully lullay. That woe is me, poor child, for thee; And ever mourn and pray, For thy parting, neither say nor sing, By by lully lullay.” Can we identify? Can we do more, beyond singing and praying?
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A performance of the ancient carol in the ancient chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, England, by a youth choir.
Click: The Coventry Carol