Lullay, Thou little tiny Child, By, by, lully, lullay. Lullay, Thou little tiny Child. By, by, lully, lullay.
O sisters, too, how may we do, For to preserve this day; This poor Youngling for whom we sing, By, by, 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.
Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee, And ever mourn and say; For Thy parting, nor say nor sing, By, by, lully, lullay.
This is an English Christmas carol dating from 1534. It was traditionally performed in Coventry as part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. The play depicts the Christmas story from Matthew 2. : The carol takes the form of a lullaby sung by mothers of the doomed children. The author is unknown; the oldest known setting of the melody dates from 1591.
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
Christmas is full of traditions; alongside time-honoured practices, newer traditions are emerging. Soap-operas now have particularly tragic seasonal storylines. I suspect that this is more than a cynical ploy for ratings: perhaps it serves as a kind of emotional safety-valve, recognising and tapping into a shadow-side of the season.
For some Christmas can be tough. Accident & Emergency departments face some of their busiest days and nights; there’s a ‘spike’ in incidents of assault and domestic violence; for those who have experienced a bereavement or a relationship breakdown during the year, feelings of loss and loneliness are inevitably heightened; a bitter pill to swallow when the prevailing mood-music all around is one of celebration and goodwill.
Today’s passage, and the hauntingly beautiful Coventry Carol, remind us that anguish and lament must always be allowed a place within the Christmas story. Listening to Annie Lennox’s rendition, I’m particularly struck by the way the refrain is sung: words of lullaby, yet with a dissonant rawness of tone that seems to echo and exemplify “Rachel’s refusal to be comforted”.
I imagine few local URCs make room for “Holy Innocents” in their schedule. Maybe that impoverishes our tradition instead of strengthening it; it’s something we’ve sidelined and lost in our quest to capitalise upon the prevailing mood of celebration.
The Medieval Mystery Plays didn’t airbrush sorrow out of the Christmas story. Matthew’s Gospel does not shy away from acknowledging the heartbreak and suffering that surrounds Jesus’ infancy. He has come, and he will heal, but the mere fact of his arrival does not erase grief from the record.
Among the ‘newer’ Christmas traditions emerging in some places is “Blue Christmas”. This church service sets aside jollity and exuberance in favour of simplicity and peace – giving people space and ‘permission’ to bring all that they are feeling as they share the Christmas story. Perhaps this isn’t a new tradition at all but rather a helpful and necessary re-emergence of a strand that was there all along.
Lord Jesus, born among us, in the stories of this season we find you welcomed by a few, overlooked by many; honoured by a few, threatened by many. The pattern of your birth and infancy foreshadows the pattern of your life and ministry – and sometimes it resonates in our own lives. When we feel overlooked, welcome us. When we feel threatened, honour us. And bring us, by your grace, to do the same for one another. Amen.
The Rev’d Dominic Grant, Minister at Trinity URC Wimbledon.