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Reflection: “The Coventry Carol”

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In church tradition December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. This day remembers the infanticide committed by Herod in Bethlehem, a dark part the Christmas story that is sometimes forgotten.

The Flight to Egypt (Matt. 2:13-23)

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 fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” (Hosea 11:1) 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.” (Jeremiah 31:15)

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”


Reflection

As defined by the United Nations, a refugee is “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” This means that Jesus and his earthly parents were refugees, forced to flee because of state-sanctioned massacre. Fr. James Martin explains that the Greek word pheuge (“flee”) used in Matthew’s gospel is the basis of the English word “refugee.”

According to the Guardian, there are about 66 million people displaced worldwide, and about 26 million qualify for refugee status.  Like the Holy Family, millions of people today are fleeing from war, poverty and persecution. They deserve our prayers and support. The prophet Jeremiah writes:

This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.

Jeremiah 22:3

Jesus was not born among the powerful. Instead, he was born to overthrow the powerful. In the Magnificat, Mary expresses of Jesus will overturn all of our social structures:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
  and sent the rich away empty.

Luke 1:52-53

Let this amazing (and terrifying) juxtaposition set in: Jesus born among animals and lowly shepherds but will overthrow all earthly power structures. In other words, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Simeon, a devout man in Jerusalem, blesses Jesus, saying that “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34-35).

At Christmas we often admire the gentle baby, who “no crying he makes“, but in truth Jesus was born among the lowly, fled from a violent regime and yet will topple earthly rulers. Whether he knew this or not, Herod was rightful scared of the Holy Infant, who would become the ruler of all rulers (Revelation 19:16).

In opposition to earthly rulers who use their power to exploit: Jesus’s reign is a message of hope: hope for the powerless, the migrants, the poor and the dirty and a hope that one day the world will be made right. The reign of God is under, not over for “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). God shows compassion, justice and mercy to the lowly (Psalm 113:7) and by participating in acts of peace and justice we brush up against the encroaching Kingdom of God.


The Coventry Carol

The “Coventry Carol” is a beloved Christmas carol, but the words of the carol are often neglected. The middle medieval poem is a lullaby sung by grieving mothers whose boys fell victim to Herod’s massacre.

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 young children to slay.

Then woe is me, poor child for thee
And ever mourn and say;
For thy parting, no say nor sing
By by lully lullay

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Advent and the Death of Jesus

I read hymns. I absorb hymns. I internalize hymns. I want to understand how good hymns invite us into the depths of human experience.  Sometimes I’m surprised when familiar texts give way to new spiritual insights that are hard to put into words.

“What Child Is This” in A Hymnal and Service Book for Sunday Schools, Day Schools, Guilds, Brotherhoods, etc. (1893)

William Chatterton Dix’s 1865 hymn asks the rhetorical question, What Child is This? Who is this child? Why is he greeted by angels and shepherds? If this child is a king, why has he born “in such mean estate”?  The original text offers a shocking reply:

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.

I had never read these words before this year. They caught me by complete surprise. The fate of this innocent child is death—death on a cross. Suddenly the death of Jesus becomes real because Jesus was real. Jesus was a child. Jesus was a baby. And this baby was brutally murdered.  I find Dix’s words incredibly profound, but for reasons that are hard to describe.

While Advent brings hope, peace, joy and love, the birth of Jesus came during a time of intense darkness. The historical evidence suggests Jesus was born in a militarized zone with Roman guards on the streets of Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph were likely poor laborers and were oppressively taxed to support the Roman and Jewish elite. This political and social darkness is still a reality for most people in today’s world.

Christmas hymns that tell the story of the death of Jesus remind us that Jesus was born for adversity (Prov 17:17). From birth to death to life, Jesus identified with the oppressed and following him requires that we identify with the same people: refugees, foreigners and the poor.  “He has brought down the powerful from their throws and lifted up the lowly,” Mary says in Luke 1. Jesus does not come in sentimentality but to overturn powers and principalities.

If we read the words of our carols more closely they teach us about Jesus’s humble birth and death. One of my favorite lesser-known carols is “Bethlehem Down.” In brilliant parallelism, Peter Warlock discusses the gift of “myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown” at Jesus’s birth and “myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown” at Jesus’s death. Jesus is indeed king, but does not exploit his power like earthly rulers. The fourth verse of “We Three Kings” offers the stunning reflection that Christ’s earthly life is one of “sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” The same child that experiences a humble birth will experience a humiliating death.

But of course in death there is life. Christianity proclaims that the resurrection of Jesus is good news for all creation. The season of Advent is about expecting the coming of God, the one who has crucified but will in glory forever. The one who “with righteousness shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11:4). The final verse of “We Three Kings” proclaims:

Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
sounds through the earth and skies

Read

What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
 
Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
 
So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Reflection

  1. How is the beginning of Jesus’s life similar to the end of Jesus’s earthly life?
  2. How has the message of Jesus’s birth been “sentimentalized” in culture?
  3. How would you answer the question “What Child Is This?”

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Advent Reflection: “Savior of the Nations, Come”

Advent (Latin for “coming”) is the 4-week season of the church year leading up to Christmas.

Martin Luther’s hymn
“Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (1524).

Savior of the Nations Come is an Advent hymn originating from the ancient hymn “Veni redemptor gentium,” written by Ambrose, an important 4th century theologian and church doctor. The chant that accompanied this hymn particularly popular in Germany during the Reformation when Martin Luther translated as “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland.” J.S. Bach used the tune extensively, including it in several organ preludes and chorales for congregational singing. The basis of the English text was written by Episcopal priest William Morton Reynolds in 1851. The words of Ambrose discuss the mystery incarnation—God becoming human. This was “not by human flesh and blood, [but] by the Spirit of our God.”

Ambrose is often credited with introducing the practice of antiphonal singing (call-and-response) to the Western Church.  Following this tradition, I recently wrote an arrangment of “Savior of the Nations Come” for my handbell ensemble in which one of the verses will be played antiphonally, with the bells and organ playing back and forth in dialogue.

Text

1) Savior of the nations, come,
virgin’s Son, make here thy home!
Marvel now, O heav’n and earth,
that the Lord chose such a birth.

2) Not of flesh and blood the Son,
offspring of the Holy One;
born of Mary ever blest,
God in flesh is manifest.

3) Wondrous birth! O wondrous Child
of the Virgin undefiled!
Though by all the world disowned,
still to be in heav’n enthroned.

4) From the Father forth he came
and returneth to the same,
captive leading death and hell,
high the song of triumph swell!

5) Thou the Father’s only Son,
hast o’er sin the vict’ry won.
Boundless shall thy kingdom be;
when shall we its glories see?

6) Praise to God the Father sing.
Praise to God the Son, our King.
Praise to God the Spirit be
ever and eternally. 

Reflection Questions:

  • Why is saying “savior of the nations, come” (stanza 1) a hopeful prayer?
  • Why does all “heav’n and earth” (stanza 1) marvel at the coming of Christ?
  • How is the second coming of Christ related to the first? What makes you yearn for the day on which “we its glories see” (stanza 5)?

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