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Reflection: “The Coventry Carol”


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.”


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