The video above is a classic Christmas song known as the Coventry Carol. The carol was traditionally performed in Coventry in England as part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. The play depicts the Christmas story the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2. the carol itself refers to the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod ordered all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed. It is a lament that is imagined having been sung by the mothers of the children lost to Herod’s cruelty. It combines the sound of their weeping with the gentle cadences of a lullaby. The lullaby is known as “Lully Lullay.” The account of the Holy Innocents is today’s gospel.
Historically, Herod was well known for his cruelty. He was believed to have engineered the death of a Hasmonean prince who threatened his hold on power and had at least one of his wives and her mother executed. Fearing the schemes of his own sons who were conniving to usurp his claim on the throne, he had them executed as well. Caesar Augustus, who was no stranger himself to murder and intrigue, was said to have commented that, “I would rather be Herod’s dog than his son.” This was the world into which Christ was born. A world controlled by people like Herod.
Some dismiss the account of the Holy Innocents as myth given that the Gospel of Matthew is the only reference that mentions the massacre of the children of Bethlehem. This is not difficult to understand when we consider that the common people of Bethlehem did not merit much attention at all in a world controlled by the likes of Herod or Caesar. As such, their indignities and sufferings would not matter all that much to the historians of the time. Matthew tells us that Herod was seized by fear at rumors of a child born in Bethlehem that was the promised Messiah. If these rumors were true, such a revelation meant the end of Herod and his dynasty. Unable to discover the identity of this child, he ordered all the young children in the region around Bethlehem to be killed. We would probably rather not have the memory of such a terrible event interrupt our feelings of Christmas season, but the Church insists that we look at the total event of Christ’s coming into the world, and the death of these innocent children is not an incidental part of the story of the Incarnation.
Shadows lurked beneath the light of the star of Bethlehem. Consider the disturbing irony in all this. The Lord Jesus, who is to end his life by dying for others, begins his life with others dying because of him. His safety is assured, but his own Mother’s happiness is preserved amidst the misery of others.
Jesus became one of us and thus vulnerable to all the trials and tribulations of life. He would have to accept not only the joy and glory of being human, but our sorrow and sufferings as well.
Further, cruel King Herod represents all the powers that stand against Christ. These powers are not just outside us; they lurk within us all. There are parts of ourselves that want nothing to do with Christ and jealously guard their independence from any incursion of his will. Herod is the villain of that story. Will we be the villains in our own story?