The Coventry Carol: An Advent Meditation

Art by Gayla Irwin, gaylairwin.com

Some people, like me, love Christmas music because the sounds are so familiar and comforting. We know them like the back of our hand, and we think they are beautiful. Others, understandably, feel differently. Christmas music and its repetition each year are grating. Either attitude can sometimes obscure the meanings and feelings of the song. So, to shake you out of whichever category you fall into, I chose a song for this week that most of us aren’t singing on a regular basis, and that certainly is not playing in the mall at any point anywhere in America. It’s a song that is basically the opposite of Let It Snow or any other holly, jolly holiday song. It’s the haunting, weird, unsettling Coventry Carol. 

The song, originally from the fifteenth or sixteenth century, consists of the lullabies of the mothers whose children are about to die in the Slaughter of the Innocents, when Herod ordered the murders of the baby boys of Bethlehem. The song was written to accompany the traditional plays that depicted the life of Jesus, the mystery plays, in the town of Coventry in England.

The Mystery Plays were a longstanding tradition in medieval England, only brought to an end by the Reformation and its profound discomfort with portraying Christ onstage. The most famous, whose scripts survive today, were those that took place in York at midsummer on the feast day of Corpus Christi, the holy day that commemorated Christ’s holy body present in the Eucharist. These were plays that told the stories of the Bible, bit by bit. This how I described them in a previous podcast episode:

Guilds—the organizations of different tradespeople and artisans—performed plays depicting the Bible, from Creation to Revelation, outside, on elaborate floats and sets that moved through the streets of the towns. An especially charming feature of these plays is that the content of the play often loosely determined the guild in charge of it. For example, the “fysshers and marynars,” fishermen and sailors, put on “The Flood” at York. More soberly, the “shermen,” the folk who sheared cloth, performed “The Road to Calvary,” in an echo of the sheep sheared before slaughter. The “pynneres,” the makers of pins and nails, and the painters depicted the raising of the cross. The butchers, who certainly had access to a lot of blood, put on the mortification of Jesus on the cross and his death. Some plays were elaborate, and some were simpler. All were performed over the days commemorating Corpus Christi, the summer feast of the Body of Christ that especially honored the Eucharist…These plays brought liturgy to life; biblical history unfolded in your time and place, enacted by and through your neighbors’ bodies before your eyes. Perhaps your friend was Jesus on the cross, or your enemy was Jesus teaching in the temple…When you stop to think about it, such representations were profound, particularly on the feast of Corpus Christi. The Body of Christ in God’s broken earthly kingdom of fifteenth-century York, England reenacted the saga of Christ and his body in first-century Palestine. These plays vividly remind their viewers through their strange literality—you are Corpus Christi, and so am I. Through the miracle of the Eucharist, we are united in Jesus’s resurrected body.

Grace Hamman, “Jesus as Us,” oldbookswithgrace.com

The song today does not come from York, but from Coventry, a smaller town whose plays no longer survive. But we do have this song, the Coventry Carol, embedded in the Nativity Play. Between Mary’s annunciation to the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, the bereaved mothers of Bethlehem sing this song in anticipation of the death of their baby boys. It’s based on Matthew 2:16-18:

16 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. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “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.”

 Now listen to the song, either on whatever music streaming service you like (Sufjan Stevens has a good version, and there are several choral versions out there) or on the podcast:

Lully, lulla, thou littell tine childe, 
By by lully lullay, thou littell tyne child, 
By by lully lullay! 

O sisters too, 
How may we do, 
    For to preserve this day 
This pore yongling, 
For whom we do singe 
    By by lully lullay. 

Herod the king, 
In his raging, 
    Chargid he hath this day ; 
His men of might, 
In his owne sight, 
    All yonge children to slay. 

That wo is me, 
Pore child for thee, 
    And ever morne and say ; 
For thi parting, 
Nether say nor sing, 
    By by lully lullay.” 

See: Francis Douce, Illustrations of Shakespeare and Ancient Manners. Volume Two of Two Volumes. (London: Longman, Hurst, Reeds and Orme, 1807), pp. 114-115.

You might be thinking, Grace, why would you pick this song for Advent? Advent is not a feast day, like Christmas itself. It’s part of the church’s ancient cycle of feasts and fasts, rejoicing and lamenting, laughing and weeping. If we focus too much on one or the other, we miss the full picture of what it means to follow Jesus here on earth. Historically, Advent was a time for fasting, for penance, for remembering our shared bodily limitations and the ways we have wounded one another before the marvelous, celebratory excess of Christmastide. And this song reminds us of our need for lamentation and for weeping in the Body of Christ. 

Medieval people believed in weeping for God’s love and for the world’s sorrows as a spiritual gift. They called it “the gift of tears,” and saw in it the presence of the Holy Spirit. The medieval mystical writer, Margery Kempe, wept (or as she illuminatingly called it, roared) all the time, loudly and in public, for her love of Jesus and her sorrow for the world. 

Then, of course, there’s also just ordinary tears, the tears of grief and loss and loneliness and despair. When I listen to the Coventry Carol, I consider not only the women weeping in Bethlehem, but Mary weeping at the foot of the cross. And I think of today’s mothers who mourn the unjust or cruel deaths of their children. It’s worth remembering for us that Herod was both religious and an arm of the Roman state. I remember the weeping mothers of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and all other mothers whose children have died through state violence. I recall the mothers who have died with their children crossing the border, out in the desert near where I grew up. I think of the mothers whose children have been unjustly imprisoned. I think of the mothers whose children have been harassed, beaten, or driven to self-harm. And not to mention the countless mothers across the world who lose their children to war, famine, and disease. There are so many reasons to weep like Rachel in Ramah. 

In November 1940, the town of Coventry, the origin of this song, was heavily bombed by the Nazis. 30,000 bombs were dropped, hundreds, maybe even a thousand people killed, and 41,000 houses damaged or destroyed. On Christmas, 1940, the provost of the destroyed cathedral broadcast a short sermon on BBC radio, and as he put it, “whoever was left” of his ruined choir sang this tune. It’s a haunting thing to listen to. Here’s a small quote from Provost Howard, from the 25th of December, 1940:

Early this Christmas morning, here under these ruins, in the lovely little stone chapel built six hundred years ago, we began the day with our Christmas communion, worshipping the Christ, believe me, as joyfully as ever before. What we want to tell the world is this: that with Christ born again in our hearts today, we are trying, hard as it may be, to banish all thoughts of revenge… We are going to try to make a kinder, simpler, a more Christ Child-like sort of world in the days beyond this strife.”

Provost Howard, Christmas 1940 sermon in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral

If you keep listening, you will hear the provost, standing among the ruins of his church and town, urging his listeners, including us across the divide of years, to fight the desire to become like Herod. For that is our great temptation—we want to rule and we are tempted to destroy any threat to our supremacy as individuals, as ethnic groups, as cultural leaders, as nations. You may be scoffing right now. Of course in 1940 the Nazis were spitting images of Herod, destroying the newest generation of Jewish children. Yet the provost at Christmas 1940 wisely calls us to attend to our own desire for dominion. “How could I be a Herod?” is a fair question. Yet I know, if I am honest with myself, that the Herodian temptation acts in my soul. And it is a temptation on the lowest as well as the highest levels. It’s easy to see the Herodian impulse in the political party that you hate, or those you profoundly disagree with. It can be harder in the Herod-littered realms of history, especially if it’s the history of your own ancestors or nation. It’s hardest to see Herod in myself, in the ways I sideline voices who threaten my carefully curated world of safety, or how I attempt to control situations to ensure that what I want to happen does happen (spoiler, it doesn’t work). From the depths of WWII, at one of its lowest moments, Provost Howard urges us to reject the Herod in us, even when we have been bombed to oblivion by our enemies, and become like the tiny infant Jesus to create a kinder, gentler world. And take comfort, the medieval Corpus Christi plays remind us: he is already with you, deeper than your skin, present in the sacraments and even in the body of you and your neighbor.

When God became a little baby, he shared our embodiment. All embodied folk are no longer only his creation, they are his holy kindred, his beloved family. The image of God is in each one of us, and no longer just in our souls but in our very bodies, through the Eucharist we consume, but also through the reality and totality of his Incarnation. This was one of the messages of the Corpus Christi plays in medieval Coventry. When your neighbor that you didn’t even like played Jesus, it reminded you of how you aren’t just part of Christ’s body with the people you like or approve of. The Body is bigger than you can dream, larger than your judgment, even than your hope.

As Christians, we say we believe in the tired but true phrase of the sanctity of human life. Let us lament together this week on how we have managed to live out unbelief in the holiness of every person, have been like Herod and not Jesus. Practice waiting with hope and lament for Jesus by meditating or reaching out to a grieving friend or family member. If you’re feeling extra medieval this week, you might feel called to pray for Margery Kempe’s gift of tears as we meditate on the Coventry Carol.

But let’s go further, as well. The action for this week of Advent is to give. I encourage you, in a time filled with the fun and weariness of purchasing gifts for our friends and family members, to also use your money to honor our Incarnate God by giving to an organization that seeks to honor bodies that may be different than your own, with lives different than your own, but no less share the beauty of Christ’s embodiment. Many of us tithe or give to churches or particular ministries, but take a moment to contribute to a place you don’t normally give. Give to organizations that support groups that have faced the wrath of powerful Herods pretty personally. Some thoughts for giving: groups that advocate for immigrants and refugees, like the Holy Family themselves, groups that advocate for prisoners and those on death row, groups that provide safe housing and help for pregnant women, groups that tell people rejected by their families and churches because of their sexuality or gender that they are still worthy of love, and groups that advocate for people of color, especially children and impoverished folks. Here are a few organizations you could look into, or find one you feel particularly drawn to:

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