Innocents, Still

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Cuenca, Ecuador

Lisa Brunetti, an artist and friend who blogs from her home in Ecuador, greeted her readers on Christmas day with a heartfelt Feliz Navidad and a reminder of a charming Ecuadorian custom:

At the  midnight hour on December 24th, many people in Ecuador pause during their late-night meal and raise a toast to Baby Jesus. They exchange greetings with everyone in the room; then they return to their seats and resume their meal.

Other Ecuadorians, on their way to Christmas Eve Mass, carry the Christ-child from their families’ nativity scenes to the church. The infants are placed on the altar until midnight. At the end of the service, they’re carried back home and returned to their mangers.

It’s a lovely tradition, reminiscent of some Americans’ practice of leaving the manger empty until Christmas Day. Once the baby Jesus has been tucked back into the heart of his family, we sigh over the loveliness of his mother, admire the steadfastness of his father, give a nod to his humble surroundings, and go our way. What comes next isn’t our concern.

The temptation to abandon the Christ-child to eternal infancy isn’t particularly surprising. Babies offer challenges, to be sure, but there’s very little more touching than the sight of a sleeping infant, warm and secure. More than a few parents and grandparents have been heard to murmur the ages-old wish: “If only this time would last, just a bit longer.”

Life doesn’t allow for such freeze-frames, of course. Gazing in delight at innocent babes in bassinets is only the beginning. Soon enough come colic and teething, followed closely by the terrible twos.  Eventually, orthodontists, tutors or coaches come knocking at the door. The driver’s license becomes unavoidable, as does that awkward young man with the skateboard and tattoo who appears to know the daughter everyone assumed was spending weekends in her bedroom, reading.

Sometimes life hands out worse than a tattooed skateboarder. Unhappy choices of friends may lead to a Saturday night call from jail, or a suspension from school. Now and then, illness diverts the flow of life, or accidental injury. Given the unpredictability of life, it’s impossible to know what’s just around the bend. Whatever it is, it may be heading straight for us, perfectly capable of  doing in our children, and us along with them.

In countries less fortunate than the United States, the challenges are different, but equally daunting. Preventable diseases like measles and malaria, environmental scourges like shistosomiasis, and simple malnutrition lead to much higher infant mortality rates. Violence, insurrection, civil war, and genocide kill or displace hundreds of thousands every year.  

While our Christmas celebrations often romanticize a single stable, children born today into stables and barns, refugee camps, colonias, barrios, and slums around the world continue to suffer and die. They are defenseless, with few advocates, and their needs rarely are considered. Innocents in every sense of the word, they have done nothing to deserve their fate.

Massacre of the Innocents ~ Illustrated Bible, Monastery of St. Bertin, France (c. 1200 CE)

The Christian Feast of The Holy Innocents, celebrated on December 28, commemorates the death of such defenseless children.  According to historical sources, King Herod the Great, Rome’s man in Judea, already was wearing his crown a little uneasily when Jesus was born.  

Given to tyrannical and repressive behavior,  Herod lived in a state of hypervigilance, fearing both Rome and his own subjects alike.  After a visit from the Magi, the traditional Wise Men from the East who prophesied the birth of another, more powerful ruler capable of usurping his authority, Herod reportedly ordered the slaughter of all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two.

Whether the massacre is historical fact remains an open question, although evidence exists that Herod’s ferocity was real, even when it came to his own sons. But no matter how many Bethlehem children actually died by Herod’s hand, their Feast Day stands as a reminder that power is not always kindly disposed toward innocence. In every age and across multitudes of circumstance, power seeks to maintain itself at the expense of the defenseless.

An especially poignant and mournful Christmas song commemorates the killing of those defenseless infants. Named for Coventry, England, the 16th century Coventry Carol formed part of the Medieval Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, an entertainment rooted in 14th century morality plays and provided by tradesmen to their towns.

One of the oldest unadapted carols we have, the Coventry Carol retains both the original lyrics (words attributed to Robert Croo, 1534) and tune (Thomas Mawdyke, 1591). Both were recorded in 1591, and their preservation makes the Coventry Mystery Plays especially memorable.

“Coventry Carol”  ~ Collegium Vocale Gent
Lully, 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 do 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 sigh
For thy parting, neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lully, Lullay, Thou little tiny Child
By, by, lully, lullay
Lullay, Thou little Tiny Child
By, by, lully, lullay.

Understandably, Coventry’s carol rarely is heard in retail spaces during the Christmas season, but it’s equally uncommon in congregational settings. Medievalists love it, as do madrigal groups and chamber singers, but it’s not Joy to the World or Adeste Fidelis. Offered the chance to move beyond familial scenes bathed in golden light toward a feast memorializing the slaughter of children, even our violence-ridden culture seems to hesitate.

Perhaps because of its unapologetic realism, the Coventry Carol has become one of a multitude of Christmas songs rarely experienced today.  Too archaic in language, too bleak in tone, too reflective of realities we prefer to ignore, and far too straightforward in its recognition of innocent death, the Coventry Carol makes us nervous.

Ignoring reality has its perils, of course. Birth is only the beginning. Life is movement; time passes, and history continues to unfold. Herod may be gone, but his successors live on, determined to preserve their positions of power at the expense of innocent life.

Certainly we are free to turn away, to avert our faces, to imagine ourselves innocent of complicity in events unfolding in time.  But we cannot profess to love the babe in the manger while choosing to ignore the needs of children living among us.  If we can come to see in Bethlehem’s stall every child of Christmas; if we dare to preserve against slaughter every poor youngling for whom the angels sing; we may yet free them from the world’s hand, and transform their song of darkness into a dance of light.

Dancing Coventry Carol ~ Farah Canale, Principal, Anchorage Ballet

Comments always are welcome.