Posted by: rcottrill | July 29, 2015

The Coventry Carol

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Words: (unknown)
Music: (unknown)

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Note: The author of this very old Christmas carol is unknown. The oldest known text was written down by Robert Croo in 1534.

Forty years before the birth of Christ, the brutal assassination of Julius Caesar took place on the steps of the Roman forum. He was stabbed 23 times in the wild melee. The conspirators were hoping to end a dictatorship centred in one man, and return power to the senate.

Mark Antony had tried to warn Caesar of the plot against his life, but he failed. Two years later, Mark Antony was instrumental in having Herod (later known as Herod the Great) appointed governor of Galilee. Herod claimed to be an adherent of the Jewish religion, but he was actually an Idumaean, descended from the Edomites, the frequent enemies of Israel in the Old Testament. In 40 BC, the Roman senate proclaimed Herod to be “king of the Jews.”

Herod is known for his massive building projects, including the construction of a magnificent new temple for the Jews in Jerusalem. However, his was not a happy or popular reign. Constantly troubled with depression and paranoia, he fretted that someone might take away his crown. In the process of time he killed his wife and two of his sons, to maintain his hold on the throne.

This is the man who enters biblical history in Matthew chapter 2. We can well understand his reaction to the unsettling news he got from some visiting Persian wise men that they had come seeking the One who was “born King of the Jews” (vs. 2). The Bible says he was “troubled” (anxious, agitated) at hearing this. He immediately summoned the Jewish leaders to find out where “the Christ [Israel’s Messiah] was to be born.” They informed him that Bethlehem, five miles south, was prophesied to be His birthplace (vs. 4-6; cf. Mic. 5:2).

Feigning a desire to worship Christ, Herod told the wise men to report back after they had found Him (vs. 8). He was determined to murder this potential Rival, but God thwarted his scheme by warning the wise men not to return to Herod, and by telling Joseph to take Mary and the Baby down into Egypt for a time (vs. 12-13).

In rage and fear, not knowing the family had escaped, Herod ordered the destruction of all the baby boys two years of age and under, in the environs of Bethlehem (vs. 16). It is estimated that perhaps a dozen infants were killed, and there was “lamentation, weeping, and great mourning” in the community (vs. 18).

In the city of Coventry, England, in the 15th century, the tailors and “shearmen” (likely sheep shearers) put on an annual pageant depicting this terrible tragedy. Part of the presentation included what is now known as The Coventry Carol. In the play, just before the slaughter, the mothers weep for their children, and in fear for the baby Jesus (though it’s not likely, at the time, they knew His identity). They sang:

Lully, 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,
Chargèd he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever morn and day
For Thy parting neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

An incident outside of Scripture, involving Herod, is most revealing. In his latter years, he ordered that a number of prominent citizens were to be executed on the day of his death, so the populace would have some reason to mourn at the time of his passing!

Modern scholarship suggests that Christ was likely born in 5 BC. Not long afterward (in 4 BC), Herod the Great died in excruciating pain, it’s believed from kidney disease and gangrene. His kingdom was divided between three of his sons. The crown he tried so desperately to cling to had fallen from him. But the crown God the Father will give to His Son, as King of kings and Lord of lords, will be His forever (Rev. 11:15).

1) What does God’s protection of His Son in this terrible time mean to you, personally?

2) What is your favourite Christmas carol?

Wordwise Hymns (none)
The Cyber Hymnal


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