Apart from the few cheesy holiday songs which make me want to rend my garments Old Testament-style, I love Christmas music. Once I start to consistently hear these tunes playing in stores and on my car radio and at home, I begin to believe that Christmas really is coming again, which brings on warm feelings of happiness and goodwill toward all.
One of the most moving and haunting Christmas songs is the “Coventry Carol.” It’s an old English tune, dating way back to the 16th century. It was originally performed in Coventry, England as a part of their nativity play. In the song, we hear the voices of mothers singing a lullaby to their baby boys who King Herod sentenced to die after the Wise Men stopped off in Jerusalem on their way to follow the star. After the visitors saw Jesus, worshipped Him, and gave him gifts, the Wise Men (or Magi) were told in a dream to go home a different way, avoiding Herod.
After the visit of these Wise Men, an angel appeared to Joseph and told him to leave right away. “Get up! Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” The song picks up the story in Matthew 2:16: “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.”
When you stop and listen to the grieving mothers’ words and hear their plaintive tune in the Coventry Carol, your heart breaks along with them. “Lully, lullah, thou little tiny child/Bye bye, lully, lully.” No doubt these lines were inspired by Matthew’s reference to a prediction by the Prophet Jeremiah: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” It’s hard to imagine a more tragic scene.
Though the carol had been around for centuries, the song grew in popularity after it was sung on Christmas Day in 1940 on a live broadcast by the BBC. The broadcast came just six weeks after the industrial city of Coventry was bombed by the German forces, demolishing the city’s cathedral. The destruction of the city was so complete that the chief Nazi propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, coined the term “coventried” to describe future attacks with a similar level of devastation.
Coventry was targeted by the German forces multiple times due to their munitions factories. A few months before the attack which reduced the cathedral to ruins, a lieutenant named Sandy Campbell came to take care of an unexploded bomb which had fallen at a factory formerly used to make motorcycles. Realizing that the bomb was fitted with a device to delay its detonation, Campbell made plans to move the bomb to a safer site. During transport, he lay next to the explosive device so that he could hear if the inner workings made a different kind of ticking sound, giving him the chance to tell the driver and the others who were helping move the bomb so they could get to safety.
It's hard to focus on these stories of ruthless devastation and cold-blooded murder, especially during a season when we’d rather think about wrapped presents and twinkling lights and toy-making elves. But even during Christmastime, we see the consequences of sin and arrogance. Thousands of years may have passed between these stories but they ring true with similar notes of wicked selfishness, and the unfortunate consequences meted out on the innocent. All of this destruction points to our need for a Savior, someone to volunteer to lay down his life and position himself next to a ticking bomb. The world needed him during Herod’s reign, and we still need Him today.