Often called Childermas, the very ancient Feast of the Holy Innocents solemnizes the slaughter of the children of Judea by Herod the Great following the birth of Christ (Matthew 2:16-18). In ages past it has been the focus of the Church's commitment to protect and preserve the sanctity of human life--thus serving as a prophetic warning against the practicioners of abandonment and infanticide in the age of Antiquity, oblacy and pessiary in the medieval Epoch, and abortion and euthanasia in these days of Modernity. Generally set aside as a day of prayer, the day traditionally culminates with a declaration of the covenant community’s unflinching commitment to the innocents who are unable to protect themselves. At a time of increasing secular barbarization, it would behoove local congregations to recover this rich tradition of public repentance, solemn assembly, and covenantal faithfulness.
The Coventry Carol is a marvelous and haunting hymn that has long been used by churches commemorating this feast. It was written in the fourteenth century as a part of a cycle of mystery plays which were performed in the English town of Coventry each year. The cycle told the redemption story from the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden to the Last Judgment.
The hymn was sung at the climax of the birth narrative as mothers in Bethlehem quietly, desperately sang to hush their children lest the soldiers of Herod locate them by their crying:
Lully, lulla, thow littel tyne child,
By, by, lully, lulla, thow littel child,
By, by lully, lullay.
O sisters too, How may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor yongling For whom we do sing:
"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 singe:
"By, by, lully, lullay."