Today (in the Eastern Church) is designated as the Feast of the Holy Innocents. (It was celebrated yesterday in the Western Church.) This festival day commemorates the story of “the Slaughter of the Innocents”, reportedly ordered by King Herod, and recorded in the opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel (and nowhere else). It is a tragic story, a myth which is filled with pathos, and it resonates with events in the world we live in today. It is a story with great power (as are all myths).
But this story is strikingly absent from the usual array of carols that are sung at this time of the year. Sugar-coated reminiscences of the cute li’l baby Jesus (“holy infant so tender and mild”, “the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head”, “but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”, “gentle and lowly lived below”) take us well away from the murderous acts of the tyrannical ruler.
Most of the traditional carols really want us to focus on Jesus the exalted Lord, resplendent in glory, coming to earth from heaven, so they move us quickly away from the vulnerable infant, and especially from the grim political and social realities of the time.
Some of the traditional carols take us to the edge of the story of violence and repression, and then leave it unspoken, or rather, unsung. “Unto us a boy is born” refers to the fury unleashed by Herod in slaughtering the baby boys, but fails then to go on and narrate the flight undertaken by Joseph, Mary and Jesus. In “The first Nowell”, the three wise men see the star in verse 4 and come to find Jesus in verse 5, but nothing further is told of the ensuing events of Herod—slaughter—flight into Egypt.
A similar dynamic happens in verse 4 of “O come, all you faithful”, verse 3 of “Angels, from the realms of glory”, verse 3 of “Silent night, holy night”, and in verse 3 of the rollicking calypso carol, “The Virgin Mary had a baby boy”. “Brightest and best of the stars of the morning” spends one verse describing the cradle scene and two verses reflecting on the gifts brought to the infant Jesus, but nothing more as to how the visitors had come to him via Herod.
“As with gladness, men of old” devotes three verses to the story of the men of old seeing the star and bringing their gifts, but then dovetails into a pietistic plea to Jesus to “keep us in the narrow way”. No mention of the scenes of slaughter of the innocent infants and the fearful flight of refugees in these carols.
The star and the visitors from the east get prime billing; the murdered children and the hastily-departing family of Jesus, seeking the safety of refuge in a foreign country, are passed over very quickly.
Why is this state of affairs so? The lack of reference to the murderous acts of Herod and the fearful flight of the family of Jesus indicates that our Christmas carols sanitise and sanctify this foundational story, gilding the lily, reshaping our perspective on the story. They completely omit any references to a part of the story that has gained such traction, and that occupies such attention, in the minds of carefully critical contemporary Christians. Children continue to be sacrificed today, in the course of jingoistic warfare waged for ideological reasons. The tragedy continues today …
A number of contemporary hymn writers have turned their attention to this story. Shirley Erena Murray is right on the money when she highlights the violence and fear at the heart of the story, claims that the infant in the story has “come to plead war’s counter-case”, and articulates the hope that “goodness will outclass the gun, evil has no tooth that can kill the truth.”
Summer sun or winter skies, Christmas comes —
shepherds, angels, lullabies, words recorded by the wise:
read it in the book — take another look . . . .
Shadows track the hawk in flight; Christmas now —
children born in fire and fight, silent night a violent night,
hawks are in control of a nation’s soul.
There where terror plies its trade; Christmas now —
children learn to be afraid, minefields of distrust are laid,
evil is in force on a winning course.
Child of peace, God’s human face, Christmas now —
come to plead war’s counter-case, bring the dove a nesting place,
though her wings are torn, though her blood is drawn.
Winter skies or summer sun, Christmas comes —
still the threads of hope are spun, goodness will outclass the gun,
evil has no tooth that can kill the truth.
That is why the ancient story retold at Christmas resonates so strongly with our situation today. Not because “it really happened, exactly like this”, but because it takes us to the centre of our humanity and reveals the depth of God’s presence in our midst. We ought to sing more about it!