The depth of God’s presence in our midst

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!

In the resources for Daily Prayer with the Northumbrian Community, that Elizabeth and I currently use, there is this wonderful prayer for this day:

Where is the sound of hope, the cry of the child that wakes?
 The dull, aching, continued breathing of the mother
 becomes a wail of grief, a weeping for the children who are no more.
 The silent landscape shudders.
 God of mercy, light in darkness, hold gently to Your heart
 the tiny ones we cradle in our prayer whose life was over before it had begun. Amen.


See also 


On the fifth day of Christmas: five gold rings

So today we come to the five gold rings in the twelve days of Christmas — you know, the place in the song where everyone turns into bathroom baritones (or the female equivalent), holding forth with the long notes in the “five go-old riiiiiiiiiiiiings” line!

And here we meet head-on the pietistic rhetoric about the song having hidden meanings—the five gold rings stand for the five Books of Moses, just as the two turtledoves signify the two testaments of the Bible, the three colly-birds point to the three persons of the Trinity, the ten lords a-leaping represent the Ten Commandments, and the twelve drummers drumming symbolise the twelve points of The Apostles’ Creed. Pietistic tosh, clearly debunked by!

See further at

But beware: another danger lurks here! Recently, no less a venerable and reliable source than the UK Mirror (!!) has quoted a Canadian astrophysicist, Dr Anna Hughes, who tweeted that “’five gooolden riings’ is not in fact referring to 5 literal golden rings, but to five ring-necked pheasants, aka more birds”. Perhaps she felt that commenting on popular christmassy songs would bring her more fame and renown than her PhD is astrophysics and her research in quantum computing? (Thanks to my friend James Ellis for bringing this *learned* article to my attention 😁)

Sadly for the Mirror, and Dr Hughes, this theory is not new. In a 1951 article, Ben Shahn had suggested that “the five golden rings refer to the ringed pheasant”. A decade later (1962) William and Ceil Baring-Gould published a book in which they reiterate this idea, which implies that the gifts for first seven days are all birds. The Mirror, and Dr Hughes, are rather late to the party!!

According to Dr Wikipedia, “Others suggest the gold rings refer to “five goldspinks”—a goldspink being an old name for a goldfinch; or even canaries. In his blog entitled “The Illustrated Etymologicon”, journalist and author Mark Forsyth suggests “the rings could be ring-bills, ring-birds, ring-blackbirds, ring-buntings, ring-dotterels, ring-pigeons, ring-plovers, ring-sparrows or ring-thrushes. There’s a veritable aviary of birds that could be called rings and that, given the feathered context, is what the song is about.” So why pheasants?


However, the original 1780 publication of the song included an illustration that clearly depicts the “five gold rings” as being jewellery.

Five Gold Rings from “The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin’s Ball” in Mirth without Mischief (London: Printed by J. Davenport, George’s Court,
for C. Sheppard, No. 8, Aylesbury Street, Clerkenwell [ca. 1780 or 1800?])

Further light is shed on the gold rings by Dr Pamela Patton, an art historian who has specialised in medieval Spanish art and currently teaches at Princeton University. Dr Patton writes, “the familiar version of the carol that emerged in 1909, when Frederic Austin published his arrangement. And the “five gold rings” part that’s so fun to belt out? It was Austin who composed those two famous bars and added them to his arrangement of the traditional melody, which was copyrighted by the publisher!”

On a roll, she continues, “It was also Austin who added the word “On” to the beginning of each verse. Interestingly, for the twelfth day, Austin doubled down on the melisma, so the final verse calls for the word “gold” to be sung with a flourish of four notes rather than the two usually sung today.”

The publication she refers to is Frederic Austin, arr., The Twelve Days of Christmas (Traditional Song) (London: Novello, 1909). She records all of this on her blog site, “The Index of Medieval Art”. (The arrangement by Austin is not medieval, and the song itself falls just beyond her area of expertise, having first been published in the 18th century, but her blog post contains a fine exposition about a number of gold rings from antiquity in various museum collections.)

So the combination of the artwork and the musical arrangement would point to the five go-old rings being just that—not a gift of yet more birds, but rather an expensive jewellery gift from the true love in the song!