A Christmas lament

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Photo credit: Dindo Jimenez

I woke up early this morning, 6ish. I saw a Facebook post from a friend that she had posted 4 hours earlier (she lives on the West Coast) about the Coventry Carol’s meaning. Funny enough, she mentioned Annie Lennox, who is born on Christmas Day like I am. Lennox sings the song on her Christmas album.

 

And here are the lyrics

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.
Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, lully, lullay.

 

O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
“Bye bye, 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 mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay.”

 

My friend also just had a son this year, so I can imagine how she felt when she learned that this was a lullaby sung by the mothers to their sons who were to be killed. It’s a song I never really listened to or knew about fully.

Although historically, the Massacre of the Innocents was only found in the book of Matthew, and it’s disputed that Herod ever did such a thing, this carol seems to fit my mood–a lament. It’s a droning dirge over the way over my own life has gone, and over my country, and over the world.

There’s so much to ache over, to mourn, to yearn for, to repair, to bridge, and also to cast away.

I try to imagine how Jesus learned about this story, of him fleeing to Egypt with his parents, fleeing for his life (which is a little ironic since the Israelites had been there many years ago in captivity), all because some mad king wanted him dead. The weight of all those babies and toddlers, of all that grief, of all that death. How did Mary and/or Joseph tell him? How did he react? Did he remember coming back from Egypt? Did he remember Egypt at all?

I can’t imagine that Jesus didn’t think about the events of his birth during his life and ministry, of living under Roman occupation. I wonder if it haunted him, or disgusted him, or motivated him–or all of the above.

When I think about how American Christianity, evangelicalism especially, has made Jesus into an apolitical, cuddly bestie, instead of seeing him for who he was: a person born under distress, an early life in exile, and then a life under occupation; a man who saw his people treated like shit on a daily basis, a man who saw the religious leaders in cahoots with their occupiers…sound familiar?

The Coventry Carol reminds me of the contentious time that Jesus was born into, and the heavy calling that he embraced. Both were bloody. Neither were cuddly.

It reminds me of the times that we live in now, where people so casually and callously call for the oppression, deportation, and extermination of others, where we have elected a mad king, elected in part by most evangelicals who had their own “pro-life” agenda. They have their thirty pieces of silver.

So, as we wait for Light’s return with the Winter Solstice, and for the Advent of Christ’s birth, I think about how Jesus is probably one of the most misunderstood and underestimated people in human history.The followers and the followed do not resemble each other. It’s also a contemplation of my own relationship to the Church–status: it’s complicated–born of frustration, of bewilderment, of utter disgust, and of exhaustion.

I also think about the Jesus I encountered at age five. He is not convenient, nor moldable to my agendas. His tenderness is undergirded with fire, a fierce, unrelenting, inclusive love. And Herod knew it, and tried, in vain, to extinguish it with genocide.

How dare he come and bring the Kingdom of God to earth and usurp Herod’s throne. What a redemptive dare.

Christmastime is gilded and festooned with ribbons and wrapping paper. It’s dotted by the cheery eyes of children and punctuated with the contented sighs of full bellies. Even my tiny Grinch heart can’t help but expand a little at the pageantry, even without the added celebration of my own birth.

Yet I can feel something squirming underneath the tree, and dancing in the snow, and even pulsing under the crushing weight of stifling societal expectations. It’s humming in the air of the Christmas carols being sung and the prayers being offered up: the faint yet persistent idea that the Divine isn’t anything that can be boxed up or tied up with a big red bow or stuffed into a stocking.

It is costly and weighty. It is disarming, inconvenient, all-encompassing. It is meant to wreck your world. It is meant to right those eternal wrongs, to free you, and to help to see you, and others, in the peerless mirror of grace.

As you make your way through the gauntlet of the holiday season, may you encounter the Divine. May it wreck you. And as you offer up your own laments and prayers, and may you be seen and heard and loved for who you really are.

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