Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
Bye bye, 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.”
I was first introduced to the Coventry Carol as a student minister at Sydney Cathedral. It is a beautiful Christmas carol, full of the world’s brokenness, and it gives a realistic picture of the world as it was when the incarnation took place. It is a heartbreaking lullaby sung by the mothers of those children killed by Herod in the infamous Massacre of the Innocents (cf. Matt 2:16-18).
As we enter this season of joy, gift-giving, and celebration, it is so significant that we continue to remember the context of the birth of Jesus. Among the many reasons why the Bible is unique is its realism: it is a balm for the soul because it is unafraid to speak about the brutality of the world and does not burden humanity with the false pretence of perpetual happiness. Jesus, our great King who came at the perfect time, was born into a context of poverty and suffering, to restore order and rightness to a world that had strayed so far away from it. This is worth remembering as we celebrate Christmas in 2021. Christmas ought to be celebrated with joy because of the glory of the Lord that has come to dwell among us. Our Saviour has come to take away our sins—even though Christmas isn’t always a time of happiness.
Christmas ought to be celebrated with joy—even though Christmas isn’t always a time of happiness.
There is so much to learn from the various accounts of the Christmas story in all four gospels. This year though, I have really taken comfort from Matthew’s account that recalls Mary and Joseph’s flight from Herod to Egypt as they were directed by an angel of the Lord (c.f. Matt 2:13-15).
The Words of the Prophets
Matthew very carefully refers to both Hosea 11:1 and Jeremiah 31:15 in this short account of the early days of Jesus. Both references point to the incarnation as the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises.
In Hosea 11, the people of God are called out of Egypt, to come back to experience God’s goodness and faithfulness. The overtones of the Exodus story are hard to miss, but Matthew’s comment makes it abundantly clear that God’s people will ultimately be restored because God will call his people through his Son. If the delivery from slavery in the Exodus story was great, the Second Exodus that Matthew is referring to will be even greater.
Only a few verses later, Matthew refers to Jeremiah 31—verse fifteen’s weeping and lack of comfort juxtaposed against verse 16-17:
This is what the Lord says: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,” declares the Lord. “They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your descendants,” declares the Lord. “Your children will return to their own land…
The Way of the True King
It is also hard to miss the contrast between the kings of this world and our Lord Jesus, who comes full of grace and truth. King Herod—for all intents and purposes the functioning King of Israel—comes with a record of bloodlust, jealously, paranoia, heartlessness and all-round foolishness. He is like one of the false shepherds of Israel, who harass and abuse the sheep of their flock.
Jesus is the compassionate King; the bringer of peace who looks tenderly at his people.
Jesus, by contrast, faced real threats but never allowed them to drive him to lash out or seek revenge. He is the compassionate King; the bringer of peace who looks tenderly at his people and sees them as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Far from being worried about who might steal his power, he assumes the position of service—even to the point of death on the cross. How could you not love Jesus, seeing how he is so drastically different to that which we mourn in other leaders?
Our Ultimate Hope from the Pits
The reality is that Christmas is the pits for more people than you may realise. Family conflicts, painful separations, financial instability, past hurts, deaths, and tears all loom large at this time for so many.
Yet the Bible can still mean joy for people who feel like this on Christmas Day. I know it can because that is how I have felt. How can there still be joy? Because out of Egypt, God called His Son.
The Bible doesn’t pretend that our experience is always good. But it shows that joy comes from having our identity in Christ—Christ who himself came out of Egypt to do the necessary work to reconcile us to God. From slavery, sin and death, we are called to come to the Life-Giver. We are called to follow Jesus. We are called out of Egypt into a living hope, where we can look forward to the guarantee, in the life to come, without mourning, crying, pain, or death.
Praise the Lord for his word of comfort at Christmas time, even when everything is not right with us.