Friday, December 28, 2012

The Coventry Carol and the Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2)


Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
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 do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged 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 sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.


Today is Holy Innocents' Day, commemorating the boys of Bethlehem who, according to the Gospel of Matthew, were massacred by Herod the Great in his vain, paranoid attempt to eradicate the "threat" to his throne posed by the birth of Jesus, the one "born King of the Jews" (Matt 2:1-8, 16-18). This is one event narrated in the Gospels whose historicity has been regularly challenged (for example, see the back-and-forth this Christmas season between James McGrath and Tony Jones hereherehere, and here). Without delving too far into the discussion, the historian in me acknowledges that there is no external attestation of the event. Nevertheless, anyone who has ever read the Jewish historian Josephus (cf. Antiquities of the Jews 15.5-7, 50-87, 173-78, 232-36, 247-52, 260-66, 289-90; 16.361-94; 17.42-44, 167, 182-87) is aware of the scores of massacres perpetrated by Herod. And any ruler who had no compunction murdering his favorite wife (Mariamne I) and his three sons by Mariamne (for high treason) would have had no ethical qualms about killing a dozen or so baby boys in a small, insignificant Judean town of no more than 1000 people.


Be that as it may, the story is one with powerful theological significance. Oftentimes in the West, we Christians have sentimentalized Christmas with saccharine pictures of quaint manger scenes with shepherds and Magi accompanying Mary and Joseph. But the early spring of 4 BCE was, like today, a troubled time, racked by violence, pain, and unsavory political machinations. Indeed, as Tom Wright has written, "Before the Prince of Peace had learned to walk and talk, he was a homeless refugee with a price on his head" (Matthew for Everyone, Part One [London: SPCK, 2002] 14). But it was precisely that situation he came to reverse.

Scholars have often noticed that Matthew narrates the story of Herod and the Magi in a way that accentuates the tyrant's parallels with the prototypical enemy of God's people, Pharaoh, and highlights Jesus' own parallels with Israel's first deliverer, Moses. His implicit point is hard to miss: Jesus would "save his people from their sins" (Matt 1:21) by enacting the long-awaited Isaianic "New Exodus" that would, once and for all, bring and end to the protracted exile in which the Jewish people still languished. The Evangelist makes this point explicit in his oft-misunderstood quotation of Jeremiah 31:15 in Matthew 2:18. The massacre of the innocents is the "eschatological" "fulfillment" of Rachel's (the mother of the Jews) weeping in Ramah over the deportation of the tribes to Assyria (and, later, Babylon). But, like in Jeremiah 31:16, Rachel need weep no longer because the exile was soon to be over as God establishes his new covenant with the people (cf. Matt 26:28).

But the genius of the Christian faith is that it has no illusions that the world in which we now live is a perfectible one, let alone a perfect one. Yes, God has in Christ brought the "age to come" to bear on the world we live in. But this always exists in tension with the "present evil age" which will not meet its ultimate demise until the baby of Bethlehem, the crucified and risen Lord, returns to consummate the promised kingdom, where God's will shall be done "on earth as it is in heaven." This means, of course, that indescribably awful events such as this month's massacre at Newtown, Connecticut, will continue. But praise be to God that he has spoken truth to worldly power, that he has met the world's evil head-on in the person of his only Son, who bore the weight and consequences of that sin on the cross, and gives his followers the sure hope that one day in the not too distant future, we will experience the renewal for which we all hope, fully and forever. Soli Deo Gloria!

No comments:

Post a Comment