Contemplation on the Coventry Carol

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Tintoretto's depiction of the Slaughter of the InnocentsTintoretto's depiction of the Slaughter of the InnocentsI’ve been thinking just recently about the story of the slaughter of the innocents, as I’ve been working on a new arrangement of the Coventry Carol for Magenta. I find it the most unbearably sad song to sing, but there is also something compelling about reliving the story from the viewpoint of a mother whose child is killed, as the words position the singers.

The thoughts I’ve been having were, first, about the difference in cultural valuing of infants in the ancient world from today. You read of unwanted babies being exposed on mountainsides back then – and babies weren’t named as soon as they were born either. Infants weren’t really people at first. Of course, the whole Christian story of the nativity is integral to our cultural valuing of babies now – indeed, to the extent that the debate is now about how long before birth they count as real people. So, maybe the whole slaughter of the innocents wasn’t as inherently shocking in its own time, but we are viewing it through the filters of values that have emerged partly as a result of the events it tells.

But then I thought – no, I don’t really buy that. The babies killed in the bible story were the ones that people had chosen to nurture, not the ones abandoned on the mountains. I don’t believe that the bond a mother feels with her nursing baby was any less vital then than now. It really is a horrible story.

My next thought was: it’s not really fair that only Mary and Joseph were warned so they could escape. Okay, their baby was God’s son and all that, but it seems quite an unreasonable bout of favouritism on the part of the deity not to give the families of the other babies a chance. Unchristian, one might say.

(That led to some interesting diversions about the values one could expect from an Old Testament god at the start of the New Testament. It’s before the whole crucifixion and resurrection thing that was supposed to seal our redemption, but the events that were to lead to it were already in train. So, is God still vengeful at this point, or has he become forgiving yet?)

And then I wondered: well, did it happen? I realise that’s not always an easy question with regard to biblical events, but this was in an area controlled by the Romans at the time and they were quite good record keepers. This was researchable, and it became clear that whilst Herod’s life was generally quite well documented, there is no mention of the slaughter of the innocents in any source other than St Matthew’s gospel (including the other gospels).

Now, this could be because Herod was a generally bloody kind of king, so nobody thought to remark on this particular atrocity in what was basically a small town. Or it could be that Matthew made it up in order to establish Herod as the villain of the piece, which struck me as a rather manipulative and Daily-Mailish approach – Herod’s already an unpopular king, so let’s smear him with the title baby-killer while we’re at it. Or – to do Matthew more justice – it could just have been so that he could weave a bunch of references to prophecies into the narrative. Still, I prefer Luke’s account in which they just go back home once they’re done in Bethlehem.

So I’ve been a bit unsure how this leaves my relationship with the carol. As a matter of course I tell choirs I work with that you don’t have to share the faith of the music you sing, just as you don’t have to split up with your lover in order to sing the blues. But you do have to empathise with the music. You need to get your head and heart into a place that understands how the world looks and feels to someone who does share that faith.

I think I feel relieved that I now consider it quite unlikely that the slaughter of the innocents never actually happened; it will make it easier to bear the carol’s emotional pain, which I did find quite overwhelming. But the pain of loss is still there: I will still be weeping for any woman who has had to mourn her baby, and indeed for all those people who have mourned the lost babies of Bethlehem, even if their grief wasn’t actually necessary.

I love this carol and always have, even before I knew what it meant.

I feel this carol as the haunted detachment of the trauma of having witnessed something so horrible that one can barely sing. Yet, to honor the dead we must somehow give voice and sing. I feel the voice should be whispered and coreless in performance.

The lullaby is not only for the dead children but for the mothers who need to be rocked with comfort. And ourselves as well.

As for evil in the world, the question of why god doesn't intervene is beyond the scope of our knowing.
Why don't we intervene if we believe ourselves agents of "good?"
That the Magi did not return to Herod to tell him was their agency of good.

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