S. Holy Innocents, Martyrs.14 “Never Say Goodbye…” Matt 2:13-18
It was a different time, you understand: 15th, 16th century England, in the city of Coventry to be exact (only about 40 miles from Stratford on Avon, where that Shakespeare guy lived). They had a tradition going back to the 12th or 13th century in Coventry of putting on “mystery plays” to act out the major Biblical stories (and the young Shakespeare may well have traveled that road from Stratford to Coventry—it was still a good road as late as 1983 for hitchhikers to get rides from famous British actors—so he might have witnessed them before the mystery plays were suppressed in 1579 for being too edgy for Elizabeth’s more puritan, totalitarian tastes). A favorite (and one of only two that survive from the cycle of 10 or so) was the Christmas play and it started not with Luke 2, but Matt. 2, the wise men and then our text today, the massacre of the innocents. Upbeat stuff, guaranteed to put you in the Christmas spirit, right? I’m sure it had them rolling the aisles. As I said, it was a different time, you understand… but if you were young-minded, athletic in your tastes, edgy yourself, maybe even in love, like the young Shakespeare, you were in luck…
Because these plays went at the Gospel with a no holds barred approach. You remember we were talking Christmas Eve about how no one received Him, the tiny King, and on Christmas Day we discussed how the darkness did not comprehend Him (and against which we are the resistance movement, we Christians)? Well, in Coventry, in the mystery plays for about three centuries in the high middle ages, they went right to the heart of the matter, took on the dark with some deep poetry, high style, real edge, and amazingly lovely music. If all musicals were like this even I might be a fan!
And you are in luck, today, my friends (if you have somewhat edgy tastes, musically, theologically yourself) because it just so happens that Dec. 28 is the feast day for the Holy Innocents, Martyrs. And so we served up for you the favorite piece from the medieval Coventry Mystery Play for Christmas, also known as the Coventry Carol, in a modern rendition that nonetheless preserves the lovely poetry and music of the thing (and thanks to Russell and our Quartet for the extra practice time during the holidays to learn the piece and sing it for us today. Simply beautiful, isn’t it?).
But athletic. I’ve been wanting to wear red for Christmas, and here is the chance, because red is the liturgical color for this minor feast day, Holy Innocents, because it is the color for martyrs of which we have plenty this morning. A regular bloodbath it was that Herod unleashed as his way of saying “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!” Again, not the way we do it today, but it was a different time, you understand, 1st century Judea, on the fringes of the Roman Empire and that’s the way those old kings rolled back then. If there was even a hint of an usurpation, a new claimant to Power, they’d unleash a bloodbath to teach everyone a lesson.
And what, exactly is the lesson of this Gospel, the massacre of the innocent children of Bethlehem? Well, for modern people, I suppose it would be that maybe this whole Christmas thing is just not worth the hassle and the trouble, especially if it could be dangerous for tiny tots. Maybe it would be better to say “Goodbye, Jesus!” if He’s going to make a lot of trouble for us and for innocent little kids, rather than to greet Him as our King and Lord and follow Him. Because His way seems kind of edgy, athletic, and even bloody. That cross business was horrible, and it seems to be where He was pointing from the start, pointing us still, if you hear His words and take them seriously.
At least, that’s the lesson most modern people draw from this Gospel and why few will observe this festival today. But the authors and singers and admirers of the Coventry Carol, the daughters of Bethlehem (and the Shakespeare set) took a different view, an alarming one to modern sensibilities (there’s a reason the plays were suppressed then as now). It was three sisters who came on stage with their little children to sing this carol (we printed the words in your bulletin so you can think on it a while, because it takes some thinking to get it). And the point of it, if you can parse the subtle poetry of the old English is that while everyone else is going to say “Bye, bye,(lully, lullay, as near as I can tell is just like ‘la, la, can’t hear you!’) little tiny King Jesus—get out of town, quick before You bring trouble on us and on our kids!” These three sisters aren’t going to say that. No. When their husbands come and say “you have to choose: either say “Goodbye!” to me and the kids, or say “Goodbye!” to this little tiny Jesus—it’s Him or us, because Herod’s soldiers say so!”, and the three sisters respond: “I’m going to miss you and the kids…”
For them, the massacre of their children and the other innocents of Bethlehem is tragic, but not as tragic as driving the little Lord Jesus out of the country! That is a tragedy far worse, one these three sisters will not be complicit in! Because if Jesus goes away, all real life, true love, genuine joy, and understanding-surpassing peace goes with Him. So these three sisters will pay any price, loss of earthly life, love, children, and peace in order to hang on to the little tiny King Jesus. And that, my friends, is what you call Faith! This is the real deal, the genuine article—defiantly, they will never say goodbye to Jesus!
The key words are in the last verse, but are often botched even in the score our musicians have (corrected in your bulletin). The verse that starts “Herod the King in his raging…” modern versions have “and ever morn and day” as in dawn and day I’ll sing, but the original is I’ll ever mourn (always be sad) and may (might, by God’s good grace) for Thy parting never say nor sing “bye, bye, lully, lullay!” So where everyone else is happy to say “Goodbye, Jesus!”, drive Him from the country in a vain attempt to save their children’s lives (and their own!)—the three sisters see there is no Savior but this little tiny child, believe all of life’s a test to see if there is something you love/trust more than Him—so they’ll never say “Goodbye Jesus!”
Jesus said somewhere that whoever loves son or daughter more than Him is not worthy. Here is that test. These three sisters pass. But at what price? Hey, maybe it’s not such a different time today as we think? We live in a world that says “So long, Jesus!” quickly, easily. If having Jesus as your King means trouble, loss of money, success, prestige, shoot, maybe even your lives, your children’s, would would you tell Him “Goodbye!” too?
Whew! I told you this was intense. You see why Elizabeth and earthly kings and queens suppress this stuff still today, right? I love my kids as much as anyone, and hope like you that we’d never be faced with such a choice, but you hope, you pray that like the three sisters you’d never say nor sing “Goodbye lullay, Jesus” right? For those who save their lives, lose them, you know, but those who lose them, for Christ’s sake, are forever safe with the tiny little King whose color is ever always blood red. For He is the treasure above all, the King of Kings by whose Mystery play today enacted here, we face even Herod’s sword with Peace surpassing understanding, guarding heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.