By Brandt L. Montgomery

From the medieval Coventry Corpus Christi Pageants comes the “Coventry Carol,”[1] the oldest known text and melody of which was written in the 1500s and remains one of the most moving Christmastide carols.[2] Its original setting depicts three Bethlehem women singing an unaccompanied lullaby to their children:

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

The carol’s context is the massacre of the Holy Innocents from the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Joseph had been instructed by an angel in a dream to take Mary and the Child Jesus to Egypt, “for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (Matt. 2:13). Enraged that the wise men tricked him, Herod ordered all male children in Bethlehem two years old and under to be killed, fear and insecurity fueling his desire to eliminate the child whom the prophet proclaimed would be “a ruler who will govern my people Israel” (Matt. 2:6; cf. 2 Sam. 5:2). Lamenting what happened to their precious children, these women sing their sorrowful goodbye.

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The Coventry Carol’s tune and text convey the heartbreaking trauma these women surely feel, like Matthew’s citation of the prophet Jeremiah:“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; because they were no more” (Matt. 2:18; Jer. 31:15).

It is fitting that we commemorate Jesus’ birth during the darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Coming to Earth in the dark, Jesus, “the light of men … shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5). On this holy child’s shoulders will our chastisement be carried and through his willing journey into the darkness of death God will ransom, heal, restore, and forgive us. And in Christ’s defeat of death will darkness forevermore shine like the day, bringing us all who believe in him into his most glorious light (see Ps. 139:12).

Yet, as we rejoice in Christ’s birth, the mothers of Bethlehem lament. As the dark sky provides cover for the Christ child to flee to Egypt for God, in time, to call him back to Israel to grow up and die for us, there are others dying because of him. The Holy Innocents are a foretaste of Jesus’ words, Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). God will not forget these precious children. He will avenge the Holy Innocents’ slaughter.

Can Bethlehem’s mothers, can we all, still have the courage to hope after such a tragedy? Can God’s Word truly comfort and reassure us in times of sorrow? Are God’s promises to us manifest in the Christ child really true? Yes! Yes, to all of it!

Though the Coventry Carol’s G minor melody (it’s root chord G-B flat-D) and text evoke deep pain and sorrow, there is within it the Good News. The Good News comes in a major chord, G-B-D, at the melody’s end, which music theory calls a “Picardy third.” British musicologist Deryck Cooke best describes the Picardy third, a device of Western Renaissance music, as a “happy ending” chord for minor-key pieces (The Language of Music [Oxford University Press, 1959], p. 57).

How amazing that one chord in this cherished carol communicates the eternal hope of these women for their children and the truth of God’s Good News. “Thus says the Lord … ‘I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears, behold I will heal you’” (2 Kgs. 20:5). This disaster will not be the end; it will not have the final say. This child Jesus, a warrior who gives victory, … will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival”(Zeph. 3:17)Resurrection is coming.

That woe is me, poor child, for thee / And ever mourn and may / For thy parting neither say nor sing, / “Bye, bye, lully, lullay.”

Death was not the end for the Holy Innocents. Through the Christ Child God made right this wrong. Jesus was raised from the dead and he, for whom the Holy Innocents today perished, will remember them in his love and mercy. “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5).

Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Herod’s cruelty, jealousy, and insecurity were no match for God’s compassion, mercy, and almighty power. As Mary proclaimed in her Magnificat, God’s “mercy is on those who fear him. … He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree” (Luke 1:50-52).

Hence, through a Picardy third chord, these Bethlehem women and their innocent children remind us to hold fast to our hope in Christ in times of despair. Our sorrows and misery will soon be his, borne willingly by him on the hard wood of the cross. Jesus will show his love for us by offering himself to God as a sacrifice “for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal. 1:4). And in the everlasting glory of God’s kingdom, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things [will pass] away” (Rev. 21:4).

This day of grief and gloom will soon be over.



[1] These pageants are recorded as originating in Coventry during either the 13th or 14th centuries, being within the Late Medieval Period (1250-1500). Though incorporated in a Medieval music piece, as noted by William Studwell, the Coventry Carol’s oldest known text and melody render it a Renaissance piece.

[2] The Christmas Carol Reader (Routledge, 1995), p. 15.

About The Author

The Rev. Brandt Montgomery is the Chaplain of Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland, having previously served at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lafayette, Louisiana as Chaplain of Ascension Episcopal School from 2014-2017, then as Associate Rector and All-School Chaplain from 2017-2019.

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