There is a carol whose music you have heard, but I doubt you have ever sung in a congregation.
"The Coventry Carol" is a commemoration of the children who perished at Herod’s order.
Those children were victims of an ancient war, a war predicted in the curse of the serpent in Genesis, a war between Satan and the woman’s offspring.
The war continues. It has touched my son and my friends’ children. There are fatalities, and there are casualties - such as the woman I recently met who is ready for rehab because “I’ve been getting high since I was twelve.”
"The Coventry Carol" clashes with the holly-jolly-Christmas sentiment, but I'm glad we have it. Its acknowledgment of grief is appropriate. Yet I also think it is totally fitting that, traditionally, this minor song resolves on a major chord. It signals hope. The war may rage, but
The sword stopped short of Mary’s door.
The man grew from the child she bore.
The host did sing, good news we bring
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.
The ancient foe could not extinguish the Christ. He came to give life and give it to the full. He accomplished his work, but we are still waiting for the day all is restored.
Paul and Ruth Manz remembered this truth. Paul was an organist and composer. He was also a father whose three-year-old became gravely ill; so much so the doctor gave up hope. Though his son did recover, the outlook was bleak when Paul sat by his bedside and composed music for lyrics worked out by his wife, Ruth.
The lyrics, Ruth would later say, are “just a compilation of the theme in Revelation, Revelation 22, where it speaks of the longing of Advent, actually, the coming of the Christ.”
This composition became Paul Manz's most famous chorale, “E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come.” Fifty years later, they listened on the radio to the Choir of King’s College perform the chorale from St. Paul’s Cathedral days before Christmas.
The Manzes’ story hits close to home. My two-year-old son spent 17 days in the pediatric ICU at Johns Hopkins Children’s in 2013. A profound undiagnosed disorder left him vulnerable to respiratory illness, and pneumonia was chaining him to his hospital room. It looked very grim. Early in the illness, while my husband was with my son and I was home with my daughter, I watched for the first time a broadcast of Lessons and Carols, which in fact originated with the Choir of King's College.
I was transported.
Voices in the night. Beauty in obscurity. Christ had come. Uncertainty, grief, darkness, sickness - these are age-old themes not unique to my life. They were there in Galilee and Judea. They were there when voices broke the long silence of heaven, telling Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph amazing tidings; telling shepherds news no man could invent.
That night, as I waited out my son’s illness, a deeper love for Christmas choral music was created.
Advent literally means, “he comes.” It’s the season of expecting the Christ who is not yet here. It’s recalling long years of mystery, anguish, and hope. It’s treasuring the prophecies partly fulfilled. We see many fulfilled in Christmas, but we yet live today in a season of advent, awaiting Christ not as baby but as returning king.
But while we wait, we can sing.
"Our redeemer made us glad."
"E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come."