bye, bye, lully, lullay

Surrounded by presents and tinsel, peaceful nativity scenes and Christmas goodwill, it is easy to forget the full reality of the Christmas event. December 28, the feast of the Holy Innocents confronts us with the harsh environment that the child Jesus was born into. While this year the Sunday feast of the Holy Family overtakes that of the Holy Innocents let’s not miss the opportunity to recall the reality of the circumstances of Jesus birth.

At the time of the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph were travellers. Their homelessness may have lasted several years and involved a journey of several hundred kilometres from Nazareth to Bethlehem, on to Egypt, and back to Nazareth.

The readings of today’s feast of the Holy Innocents remind us of the most significant trial that this new family faced. As the madman Herod used some of his last breaths to overcome the rumoured ‘new King of the Jews’ at his birth, Joseph and Mary fled to the safety of Egypt.

That was a substantial trip. We know this from the Old Testament account of Moses leading the people of Israel (in the other direction) over the same ground. It took them forty years. But Joseph and Mary were prepared to make this journey, to ensure the safety of their child.

Tragically children are no safer today than they were 2000 years ago. Of course we rightly rail in horror at Herod’s mass killing of young children. We are horrified because these children had been born and had names.

However, had their lives been taken before birth, twenty-first century New Zealand would have little concern. We know this since while the number of abortions in New Zealand has declined by around 1000 each year between 2010 and 2014, in that time the number of abortions has equalled the population of Nelson (or other cities of similar size – Invercargill, New Plymouth or Rotorua  – that is, almost 60,000. Annually in NZ the number of abortions is around 800 times the number of children killed by Herod. (We know that the population of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth was around 600 people, 20-30 of whom would have been under two years of age).

To give further perspective: more children died from abortion in New Zealand last year, than the total number of people killed on NZ roads since 1983.

Herod’s evil action had tragic consequences; certainly for the children, their families and their little town. As Pope Francis reminds us in his November exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel“, It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life.” (par.214) Perhaps Herod too could not cope with his action – within a year he was dead.

These children did not speak, perhaps beyond a few syllables: (mama, dada, lully lullay…). Yet they proclaimed God “not by speaking but by dying”. (Collect from the Mass for today’s feast)

The taking of human life (innocent or even guilty) always has traumatic consequences.  However it is important to keep the broader perspective of the value of all human life (from conception to natural death) in mind: I know many people who are rigorous in their defence of unborn children yet are without guilt at their own habitual slandering of other adults. Any word or action motivated by a desire to eliminate or even bring down another is scandalous and always reveals inner fears.

In his article in The Common Good a couple of years ago Jim Consedine reflects on this forgotten feast. You can read his reflection at this link.

While we know that all children who are the victims of such decisions, then as now, are with God, we pray with them for those who are unable to see past their own fears and who take out their insecurities on the most innocent and vulnerable.

And our thoughts and prayers too are with the many women and men who later regret their decision to “resolve a problem by eliminating a human life.” In this Jubilee Year of Mercy may they know that God is always ready to heal the past and give a new beginning to anyone who seeks this. If you are in this situation you will find it helpful to approach a priest for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If you desire to experience the love and mercy of God freeing you from past decisions that you regret, don’t hesitate. Find out when confessions are at a church you can get to in these days and let God give you the freedom of a new beginning.

The sixteenth century “Coventry Carol” is the hymn for today’s feast.

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

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

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