Christmas 11: Upsidedown

AN01033281_001_l
Rembrandt, “The Flight into Egypt: a night piece”, from a print made by Henri Louis Basan, c. 1810

One of the more curious lost phenomena of Christmas was the late Medieval custom of appointing a so-called “Lord of Misrule” (or, as called in Scotland, the “Abbot of Unreason”). This involved either a peasant or an unimportant figure in the church being appointed to oversee the Christmas revelries. A related or parallel custom involved appointing a “boy bishop”, a child who would be bishop for the duration of the Christmas season. The “misrule” over which the Lord of Misrule ruled was sufficiently baudy that the Protestant Tudor rulers, as part of their cleaning up of the English church, saw fit to abolish the custom (although the Catholic Tudor, Mary I, saw fit to reinstate it). Yet there’s an unexpected biblical truth contained in the custom: that human rule is turned upside down by the coming of a baby king into the world who, though born a peasant, was God Himself.

As we approach Epiphany (this Saturday), the daily readings remind us of the ways that the wisdom of the world is different to the wisdom of God (expressed by the wise men finding the heavenly king not with Herod but in peasant Bethlehem). Today’s poem takes as its inspiration the rollicking Medieval song, “Lux Hodie, Orientus Partibus”, a joyful song about a powerful donkey carrying a king. It’s in these kinds of moments that I think the Medieval church remembered something about the truth of Christmas that we would do well to remember today.

Upsidedown

You who would be wise, take heed:
the king lies in a peasant’s bed.

You who would be great, take heed:
He takes a donkey as His steed.

You who would follow Him, take heed:
His throne’s a cross, a cursed tree.

You who would find life, take heed:
true life must die first, as a seed.

You who would be wise, take heed:
most blessed is this bruised reed.

Christmas 4: Lully Lullay

Today is perhaps the hardest day of the Christmas season, the day that remembers the story found in Matthew 2 of Herod ordering the murder of all boys under the age of 2. While this is not an aspect of the Christmas story that is often told, it finds a home in an old and melancholy song, the Coventry Carol (beautifully rendered here by the sublime Anúna). The carol, part of a medieval mystery play once regularly performed in Coventry, gives voice to three mothers who are mourning the children they will lose. Today’s poem considers these women and the promise that Jesus the Messiah would be acquainted with our griefs. It’s a story I would rather pass over, with my son only eleven weeks old as I write, but God does not pass over our deepest griefs, so I want to use this story to remind me of the fact that He hears and knows and is present in all that we cannot understand.

Lully Lullay

Come, little child,
born to die,
born to bear our griefs and die,
born to dwell with us who die,
weep with mothers now.

Come, God-made-flesh,
righteousness,
come dwell with us within our mess,
come hold our scars and cry our tears.
Weep with us all now.

Come, light in dark,
little spark,
keep vigil now with broken hearts.
Hold all our tears within your scars
and hold us as we shake.

Peter Bruegel the Younger, “Massacre of the Innocents”