The Coventry Carol [tradition/meditation]

Lament and Hope

“The Coventry Carol,” composed for the Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, part of the cycle of Mystery Plays performed by the local craft guilds in the City of Coventry (West Midlands, England) on the Feast of Corpus Christi and  first recorded in the 1390s.

I can remember, as a teenager, standing in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, following the actors as the story of the bible unfolded before me. Creation, Adam and Eve, through other stories till Gabriel appeared to Mary, shepherds and magi visited the newborn Jesus…and then the atmosphere of wonder and joy was destroyed as Herod’s soldiers tore into Bethlehem and left a group of women, wailing and screaming while holding bloodied bundles that had been their children. The simple melody of the Coventry carol rose above the scene of horror and loss.  

The death of a child is a bereavement that is never forgotten. It brings with it a loss of future; a loss of our hopes for who that child might become, of love given and returned. This year, loss has been a big part of the experience of all of us. For some of us, it has been the death of a loved family member, or friend, or colleague. For others, the loss of health, and uncertainty over when that full health might return; loss of income, employment. For all children, a loss of friends, of playing together, of being part of a group at school, and being part of sports matches, competitions, musical and dramatic productions.  For all of us, a loss of what might have been, planned and unplanned. 

So how is a lament reminding us of all our losses, also a reminder of hope? 

Christian hope is not about simple optimism, plans for good times, or wishful thinking; nor is it about refusing to acknowledge pain, loss and grief. At the heart of Christian hope is the  message, repeated again and again by angels in the stories around the birth of Jesus:   “Do not be afraid – I am with you”. Hope is one of God’s gifts. Hope is the gift of the incarnation; the birth of a child bringing new life in the most unexpected places and ways.

Advent is set (in the northern hemisphere) in the season of the year when days get shorter and hours of darkness get longer. Hope  is a reminder and a promise that even if we do not feel very hopeful, even if our life feels as dark as the long nights, even if we cannot see or imagine a way forward , we are not alone.  God is with us, even if we can’t see or feel God. It is often at these times of greatest need, when we cannot see a way ahead, that we discover that God is with us, often unnoticed by us until we look back on that time. To live in the faith that even in the darkest times, God is there, closer even than our breath, is the hope at the heart of Christian faith and the hope we return to each Advent.

The light shines n the darkness and the darkness cannot quench it.

That is the hope of Advent .  

The Revd Rosalind Rutherford holds PTO in the Diocese of Oxford.