In the night, the sound of crying

Thanks to John for spotting that hymn 23 in Sing Praise, ‘In the night, the sound of crying ‘ by Martin Leckebusch, is the most appropriate for 28th December, Holy Innocents day.

This is the bit of the Christmas story that rarely features in nativity plays or carol services: when Herod, maybe a year or more after Jesus was born, receives the magi and reacts to the news of an infant king by slaughtering all the young boys in Bethlehem in the hope that Jesus was among them.

He wasn’t, of course, as God had given Joseph warning in a dream and they escaped in time. But as Martin recognises, this cannot have been easy for Mary, forced to get on the donkey and relocate for the second time, now with fears for the safety of her child: ‘Mary journeys on with tears, further from the home she treasures, onward to uncertain years’.

In this fragile family of refugees from Judah to Egypt we can see the situation of millions of others around the world today. The sound of their crying should reach our ears and through our prayers the ears of God.

The third and fourth verses of the hymn refer to the cries of the murdered boys and grieving parents. This is what makes the story so disturbing: why did God not save them by deposing Herod before he could do this? It’s the old question of theodicy, which I won’t venture into now. But the last verse does remind us that through his own innocent death and resurrection, Christ has conquered and will come to reign with the justice for which we cry.

Two tunes are offered, the well known ‘Sussex’ and one called ‘Amplitudo’ which may have been composed for this hymn. Certainly it’s minor key seems more appropriate to the plaintive words, and a resolution to the major for the last phrase ‘comes to reign’.

We cannot care for you the way we wanted

Children’s graves, Sandbach cemetery.

Today’s hymn is ‘We cannot care for you the way you wanted’ by John Bell and Graham Maule.   When I planned the hymns for the year I took into account the seasons of the Church’s calendar but not the lectionary readings for Morning Prayer, because it was only later that John decided to include them.  But he has sensibly suggested a swap here, putting this hymn in the service that includes the account of the Holy Innocents, the slaughter of all the young children in Bethlehem on the orders of Herod. For this hymn, following on from yesterday’s, is also about death and our feelings around it, and specifically where the death was of a baby or young child.  So in singing it we join with the mothers of Bethlehem of old, with ‘Rachel refusing to be comforted because her children are no more’, and with the countless parents who lose children in or own time to disease, starvation or war.  I read only this week in the context of the topical discussion of climate change that hundreds of children are dying every day in Africa from drought alone. Each one made in God’s image, each one loved by God, each death the cause of grief. 

As an aside, and with a linguistic link since Rachel means ‘ewe’, I saw a story on social media this week of a ewe whose lamb had been stillborn, grieving for it until another ewe in the flock ‘donated’ one of her own pair to the grieving mother to adopt.  These emotions are not only human.

To the lyrics, then: the first three verses are written from the point of the view of parents, expressing regret at not having been able to fulfil their own potential as parents or that of their offspring: ‘We cannot care for you the way we wanted, cannot watch you growing into childhood, cannot know the pain or the potential which passing years would summon or reveal’. Instead, a word of hope is offered, a promise by Jesus to cling to: ‘love will not die’, ‘you will still stay’, ‘we hope and feel [for promised fulfilment]’. The fourth verse recognises the complex of emotions experienced – anger, grief, tiredness, unresolved tensions. The very sorrow that this death has created is offered back to God along with the child itself, not reluctantly or as sacrifice but as ‘worship’.  

Although I wrote yesterday of the difficulty of squaring the ‘everyone goes to heaven’ attitude with the theology of the Bible, when it comes to a stillbirth or the death of a very young child, few people today would argue that a child dying unbaptised would be rejected by God because of ‘original sin’. And pastorally, it’s more important surely to grieve with the family in their loss than to speculate exactly what has happened to the child’s soul.  So, the hymn ends with placing the child into God’s arms with the words ‘believing that s/he now, alive in heaven, breathes with your breath’. 

The poignancy of grief, especially at a tragic loss, is expressed exquisitely in the music of Schubert’s song ‘Litany for the feast of all Souls’, sung in the original German at (with subtitles, but only two verses) or (all three verses, no subtitles).