Last week I shared with you some of the holiday traditions that have become a part of my life in adulthood, but we also have traditions from childhood. My dad has always loved Christmas. One thing he loved doing was buying each of us ornaments for each Christmas. I have two brothers, and we all received ornaments that matched a theme. My older brother got toy soldiers. My younger brother got angels. I got mice. Over the years, Hallmark phased out soldiers and angels, but I think mice are just cute enough that they always had a supply. In adulthood, I have taken my mice to put on the tree. They’re still in the same box I had them in as a child, from the Christmas when we all got cross country ski boots. For years I haven’t put them up out of fear that the kids would damage them, but that’s not a fear anymore. This year’s tree features my mice ornaments, and I’ve been deliriously joyful about having my mice on display again. There’s something comforting about that tradition.
Another tradition we had growing up was going Christmas caroling with other folks from Wayne Park Baptist Church. Young and old would carpool from the church to sing carols to church members who couldn’t get to church for the holidays. We’d go from room to room, from place to place singing dozens of songs. Many of my favorite songs and carols are still bouncing around in my head all these years later because of those years spent caroling with the Baptists. We didn’t just stick with the Christian songs. We’d sing “Up on the Housetop,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” We’d also sing many of the songs we’ll get to around here as we near Christmas — “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World!” and “Away in a Manger.”
One of my favorite carols from that time is still “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” I believe that remains one of my mom’s favorites to this day. It’s because I love this song that I wanted to devote a sermon to it, so here we are. To my surprise — particularly because the Gathering Band plays a version of this every year and because I think the vast majority of us know this song well — it’s not in our hymnal. In fact, it wasn’t even in the previous edition of the hymnal, for those of you who remember the blue one. I also learned that it’s current title is actually “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” not because someone modernized from ye to you, but because ye was actually grammatically incorrect!
We’ve done bunches of these songs together, but “God Rest” is one of the oldest we’ve covered. It dates back at least to the 1650s, which is only around three decades after William Shakespeare died. Its author is unknown, and over time the lyrics have changed quite a bit. The earliest written version of the first verse reads like this:
Sit yo merry Gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
for Jesus Christ is borne
to save or soules from Satan’s power
Whenas we runne astray
O tidings of comfort & joy
to save or soules from Satan
When as we runne away
O tidings of comfort & joy
Within 100 years, it came closer to the song we still sing today:
God rest ye, merry Gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Saviour
Was born upon this Day.
To save poor souls from Satan’s power,
Which long time had gone astray.
Which brings tidings of comfort and joy.
We had lots of conversations around the church this week about where the comma should appear in the title. I always assumed it was after ye and before merry, but I was wrong. It actually comes after merry. Why? Well, “rest you merry” actually meant “may God grant you peace and happiness” in that day, almost 400 years ago! So, God rest you merry, gentlemen really means May God grant you peace and happiness, gentlemen. The phrase actually shows up in two of Shakespeare’s plays. It’s in Act V, scene 1 of As You Like It, when William says, “God rest you merry, sir” to Touchstone. And for all of you high schoolers who have been required to read Romeo and Juliet, it shows up in Act I, scene 2, when Peter says to Romeo, “Ye say honestly. Rest you merry” twice.
So, when we sing, “God rest you merry, gentlemen,” what we’re really singing is “may God grant you peace, folks.” Beyond this being a nice sentiment, why would we sing such a thing? Well, the song is all about the peace, comfort, and joy that comes from what God has done for the world in Jesus. The first verse frames the song with the last verse. It’s about the coming of Jesus and how he saves the world from sin. The middle verses retell Luke 2, with God sending the angel to the shepherds and the shepherds going to the stable to see Jesus. The final verse completes the framing, calling all to sing praises to God for what God is doing through Jesus. All of this resounds with the refrain, “O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy.” Hymns are one of the best ways to teach the faith, and this one briefly and clearly tells the gospel around a Bible story, which is really helpful when much of society was still illiterate, which was the case at the time of its writing.
The popularity of this carol really peaked in the 19th century. One magazine lamented that in London no carols are heard except this one. It was so common that it is part of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, when Ebenezer Scrooge hears it sung outside of his office on Christmas Eve. It also makes it into George Eliot’s Silas Marner.
So, here we are 150 years later still singing this song. We know it. Many of us like it, so why is it no longer in our hymnals? Sadly, my research didn’t really lead to answers on that question, but I do have a speculation. Before I speculate, however, I do have to say that overall it’s a great correction and positive for the church that we are working towards inclusivity for all, including in our language. I think that’s a reflection of the gospel, so good for us! Still, my speculation is that this carol suffers on two counts. First, I just had to spend several minutes explaining what it’s first line actually means, which is a problem when our music is supposed to help teach us the faith! Second, it’s really hard to change the word “gentlemen” from this song into something that reflects the wide welcome of the whole church. The song is just too well known to change it.
Now, I don’t make that speculation as a complaint. It is what it is, and one of the gifts of the church is that the Holy Spirit keeps reshaping us to be effective in our particular time and place. This carol served a great purpose for hundreds of years and still gets hearts beating today. But, it got me thinking about how men are often less present in churches than women. There is a gender gap in churches these days. On a typical Sunday in North America, attendance will be 60% female and 40% male. Our church membership actually falls exactly in line with that. Our membership is 60% female and 40% male. Now, there are lots of reasons for that, but I think one of those is that the church has not connected well with guys. Some are more likely to find meaning in golf league or in their work or at deer camp than they are in the pews. I see this in our congregation, too, where mom brings the kids to church but dad hasn’t joined in. Now, as a guy who loves the church and enjoys being at the church, I am not entirely sure what to do about that because what we do appeals to me! Still, I think this is worth our pondering because Jesus loves all, including the guys who haven’t found themselves at home in the church. We can do a better job welcoming all — including guys!
Alright, that’s enough speculation for one sermon! I do want to touch on scripture as it relates to “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.” Last week’s hymn was about stillness and quiet. This week’s carol is boisterous. It lands on the refrain “O tidings of comfort and joy!” Isn’t that a lovely sentiment? It’s something we all need reminded of with frequency because life can be really hard. Our eyes can grow downcast. Our hearts can grow cold.
Isaiah 40 is a text we turn to at this time of year, and it begins with words of comfort. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” God’s people need comfort because they have spent generations in exile. They had lost everything. They were strangers in a strange land. But now, God was calling them home. After hardship, there was grace and renewal.
This text beautifully captures three significant truths about God. First, God’s righteous judgment needs to deal with sin but also that God’s grace is what will win the day. In this case, God was bringing them home from exile, restoring their lives and land. In the case of Jesus, God was calling all to a new way of life, that God would “rest us merry” as the carol goes. Second, God is all-powerful. God can and will do what is needed to rescue God’s people from sin. But God’s power is matched by God’s love that keeps calling even the most lost of God’s sheep home. In Isaiah, God is making a highway in the wilderness. God is strong, but God is also a tender shepherd, faithfully guiding us. Third, this passage shows us what it means to hope in God even when things are uncertain or even bad. It gives assurance that God’s plan will take care of all things in the fullness of time, so even when life is loaded down with sorry or trouble, we can trust that God is ultimately working good, even when we don’t see it.
So, this is a season of comfort. It’s also a season of joy. Each of us carries our own stories into this season. Each of us has our own burdens that we’ve brought to these pews. Whatever our stories and burdens at this moment, I hope you also hear this good news of comfort and joy. Because of what God has done for you in Jesus Christ, born of Mary in that stable long ago, God has made a way for you to know comfort and joy. God has saved you, if only you would accept that as true for you too!
God rest you merry, gentlemen (and gentlewomen)! God grant you peace and happiness! Why? Because Jesus was born. Because Jesus lived so that we might have eternal life. Because this is a message for all. These tidings are for the whole world — tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy.
May we all know those tidings this season, and may we share the good news with the whole world.