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God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; the Carols of Christmas


“For the spirit of God is not one of timidity, but one of power, love, and self-control.” This is part of a letter Paul wrote to his disciple Timothy because he know that Timothy struggled with courage. We often think of Christmas as a time to be reminded of good things like family and friendship. It’s also a time to be reminded of the greatness of our God and that he calls us to be mighty with him.

Many of us have sung the carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”. It’s the oldest English carol -probably between 500-700 years old. The phrase “God rest ye merry gentleman” to a modern ear sounds like, “Chill out you guys; have fun!” But when it was written, it meant something quite different. At that time, most church songs were heavy, sad, and in Latin. No one says, “I’d love to sing a song as long as it’s depressing, slow, and I don’t know what it means.”

The church is the people, and the people found a way to celebrate, despite the funeral dirge that was Medieval church music. The people gathered together outside to sing their own songs to a God with great news. God Rest ye merry gentlemen would translate in modern English to “God make you mighty, gentlemen.” Merry, in this case, is not fun or silly, but strong and mighty. (The merry men didn’t wear tights, they kicked butt for justice.) This first verse was everything these illiterate, English-speaking parishioners would have needed to understand the gospel message.

Check out the first verse of this wonderful carol:

God rest ye merry gentlemen

Let nothing you dismay

Remember Christ our Savior

Was born on Christmas Day

To save us all from Satan's pow'r

When we were gone astray

Oh tidings of comfort and joy

Comfort and joy

Oh tidings of comfort and joy

Joy is the natural reaction to the birth of Jesus -God’s perfect rescue plan. Be strong and mighty, because Jesus. Don’t be dismayed, because Jesus. Fight like mad and be healed from sin, because Jesus. Take comfort and have joy, because Jesus.

The next three verses are pretty standard Christmas story recaps. The baby was born in Bethlehem to his mother Mary. Angels appeared to shepherds. They were reminded not to be afraid. (There’s that fear theme again.) The shepherds made it to Bethlehem to see their savior. We need to hear this part of the story, but imagine the cruciality of these verses to the original audience who had no access to English scripture.

There are so many reasons why this carol was important to people 500 years ago, but the last verse is for us. If I could send a message to the world today, it wold be this:

Now to the Lord sing praises

All you within this place

And with true love and brotherhood

Each other now embrace

This holy tide of Christmas

All others doth deface

Oh tidings of comfort and joy

Comfort and joy

Oh tidings of comfort and joy

This is a holy time. And it gets defaced every year. Three synonyms for deface are: disfigure, ruin, and trash. I could harp on corporate greed, entitlement, and commercialization, but that’s not what I think of when I hear "deface". It’s anytime we do anything in response to this holy season other than praise our God and embrace others. We deface Jesus when we make it about anything other than that.

God will make you mighty. He sent his perfect son to save us. And we are to praise him and love others. It’s that simple.

Oh tidings of comfort and joy

Comfort and joy

Oh tidings of comfort and joy

Merry Christmas!

Shannon

 

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