God Rest Ye Merry
Posted by Jill Carattini, on December 21, 2011
Encounters with frigid temperatures and wintry blends of snow and sleet frequent weather reports for many this time of year. Years lived in the pungent cold of Michigan allows me to relate with a shudder, albeit now from a warmer, southern place. But the worst descriptions of the searching, biting cold bring to mind a less personal memory.
“Foggier yet, and colder!” describes Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol. “Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit’s nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose. The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge’s keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of—
‘God bless you, merry gentleman!
May nothing you dismay!’
Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.”(1)
The irony within this icy picture is not missed on Dickens’s careful detail. In the piercing, wearying cold stands the cheerful caroler while warm and sheltered sits the cold, cantankerous Scrooge.
The contrasting hearts Dickens paints in this scene strike with an idea ripe for the reflections of Christmas and a coming new year, particularly for those who enter with greater apprehension than hope. Life often presents the irony of this caroler. Some of the warmest hearts belong to lives that have been surrounded by the darkest and coldest days. The words of the caroler and the familiar lines of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen amplify the contrast of bleak and merry men.
God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember Christ our Saviour
Was born was born on Christmas Day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy
Though for many years, no thanks to Dickens, I thought it, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen is not an address to “merry gentlemen.” It is not because Scrooge was grumpy that the words of the carol were unbefitting. In fact, the word “merry” has come to mean something quite different than it did for the first hearers of this hymn. Where it now connotes jollity, it once meant “mighty” or “strong.” Similarly, the word “rest” signified the notion of being kept or made well. Thus, in more contemporary English, we might pronounce the title of this carol in the manner of a prayer: “God make you mighty.” What specifically makes us mighty is relayed in the story the song retells:
From God our heavenly Father a blessed angel came;
And unto certain shepherds brought tidings of the same;
How that in Bethlehem was born the Son of God by name.
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy.
The most cynical responses to the Christmas story often come from the most comfortable places. Yet for those living in cold and harsh realities, remembering that Christ the Savior was born to save the lost is far more than a thought that warms them. It is more like the sun that provides the very capacity for life. Mary’s song was not sung without the reality of hard times ahead; being pregnant without a husband as a woman in first century Palestine bore the stigma of adultery and the risk of death. Yet Mary sang because the angel gave her a mighty story to sing about: “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High… And his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:30-33).
We remember this ancient story because it brings life and breath into our own. The “comfort and joy” promised by the angel and proclaimed in this song is not an outburst of seasonal cheer or a call to passive contentment. Comfort, in the Christian story, comes from the mighty encounter of knowing hope by name, and joy the startling wonder of finding the hope has drawn near. Whether in the midst of warmth or darkness, God has made us mighty in the giving of Christ to a bleak world.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (Cheswold, Delaware: Prestwick House, 2005), 17.