Luke 2:10-12 (ESV)
10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
We have all sung the carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” during the Christmas season. Did you know that this is one of the most misunderstood carols of Christmas? It’s misunderstood because of two words and one missing punctuation mark. What we think of when we sing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is not anything like what the English peasants meant when they first sang this song more than five hundred years ago. When the unique lyrics of this wonderful carol are understood it quickly becomes more than just a jolly song, but one of the most profound and meaningful hymns in the world.
One of the misused words is the one that describes Christmas itself. When we say “Merry Christmas!” today the word merry means “happy.” When “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was written, merry had a very different meaning. For example, Robin Hood’s Merry Men might have been happy, but the merry that described them meant “great” and “mighty.” In the Middle Ages a strong army was a merry army, a great singer was a merry singer, and a mighty ruler was a merry ruler. So when the English carolers of the Victorian era sang the words “merry gentlemen,” they meant great or mighty men.
The other misunderstood word is the word rest. This does not mean to put your feet up and relax. Although that sounds pretty good right about now! The word rest in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” means “keep” or “make.” Now to completely uncover the mystery of meaning in this carol, a comma needs to be placed after the word merry. So in order to have the correct meaning in modern English, the first line of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” should actually read, “God make you mighty, gentlemen.”
Suddenly, understanding the true meaning of the words and intention of this old carol makes perfect sense. This wonderful carol puts to music the words of Luke 1:10-12 when the angel told the shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy.” It is this news the carol says that makes us mighty men and women.
May God, indeed, make you mighty as you remember Christ our Savior who was born on Christmas day…O what tidings of comfort and joy the news of his birth is.
Dear Lord, thank You that because of You we can be mighty men and women. Help us share the great news of Christmas to those around us today. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.