The churches in which I grew up and have served as a pastor did not often sing the Christmas carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” That’s a shame. Perhaps the archaic language forms a barrier, but, once you decipher it, it’s very meaningful.
The word rest does not here refer to sleeping or taking a break; it denotes to keep. And we use the word merry enough this season, but seldom otherwise; it makes us think of holiday festivities, but it has a secondary meaning of being alert. Knowing this helps explain the comma between merry and gentlemen: The opening line could be seen as an invitation to gentlemen (a gender exclusive reference to people in general) to allow God to keep them alert. Less poetically, the carol says, “May God keep you alert, everyone!”
Why do we need to keep alert? Because it’s easy to experience “dismay” in the various circumstances of life. Because it’s easy to get so consumed with the busyness of the season that we forget “Jesus Christ our Savior [was] born upon this day.” But the most important reason we need to keep alert is to keep from being enticed by “Satan’s power when we were gone astray” as we were in the past. It reminds me of St. Peter’s words: “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.” I constantly need God’s help to keep me alert!
When we put our trust in God, we can rest (there’s that word again!) assured that we are secure in Him: Nothing can snatch us from His loving embrace. If that isn’t a cause to be merry, to be filled with deep joy, I’m not sure what is! So these are indeed “tidings of comfort and joy.”
Monica and I know several families for whom this is going to be a difficult Christmas – the first one without a beloved family member. And we know other people who regularly feel especially “blue” this time of year. Our prayer for them – for you as you read this – is that this Christmas you experience the kind of comfort and joy that can only be found in Jesus, the Son of God born in Bethlehem.