The churches in which I grew up and have served as a pastor did not often sing the Christmas carol “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.” That’s a shame. Perhaps its 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 means “to keep.” It reminds me of Aaron the priest’s blessing, “The Lord bless you and keep you…” And we use the word “merry” often enough this season, but seldom otherwise; it makes us think of holiday festivities, but it has a secondary meaning of “being alert.” A couple hundred years ago, people used the expression “rest you merry” to encourage one another to keep well. 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 and well. 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” (using the carol’s word) in the various circumstances of life, especially considering the chaos of this past year. Because it’s easy to get consumed with the distractions of this season and forget “Jesus Christ our Savior was born upon this day.” And because it’s easy to become enticed by “Satan’s power when we were gone astray” as we were in the past. That reminds me of the apostle 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, to keep me “merry!”
When I put my trust in God, I can rest (there’s that word again!) assured that I am secure in him: Nothing can snatch me from his loving embrace. In the same text where he warns about the devil’s schemes, Peter reminds his readers of how “God cares for you.” Peter also refers to God’s ongoing work of restoration in his people’s lives. Peter finally promises that in Christ, we will remain “strong, firm, and steadfast.” If all that isn’t a cause to be filled with joy, I’m not sure what is! These are indeed “tidings of comfort and joy.”
It goes without say this has been a difficult year. Time magazine proclaimed it was the worst year ever, which I personally feel might be a little hyperbolic. Regardless, this is a time in which I especially need to hear “tidings of comfort and joy.” Probably you too.
In this Christmas and New Year’s season, with its cheer and trouble, may you experience the kind of comfort and joy that’s only found in Jesus, the Son of God born in Bethlehem. He will “rest you merry.”