There are only five words in that title, which I have borrowed from a very well known Christmas carol.
I would guess that the percentage of the American population that understands all of the words as originally meant is smaller than the percentage who understands none of them.
OK, maybe that’s a little strong because everyone should understand the first word. God has been around since before the beginning, after all, and hasn’t undergone any name changes.
That is not true for everyone, including a certain rap artist formerly known as Kanye, now known as Ye.
Ye the person is pronounced with a long a (ā), as in day. Ye the word in the title is pronounced with a long e (ē) as in she.
Now that we’ve cleared up that unlikely but possible confusion, you will know that the Ye in the title is “You.” In fact many versions use “you.” But Pentatonix recorded it as Ye, so I’m going with that.
Progress! We have God, the one and only, and we have Ye, the recipients of this short prayer.
One other important observation before we complete the definitions — notice the placement of the comma in the title.
Written thus, the title would be spoken with a pause after Merry. That means that Merry is not a modifier for Gentlemen. It isn’t God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen, but God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. Interesting!
Now for the rest.
For the rest, let’s begin with “rest,” a word that is certainly part of today’s lexicon. We use it all the time, generally in sentences like, “I need more rest.” We also have places that once were called “rest homes,” or sometimes “old folks homes,” presumably because old folks need to rest.
Many such establishments today are called “Assisted Living” facilities, and many of them seem to encourage more activity than rest! It’s all about outings and theater and shopping and table games.
In any case, this particular rest means causing something to be put in or on a place. The place could be a physical location (rest your head on a pillow, rest the umbrella against the wall), but here it is a state of being, or a state of mind.
And what is that state of mind? Merry. Not in the sense of cheerful, but in the sense of peace.
In fact the Oxford English Dictionary records that the phrase “God rest you merry” was used from 1534 on, and defines it as “may God grant you peace and happiness.”
Finally we get to “gentlemen.” We use that today to indicate all men, although most women can tell you that not all men are gentlemen.
In the Christmas carol title, gentlemen is more likely to refer to chivalrous or honorable men. Once upon a time gentleman indicated a man who was from a good family but was not a member of the nobility. Today the term gentleman often carries with it a sense of one who is good.
Putting it all together
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen says something like this: “May God give good men (a state of mind of) peace and happiness.”
That goes very well with the easily understood second line, “Let nothing you dismay.”
Have you ever found yourself dismayed? If so, that means something has caused you consternation or distress. All sorts of things can do that.
A bad health report, a death in the family, financial challenges, a strained relationship — all of these are dismayers. Add two or three of them together and they are potent!
How can we stop such things from causing us distress? The answer is in the next lines: “Remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas day, to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.”
The next line recognizes the result of the announcement of Jesus being born to save us: “O, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy. O, tidings of comfort and joy.”
Comfort and Joy
Taking that whole verse together: a state of mind that is a barrier against dismay and the realization that a savior has come all lead to comfort and joy.
Who couldn’t use a little more of that every day of the year?
It is just that we tend to remember it all more at Christmas, though we always need it.
Imagine getting a diagnosis that you have a potentially deadly illness. For some of you imagining may not be required. Remembering will be sufficient.
Once you have the picture in mind, imagine that the doctor who delivered the bad news also delivered good news.
“This is serious, and we will treat it seriously, but it is not going to take your life.”
Comfort and joy!
And of course that is exactly like the Christmas message. The world and the prince of this world will cause you distress and consternation. They might even kill you. But the solution to all of that has come to this world in the form of a person named Jesus.
God rest you merry, everyone
My prayer for you this Christmas season is exactly those five words, and even the rest of the song. May God “rest you merry” and may “nothing you dismay.”
Yes, it is a very busy time, and that can be stressful. Some have loved ones far away, either physically or relationally or spiritually, which is hard.
Suffice it to say that the attempts to dismay us will not abate, but they also will not prevail. We will remember why we celebrate Christmas, and we will have comfort and joy.
Do good this Christmas, and always. It’s in you.