Recently a friend pointed out that the comma comes after, not before, merry in “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.” The Christmas carol is not addressed to merry gentlemen, but likely, to unmerry.
That’s me. Unmerry. Unable to focus. Unable to relax. Running on E.
In the stress of the season rest sounds especially delicious. But what did the author wish us? Repose or remainder, a kind of keeping back? By the word, descended from the German Ruhe, i.e., quietude, the author bids us merry tranquility.
My rest? It comes in a few familiar forms: pushing back deadlines, dot-comming and drinking venti lattes. These offer a smidgeon of distraction, perhaps, but rest? No.
The carol’s opening line overflows with meaning. By implication, I cannot rest myself. God rests me. Still more, the line is a wish: God rest you merry. And God’s rest is genuine; better still, merry. The verse continues with a command: “Let nothing you dismay.” Clearly as a writer at this time of year I have a choice: let cooking, cleaning, driving, shopping, gathering, billing, giving, (oh!) and writing dismay me…or trust God to bring His merry rest in the midst of these.
These acts dismay only when I try to stack them towering one upon the other until I cannot see, cannot balance, can hardly take a step without upsetting them all. This is small challenge compared to the larger, more profound dismay found in the subsequent verses: fear, scorn, poverty, tempest, Satan’s power and might. How to keep these dismays—small and large—from merry rest?
The third line, another command, offers insight: Remember. “Remember Christ our Saviour was born this Christmas Day.” And on that day commenced the story that changed everything: because we were gone astray, the Blessed Babe, the Son of God by name, was born in Bethlehem. God sent a blessed angel who brought the glad news to shepherds, who rejoiced, left their flocks, and went straight to Bethlehem, where they found the announced Christ-child.
Tidings of comfort and and joy! Dismays melt in the heat of their gladness.
The next-to-last verse bids me join my voice with the shepherds’: “Now to the Lord sing praises all you within this place.” Why? The stanza answers, “This holy tide of Christmas all other doth deface.”
The tide, I’m told, refers to the season. So this holy season of Christmas defaces all other seasons, however bleak. It outstrips, outshines each one. But what if the tide refers to tidings? Then this holy story renders every other story weak, perhaps even obsolete. Could it be that these tidings of Christmas do violence to any other story that would dismay us and bar us from the Christ-child?
Who knew that a friend’s notice of a well-placed comma could lead this dismayed writer to God’s merry rest? Who but God knows what rest He intends by your pen? God rest us merry this Christmas-tide.