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Tidings of Comfort & Joy

Joe Amaral never fails to bring "aha" moments with his cultural insights into the Bible. This enriches the meaning of well-known passages of Scripture. I've discovered the original meaning behind a favourite carol that might illuminate your favourite holiday greeting!

Comfort and Joy is the bold claim on the cover of a Christmas catalogue I received from a popular department store - but a new couch, an entire home renovation. . . nothing you can buy will provide what those words were meant to convey. They come from the chorus of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, one of the most misunderstood carols of Christmas. English peasants first sang it over 500 years ago. It was borne of discomfort with 15th century church melodies that were somber and dark, and sung in Latin. There was little inspiration or joy. This rebellious offering from an unknown author was light, lively and written in the common language. Religious folk songs birthed what we now know as Christmas carols.

Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, writes:

"Written with an upbeat melody and speaking of the birth of Jesus in joyful terms, the song may have shocked early church leaders, but it charmed their flocks. Not only did they sing to this carol, they danced to it. The writer, comprehending the full and personal meaning of the birth of the Son of God, brought forth enthusiasm and joy simply not found in any other church songs of the period."

The seven verses so wonderfully told the Christmas story, that Charles Dickens gave it a prominent place in his classic novel, A Christmas Carol.

Thanks, in part, to Queen Victoria's love of carols, the song was finally published in the 19th century. It found favour in the Anglican Church, eventually reaching both Europe and America. But its true meaning was lost in the evolution of the English language!

When we say "Merry Christmas," the word means happy. The traditional olde English had a very different meaning. Robin Hood's "Merry Men" might have been happy, but the merry that described them meant great and mighty. Collins writes: "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." English carollers of the Victorian era were conferring musical blessing on "great and mighty men."

The message of the song is made more clear by defining another word, and adding a lost punctuation mark. "God rest you" simply means keep or make. Add a comma where it was intended "God rest you merry, Gentlemen" and you might begin to experience a benediction. You should also have a new perspective when you say "Merry Christmas!"

If you are looking for "tidings of comfort and joy" this season, the lyrics of the famous carol explain the significance of Jesus coming to earth, and what it means personally to all who embrace God's indescribable Gift. (2 Corinthians 9:15) Here they are for you to sing with new meaning! And have a GREAT Christmas!

God rest you merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Saviour was born on Christmas day, 
To save us all from Satan's power when we were gone astray:

O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, 
O tidings of comfort and joy.

In Bethlehem in Israel, this blessed Babe was born, 
And laid within a manger upon this blessed morn 
The which His Mother Mary did nothing take in scorn.

O tidings of comfort and joy.

From God our heavenly Father a blessed angel came; 
And unto certain shepherds brought tidings of the same: 
How that in Bethlehem was born the Son of God by name.

O tidings of comfort and joy.

"Fear not then," said the Angel, "Let nothing you affright, 
This day is born a Saviour of a pure Virgin bright, 
To free all those who trust in Him from Satan's power and might."

O tidings of comfort and joy.

The shepherds at those tidings rejoiced much in mind,
And left their flocks a-feeding in tempest, storm and wind: 
And went to Bethlehem straightway, this blessed Babe to find. 

O tidings of comfort and joy.

And when they came to Bethlehem, where our dear Saviour lay, |
They found Him in a manger, where oxen feed on hay; 
His mother Mary kneeling down, unto the Lord did pray:

O tidings of comfort and joy.

Now to the Lord sing praises, all you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood each other now embrace; 
This holy tide of Christmas all other doth efface:

O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, 
O tidings of comfort and joy.

Video: Mike Janzen - "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"

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