The familiar English carol, God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen, which was quoted by Charles Dickens in his 1843 novella A Christmas Carol dates back to at least the 16th century. It was first printed and distributed with two other new carols in a 1760 broadsheet, an inexpensive single sheet of illustrated music, and was said to be a favorite of the lower classes. The language sounds quaint and stilted to us today, and we commonly mis-punctuate the greeting as “God rest you, merry gentlemen.” A modernized paraphrase would be something like “God keep you in happiness and prosperity, gentlemen; let nothing disrupt your joy.” Not nearly as poetic as the original, but more conducive to understanding. Rediscovering the original meaning of this carol is worthwhile because it conveys some sentiments that are lacking in the social discourse of our day.
If you remember the Dickens tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas Eve excursion through Christmases past, present and future, you’ll recall that not everyone in the England of his day was happy and prosperous. The ongoing industrial revolution produced a substantial and growing class of working poor as the separation between the haves and the have-nots grew wider. The lower class, represented in the story by the Bob Cratchit family, could manage to eke out a living by sending their elementary school aged children to work, into poor or dangerous working conditions for long hours – child labor laws and wages and hours regulations were not enacted until the 19th century. In addition to the struggling working poor there was also a growing pauper class that lived on the streets, in poorhouses or in debtors’ prisons, surviving on begged food and spare change. In contrast, a new category of well-to-do factory and business owners, like Ebenezer Scrooge, made their fortunes by climbing the ladder of success in the new enterprises made possible by the mechanization of work. It’s hard to know how many of them like Scrooge and his deceased partner Marley devoted their entire lifetimes to making ever more money, without apparent concern for the plight of those whose toil was the source of their comfort. But if human nature at present bears any resemblance to human nature three centuries ago, we can assume that there were many kindred spirits of Scrooge then as now.
Two important messages contained in this old English carol should command our attention because they pertain today. First, the greeting “God rest you merry” conveys concern about the welfare and well-being of others, and wishes them happiness. Remember the breadth of the gulf between the daily living and working conditions of the poor and the relative comfort and worry-free existence of the rich in Dickens’ day. Still, the poor could say to the wealthy, “God grant you peace and prosperity,” just as Bob Cratchit and Scrooge’s nephew Fred wished him happiness on Christmas, even though they knew their good wishes would be countered with a reply of “Humbug!” It is difficult to harbor sincere well wishes for people whose lives are different from our own, even more so when our fortunes are inversely linked to theirs.
Second, the old greeting acknowledges that it is God who sustains us. In his divine providence, God gives us gifts that supply our needs, from the most basic essentials of human life, to the fellowship of friends and fulfillment of diligence and accomplishment. We prideful human beings tend to have a blind spot on this point. The widely held myth of the self-made person who survives and succeeds on his own without outside help (think John Wayne movie roles), is a natural consequence of the undue value our society places on personal independence. Under closer scrutiny, however, the myth fails to stand up. Perhaps Mr. or Ms. Self-Made is exceptionally clever, or always seems to be in the right place at the right time, to capitalize upon fortunate events and favorable opportunities. But who endowed him with his nimble, creative mind? Or who gave her the perceptive sense to recognize opportunity, the willingness to take risks, and the wisdom to evaluate the potential benefits and costs? Answer: “… [the] one God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” (Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 846) We are all creatures of the Creator. None of us has made himself or herself.
During the twelve days of Christmas we celebrate the greatest gift of all time in the person of Jesus. He showed us by his own example a radically counter-intuitive way to be truly successful:
- He was always obedient to God, even when it cost him his life.
- He insisted that his followers give all their material possessions, other than the clothes on their backs, to the poor, so that worldly goods would not become a burden or distraction.
- He welcomed all comers into the community, even those who were well known for having committed grievous crimes or sins of immorality.
- He turned social conventions upside down b y modeling humility rather than confident self-assurance.
Would we consider such a person a successful leader? Why, or why not? See what the New Testament letter to the Philippians has to say:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:5-11)
God provides for us and gives us true prosperity, the salvation of his Son. Out of our good fortune, how can we help improve the lot of those without riches, either material or spiritual? To whom can we convey heartfelt wishes of the season, along with practical expressions of goodwill? How can we counter the myth of self-sufficiency and work instead to build interdependence among God’s children and between them and their Creator?
May God rest you merry this Christmastide and always.