Sometimes we think that the problems we have, whether in church or in the world, are new. Very few are. Most problems have come and gone many times over the centuries. Over the past 25 or so years in churches around the country there has been what has often been called, “music wars.” The young people want new music, their music. The older people don’t often like the new music and they think that the older songs carry a deeper message. Nothing new.
One of my favorite stories is about Isaac Watts, sometimes called the “father of English hymnody.” Many famous songs were written by Isaac Watts, who lived in the early 18th century, songs we still sing today. Well, when Watts was a young man he complained about the music sung in his church. It was stodgy and dead in his mind. His father, a wise man, told him that if he didn’t like it he should go and write some new songs. Of course, that’s just what he did—and his songs were not accepted for many years.
But this wasn’t new even in Watts’ time. Singers in the 15th century had the same problem. The songs they had to use in church were usually in Latin and were slow pieces in minor keys, providing little joy or inspiration to the people. Because the official channels to church music were open only to those who would keep the traditions, the people had to come up with their own music to enjoy. Many of our Christmas carols and popular hymns come from this time when the people created folk music to sing.
One of the most beloved songs of Christmas, immortalized in The Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, is “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen!” Not only was this a popular song for the people to sing, they danced to it. Queen Victoria is said to have enjoyed the song and it became very popular in the Church of England of her day.
Eventually the song found its way to America where it has been sung almost as written for almost all of our history. For 500 years this song has been just about the same as when it was first put together.
And therein lies a problem. Over a period of 500 years a language can change. Words which had one popular meaning sometimes adopt another meaning. We sing this song with the vision of a group of happy men in our minds, “merry” because God has blessed them with the good news. But that isn’t what the people of Queen Victoria’s day would have thought.
You may remember references to Robin Hood and his band of “merry men.” Didn’t it strike you as odd that the story should remember this band of thieves, even though they stole from the rich and gave to the poor, as “merry?” Once again, we are led to think of men wearing tights and jumping up and down as they sing. Seems a little strange, but we just pass it by without real question.
The word, “merry,” had a different meaning centuries ago. It meant strong or even, mighty. An especially strong army was a merry army. To be a merry king was to be a mighty king. Robin’s men were to be remembered as powerful warriors, rather than happy singers.
Another word has changed. To rest, in the Middle Ages, had a secondary meaning that was more along the lines of “keep” or “make.” So the message of the first line is not that the Lord should give rest to the merry gentlemen of the community, but that the Lord should make the men mighty in the light of the truth that will be shared in the rest of the song. There should be a comma after the word, merry, and we should sing it with the sense, “God make you mighty, Gentlemen.”
So why have we missed that meaning over the years. Perhaps it is not just because language has changed. In fact, many song lyrics have been changed in order to continue to keep the meaning the same. Some suggest that this song has remained the same simply because the idea of happy men singing such an upbeat and happy song is a special blessing in itself.
(I am particularly indebted to the book “Stories behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins which you can purchase here. These are not direct quotes, but a good deal of the information has come from that book, which I highly recommend. Some of the stories are from my research. The stories may or may not be accurate, partly because the legends have grown over the years, but I offer them as a word of blessing for the Christmas season.)