Hymn Project: God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
There is something significant about singing hymns at Christmas time. For a moment in time, you commune with Christians of all centuries, backgrounds, and countries to worship Jesus and celebrate His birth. In each hymn lies an origin, a story, an author (or several) that is telling of where the hymn came from and for whom it was written.
The origins of songs have always fascinated me. Stories provide context and there was a LOT going on when “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” first emerged as a popular carol. The 14th century was a time of monumental shifts on the European continent. Through increased interaction with different cultures, the increase of wealth among the Western nations bringing with it more leisure to the people, the rediscovery of ancient texts and the impacts of war and the black plague, what has historically been called the Renaissance came into existence.
One of the profound results of all of this was the desire to translate the Bible and worship in the common languages, as Latin mass was the common thread throughout the empire. So guys like Jan Hus and John Wycliffe began doing just that and the response was amazing. People began experiencing the living God in real and fresh ways. As their understanding and gratitude of the Gospel began to swell, so did their desire to sing about it.
No one truly knows who wrote this old carol, but it began to emerge around the 15th century as a bit of a reaction against the more somber, latin songs that were played in Mass. The first written version began to appear in hymnals some 300 years later.
The lyrics of the song come mainly from Luke chapter 2, which details the angel’s announcement to the shepherds regarding the birth of Jesus. Imagine being a shepherd, keeping watch over your flocks, and all of a sudden a host of angels begin singing about the birth of the Messiah, a moment you and your people have been waiting on for centuries.
The Angels said:
→ “Do not be afraid” which is captured in the title line: God rest ye merry gentlemen.
The Angels said:
→ “I bring you Good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” O tidings of comfort and joy.
This is the Gospel. That in the midst of heartache and pain and longing for all things to be made right, God enters into the mess, as the angels announced, to fix it from the inside out. At a time in history experiencing so much change, the hope of Jesus brought comfort to the weary and joy to the heavy laden. Fresh revelation requires fresh expressions.
As the lyrics profess, our prayer for you this Christmas is that you would find comfort and joy in the truth of the Gospel, that transcends circumstances and swells in you the wonder of Christmas and a longing for Jesus’ return.