The words to the carol begin, “God rest you merry, gentlemen.” The comma goes after merry. The word “rest” is a verb and in the oldest use it means “make.” It is saying, “God make you merry, gentlemen (the general audience). God make you joyful, and let nothing you dismay – let nothing frighten or trouble you.
And then the narrator explains how God has had provided for their merriment and quieted their anxious souls. Remember, says the caroler, that Christ our Savior was born on Christmas day. To save us all from Satan’s power while we were gone astray. So, Christ has saved us from a fierce enemy, and from the fruit of our own folly. The oldest versions then say, “this brings” or “which brings tidings of comfort of Joy.” Remembering what Christ has done for us brings news of comfort and joy.
The actual origins of this song are not known, and I can’t find anywhere that says if the writer developed it from scripture. But the main refrain of the song is extracted directly from Jeremiah 31:13, “Then young women will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.” Young women (same word in Hebrew as virgins) will dance and be glad. Why this? It is a symbol of hope – it’s why the “young” dance – because they represent anticipation of the future – anticipation dances when there is hope. Why hope? Because of what the Lord has done and promises to do. God says, “I will turn their mourning into gladness.” I will turn their sad song into a happy song. HOW? I will give them comfort and joy.
The first thing he gives is comfort. This is not just a hug and a “there, there.” The word carries the connotations of deep empathy – it sounds like the low-toned sigh of a caring adult quieting a troubled child. God says, “I will comfort you.” How? Immanuel. God with us. God saving us. Earlier, in v. 11, the prophet says the Lord will deliver Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they. God will comfort us by being bigger and truer and stronger than the things that trouble us, even and especially the things that are stronger than we are. He will be present: bringing down the noise, quieting the alarms, the voices, the pressures, the threats, the fears, anxieties, and un-ending expectations. He comforts us by confronting these things. Christ comforts us by His own victory over them.
The term Christus Victor refers to a Christian understanding of the atonement which views Christ’s death as the means by which the powers of evil, which held humankind under their dominion, were defeated. The idea is this: Christ is victor. Christ in his death and resurrection overcame the hostile powers that hold humanity in subjection, those powers variously understood as the devil, sin, the law and its condemnation, and fear and anxiety and even death.”
Christus Victor is rooted in the Incarnation and how Christ entered into human misery and wickedness and thus redeemed it. The Christus Victor view of the Atonement is a drama, a passion story of God triumphing over the powers of darkness and liberating humanity from the bondage of sin. He redeems us from everything that was stronger than we were. He comforts us by His victory over all our fears.
His comfort precedes and produces joy. Comfort comes first because it is the voice of truth. It displaces lie and shadow and threat. Comfort settles the soul. It prepares the way for joy. Joy cannot long abide in the troubled soul. Without comfort, joy is temporary, elusive – crowded out. So, He comforts us – that He may cause us to have joy.
He would comfort your soul – that he may cause your joy. Where are you troubled? “Benign” things: Life? Work, family, finances? Or does fear, unrest, regret, or pain trouble your soul? Christ has overcome. He is truth. He is love. He is power and grace. He is stronger. He Is Immanuel. God rest you merry, dear friend. Let nothing you dismay. He wants you to dance again. Tidings of comfort and joy indeed.
Thanks for reading; Merry Christmas,