God rest you merry, gentlemen . . . rest assured . . . rest in peace

Grace Church, Salem MA

Grace Church, Salem MA

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“Rest assured,” we say and mean that one should remain confident. “Rest assured, Santa Claus is coming to town.” If we ask God to “rest” us, we mean “keep” (the phrase “rest in peace” in Old English had the connotation not so much of the dead person “resting” as being “kept” in peace).

“God rest you merry, gentlemen” is not about merry gentlemen, it’s about asking God to “keep” some gentlemen merry which, at the time the carol was first known, meant “prosperous” as much as “having fun.” In Middle English it had an even more wonderful connotation. Merry-bout was sexual intercourse.

So when we sing, “God rest you merry, Gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,” we mean something like, “God keep you prosperous and happy (and perhaps even lucky in love), all you gentle folk.”

My late dear friend, mentor, and protector Samuel Walter composed a set of organ variations on “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”

Sam taught music—organ—at Douglass College of Rutgers University in New Jersey until his untimely death in 1990. Sam had saved me from personal disaster and from making a complete fool of myself on more than one occasion (that sounds as if he kept me from getting drunk at a party—they were situations of far greater import in my life than that). He also taught me a couple of the most useful lessons about organ performance anyone ever shared with me. I loved Sam. And he loved me.

At the time Sam died, I had caused him great pain and was planning a trip to New Brunswick to apologize to him. I have made my amends in many ways, but my love for and estrangement from Sam will always be one of the most fragile places in my heart. I know Sam forgave me even though I never made amends to him. He was that kind of noble and spiritual funny little man.

On Christmas Eve, probably in 1992, I played Sam’s variations at Christmas Eve service at Grace Church in Salem, MA, where I was organist. You may judge if they are too harsh and dissonant for the warm and cuddly candle-lit Eucharist in a (fairly low) Episcopal Church. I think they are simply charming and fun. Certainly one aspect of Christmas celebration that most of us can respond to.

One member of the congregation was—for reasons she would never tell me—incensed. A brief accounting of the possibilities. She was a lesbian feminist for whom I had great respect and at one time great friendship. Her partner was a superbly talented singer. Her partner and I were involved in a situation over which I had no control (although it seemed as if I might) in which she was personally and professionally disappointed.

My former friend from the church never spoke to me without fury again. I’m not sure why except that one epithet she hurled at me one Saturday when she was doing duty with the Altar Guild and I was practicing for services the next day led me to believe she blamed me that her partner had not achieved a significant advancement in her career. I may have done (or simply been) something far more egregious than that. I did not know then, and I do not know now. I moved to Texas soon after that, and the entire business was left behind.

Obviously not. Nineteen years later I still think about it. What did I do to hurt her, and was it my lack of graciousness that made me unable to see it? I tried more than once to have a conversation with her, to make whatever amends I needed to make. She refused. She subsequently moved to some out-of-the-way place like Minneapolis, so I never have had a chance to communicate with her. She may or may not be still alive. I don’t know.

Back to God keeping us (I suppose most anyone reading this believes it’s God—I’m not so sure, but that’s irrelevant) prosperous, happy, and (horrors!) lucky in love.

The Lady Chapel, Grace Church

The Lady Chapel, Grace Church.

We give lots of gifts at Christmas time. I hope no one who might be reading this has participated in the evil madness of frenzied shopping at, for example, Walmart. We try to find just the right gift for each person we love (I can’t wait to give my sister the gift I’ve chosen for her—not at Walmart or on Black Friday).

I’m pretty sure a lesbian feminist would prefer to hear it expressed in different wording, but one of the stanzas of “God rest ye merry” says

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 others doth deface.

I’d like even yet to be able to embrace my fiend with love and—what? Brotherhood? How about “familyhood,” or “friendshiphood?” I will try to find her and make my amends.

Here’s my hope. If anyone feels anger or estrangement from me, I would hope I have the grace either to allow them to approach me asking for an explanation, or—even more important—that I have the grace to allow them to make amends and/or make amends myself, if necessary. Such situations, I know, can be very complicated. But if we have this Christmas Spirit thing going on, it seems to me that greatest gift we could give each other would be at least the possibility, the beginning, of reconciliation for whatever has broken a relationship.

God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day;
To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.
Refrain
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy;
O tidings of comfort and joy.

In Bethlehem, in Israel, this blessèd Babe was born,
And laid within a manger upon this blessèd morn;
The which His mother Mary did nothing take in scorn.
Refrain
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy;
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 others doth deface.
Refrain
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy;
O tidings of comfort and joy.

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