Sir 3:2-6,12-14 • Col 3:12-21 • Mt 2:13-15,19-23
“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is among the oldest of our Christmas hymns. It was written in England as a reaction to the church music of the 15th century. At the time music was chanted and in Latin, and it was perceived as being dark and somber and lacking in inspiration or joy. Commoners began to create their own religious music thus the peasant class began a revolution in religious music producing religious songs that were light, lively, and written in the language they understood. The Christmas songs they wrote became the beginning of what we today call Christmas carols.
Among the carols that have remained is “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and it was the most loved. Charles Dickens quoted it in his work, A Christmas Carol.
Being that the hymn is from the 15th century, its words are a bit archaic, but they are filled with joy and encouragement. The word “rest,” for example, did not mean to take a nap. Rest in the English of the day meant to “keep or make.” The word “merry” has gone through many changes in meaning, but at the time it meant to have pleasure but a pleasure that was deep-seated and not just something that made you happy at the moment. It could also be used to mean blessed. Reworded it could be sung, “God make you joyful, Gentlemen,” or “God make you blessed, Gentlemen.” Clearly, the cause is the birth of the Savior through whom God offers us joy.
The carol was born in a time of upheaval. So, too, was our Gospel passage. An undercurrent in Matthew’s Gospel is an attack against the Roman Empire. The Gospel makes a judgment on a leader who was believed to be divine and brutality that was used to create peace.
Herod the Great, not a Jew, was appointed by Rome and had to fight to take control of his kingdom. Never feeling secure, he maintained a private security force and even built fortresses around the kingdom to which he could quickly flee, the most famous of which is Masada. He killed the descendants of royal families so he would have no rivals. His paranoia led him to kill his own wife and one of his sons. He had commanded that at his death all political prisoners should be put to death so there would be mourning throughout the land.
Joseph learns in a dream that he must protect his family from this ruthless ruler, so he takes his family to Egypt. And later, another angel in another dream let Joseph know of Herod’s death so Joseph could take his family back to Judea. Unfortunately, Herod’s son Archelaus, now ruler over Judea, was so brutal that the Romans removed Archelaus in A.D. 6. Before this though, again through a dream and in order to protect his family, Joseph avoided Archelaus by settling his family in Galilee in the town of Nazareth.
Matthew wrote principally for a Jewish readership which would have been very familiar with the Scriptures. In order to present Jesus as the Messiah, Matthew uses the life of Moses as an outline for his Gospel. The connection between Matthew’s story of Jesus and the Torah’s story of Moses would have been easily made. The people’s journey to Egypt, their Exodus, and finally their return is all told in Matthew’s story. Luke wrote for a primarily non-Jewish readership; therefore, he had to take liberties with history so that a Gentile audience could make connections between Jesus and their own lives. Unlike Luke, Matthew could use the correct timeline of rulers so as to connect his readership with their own experience.
While we live in relative peace, a lot of the world does not. We do see violence on our streets. People do move out of bad neighborhoods. Christians are becoming refugees in the Middle East by the thousands. Yet, in the midst of this we still hear the words, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”
What does the Holy Family teach us? Matthew builds his “Christmas Story” around the person of Joseph. In Joseph we see a father who was “righteous,” meaning he steadfastly followed the teachings of his faith. He was a man who chose to follow what he perceived to be the will of God. Joseph left his home and livelihood and fled to another country for the sake of his family. He settled somewhere other than his family home for the sake of his wife and child. Joseph stands as the righteous man who blended his faith and his values into his everyday life. Joseph saved his family from Satan’s power. He kept them at peace. Using the glad tidings we’ve been given, we must confront the messes we might encounter and bring to those moments comfort and joy as did Joseph.