Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol – 2012

I love Christmas. I love music. I love reading. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that I love reading and pondering the lyrics to Christmas carols. I’ve written two previous posts (here and here) on great carols. This year, the words to “Joy to the World!” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” have been rolling around in my mind: one by a great, influential hymn writer and the other the product of generations of street singers.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Many, many times in my life, church people who think they know me have tried to get me to justify for them their belief that popular styles of music are inherently bad. I said they only think they know me. Ten or twelve years ago, several people sent me a poor internet joke about the difference between hymns and “choruses,” ending with this supposed punch line: “So if it’s repetitious, you know it must be a contemporary chorus.” To which I always responded, “Or a piece by Handel.” The looks I got when I pulled the rug out from under their stupid argument! Repetition has nothing to do with quality. Both beuatiful songs for today’s post repeat lyrics, and one of them, as it turns out, has music by Handel.

Of the many wonderful virtues of “Joy to the World!” what’s striking me this year is the sympathy of nature with our musical outpouring of worship. While we employ our songs, the fields and floods and hills and plains sing right along. (How can anyone object to the repetition of a line about nature repeating the sounding joy?) In the first verse, in fact, both Heaven and nature sing along with us, a three-tiered alignment of purpose and praise. Actually, the first line reminds us that we don’t start the carol; just as fields and floods echo our joy, we ourselves merely echo what Heaven sends to us in the first place. “Joy to the World! The Lord is come!”

I always imagine “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” to be the carol that A Christmas Carol tropes. It has five lines, as Dickens’s ghost story has five “stanzas,” and when I read the story, I always sing one line of the song after every section. As the great author would say, “the wisdom of our ancestors” is in the carol. And their wisdom puts a comma between “merry” and “gentlemen.” When I was a child, I interpreted the wish as directed toward polite people of a sanguine disposition. But now I understand that the adjective “merry” goes with the prayer, not with the gentlemen. I love that turn of phrase: “God rest ye merry.”

The young me also puzzled on the phrase “let nothing you dismay.” I don’t remember exactly when I figured out that it was an inversion of “let nothing dismay you,” but I remember feeling happy to have discovered this wonderful new poetic possibility in my language. And I remember understanding the song’s message quite clearly: “Don’t let anything worry you, because the infant in the manger has freed us from Satan!” Why do we have such trouble honoring these tidings of comfort and joy and following their advice?

May you lead the rivers and the mountains in a song of joy today! May nothing you dismay! And God Rest Ye Merry!

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