Wednesday, December 21st

“God rest ye merry, gentlemen!”  Just reading those words puts you in a certain mindset, doesn’t it? It makes me feel very nostalgic! But, if I’m completely honest, I had no idea what the words really meant when I was young, let alone how they related to my life. Now, it’s not every day that we sing, speak, or hear something written in the 1700’s. And, there’s something wonderful about that - the idea that it’s stood the test of time and still endures today. But, as much as I love this song, and others like it, I have to wonder what might be gained by re-imagining the spirit of the text and bringing it forward a few centuries into modern English and our modern lives.  
There’s a sort of debate among some church goers about whether to leave hymn texts unchanged to appreciate tradition, or to update the language in order to bring new relevance to it. (And, if you’re thinking “that must be a very specific type of person engaged in this debate,” you would be correct:  we’re called church/church music nerds.)  
I used to be squarely in the traditionalist camp. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. We appreciate classic literature, don’t we? Why wouldn’t this be the same? My perspective changed, though, through the same process that altered so much of my worldview:  when I came to terms with my sexuality. You might wonder what in the world these two things could have to do with each other. Well, it was through the process of coming out that I gained an understanding of what it was like to be different, to be a minority in society (even as I recognize that my background, education, skin color, and more still offer me an incredibly privileged and protected status). But this very personal process did have a profound impact on so many aspects of my life, including my intentionality in being welcoming and affirming to minority groups.
So, how could we update and modernize hymn texts so that they can be more inclusive and affirming to all people? I’d like to offer a few suggestions. For one, instead of saying “man” and “mankind” we can easily substitute “people” and “humanity.” The former reading, taken in a literal sense, leaves out approximately half of the population.  And, although it may be more taken for granted today, for much of history women have been subjugated and oppressed, so it’s important to overtly include them.
Also, God doesn’t always have to be referred to using masculine pronouns and imagery. Why? Well, if we are created in God’s image, then God could be male or female or transgender or non-binary or intersex. Because God is described in both masculine and feminine language in the bible. Because some people don’t have positive relationships with father figures in their lives, and those references that are meant to be positive may not be received in the intended manner. And, perhaps because the reality of God may be totally beyond our human understanding.  
Finally, I think that singing our beloved hymns and carols with updated texts can open us to think of the overall meaning anew. This could be in something as simple as updating the language; for instance, can you relate more to “thou” and “thee,” or “you?” Or, maybe more impactfully, it could mean adding completely new verses to familiar hymns in order to include others in the sequel. (Yes, that is a reference to the musical Hamilton.) It is possible to write new poetry that matches our theology and life experiences, and sing it to hymn tunes we already know and love…or new ones.  
By being open to altering some of our hymnody, even hymns that we dearly love and which may hold deep meaning to us, we can relate important messages to a wider audience. If we want others to hear the themes of hope, peace, joy, and love that we lift up in this season, and to share the opportunity for community and belonging that we have all found in the church, then why not attempt to be as inclusive as possible?  
To return to where I began, I invite you to consider the following version of “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” with text by Jeffrey Wilsor, written in 2019. It is, admittedly, a more extreme example of what I’ve been describing, but one that truly illustrates the goal of welcoming and affirming all people through the music of the church. I would be willing to bet that it makes you think about the message of Christmas and Christianity with new eyes, let alone the original version of the song. Of course we can still sing the original version, too.  But just imagine how many other people a hymn like this could reach - and all the good that it could do in their lives!

God rest you merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay!
Remember Christ will bring love’s light the dawn of Christmas day,
To lead us all from woe and sin when we have gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.
God rest you also, women, who by men have been erased,
Through history ignored and scorned, defiled and displaced;
Remember that your stories too, are held within God’s grace.
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.
God rest you, queer and questioning, your anxious hearts be still,
Believe that you are deeply known and part of God’s good will
For all to live as one in peace; the global dream fulfilled.
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.
God rest your mind, O humankind, let strife and conflict cease.
Remember love is active here, and only to increase,
To carry us to well-springs of God’s joyous hope and peace.
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.
- Kyle J. Ballantine
Click here to listen to an instrumental version of "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen,"
played in an Irish style.
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