I love punctuation.
What I mean is, punctuation matters to me.
What I mean is, I notice things like grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
What I mean is, the way words and thoughts are assembled is interesting to me.
Do you love punctuation two? Dew those Facebook memes with, random Capital Letters and incorrect plural’s drive you crazy? Should, we start, an obsessive, club? How many mistakes did you just find.
This week my eyes fell on a punctuation detail that was good for my heart. We had gentle background music playing one afternoon when I happened to glance at the screen of the monitor and the name of the current song: “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”.
Did you notice it? The comma. Check out the comma … it’s after the word ‘merry’. (There are some versions that have been copied differently but this is the correct, original placement of the comma.)
The song was written in the 17th century as a reflection on the experience of the shepherds who were the first eyewitnesses to the baby Jesus. The early English expression “rest ye merry” was a wish for happiness, peace, well-being.
So the carol is not asking the merry gentlemen to rest; it is telling the gentlemen to rest merry!!! It is not about a group of joyful businessmen who start partying when they see Jesus, but about poor, dirty labourers who find peace and hope when they learn that the baby is the Messiah.
And that is the gist of the biblical story. Read it again from the perspective of a shepherd who is poor, lonely, out of place:
That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”
Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child.
– from Luke 2, NLT
I grew up thinking the angels somehow appeared above the shepherds, floating and singing in the night sky, but look at it again. This translation says that the angel(s) appeared “among them”, another translation says “close to them”, but all versions express the same idea: the angels are here with you and soon God will be too.
The shepherds were cultural outsiders, frequent criminals, social castoffs – yet for some reason angels appeared to them and asked them to go and see the new baby. Somehow the simple shepherds understood that the Messiah was universal, unfathomable, yet also close and personal. Perhaps it was their poverty, their simplicity that drew the angels to them.
That is a message lost in much of our culture today as the separation continues between the haves and the have-nots. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, the downtrodden continue to struggle, and justice is weighted toward those with influence. Politicians, billionaires, religious leaders are unrestrained in their bold pursuit of power, greed, and pleasure.
Little consideration is given to the repeated biblical wisdom that these pursuits are exactly what separate us from a close, personal God. Unable to rest merry.
The poster boy for misguided excess is Donald Trump: now increasingly isolated, stewing about his losses, brooding while the vain things that matter to him trickle away. Sadly, in spite of all the evangelicals fawning around the President, there is no indication that they have taught him about the biblical idea of shalom: satisfaction, peace, wholeness, tranquility.
Jesus doesn’t see us through the eyes of Donald Trump or Mark Zuckerberg or Franklin Graham, perceiving us as something to be conquered, manipulated, or preached at. God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen is not about self-serving elation but about an inner longing that is satisfied because God is with us.
So let’s rest merry in the warm confidence that we can be the shepherds in God’s ongoing story.
Now do you see why punctuation is so exciting?