“God rest ye merry gentlemen, and all you ladies, too!”
One of my jobs as choir director at St. John’s was to select the hymns and psalms for the congregation to sing at the three weekend masses. Sometimes the songs would vary from mass to mass because of the population who attended each mass differed in age, which meant they had generational sensitivities to some music. While those at 5:00pm Saturday preferred O Come All Ye Faithful in English, the 8:00am crowd loved singing it in its original Latin, Adeste Fidelis. The 10:30 crowd would sing either: they mostly came to hear the choir.
Latin was the language of my growing up in the Catholic Church. Mass was in Latin until I went to boarding school in 1967 (another story) where the Benedictine nuns hailed the coming of Vatican II with masses in English and welcomed the dawning of the Catholic Age of Aquarius with guitar music and Ray Repp songs. In the New Age, Amazing Grace’s text was updated from “and saved a wretch like me” to “and saved and set me free”.
For me, one of the roles of the choir was to preserve and perform the sacred music in it’s intended form – at least as much as possible. In my mind, the textual changes and English translations did not honor the intent of the composition or the composer. Because I valued the tradition of the traditional, I coached my choir in Latin – which they mostly remembered and enjoyed – and adhered to the traditional text of songs like Amazing Grace.
At the time, choosing music for mass was governed by several rubrics – the primary rubric was to tie the songs to one of the three readings assigned to that Sunday: the Gospel, the Epistle, and the Psalm itself. The another governing principle was the liturgical season in which the mass took place. At Christmastide, the selections pretty much choose themselves. Since season is short in Catholicism, we would pack in as many carols as possible, usually singing each only once.
My children were in grade school when I worked at St. John’s. The nature of my work there allowed me to be home with them – which was a great blessing. I could also take them with me. Ricky and Rae had full run of the facility and knew every nook and cranny of the church. Father Mac, the parish staff, the choir members, and most of the parishioners knew them by name.
I was just thinking out loud when I asked 9-year-old Rae whether we should sing God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman as the processional or the recessional on the Sunday after Christmas. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I don’t sing that song.”
“What?” I asked, puzzled. “Why not?”
“Mom,” she said patiently, “that song isn’t for me. I’m not a ‘merry gentlemen’.”
In that moment the big questions of inclusion and exclusion wore a new face – a little Rae face. To be taught by one’s child is a humbling and awesome experience. Her simple words were a complex revelation from the Holy personally delivered to me in the perfect attention-getting container: my daughter. Her words inevitable changed me – slowly and over time, as deep change usually happens.
But in the immediate moment, I had to share Rae’s comment with my choir at our next practice. And they, knowing Rae, were both delighted and amused by the story. The Sopranos and Altos agreed with Rae: they were not ‘merry gentlemen’ either! It was decided we would update the words of the carol – at least for warmup or in practice – from “let nothing you dismay” to “and all you ladies, too.” Whenever we sang the carol in church after that, I would wink and smile at the choir as they sang the traditional words, winking and smiling back at me.
…and a little child shall lead them.