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Gloria in Excelsis Deo, Glory to God in the Highest

December 23, 2017


Gloria in Excelsis Deo, Glory to God in the Highest

Christmas Proclamation
by the Heavenly Host
Holy Family St. Louis Park, MN

On the night that Jesus was born, suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host – choirs of angels – that appeared in the night sky, and filled with joy, they praised God singing, “Glory to God in the highest” (Lk 2:14).

“The highest” is God’s dwelling place, heaven. God is so great that even “the highest heavens cannot contain [him]” (1 Kgs 8:27). With the birth of Jesus, the heavens were opened, the angels in heaven could be seen by those on earth below, and heaven and earth were united.

The angels glorified God at the birth of Jesus. To glorify is to extol, to lift one’s name in exaltation, to give adoration and worship, veneration and reverence, respect and honor, praise and thanks. God always deserves to be glorified, but God deserves heightened glory when God does something remarkable, the dawn of a new day, a rainbow in the sky, the cure of an illness – or the miraculous birth of a child. The birth of Jesus was not just the birth of any child, it was the birth of the Son of God (Lk 1:35). If there was ever a time to give God praise and thanks, it was at the birth of his Son, Jesus.

The angels knew what the people would come to know later, that the newborn Jesus is a king. The angel Gabriel had told Mary, “the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father … and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:32,33). On Christmas night the multitude of the heavenly host praised God, and when Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem, “the whole multitude of his disciples began to praise God aloud with joy” (Lk 19:37), and with a song much like the angels, proclaimed, “Blessed be the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest” (Lk 19:38).

The song of the angels is a message regarding the magnitude of the event that was taking place. The birth of Jesus did not appear to be glorious. The infant was born in a cave, not in a home, inn, or palace. He was laid in a manger, a crude feeding trough for animals, not in a crib or on a bed. He was laid on hay, not a clean sheet or a blanket. An ox or donkey, or a few sheep and goats, may have been present simply standing by, not a few female relatives or friends giving assistance. A cave with animals conjures up the clutter and smells of a barn, not a neat, tidy room. Yet, when the angels sang, “Glory to God,” they announced that the birth of Jesus was a grand and glorious event, even if it did not appear so, and if it was reason for the angels of heaven to rejoice, it is reason for the people of earth to rejoice.

The angels show us what we ought to do. If they sang a hymn of praise at the birth of Jesus, we should sing hymns of praise, particularly on Christmas and throughout the Christmas season. Gloria in excelsis Deo, Latin for “Glory to God in the Highest,” is the refrain to Angels We Have Heard On High. Several other Christmas carols are based upon the song of the heavenly host: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (v. 1); and O Come, All Ye Faithful (v. 2). To sing hymns that glorify God is to join human voices with angelic voices.

If it is desirable to use the words of the angels to praise God on Christmas, it is desirable to use their words throughout the year, and they are used at Mass as the opening line of the Gloria, which is used for every Solemnity, Feast, and Sunday of Christmas, Easter, and Ordinary Time.

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