Throughout history, the Almighty chooses individuals who are otherwise ordinary and unremarkable to fulfill His divine purposes. Such was the case that Christmas night over 2,000 years ago. Dedicated, sleepy shepherds simply fulfilling their God-given vocation were surprised by a heavenly encounter. At first, one angel appeared announcing the birth of Jesus, the Savior. Then the night sky was ablaze with a “multitude of the heavenly host” who sang this brief yet resounding song:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”Luke 2:14
The Latin text as it has been sung for centuries is:
“Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.”1
This is the third song sung by the angelic choir in Scripture.2 It is also the third song in Luke’s Christmas story (for reflections on the first two, see Reflections on the Magnificat and Relections on the Benedictus). This song became the opening phrase of the Greater Doxology, a Christian hymn that has been sung as a part of the Latin Mass and Divine Service for centuries.3 Due to its prominence in the Christmas story and as one of the timeless songs bestowed upon the church by the Holy Spirit, it deserves deeper consideration. You may never sing the song the same way again.
First, let’s consider a few words. The English word “angel” comes from the Greek word “angelos” and means someone, usually supernatural, who delivers an “angelia” or “message.” But the angels that appeared to the shepherds were more than just messengers from God.
In Greek, the word “multitude” is “plethos” which means “an overabundance” or “too many to count.” The word “host” is “stratias” which literally means “army.” This might be surprising to some because although technically one of the meanings of “host” is “army,” the word is no longer commonly used this way. To be clear, these angels were from God’s heavenly army and, as such, were warriors on the spiritual battlefield. Considering this, perhaps we should sing “Hark! The Heavenly Warriors Sing” rather than “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Formidable, they had previously battled Satan when he and his horde were expelled from heaven (Revelation 12:7-12). On this night they were announcing a new phase in God’s plan of salvation.
This heavenly army would have included cherubim and seraphim, two orders of angels revealed in the Old Testament. The word “cherubim” is a transliteration of the plural form of the Hebrew word KERUB from which we get the English word “cherub.” Contrary to the sweet, chubby cherubs depicted in Renaissance art, cherubim were actually the fierce guardians of the Tree of Life brandishing “whirling swords of flame” (Genesis 3:24). Two cherubim of hammered gold were on the the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. God spoke to Moses from between these cherubim (Numbers 7:89). In addition, cherubim were woven into the curtains of the Tabernacle and Temple (Exodus 36:8 and 36:35) further signifying their importance.
Many scholars believe that word “seraphim” comes from the word SARAPH which means “fiery” or “burning,” likely indicating something about the nature of these heavenly beings. Nonetheless, they are considered to be the highest order of the angels since they serve as guardians for God’s heavenly throne. In Isaiah they surround His throne while singing antiphonally:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”Isaiah 6:3
Jesus reveals through the Apostle John that this song, the Sanctus, never ceases (Revelation 4:6-8).
Consider further that these angels knew that the baby Jesus was both YAHWEH ELOHIM (see The Meaning of the Name of Jesus) and YAHWEH SABAOTH, the “Lord of hosts” or “Lord of the armies.” SABAOTH is the Hebrew word for “armies. In other words, the angels were, among other things, expressing their honor and allegiance to their Commander who had entered a new phase of the spiritual battle in a most astonishing way, as a small, helpless baby. What comes to mind is the Robert Southwell (c. 1561-95) poem “New Heaven, New War” from which Benjamin Britten (1913-76) took the text “This Little Babe” (see The Paradoxes of “This Little Babe”).
Finally, it is significant that the angels were sent to deliver this news to a group of shepherds who were raising sheep, some of which would be sacrificed in the Temple in Jerusalem for the sins of the people. About 30 years later, John would declare that Jesus was the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)
When the shepherds returned from seeing the Christ child they rejoiced no doubt echoing the song they had just heard. This song has echoed through the centuries as Christians have sung it not only at Christmas, but throughout the year. So with full voice and unbridled joy, let us join the shepherds, the heavenly army, the Church Militant, and the Church Triumphant and sing:
“Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.”
There is a plethora of settings of this text and the Greater Doxology, its liturgical counterpart. Below are a few of the great ones including some settings of the hymn “All Glory Be to God on High,” a paraphrase of the Greater Doxology by Nicolaus Decius (c. 1485-1541).
Blessed Advent and Merry Christmas!
GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO, RV 589 – Antonia Vivaldi (1678-1741)
GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO, BWV 191 – Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
GLORY TO GOD – From Messiah by Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
EHRE SEI GOTT – From Part II of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio
ALL GLORY BE TO GOD ON HIGH – Hymnic Version by Nikolaus Decius (c. 1485-1541) with Variations for Organ by Balint Karosi (b. 1979)
ALL GLORY BE TO GOD ON HIGH – Organ Setting by Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow (1663-1712)
ALL GLORY BE TO GOD ON HIGH, BWV 713 – Organ Setting by Bach
ALL GLORY BE TO GOD ON HIGH, BWV 663 – Organ Trio by Bach
- This is the text used in the Ordinary of the Latin Mass. In the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible, the phrase is rendered “Gloria in altissimis Deo et in terra pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis.” (Evangelium Secundum Lucam 2:14).
- God reveals that after witnessing the creation of the world, the angels formed the first choir and rejoiced (Job 38:1-7). Later, Isaiah witnessed the seraphim singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” around God’s throne (Isaiah 6:1-6).
- The Lessor or Minor Doxology is the “Gloria Patri” or “Glory Be to the Father” that is sung after psalms and other liturgical elements.