Singing through Advent, Part Five: Gloria in excelsis Deo!

We can say that the hymn is intoned by the angelic choir and picked up by the joyous Church as she pours forth an effusive torrent of verbs: praise, bless, adore, glorify.

Detail from the "Lamb of God Mosaic" (c.547) in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy (WikiArt.org)

Gloria in excelsis Deo
et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.
Laudamus te,
benedicimus te,adoramus te,
glorificamus te,
gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam,
Domine Deus, Rex caelestis,
Deus Pater omnipotens.
Domine Fili unigenite, Iesu Christe,
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris,
qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis;
qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram.
Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis.
Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, tu solus Dominus, tu solus Altissimus,
Iesu Christe, cum Sancto Spiritu: in gloria Dei Patris. Amen.

Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to people of good will.
We praise you,
we bless you,
we adore you,
we glorify you,
we give you thanks for your great glory,
Lord God, heavenly King,
O God almighty Father.
Lord Jesus Christ, Only Begotten Son,
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us;
you take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father,
have mercy on us.
For You alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High,
Jesus Christ,
with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God the Father.
Amen.

Having labored lovingly over the many texts and canticles of St. Luke’s Infancy Narrative, we are now poised to see what Holy Church has done with the two lines of inspired text for the Christmas Song of the Angels. In this regard, we can do no better than to make our own the introductory remarks to this exuberant hymn of praise written by the “patriarch” of the original liturgical movement, Dom Prosper Guéranger:

. . . this Hymn dates from the earliest days of the Church, and. . . is to be found in all the Missals of the Eastern Churches. Nothing can exceed the beauty of its expressions. It is not a long composition, like, for example, the Preface, in which holy Church always begins by some doctrinal teaching, and then turns to prayer: here, on the contrary, all is enthusiasm and fervent language of the soul. The Angels themselves intoned the Hymn; and the Church, inspired as she is, by the Holy Ghost, continues the words of the Angels. Let us dwell upon the words of this magnificent Canticle.

This hymn falls within the category of a doxology (doxa being the Greek word for “glory”), actually known as the “Greater Doxology.” The “Lesser Doxology” is the “Gloria Patri,” a shorter laudatory composition (Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. . .), most frequently used to conclude the psalms and other canticles. The Gloria probably arose in the East, where it is prayed at Matins on Sundays and feasts. There is speculation that Hilary of Poiters brought this canticle to the West. In the Latin Rite, the Gloria is sung on all Sundays (outside Advent and Lent), solemnities, and feasts as part of the introductory rites of Holy Mass.

We can say that the hymn is intoned by the angelic choir and picked up by the joyous Church as she pours forth an effusive torrent of verbs: praise, bless, adore, glorify. This is a much-needed corrective to a pseudo-spirituality which places man on the throne of God. Then we express our gratitude to the Almighty – another element all too often absent from the sentiments of an age of entitlement. Rabbi Abraham Heschel would remind us that “all that we own, we owe.” Indeed, even the pagans of old had a sense of indebtedness, so that Cicero could assert: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”

But what is the particular reason for our gratefulness according to this hymn? Dom Prosper suggests: “God vouchsafes to make it a glory to Himself to bestow His favours upon us. The greatest of these is the Incarnation; and the Incarnation is His greatest glory.”

Moving from an address to the Trinity as such, we turn specifically, ever so briefly, to the First Person, “God the Almighty Father.” We then proceed to the main Subject of our praise in this canticle, bursting forth in a litany of titles for the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity: Lord, Jesus, Christ, Only-begotten Son, Lord, God, Lamb of God – reminiscent of the panoply of titles conferred on Christ in the very first chapter of the Gospel according to St. John.

Jesus is, for us, in a special fashion, the Lamb of God, sent by the Father to take away our sins, and so, the plea for mercy. Such pleas often fall unthinkingly from the lips of those who don’t think they really need mercy because they are as innocent as the Lamb of God Himself – sad products of Cardinal Ratzinger’s “dictatorship of relativism” and proof of the assertion of Venerable Pope Pius XII who declared that the fundamental sin of the twentieth century was “the loss of the sense of sin.”

Archbishop Sheen remarks about uniqueness of this Lamb:

. . . every other person who ever came into this world came into it to live. He came into it to die. Death was a stumbling block to Socrates – it interrupted his teaching. But to Christ, death was the goal and fulfillment of His life, the gold that He was seeking. Few of His words or actions are intelligible without reference to His Cross.

No maudlin Hallmark greeting card sentiments here.

Because Christ suffered the ignominy of the Cross, He is exalted “at the right hand of the Father.” And because He is there, He can exercise His mercy in the most meaningful manner possible. In truth, He “alone” can do this because He “alone” is the Holy One, the Lord, and the Most High. This is the scandal of particularity within Christianity that is the principal stumbling block for so many down the ages. The pagan Romans were not offended at the thought that Jesus could be god; there was always room in the Pantheon for one more. No, the problem was that claiming Jesus as God meant the banishment of all the other pretenders to the divine throne. While we can smile condescendingly at those superstitious folk of old, we need to attend to how many idols we moderns place in competition for Christ’s unique Lordship over our lives.1

The hymn resolves by returning to the unity of the Triune God as we acknowledge Jesus to be “with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father”: Unity in Trinity; Trinity in Unity. In a final theology lesson, Dom Guéranger stresses this oft-forgotten truth of the Christian Faith:

Thus, she [the Church] mentions each of the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity and the praise she gives to Christ, by calling Him alone Holy, alone Lord, alone Most High, applies also to the other two Persons, since the Father and the Holy Ghost cannot be separated from the Son, and, like Him, They are alone Holy, alone Lord, alone Most High: and no one is Holy, no one is Lord, no one is Most High, except the great God himself.

Guéranger sums up our reflection on this “Greater Doxology” most admirably:

In this magnificent Canticle, everything is, at once, grand and simple. Holy Church is in admiration at the thought of her divine Spouse. She began [the Mass] with the Kyrie; then, the Hymn of the Angels followed; she took up their song, and continued it; and the same Spirit that spoke, through the Angels, to the Shepherds, taught the Church how to worthily close the Canticle.

There are eighteen Gregorian settings for the Ordinary of the Mass, the majority of which have the Gloria. When we expand our horizons to polyphonic renditions, our possibilities are nearly limitless: Vivaldi, Mozart, Bach, Saint-Saëns, Poulenc, Byrd, Pärt, Palestrina, Victoria, to name but a precious few.

As we end our endeavor of “singing through Advent,” let us call upon the wisdom and sensitivity of the theologian-musician Pope, Benedict XVI. On Christmas of 2010, he ended his homily with this profound insight:

Saint Luke does not say that the angels sang. He states quite soberly: the heavenly host praised God and said: Glory to God in the highest (Lk 2:13f.). But men have always known that the speech of angels is different from human speech, and that above all on this night of joyful proclamation it was in song that they extolled God’s heavenly glory. So this angelic song has been recognized from the earliest days as music proceeding from God, indeed, as an invitation to join in the singing with hearts filled with joy at the fact that we are loved by God. Cantare amantis est, says Saint Augustine: Singing belongs to one who loves. Thus, down the centuries, the angels’ song has again and again become a song of love and joy, a song of those who love. At this hour, full of thankfulness, we join in the singing of all the centuries, singing that unites heaven and earth, angels and men. Yes, indeed, we praise you for your glory. We praise you for your love. Grant that we may join with you in love more and more and thus become people of peace. Amen.

Yes, “singing belongs to one who loves.” That has been the guiding inspiration for our Advent reflections.

Endnote:

1God also used the power, organization, language, network and empire of ancient Rome for His purposes. The same attitude of expectancy we have found in Jerusalem was likewise there, and really in some rather eerie and uncanny ways. The great pagan poet Virgil, decades before Christ and thousands of miles away, in his Fourth Eclogue sings thus: “Now is come the last age of the song of Cumæ; the great line of the centuries begins anew. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; now a new generation descends from heaven on high.” He goes on to speak of the birth of a child whose coming will bring universal peace and a golden age in which sin and guilt will be wiped away. Speaking to this child, old Virgil (not unlike Simeon) predicts that child’s victory over the serpent, and then, in great tenderness, he addresses the little one: “Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem” (Begin, O baby boy, to recognize your mother by her smile). So impressed were medieval believers with Virgil in general and with this Eclogue in particular, that he was unofficially “canonized,” even having a liturgical feast in some places!


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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 181 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas is the editor of the The Catholic Response, and the author of over 500 articles for numerous Catholic publications, as well as several books, including The Catholic Church and the Bible and Understanding the Sacraments.

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