Undoubtedly, one of the most well-known songs of the season is that of the angels: “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” (“Glory to God in the highest!”). This month, carols like “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” echo through churches and shopping malls alike, quoting their song and reminding us of the mysterious events of that first Christmas night (Luke 2:8-14). Countless composers have been drawn to this song, especially since the “Gloria” (in its expanded form) factors so prominently in Western classical music. One of my favorite settings comes from Rachmaninoff’s Vespers (All-Night Vigil), Op. 37 (listen to a recording here). During this month of Advent, consider again the awe and wonder of the angels’ message and be renewed in your own worship of God.
On the night Jesus was born, God sent an army of angels, the most powerful spiritual beings in all of creation, to proclaim his peace on earth. And, the people to whom that host of angels spoke, the very first people to receive the good news, were shepherds! At that time shepherds were so low in the social strata, so despised by the upper classes, their testimony was inadmissible in court. Yet God used them to begin spreading the news of his Son’s birth. What a contrast—lowly shepherds in a field and heavenly angels in the sky. For many years, angels have captured peoples’ imaginations, and their portrayal in songs, paintings, poems, sculptures, films, and even Christmas ornaments is abundant. But, certainly, one of the most fascinating things about angels is their keen interest in the mystery of salvation. The apostle Peter writes that the good news of the gospel is something “into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:12). And Jesus himself told his disciples there is “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:7). Even though they played a part in its unfolding, God’s gift of salvation and the love he shows for his people astounds the angels. An angel told a virgin she would bear the Son of God—this is amazing. Angels proclaimed God’s peace to society’s outcasts—this is incomprehensible. An army of angels, with the power to rescue Jesus, was held at bay during his betrayal and arrest—this is perplexing. Angels rolled the stone away from Jesus’ tomb—this is miraculous. Angels received Jesus at his ascension into heaven—this is awesome. And now, in joyful wonder, angels surround God’s throne, saying, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 5:12). Thanks be to God for his message of peace and salvation. (adapted from Behold He Comes: Advent Reflections)
Choral Settings of Gloria in excelsis Deo
All Night Vigil, Op. 37, mvt. 7, “Glory to God in the Highest,” S. Rachmaninoff | Difficult (SSAATTBB, with divisi, a cappella)
Gloria in Excelsis Deo, D. Cherwien | Difficult (SATB, with divisi, opt. Woodblock, Triangle, and Log Drum)
Glory to God in the Highest, G. B. Pergolesi | Moderate (SATB, keyboard)
A Christmas Gloria!, T. Shaw | Easy (Unison/2-part, piano) ~ children’s choir
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