The hymn “Glory to God in the highest” is familiar to (and maybe memorized by) anyone used to Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal or other so-called “liturgical churches.” But do we really ponder what we’re singing?
First, a little history: this “Gloria” is one part of the western, medieval (and later) mass, which classical music lovers know goes from the Kyrie (Lord have mercy) to Gloria, Credo (I believe), Sanctus (Holy Holy) and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). Traditionally, these were sung in place of what we now usually think of as hymns (like Amazing Grace or Be Thou My Vision). During the earliest centuries and outside the West, different music or texts were used. The Gloria originated as a hymn for morning prayer and when it was first used at Mass, only the Pope or bishops could sing it (priests could sing it only on Easter).
To sing those words – “Glory to God” – is to take a break from cynicism. So often during the week we feel let down by people. Our role models and leaders and neighbors turn out to be not so glorious. Indeed, we have issues with and complaints against God. “Glory” may not be what I’m feeling, but a song I overhear and join in. The Gloria is also known as the “Hymn of Angels,” because the first verse is what the Shepherds hear the Angels singing on Christmas: “Glory to God in the Highest and peace to his people on earth.” And the Angels, we imagine, they see clearly God’s full majesty, beyond the struggles that cloud us. By taking up their song, we want to open ourselves to see and feel that glory and beauty more clearly. It’s doing what Paul says: “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (from Philippians 4)
Notice also how the Gloria is full of political language, king, lord, high places, and the throne of God in each of the three parts (Father, Son and Trinity):
- FATHER Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father, we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory.
- SON Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world: have mercy on us; you are seated at the right hand of the Father: receive our prayer.
- GODHEAD/TRINITY 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.
Updates of the Gloria remove this language, I think because we don’t want to associate God with what’s oppressive and authoritarian. But with any metaphor, there’s an “is” and an “isn’t.” Jesus is a lamb in that he’s gentle but he’s not fluffy and four-legged. God isn’t an oppressive patriarch; but in some ways, I think we still need to say God is Lord.
A key line is “you alone are Lord.” We’re not just cynical, we’re afraid: of the people at the top, with powerful weapons and unimaginable wealth, of white supremacy, seductive violence or hatred, depression, disease and death and whatever we’re addicted to. Sing “you alone are Lord.” None of those so-called lords can stand against the only true Lord! In a world under the foot of demonic and Roman oppression, Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God. The Gloria is a pledge of allegiance to this kingdom and a song not just of hope but of victory, to give us courage no matter what.
Our king is an anti-king; he’s the Lamb sent not to beat back his foes by superior military might and lift up the privileged few; he’s the self-giving One who wants nothing more than to take the wrongs and sin away from the villains and the heroes, the whole world, bringing us together in peace and awe and worship. Thanks be to God!