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February 1, 2018

Gloria in Excelsis Deo: The Glory to God

Gloria in Excelsis Deo: The Glory to God


A part of all solemn liturgies outside of the Sundays of Advent and Lent, the Glory to God in the Highest (Gloria in excelsis Deo) is one of the ancient hymns of the Catholic Church. While it relies on the Scriptures for some of its content, it was composed as a kind of supplemental psalm, what dictionaries on the liturgy call psalmi idiotici, and not because it was composed by an idiot, but rather because it is not part of the Bible, idiotici meaning "private." There are several examples of this type of ancient hymns: the Te Deum, which is a hymn of praise, and the Phos Hilaron (O happy light), both of which find a home in the Liturgy of the Hours. It is not to be replaced with another song of praise, mostly because it is has been in place for a long time, and seems to really set the right tone for the Mass.

Giving the Glory to God a name

In most Church settings you can refer to this text as the Gloria, the Glory to God, the Gloria in excelsis, and in some traditions even as the Greater Doxology. It is called this for two reasons: when we look at it, the Glory to God is a doxology—from the Greek Δόξα (doxa), meaning praise, and Λόγια (logia), meaning words—so the Glory to God is all about praise words like laudamus te (we praise you). It's called "greater" to distinguish it from another common doxology, the gloria patri (Glory [or Glory be] to the Father), the prayer commonly used in personal prayer like the rosary.

A little history

It will be no surprise that the first concept for this hymn comes from the birth of Jesus in Luke 2:14, when a multitude of the heavenly host appears with the angel, saying "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests." Maybe we should pause here a moment and think about what it means that the Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest), sung at Jesus' birth, was actually directed to God the Father.

As a hymn it first appears in the East Syrian liturgy, and in a fuller form in the Apostolic Constitutions, so the hymn probably dates to around the fourth century. We find the first complete Latin version—in the form we use today—in the Antiphonary of Bangor from around the year 690. It was not a part of the earliest forms of Mass, and even into the early eleventh century it was only permitted on special occasions like Easter or when a bishop presided at Mass. But by the end of that same century, the current rules around its placement and use were already in place.

Understanding its content

The Glory to God as we know it has three main sections. Each has its importance and needs to be understood if we are to do it justice as part of the liturgy.

The first part is the best known, and it begins with the song of the angels on Christmas night:

"Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to people of good will."

"Glória in excélsis Deo
et in terra pax homínibus bonæ voluntátis."

To take a line from Scripture (in this case Luke 2:14) and use it as a jumping off point for an extensive doxology was a relatively common practice in the ancient Christian world. In our time we might think of it in terms of Lectio Divina, where a passage of Scripture becomes the basis for meditation and prayer. As part of your prayer as a pastoral musician, trying your hand at this same form could be really enriching.

The second part of the Glory to God is the praise and glory of God the Father, the gloria dei. In its earliest forms, this section included an explicit praise of the Trinity, but in the current version the praise is clearly directed at the Father. This development seems to leave the Holy Spirit out of the loop, at least in terms of an explicit mention, but Joseph Jungmann, one of the greatest historians of the liturgy wrote, “this is done not so much to acknowledge the three divine Persons themselves, as rather to mark more distinctly the structure of the Christian order of salvation, in which our ascent to God is vouchsafed through Christ in the Holy Spirit,” Mass of the Roman Rite, vol. 1, p. 350.

So we have this extended praise of the Father:

“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.”

“Laudámus te;
benedícimus te;
adorámus te;
glorificámus te;
grátias ágimus tibi propter magnam glóriam tuam,
Dómine Deus, Rex caeléstis,
Deus Pater omnípotens.”

The triplet of praise, bless, adore is a common device in Latin, even if it seems a little over the top in English. Dictionary definitions of these three terms are less important, but taken together they add up to the very definition of the final verb: to glorify. Many current musical settings of the Gloria make this point with a common musical device, but so does the classic chant of Gloria VIII. The concept of us blessing the Lord (enedicamus domino) is an interesting one. So often we ask God for blessings, but in the Glory to God we offer our good wishes to God as a form of praise.

It is worth pausing for a moment on the titles that the Gloria gives to God the Father: Lord, heavenly King, almighty Father. They are at once titles of power and titles of care and concern. Fathers are to care for their family, and, in theory, so too do kings and lords for their people. In The Chronicles of Narnia, CS Lewis describes it this way: “For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.” At the same time these three titles also reflect the power that we affirm God has in this world and beyond.

Now we move into the extensive section on Jesus, which is broken into three sections, two sections of titles for Jesus with a middle section on the role of Jesus in our salvation.

First come these titles:

"Lord Jesus Christ, Only Begotten Son,
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father..."

"Dómine Fili unigénite, Jesu Christe,
Dómine Deus, Agnus Dei, Fílius Patris,..."

Jesus is both Lord and Christ, which means anointed one, and in Latin the words "only" and "begotten" are one title, unigenite, which protects us from looking for other incarnations of God. The term "Lamb of God" has a long and colorful history in the liturgy. Popes with a Greek background were big fans of this title, while those with a Latin background were less enamored by the title. It ended up staying, and it helps us to see Jesus in his sacrificial role. But what is interesting is that in this short list, the title of Son appears twice. In all things dealing with the Trinity, it is really important to remember that the Trinity is all about relationships. In the Trinity, as in life, there is no father without a son.

In the next section we come to Jesus' role in the Mass as well as in our salvation:

" 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."

"...qui tollis peccáta mundi, miserére nobis;
qui tollis peccáta mundi, súscipe deprecatiónem nostram.
Qui sedes ad déxteram Patris, miserére nobis."

In the Eucharist we are praying to the Father, but in the part about Jesus, it's clear that we are giving thanks to the Father for the gift of Jesus in his role as the sacrifice who saves us from our sins, and as powerful intercessor at the Father’s right hand.

Then, as in the first section we have a set of titles:

"For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ..."

"Quóniam tu solus Sanctus, tu solus Dóminus, tu solus Altíssimus,
Jesu Christe..."

Jesus Christ is the Holy One, Lord, Most High. Jesus is the Holy One of Israel, a title used some 25 times in the Old Testament, usually in messianic terms. Its presence here makes it clear that Jesus is that messiah. It is interesting that the title "Lord" is in both sections, even if in the liturgy the term usually means that the prayer is addressed to the Father. The notion of co-equal persons of the Trinity is emphasized again in the title "Most High": Jesus is God, with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

And then comes the end:

"...with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen."

"...cum Sancto Spíritu: in glória Dei Patris. Amen."

Here we have a nod to the Holy Spirit and a return to the praise of the Father, tying up the whole with a nice Trinitarian praise. There is no need to read anything more into this.

Usage at Mass

The Glory to God is a large piece of furniture at Mass, given its place in the introductory rites and its length; it needs to be looked at with care as it can set the tone for the entire celebration.

Refrain or no refrain?

It has become popular to recast the Glory to God as a hymn with a refrain. There is a real power in having the assembly learn just the first line of the hymn and to repeat it several times. While this is easier for the assembly, it does lengthen the hymn a bit. And certainly for the most important feasts of the year, this form can add to the solemnity of the moment in the liturgy. At the same time, however, a "sung-through" setting will assure that the assembly sings not only the praise of the Father but also of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. These kinds of settings are more useful in Ordinary Time.

What about the Latin?

In the historical section I did refer to the Latin text, and there is good reason to have a Latin version in your repertoire. OCP recommends Gloria VIII, but the setting from the Missa de Angelis is also a fine setting. In these cases, the custom at least at Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome is to have the people sing only some parts, alternating with the choir.

How many settings?

Because the Glory to God is such a major piece, limiting how many the assembly needs to learn is an important pastoral decision. Even if different music groups in the parish use different sets of acclamations for the eucharistic prayer, try to make the Glory to God consistent. If we want the people to actually sing, we can’t be giving them whiplash if they happen to attend a different celebration. Over the course of a liturgical year, perhaps three settings of the Glory to God should be our goal.

What about reciting?

Reciting a hymn or song is an odd thing to do. Try reciting the birthday song…it just seems weird. So there is a real wisdom in finding a setting of the Glory to God that is really simple, one that could be sung without musical accompaniment. Christopher Walker’s Belmont Mass would be a good option.

So, there you have a few words on the Glory to God. I hope it will help you to appreciate this unique moment in the liturgy when our only task as faithful Catholics is to stand and sing in praise to God.

Glenn CJ Byer
Glenn CJ Byer

Glenn CJ Byer has written widely on the liturgy, including articles on the meaning of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, marriage preparation, the renovation of churches and the anointing of the sick. He speaks widely on the role of lay ministers in the Mass.

Discover some of OCP's most used settings of the Glory to God



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