Seeing with the Eyes of Angels

The Gloria, or Song of the Angels to the Shepherds

Songs in Waiting: 
Spiritual Reflections on Christ's Birth

Chapter Three
By Paul-Gordon Chandler
Used with permission from Morehouse Publishing.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.

This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on
whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

Luke 2:8–20    

Glory is not a word we use much in our contemporary vocabulary. My father was a minister and I never remember him swearing. However, he selected other words as substitutes. One of his most common was the word “Glory.” Anytime he was upset, frustrated, or physically in pain, we would hear the word “Glory” ring out throughout the house.

Luke is the gospel writer who shares with us that marvelous encounter of the angels visiting the shepherds at night and singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Glory is certainly the theme of this nativity experience of the shepherds. This theme is most magnificently captured by Rembrandt in an etching and engraving he did of this scene. There, in the middle of a Judean night, the darkness was shattered, as if the light were a hundred suns; the night sky came alive with the radiance of angels, in full view of the shepherds tending to their flocks in the darkness. What had been a silent night for those  shepherds was suddenly resounding with the beating of thousands and thousands of the bright wings of angels, and also sound of their voices, like trumpets, singing a hymn of praise.

An angel tells the startled shepherds not to fear, for his message is full of joy: “a Savior has been born to you.” And suddenly the angel is joined by thousands more, all praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace.” The universe  seems to provide a stage, with Jesus as the drama. Lord Byron, the great English poet of the early 1800s, spent a good bit of time in the Middle East, an experience that provided material for his later works. Upon his return to England, he wrote The Giaour, which includes these wonderful lines:

Yes, love indeed is light from heaven;
A spark of that immortal fire
With angels shared, by Allah given,
To lift from earth our low desire.

One of the reasons that this scene is so powerful is that Luke used various creative mediums when writing his gospel. An outstanding storyteller who knew how to use words to “paint the scenes” of Jesus’ life in vivid detail, Luke describes the angelic surprise appearance to the shepherds of Bethlehem so beautifully that it has become the most familiar scene in all the florid history of religious art, with its visual nature etched in our memories. And in the same portrait Luke gives us the most popular of the songs sung in honor of the Christ Child’s birth, the Gloria, the song of the angels to the shepherds. 

The Advent and Christmas seasons remind us that singing is an integral part of our own celebration. Today this is nowhere more evident than on Christmas Eve just outside the eastern part of Bethlehem, when carols are sung at a twilight service held on the Shepherds’ Fields. It is certainly cold standing out at  night on those fields during the month of December; one can imagine the suffering endured during the great winter snowfall of 1910–11, when thousands of
sheep died because the snow covered the ground for weeks. Today these Shepherds’ Fields are fenced off  by low stone walls and rows of silver-green olive trees. 

Luke’s shepherds, whose lives were dramatically changed by the angel’s song that cold winter night, may have lived in the little herdsmen’s village of Beit Sahur, just below Bethlehem. Shepherding is perhaps the least changed occupation in Palestine over the last two thousand years. Each time I have visited Bethlehem and its surroundings, I have seen shepherds out in those fields, all bundled up to keep warm, as they watch over their sheep.

The Song of the Angels has great historical significance and contemporary meaning for us. Gloria in excelsis, the title taken from the first line in the Latin Vulgate of this canticle, means “Glory to God in the highest.” This angelic utterance has become one of the most sacred texts of Christian liturgy. The Gloria has long been a hymn of praise in Christian worship,  sung by the whole congregation in one form or another since before the fourth century, when it was said during Morning Prayer by the Greek church. In the sixth century it was used exclusively for papal masses, since it was viewed as the most important of the canticles. 

The Gloria went on to be incorporated into countless medieval hymns and carols. Down through the years, composers have put it to score untold times, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Antonio Vivaldi. Today, the Gloria is sung in many churches on all feast days and Sundays, except during Advent and Lent.

Certainly, part of the attraction to the Gloria over the centuries has to do with the fact that it is indeed a song of the angels. And angels played a most important role in the Christmas story, visiting significant characters like Joseph and Mary, Zechariah and the shepherds. The word “angel” simply means “messenger.” In the Christmas story they are God’s messengers representing God to the people. In other words, they give to us a further glimpse of who God is and what God intends to do. 

This is why the usual reaction to angels in the Christmas story includes an element of fear. Hence the first words of the angel to shepherds standing in the fields were, “Do not be afraid.” The angel went on to say that the message he was bringing from God was “good news of great joy”—not bad news of impending disaster. Indeed, many Jewish people at that time believed that the appearance of spirits during the night foreshadowed disaster, so the angel immediately reassures the shepherds that nothing could be further from the truth.

Songs in Waiting by Paul-Gordon Chandler

From Songs in Waiting: Spiritual Reflections on Christ's Birth by Paul-Gordon Chandler. Copyright ©  2009 by Paul-Gordon Chandler. Used with permission from Morehouse Publishing, an imprint of Church Publishing Inc. 

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