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The Introductory: The Gloria in Excelsis Deo
After the Penitential Act, in which we receive forgiveness for the minor faults and failings we have committed since the last celebration of the Eucharist, and the Kyrie, in which we entreat Our Lord for his mercy, we pass to the exuberant exultation of the Gloria in Excelsis Deo (“Glory to God in the Highest”) or Gloria, a hymn found in Greek texts as early as 380 A.D.
The Gloria is considered a non-biblical psalm composed by the early Christians and modeled after hymns found in the New Testament. It was originally used in the morning Liturgy of the Hours, then gradually entered into the celebration of the Eucharist on solemn feast days until becoming fixed on certain Sundays and feast days in the Roman rite.
Heaven’s Glory Bursts into Human History
The Gloria is not said during Advent or Lent (except on a few special solemn feasts that take precedence). Those seasons are penitential in character, a moment of pregnant pause and anticipation of hoping something wonderful will happen to deliver us from sin, darkness, and misery.
After an entire liturgical season the Gloria intoned on Christmas night or Easter Vigil reminds us of Heaven’s glory bursting not only into the celebration, but into human history. The first words of the Gloria are taken from the words of the angels on Christmas night (see Luke 2:14). Just as the angels gathered around Bethlehem, Heaven and earth exult at the birth of Our Savior on Christmas night, and all the Sundays of Christmas that follow, and then exult at his victory over sin and death on Easter Sunday and all the Sundays of Easter that follow.
Just as the Gloria is often sung alternating with the choir, or the choir itself alternates the verses, it seems we in the celebration of the Eucharist are alternating our praise and glorification of God with that of the angels and saints who do it for all eternity seeing the Lord face to face. Sundays in Ordinary time are modeled on the feast of feasts, Easter Sunday, so they also are the moment where we glorify God with this beautiful hymn, as well as solemn feasts where we celebrate the Most Holy Trinity, the Blessed Mother, and other saints.
A pretty common glorification of God nowadays is “Thank God it’s Friday”; at least people are thanking God for something. How much we rejoice at our impending weekends. Many people can only attend Mass on Sundays; do we have the same eager anticipation for Sunday, and not just because it’s a day for sports or shopping? Sunday is a moment for starting our week thinking about eternity and the joy we should spread the entire week for the wonders God has done in our lives. The Gloria reminds us to take that glory into our entire life.
Adoring and Thanking God for His Glory
In the first strophe of the Gloria we present a simple list of all the ways in which we glorify God. He doesn’t need us to be glorified or to be glorious; for us it is a spontaneous way of telling him how glorious he is to us. He merits our praise and adoration, and through the hymn and the celebration of the Eucharist we give it. We bless the source of all our blessings and acknowledge him for blessing us. We thank him for that glory that burst into human history and freed us from sin and death. We remember that our personal Advent passed from sorrow to expectation with Christ’s birth, and then from the Lent of our sinful life to the glory of the Resurrection when Christ conquered sin and death for us. We thank the Holy Spirit for inspiring those first Christians to compose this hymn, and for continuing to empower our praise and thanksgiving.
Christian life requires a dose of self-examination and penance, but also a dose of joy and hope. Not just Lent, and not just Easter. In the Gloria we’re living an Easter moment for the gifts we’ve received that go beyond the best Christmas present we could ever find in a store or on Amazon.
Adoring and Thanking the Lamb of God and Lord of Lords
The second strophe praises Our Lord’s divinity as well as his humanity. We praise Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the same praise as St. John the Baptist when he was encouraging his disciples to follow him (John 1:29) and announcing what he would do for the world. This image of Christ captured the imagination of St. John the Evangelist, just as it should capture ours; from these few words of the Baptist he was led to see and describe Christ as the Lamb in his glory in the Book of Revelation.
In ancient times the Romans addressed the emperor or special cult heroes as “lord”: here we profess our faith in the one true and unmatched hero, as well as our “Lord God.” As we say this words we leave no doubt as to whether we idolize anyone or anything else; the Holy One is God, which is why the strophe and the hymn ends on a Trinitary note, not only praising Jesus the Son, but the Father and the Holy Spirit as well, reminiscent of 1 Corinthians 8:6 (“yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist”) and Philippians 2:11 (“…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”).
We’ve learned from an early age the First Commandment: “I am the LORD your God: you shall not have strange gods before me.” The Gloria is the perfect antidote to any idolatry we may have fallen into. In the past it was divine beings, heroes, and emperors—the Christians in composing and singing the Gloria responded decisively against such false gods. Today the list of potential false gods has expanded to relationships, possessions, ego, pleasure, an innumerable list. This hymn, if we pray it from the heart and not in vain (see Commandment Two), will keep us focused on who our true hero and God is, and give him the credit he is due.