Today's Lectionary Text
Angels we have heard on high
Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Come to Bethlehem and see
Christ the Lord, the newborn King. [Refrain]
You hear it every year. You catch yourself singing it. You get it stuck in your head! It’s the Christmas song Angels We Have Heard on High. The one where you finally reach the chorus with its long and repetitive “ohs” as we sing Gloria! And finally, we reach the end of the chorus and shout “in excelsis Deo!” Only to go back into another round of Glorias.
So, “what does ‘In Excelsis Deo’ mean?” To start off, this phrase “Gloria In Excelsis Deo” is actually a quote from another song, a special kind of hymn called a ‘doxology.’ A doxology is an ancient creed created to unite Christians millennia ago and put to music so we would remember it. In fact, we still sing one of these doxologies every Sunday at our Traditional service - the Trinitarian Doxology, saying “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost...”. It is a song to praise God and to affirm God’s nature as three persons in one.
The doxology many have come to unknowingly sing at Christmas time, however, is called The Great Doxology. This doxology is also meant to praise and glorify God while affirming a certain belief about God.
So, what do the words “Gloria In Excelsis Deo” from The Great Doxology, really mean?
First things first, ‘Gloria.’ This is one we often hear, and it just means glory. But it only takes a moment of reflecting on the meaning of glory to understand what we are really saying. Glory is honor, high renown, magnificence, beauty, power, and grace! To sing glory be to God, is to shout to the world of the glory God has demonstrated and deserves. It is to put God back on the throne, to affirm His righteous and benevolent rule over the creation that belongs to Him.
So, what about “In Excelsis Deo?” To begin, Gloria In Excelsis Deo is also a quote from scripture. It’s the first words that the angels sang when announcing the birth of Christ to shepherds (Luke 2:14). It means “Glory to God in the highest heaven” (NIV). Deo means ‘God’ and Excelsis ‘in the highest’ or ‘in the highest degree.’ In other words, “Glory be to God who is the highest God!”
I remember serving as a missionary in Africa, where many Christians would decorate their cars and buses with a painting of Jesus under the title “Top God!” That is exactly what it means. God is the top God.
People have recognized that God is the highest in many ways for thousands of years. The Jewish Temple was built at the highest point in the city of Jerusalem, on the Temple mount. Jerusalem was, of course, on Mt. Zion, a large hill that is one of the highest points in the Holy Land. Many churches today are still built on hills to symbolize this sense of “going up” towards the Temple and God, and many have steps leading up to the sanctuary. At Tonganoxie UMC, we have steps leading up to the altar.
Churches have architecture like a pointed ceiling or symbols to show that God is the highest. This belief in the “highness” of God was the driving force for the height of Cathedrals and Church Bell Towers for centuries. They all point up, towards the God who is in excelsis—in the highest heaven!
But, this phrase also has a deeper meaning for us as well. Gloria In Excelsis Deo means that God is the highest in our lives. There is no other God before him. He beats all other ‘gods.’ We see this throughout the Bible, where God displays his dominance over other ‘gods,’ like the pharaoh, whose kingdom God destroys with mighty plagues. Or when three young Israelites refuse to bow to a golden statue in Babylon and are cast into the fiery furnace, a furnace that would surely melt the gold idol, but God is with them in the flames and rescues the three men, who are thereby untouched by the flames.
In our modern world, we don’t often make idols and call them gods. But we do treat things like gods. In many ways, we try to be our own gods and live to serve our own flesh and desires. Gloria In Excelsis Deo is a reminder that we are not God, and nothing we make, or was made, or will be made, will ever be God.
Lesson: Next time you hear the tune or sing the words, open your heart and mind to the glory, the majesty, and weighty truth of God. Remember how Jesus is crowned the King of Kings, the ‘Top God’ in our world. And, like the shepherds were in Angels We Have Heard on High, let us be humbled before him.
-Pastor Matthew Wilke
Prayer for Reflection
God, you are the highest God. Help me bring you the glory you deserve today. Amen.
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