This popular Christmas carol celebrates the news that the angel brought to the shepherds—the news of the birth in Bethlehem of “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
Most popular media today portray angels as lovely, delicate, and feminine, but Biblical angels either had masculine names or there was no clue to their gender. They acted as God’s messengers (Luke 1:11-20; 1:26-38; 2:8-14).
The shepherds were frightened by the appearance of the angel—and by the glory of the Lord which shone around them. But the angel told them not to fear, because the birth of the Savior was “good news of great joy which will be to all the people” (Luke 2:10).
Then the heavens opened with a “heavenly army praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will toward men'” (Luke 2:13-14). This heavenly army is the first glimpse that we get of the legions of angels that were available to Jesus (Matthew 26:53).
The chorus of this song, “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” is based on the first part of the heavenly chorus, “Glory to God in the highest.” “Gloria in excelsis Deo” is the Latin Vulgate translation of Luke 2:14, and means “Glory to God in the highest.”
This is a traditional French carol, but beyond that we know nothing of its origins. What we do know is that it has blessed our Christmas worship for centuries, and continues to bless it today.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright, 2014, Richard Niell Donovan