Jan 5, 2012
One of the most beautiful prayers in the Mass is the Gloria. Monks chant it. Composers today, like Vivaldi and Bach in the past, set it to music. Christians echo its sentiments when they sing the popular Christmas carols "Angels We Have Heard on High" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing."
The Gloria is a doxology. It is a prayer of praise that extols the glory of God. It is sometimes called the Greater Doxology to distinguish from the short Glory Be that Catholics learn to recite at childhood.
The Gloria recalls the mystery of the Incarnation. In this prayer, we give praise to God by recalling how great He is and how worthy he is to be worshiped. Despite our sinfulness, God loved us enough to send His Son. Hence, our joy in praying the Gloria.
In its original form, the Gloria comes from the Gospel of Luke, a gospel overflowing with praise. In fact, Luke speaks of praising God more than any other evangelist. In his infancy narrative, each new revelation of Jesus' coming as the Messiah is met with a hymn of praise.
The angel Gabriel announces to aged Zechariah that he and Elizabeth will have a son who will prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. Zechariah, at the birth of their son John the Baptist, sings the Benedictus. In praising God for fulfilling His promises to His people, his hymn harkens back to the Old Testament (e.g. Gen 12:1-3: 26:3; 2 Sam 7:8-1; Ps 18:17).
In the Visitation, Mary goes to visit Elizabeth. Both women are with child. Elizabeth greets Mary as the mother of her Lord. Mary returns her blessing by glorifying God with the Magnificat (Luke 2:46-55). Mary recites in song the revolutionary effects of the birth of Jesus. The lowly will be exalted. The rich will be sent away empty. And, Israel's longing heart will rejoice in the mercy given to Abraham and his descendants. Her hymn of praise is filled with allusions from the Old Testament, especially from the Song of Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10).
When the infant Jesus is presented in the Temple in Jerusalem according to the Law of Moses, Mary and Joseph meet Simeon. Simeon is a just man who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. At the sight of the Christ child, Simeon recognizes the long-awaited Messiah. He utters his Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32).
Though a brief canticle, Simeon's song is replete with Scriptural allusions (e.g. Isa 40:1-2; 52:10; 53:6; Ps 97:2). His song eloquently and simply expresses the relationship of Christianity to Judaism. It not only looks back to the past and to Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel's hope, but also to the future and to Jesus as a light to the Gentiles.
These three hymns of praise-the Benedictus, the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis-spring from the human heart and are found on human lips. But the short Gloria in Luke's gospel is different. It is the song of the angels who surround the throne of God. At the end of the angel's announcement of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in Bethlehem, "suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: 'Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests' " (Lk 2:13-14).
The Gloria that we sing or recite at Mass echoes and amplifies that angelic hymn. As Pope Benedict XVI has said, "The Church, in the Gloria, has extended this song of praise, which the angels sang in response to the event of the holy night, into a hymn of joy at God's glory - 'we praise you for your glory' " (Homily at Midnight Mass, Christmas, 2010). In the Gloria, we voice a joy that cannot be contained at the goodness of God now visible and tangible in the birth of Christ and in his saving work as our Redeemer.