Liturgical Catechesis:  Christmas 1993

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The First Christmas Carol

Long before Charles Dickens created Scrooge, before Franz Gruber whispered a Silent Night, before we imagined the lullabies on Mary's lips, the first Christmas carol rang out amidst a flutter of angel wings in a starry Bethlehem night.  The First Christmas carol?  Not "Away in a Manger," not "Adeste Fideles," Not "The Little Drummer Boy," -- not "Jolly Old St. Nicholas."  But "Glory to God in the Highest."

Sometimes we sing it. Sometimes we say it.  Sometimes we skip it.  Sometimes it's an afterthought.  Sometimes a well-rehearsed choir chokes back its first breath in disbelief at the priest who "forgets" and recites the first line.  But the “Glory to God” began its life as the first hymn to greet the newborn Messiah (Lk 2:14).

Origins and Structures

It wasn't a complete hymn right away.  Just a phrase or two in the Gospel.  There's no record of angels saying, "I don't remember all the words, but the first part goes like this..."  By the fourth century, however, the church had expanded the text.  A second section offers praise to God, listing titles ("Lord God,” “Heavenly King," etc.) and detailing our response (“worship", "give thanks," "praise"). The final section invokes Christ ("have mercy on us," "you alone are Lord").

The basic structure of the "Glory to God" is like a hymn, or a lengthy poem set to music.  It's not in neatly metered stanzas like "Praise to the Lord" or "In Christ There is No East or West," but it resembles the fluidity of those hymns' texts.

When we recite the "Glory to God," it sounds nothing like a hymn.  It sounds no different from the structure or purpose of the Creed.  Stripped of music, the text's poetry is lost if it is begrudgingly recited each week by a half-hearted assembly. 

Many composers have changed the structure to resemble a hymn with a refrain.  That way any assembly can fight through a "Glory to God," as long as a choir or cantor leads the charge.  The use of a refrain changes the structure and emphasizes the opening verse of the hymn (assuming it serves as the refrain).  So the Christmas season, when we yearn to hear angelic voices may be the best time to sing a "Glory to God" with refrain.

Many choirs would rather run for cover under the nearest altar cloth than think about learning a whole "Glory to God", but they have no need to fear.  Every hymnal and participation aid has versions no more difficult than a hymn.  And the assembly which sings the "Glory" for a few weeks will have no trouble adding it to the repertoire of music.  Your assembly - yes, yours - can learn several of them, including one in Latin if you like.

The Entrance Rite

The "Glory" takes its place among the entrance rites of Mass.  To the careful observer, these rites seem cluttered: First we announce the opening hymn, then we sing a song, then we're sorry for our sins, then we're joyful in the "Glory to God," then we're quiet for prayer.  Then we sit down.  The juxtaposition of the penitential rite with the "Glory to God" seems jarring.  The singing of the "Glory" seems like overkill after we've just sung the entrance song.  Little did Bethlehem's shepherds know that the angels' song would become - well, the black sheep of the entrance rite family.

Some have proposed other solutions: Begin Mass with the "Glory" - let it become the entrance song.  Or save it for after communion, as a hymn of thanksgiving.  Not bad ideas.  But in doing so we break the universal tradition of its location, which may seem more strange than sensible to the average assembly.

To Sing or Not to Sing

Should the "Glory o God" be sung?  Ideally, yes.  Like the "Holy, Holy, Holy," it's a ext written with music in mind.  Whenever we recite it, we perform an action as melodious as reciting the national anthem or the happy birthday song.  But because of the weaknesses mentioned above in the entrance rite, a sung "Glory" seems like too much every week, unless your assembly is really into it.  At our parish we sing the "Glory" during the Christmas season and the Easter season.  It adds a festive note to the beginning of the service. 

May we omit the "Glory" if we don't sing it?  Technically, no, but the number of parishes that just skip it has grown larger than the number of monsignors in the universal church.  I know pastors, musicians, and liturgists who disagree, but I think there's a place for a good spoken "Glory to God" to open up an Ordinary Time liturgy.  Let's face it - sometimes people walk into church tired and distracted; the cantor says good morning and gets no response; the organist sets a plodding tempo for the opening hymn; the presider's demeanor tells you he'd rather be in bed or on the golf course; and we have assassinated the Entrance Rite before the sign of the cross. In such cases, a spoken "Glory to God" can provide warm comfort.  It's a familiar text.  We do it with everybody else.  There are no surprises.  The required skill level is minimal.  And it does what the opening hymn was supposed to do: It unites the assembly in one voice and commits the people to the work at hand.

Now, there are times when the "Glory to God" should not be used.  We silence the "Glory" during Advent and Lent.  It serves a sacrificial function: by giving up its life for a time, it returns with spirit for those who celebrate a new season.

According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (31), "The Gloria is sung or said on Sundays outside Advent and Lent, on solemnities and feasts, and in special, more solemn celebrations." Hmmm.  Not too clear on what those special occasions might be.  But in general the "Glory" is more bound to liturgical feasts and seasons, and less to sacraments and human rites of passage - a graduation Mass, a 50th wedding anniversary on a Friday night, or an ordination on a Saturday morning.

The "Glory to God" has its handicaps, but it can wake up a feast or season when sung with familiarity and gusto.  It wishes you a merry Christmas throughout the church year.

This article first appeared in Modern Liturgy 28/8 (October 1993):24-25.

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